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Random Randomness #1: In Defense of Attractional Ministry

Seems like April is a good month to take a break from writing in series and simply pick a different topic each week for a bit. And I thought I’d start by defending what has become one of the favorite targets of youth ministry’s chattering class; attractional ministry. Please add your thoughts in the comments; this should be a lively discussion.

The Critique of “Attractional Youth Ministry” Is a Straw Man.

Folks attacking attractional ministry are raging against a philosophy that doesn’t actually exist. They like to use examples of big events, concerts, game nights, prizes, etc. as proof that these “attractional ministries” are shallow at best and damaging to long-term faith at worst. Here’s the problem: I’ve NEVER seen a ministry that uses “attractional ministry” as its complete strategy or paradigm. I’ve seen lots (ours included) that utilize attractional elements, but the stuff that critics like to point fingers at is only the tip of a much bigger iceberg. If there is a church that is trying to build its youth ministry ONLY on big, fun events, I’ve never heard of it. If there is a youth ministry that does NOTHING more than give away free prizes and turn on fog machines, I’ve not seen it. To dismiss attractional elements of a youth ministry as its entire strategy is unfair and intellectually dishonest, because such a youth ministry doesn’t exist.
Bottom Line: Attractional Youth Ministry as a paradigm doesn’t exist.

When Did It Become Wrong To Do Things Un-churched Teenagers Like?

Fun is the universal language of teenagers. If you want unchurched kids to say “yes” to the invitation to visit your youth group, and if you want them to come back a second time, there needs to be some “fun” involved in the experience. Sure, some youth ministries may be guilty of putting too many eggs in this basket, but remember, it’s not their only basket!
Bottom Line: It’s not a sin to have fun in church.

Jesus Used Attractional Methods, Too.

Granted, he didn’t hold an X-box raffle as a way to get people to come hear his sermon on the mount, but he wasn’t afraid of doing things that caught folks’ attention and got “seekers” interested in seeking him out. Miracles, for instance were certainly done out of a heart of compassion, and also used as a tool to attract interest in his message. Jesus knew that there was an element of a “numbers game” to creating a movement of people who would change the world. He needed to give thousands of people a peek at his message in hopes to entice a segment of those men and women to take a next step….to go from interested seeker to dedicated follower. In an imperfect, way less Jesusy manner, that’s what “attractional youth ministry” attempts to do with some of their more outlandish efforts.  If you want 100 high school students passionately following Jesus, one strategy that makes sense is to do things that initially attract 500.
Bottom Line: Jesus exposed his message to the masses in order to garner true followers; why shouldn’t we?

It Can Be Both/And.

Usually, when critiquing so-called attractional youth ministry the proposed alternative is a more missional approach. It is usually assumed that a youth leader must choose between the two. “Choose today whom ye will serve. As for me and my youth group we will serve the XXXXX approach”.  But the reality is that being missional and being attractional, as both are traditionally defined, are not mutually exclusive; they can (and I believe must) not only coexist but work together in ones’ effort to build a healthy, well-balanced youth ministry.

6 thoughts on “Random Randomness #1: In Defense of Attractional Ministry

  1. I believe there has to be some sort of attractional element to a youth ministry. If the purpose of the ministry is to reach unbelievers, you need to get them in the door. Like you said, if all you’re doing is giving out prizes then, yes, it is not a good strategy. But for today’s students, they need something.

  2. You know it is so refreshing to read that someone else feels this way. I am currently being exposed to this idea that attractional ministry is wrong in some sense and it really challenges me. I live in a small country town with NO CHURCH. While I appreciate that good marketing doesn’t build God’s church, I also think that if we do nothing to get people through the door, God’s church is not growing anyway. And lets face it, where I am, it is pretty clear that if young people don’t come to church, in a few more years, the closest church to us will be closing down as well. Big might not be best, but traditional is not working to invite many young people either.

    Jesus challenged tradition too. He healed on the Sabbath – a massive no-no. But God had a message to deliver and it wasn’t getting through via traditional channels. Guess what, I think that’s were we are – needing to challenge tradition to get God’s message out there.

    I agree that there needs to be a balance between attracting people and ministering effectively.

  3. Earl Henning

    Great stuff. I’ve been in youth ministry for 15 years now and bounced back and forth between them. At one point we were the “Come have fun and then we’ll mix in a little Jesus later”. This obviously produces as much spiritual fruit as a go-cart track does. Round and round, lots of smiles and laughs but it ain’t gonna change your life. We then went the route of “They just need the serious, real Truth. They can have fun other places.”. So we cut most of our fun stuff, eased up on the “seeker” initiatives and basically put a bullet in the attractiveness of our ministry. This just made kids feel like Jesus was unrelatable and that church was a place where, like school, you sit down, shut up and listen to someone tell you what you need to do. I sadly believed the hype of some youth leaders who insist that if you cut the “entertainment” of youth ministry, God will honor it more. We had to do as you mentioned, find the balance. I realized one day this simple fact; very few kids, if any, wake up and say “I gotta go to church this Sunday and hear God!” That may be true for kids who’ve grown up in church or are the few who have that passionate, relentless heart to take in as much teaching as possible. But, at least in our area, unchurched kids are waking up hungover, uninterested and unattracted to “Jesus stuff”.

    We do a Wednesday night in-depth Bible study in addition to our Sunday youth services. We actually reformatted our Wednesday nights by taking away one week of the month and doing ZERO “church things”. We replaced that week with a simple free dinner and game night. When you see kids who are uninterested in church show up to a wiffleball game and then see them return on a Sunday morning for a Gospel-driven service, it’s hard to argue that well-balanced “attractional ministry” is detrimental to God’s plan of salvation. I think some forget that kids are not like adults. Adults CHOOSE to show up at church, CHOOSE to be taught the truths of the Word. A large portion of youth service attendees are kids with Moms and Dads who said “Get up, it’s church day”. It’s a battle we as youth leaders have, to show kids that living as a Christ-follower may be more than they have imagined it to be. I think it’s important to replace their misconceptions of candle-lit chanting, finger-pointing and somber guilt-driven messages with a message of life, love and freedom and yes, fun. And hey, if that means using wiffleball to break the ice, I’ll be the all-time pitcher!

    • “I’ll be the all-time pitcher!”

      Best line ever! And, seriously, I’m more convinced than ever that youth ministry’s largest critics and “thinkers” are folks no longer doing day-to-day youth ministry….so it’s easy to throw stones. The problem is, they haven’t thrown a wiffleball in years!

    • “I’ll be the all-time pitcher!”

      Best line ever! I’m becoming more and more convinced that the youth ministry “thinkers” and critics aren’t neck deep in day-to-day youth ministry which makes it easy to throw rocks….but they haven’t thrown a wiffleball in years!

  4. Justin Herman

    I have never seen an empty seat say yes to Jesus.

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