The first rule for the 50 kids from First Lutheran of Marshall, Minn., going on a nine-day trip to Houston to attend the ELCA Youth Gathering, June 27-July 1, was No Cell Phones!
They had to leave their cell phones at home. Instead, they were to a bring positive attitude, a servant heart and respectful behavior. My Women of the ELCA friends at the youth gathering found it impressive that 50 kids were going without their cell phones for so long.
After nine days without a cell phone, the youth reported they felt more refreshed and more connected to God. They appreciated the opportunity to bond and explore the event and themselves without the social media breathing down their necks. (Read how JOMO or the Joy of Missing Out is catching on.)
Tonya Tomasek has led the youth at First Lutheran Church in Marshall, Minn., for 28 years. She said she believes the no cell phone rule helps the teens connect with the experience, with one another and with themselves. Though parents worried about the rule because they wouldn’t be connected to their children, Tonya says that everyone who has done it is grateful for the experience.
Here are the stories of four youth from my church who put away their cellphones for a week.
Avery Anderson, a high school sophomore at Marshall High School, Marshall, Minn., wrote about her experience with no cell phone:
“It was hard the first couple of days because I missed my family. It got better as I kept having more fun. The trip was such an amazing experience. I feel like I have changed into a better person because of all the things I heard. It makes me think now that social media is a distraction.
“I was obsessed with my phone and knowing every little update before. When I saw people at the gathering on their phones during worship or when a speaker was sharing their life story, it made me upset. I think it is disrespectful, and I am glad I didn’t have my phone or I would have done the same thing.
“Without my phone, I was able to hear the incredible stories and important messages being shared. I learned how others are making the world a better place despite their adversities. How is someone going to change the world if they aren’t even listening or paying attention?
“I can’t wait to go back [to the next youth gathering], and I won’t be afraid to leave my phone at home.”
Olivia Peterson, a senior at Marshall High School, wrote:
“When other people found out that our youth group was not allowed to bring their cell phones, they were in complete disbelief. They asked, “How do you last that long?” or said, “That sounds awful, I could never do that!”
“I have taken several trips with my youth group over the years, and this is always the rule, and I respect it. I spent the first few days of the gathering walking around the exhibits, exploring fun games and engaging in interactive stations set up for us to learn.
“Everywhere, and I mean everywhere, I looked, I saw someone with their nose buried in their phone, totally disconnected from the conversations and new connections that could be made in such an energetic and loving atmosphere. At the mass gatherings, people used social media to promote their organizations. There were times when everyone in the stadium would shine their flashlights and wave them to the beat of a song.
“I remember being in awe on the second night as I looked around and absorbed the beauty of the flashlights lighting up the stadium. As I thought about this later, I realized I would not have enjoyed the moment if I had my phone. I would have been too worried about shining the flashlight at the right time. Our group was able to sit back, relax and enjoy the atmosphere around us.
“I believe that it is necessary to take a break from social media, and that is what these trips do for me. Instead of worrying about the drama back home, we get to meet new people, absorb the experience and leave with full, transformed hearts.”
Aubrey Bjella, a sophomore at Marshall High School, writes:
“Not having my phone on this trip might not have been easy, but going without it let me be able to get the most out of the gathering and grow in my faith. Sometimes it can get boring not to have our phones while waiting in lines or sitting on the bus, but that is nothing some bracelet thread and a deck of cards can’t cure!
“There were times in the gathering where you could have used social media to post about the event or use your phone’s flashlight to the beat of the songs, but not doing any of that didn’t affect my experience in a negative way. It was disheartening to see people on their phones during the speakers, activities and songs. They were not getting the most out of the gathering. I would go nine days without my phone again in exchange for the amazing experience I had.”
Gabby Reese, a recent high school graduate beginning college at Winona State University, Winona, Minn., wrote:
“Phones can be a distraction. People were not into the songs because they focused on using their flashlights. They were recording the songs instead of living in the moment.
“You make more connections because you are not focused on your phone. Social media can be toxic. I talked to people and made connections in lines, on the bus and in the hotels that I would not have if I had my phone.
“I was able to observe my surroundings more and reflect on my faith. The short-term action produced long term-benefits. I was able to get out of my comfort zone and bridge new connections with lasting effects.
“When I got sick or missed my parents, the chaperones let me use their phone, but it also got me prepared for going off to college where I won’t have my parents close by.”
We challenge your youth group to leave your phones at home on your next trip.
Sara Larson, a lay minister at First Lutheran Church, Marshall, Minn., is serving her first term on the Women of the ELCA executive board.
Photo by Jim Veneman: Women of the ELCA Executive Director Linda Post Bushkofsky, right, recorded a Facebook live video of Sara Larson, far right, and four youth who spent nine days without a cell phone. They are, from left: Gabby Reese, Aubrey Bjella, Olivia Peterson, Avery Anderson.