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Get your audience involved through texting

Get your audience involved through texting

How’d they do that?

Ever go to a youth conference or event where they invite people to text in their thoughts or comments to a number? Ever think about doing the same thing with your youth group? Every find yourself saying, “I wish we knew how to do that!” or “I wish we could afford to do that!”

It’s an interesting idea. We all know how much students are already connected with their phones, we know texting is the preferred means of communication for many of them, but we sometimes struggle with figuring out how to actually integrate it into our ministry.

What are the options?

Recently, I was asked to figure that out for an event here on campus. We wanted to have a panel discussion during chapel that would largely be driven by students’ thoughts and questions. Instead of doing the somewhat infamous “open mic”, we decided to have students text in their feedback.

However, I didn’t exactly want to share my personal cellphone number with 500 students, so we had to find another way. There are a number of services out there that can provide the service for a fee. In my research, most ran somewhere between $50-$100/month and were designed for business conferences. In a pinch, they would work, but it felt like buying a Cadillac when all I needed was a golf cart.

After a bit of research, here were my options:

  1. Sign up for a monthly service, pay the fee, and cancel the service after our event.
  2. Give out someone’s personal cell number and pray that their phone doesn’t explode when it receives 100 texts in 5 seconds.
  3. Use Google Voice.

What’s Google Voice?

Google Voice is a great little service offered by Google to its users. It essentially gives you a free phone number to use for things like voice mail, texting, and making calls across the country. You may have played with it a bit by downloading the app on your smartphone.

What makes it beneficial for our scenario is that Google Voice can receive text messages (at no charge and with no spam) to a centralized location. As students text in, you’ve got a browser window that’s constantly updating and streaming the messages. With the click of a mouse, you can scroll through all the messages in real time.

Setup is easy. Simply go to and login with a Google account (chances are you already have one if you use gmail or youtube). On the left column, it’ll list your Google Phone Number. That’s the number that you’ll share to have students text in.

Google Voice Setup

When you login, you’ll see your number on the Left Column

Hint: You can customize that number if you want something more memorable. Google offers a lot of options that you can use to customize your number (searching by a string of letters or numbers). Pick something that’s local (in your area code), but also something that flows off the tongue easily. You’ll likely give the number out several times during your event. To change your number, simply click on settings and under “Phones” you’ll see an option to “Change / Port” your Google Voice Number.

Changing your Google Number

Change your number under Settings>Phones

The day of your event, you can either use a laptop logged into Google Voice to gather the texts or use an iOS or Android App with a smartphone or tablet.

Google Voice does have some limitations, however. For example, if you want to send a text message out, you’re limited to 5 recipients. Google doesn’t want their voice service to become a SPAM machine, so they intentionally limit how much you can send out and to how many people.

Translation, Google Voice is NOT a good option for mass texting your students.

Google Voice also does not live stream incoming messages on the big screen. Perhaps you’ve been to a conference or event where there’s a constant feed of tweets and texts showing up on the screens before things kick off. Google Voice doesn’t do that. You could have someone in the back copy and paste incoming texts into presentation software to simulate the effect but it’s not exactly the same thing.

When should I use something like this?

This kind of service is a great option when:

  • You’ve got a large group.

    We all get a little nervous when speaking in front of a group. All the more so with teens, when we ask them to stand up in front of a large group of their peers to ask a question or give an opinion. Okay, maybe some students will have no problem grabbing the mic, but others would rather die than face the spotlight. Inviting them to text in their thoughts will allow them to be heard without risking embarrassment.

  • Questions might be embarrassing to ask publicly.

    Depending on the topic, there may be some types of questions that just won’t get asked in front of a group of peers. They may all really want to hear an answer about it, but the risk of embarrassment is too much, and so the question goes unasked and unanswered.

  • You want to poll your audience.

    If you’re looking to get a better read on your group, texting can be a helpful way to identify the most frequently asked questions or themes that keep coming up as students share their ideas and opinions. Our informal conversations one-on-one after a service give us a great sense of how those specific students are doing, but we might be missing out on the larger group trends.

Two last thoughts

Texting should never replace a face-to-face conversation.

This is something that’ll be helpful to have in your toolbox for some situations, don’t attempt to use it for everything. Like trying to hammer a table until its level, you may do more harm than good if having students text becomes a substitute for the transforming moments that take place in honest, face-to-face conversations.

 And finally, do your best not to laugh when the first student texts in a joke to try and crack you up.

Because I PROMISE it’ll happen. 🙂


Editor’s Note: Project Renovation isn’t endorsing Google with this post. However, Google Voice is the only free option we’ve been able to find which offers this service. If you know of any others, we’d love to hear about them. Leave a comment below and we’ll investigate it.


Aaron Brown
Professor of Student Min at Lancaster Bible College
Aaron Brown is an Assistant Professor of Student Ministry at Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster, PA. He attended Biola University and Talbot School of Theology. Before coming to LBC, he was the Sr. High Director at Living Word Community Church in Red Lion, PA. Aaron serves as the Project's editor and web guy.
  1. Arthur Woods II10-04-12

    In addition to Google Voice, is also another good, free option depending on the size of your group and your specific needs. Poll Everywhere also offers paid options for larger groups who require more customization and flexibility. We utilize this during youth group and the students love it.

    • projectrenovation10-04-12

      Thanks, Arthur! I wanted to mention but I was running out of room. 🙂 I’ve never worked with it, but it was definitely the other option we were looking closely at using. Thanks for the suggestion! – Aaron