Fun and Youth Ministry

I think it’s time for me to talk a bit about fun in youth ministry. Regular readers will know that I think attractional youth ministry is a bad idea on various levels. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that we need to expunge fun from our youth ministries. In fact, I think fun is a vital element to a healthy youth ministry–just like fun is a vital element to a healthy family.

This isn’t to say that fun is the vital element, however. There are appropriate places for fun. Also, I should distinguish between fun and entertainment. It’s pretty common for youth ministries to be in the business of entertaining students. I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Entertainment is often non-interactive, or when it is interactive, it isn’t communal. Entertainment seeks to keep busy. By contrast, fun is interactive and communal. Fun isn’t about being busy, but rather about enjoying the moment.

What we shouldn’t use fun for:

Let’s start with the negative side of things. There are instances where we really ought to avoid using fun in a youth ministry. For instance, we shouldn’t use fun as an evangelistic strategy. That isn’t to say that Jesus should be boring (far from it), but we shouldn’t be working to “draw people in,” with fun. We should be working to draw people in with the love of Jesus and his message. Anything else misses the point. Anything else risks winning converts to something other than Jesus. After all, what you win them with is what you win them to. Our job isn’t to offer students fun and then sneak in a devotional. Fun should not be why teens come to our youth ministries. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t have fun at youth group meetings, but rather to say that we play a dangerous game when we use fun as bait to lure students into our youth groups. Students don’t need more fun. They need peers and adults who will love them, support them, welcome them, and walk the road of life with them introducing them to this amazing guy named Jesus. In fact, maybe the biggest problem with “fun” is that we somehow think that if we can just do an event that’s more fun, more students will come to our youth ministry. We use fun as an excuse so that we don’t have to do the hard work of changing our attitudes, being loving and open toward the stranger, and taking our focus off ourselves and putting it squarely on Jesus.

We should also be careful that we don’t use fun as an excuse for laziness. Sometimes it’s easy to say, “Oh, we’re doing this event to build relationships and be together.” That’s an awesome thing, and vitally important to youth ministry. But if what we mean by that is, “We’re going to have fun, because I was too lazy to think through what our youth ministry needs,” it isn’t a good thing. We’ve started using fun as an excuse.

What we should use fun for:

So, if we should avoid using fun as bait to pack teens into our youth rooms, what should we use fun for? The possibilities are nearly limitless. To begin, having fun with one another really is a great way to get to know someone. Part of living life together is having fun. Fun is a phenomenal way to reduce stress and practice Sabbath. Perhaps a practical example will be helpful. Last summer we did several “Days of Rest” with our youth ministry. These events were essentially times when we told students that we wanted them to practice Sabbath. We blocked out six or so hours at the church, and had students join us. We told them ahead of time that we weren’t going to have any “program.” We invited them to bring a book, a game, a frisbee, whatever. We spent the day simply relaxing, playing games, talking with one another, laughing, telling jokes, etc. We had a great deal of fun. But fun wasn’t the point, and we weren’t trying to keep students busy. I’m not so naive as to think all of our students really practiced sabbath that day. Many of them just came because they thought it would be fun. That’s OK, but our narrative wasn’t to come because it would be fun. That can make all the difference.

So, fun can be used for sabbath. I think fun is also a vital part of creating shared memories together. We tend to remember the good times, the fun times, as opposed to the bad times. You might be noticing at this point that fun is first a tool, rather than an end in itself. But you might also notice that fun is directed towards what we’d typically think is the “internal group,” those students who already attend our ministries. That isn’t to say that we should be solely focused on fun. Really, it’s important but should never be our focus. Most of the time, we have plenty of “fun events,” and what we need is more welcoming and support between the students in our ministries, more opportunities for them to wrestle with faith, more opportunities to pray, more adults who love them, more times of silence, more Jesus, not another chance to play kickball.

At the end of the day though, we should never try to avoid fun. Fun is part of the human experience, and certainly ought to be part of the Christian experience; it just shouldn’t be the only part of that experience. Where we need to be careful, however, is in attempting to use fun to draw students into our ministries. Fun doesn’t draw students in. It might get them there for a night (if they don’t have something more entertaining to go to), but it isn’t a long term solution. That way of thinking ends up making youth ministry into a series of programs we do to keep students busy, rather than a life we live out alongside students. What we need to do in our youth ministries is welcome students of all backgrounds, support them, and care for them–even when it’s their first night.

Consumerism and Youth Ministry

So, Marko has a great little post up about youth ministry, being attractional and consumerism. You should head over there and give it a read. It really is excellent and I think he hits the nail on the head. I’d like to interact with a couple of his thoughts at more length than a tweet would allow, so…

He mentions that bashing on attractional youth ministry has become sort of the youth ministry cliche. I’d actually like to see him flesh that out a little more. I’ve actually encountered more people who have started defending attractional youth ministry as opposed to those who are arguing against that philosophy. I’ve also noticed that those who don’t defend it tend to say something like, “Absolutely, we need to have a youth ministry that isn’t focused on attracting students with gimmicks.” After which they promptly return to their youth ministries which attract students with gimmicks. Given, all of this is anecdotal, and I’m not disagreeing with what Marko writes. If he manages to stumble upon my humble blog, I’d just be interested to here a bit more of his reasoning.

His “top 10 signs your youth ministry might be built on consumeristic assumptions,” are vintage Marko. I’m not convinced they are really they top ten signs, but they certainly are signs. The problem with a top ten list is it’s way to easy for people to nitpick over things. I don’t really wanna do that. However, I was surprised not to see anything about the way we understand the gospel. So something like: “you view and explain the gospel as a transaction.” What would be fun is to see some people (maybe Brian, from Rethinking Youth Ministry?) take a stab at creating a top 10 signs your youth ministry isn’t built on consumeristic assumptions list. I’m not so much interested in reassuring people, as much as I think if bashing on attractional youth ministry has become cliche, than it’s high time we started talking about the solution(s) to the problem(s).

Correcting some misconceptions

As I’ve talked with more and more people about attractional youth ministry and my own reasons for striving to find a different–better–way of doing ministry with students I’ve realized something. When I say I don’t like attractional youth ministry, or I have misgivings about it, or I’m concerned that it puts the focus on the wrong things what people tend to hear is, “I don’t want fun.”

This is actually furthest from the case. Fun–whatever form that takes–is a vital part of a healthy church, and a healthy youth ministry. Sure, if the only thing we ever do is “fun,” and we never do Bible study, or prayer or service then we’re missing the fullness of things (I should be quick to note that all of those things can and should be “fun,”). The problem isn’t with having fun, the problem is with replacing Jesus and his kingdom with fun.

One of the most successful youth ministries I have ever been a part of spent huge amounts of time being together, hanging out, talking, playing games, walking around town, going to a family’s cabin, playing games, going out to eat, going to movies, and playing games. These kinds of “social” times weren’t merely fun for us, but they allowed us to build trust with one another and enter into shared life–what we might call, community–on a very regular basis. The point of this stuff, however, was not to attract new students to the ministry. The point was for the Body of Christ to live life together.

As I told a student recently, regardless of how they might feel, the last thing their friend wants or needs is more fun. What their friend needs and wants (even if they aren’t at a place to articulate this yet) is something that goes beyond a culture that demands we be concerned with getting ahead. Jesus offers that. We need to stop being embarrassed by the counter-cultural nature of Jesus. At the same time, this isn’t to say that one should never spend time simply hanging out and being together. That is as much a part of enacting Jesus’ mission on earth as studying the Bible, praying or building homes; in our over-stressed and over-worked society, time to simply relax and be together is a vital spiritual practice.

Trusting Students

Since I’ve been thinking recently about attractional youth ministry I’ve come to another conclusion about it. I think that we often feel most comfortable doing attractional youth ministry because we don’t trust our students. I’ll flesh this out more below. Trust is, after all, a big topic in ministry. We are trying to help those to whom we minister trust God. We ourselves are trying to continually trust God more, and trust God with our students. These are all important things. I just wonder if we forget to trust our students.

The idea behind attractional youth ministry is often that if we didn’t bribe students with pizza, games and entertainment, they wouldn’t darken the doors of our churches. Sometimes we try to make church look more like an amusement park than a place where we might encounter God.* Ultimately, I think we don’t trust students to really be interested in God. In a way, I guess I could argue, that we don’t trust the gospel–and the Holy Spirit–to work change in our students without the attractional flair. This might be the case, but I’d like to focus in on how attractional youth ministry fails to trust students.

When we work off of an attractional model of ministry we assume, from the very beginning, that students aren’t that interested in God, the Bible, faith, religion or spirituality. Instead we assume they are interested in fun, social gatherings, entertainment, food and flash. Now, it’s certainly true that students are interested in the latter. In my experience, however, students are also highly interested in the former. Truth be told, they can find the other things at a variety of venues. But faith and spirituality, and certainly an authentic community of faith, are often only available to students at a church.

When we fail to trust students to be interested in their own spirituality we end up feeding them a steady diet of fun and entertainment. They’ll gladly accept this from us, but in the long run it does them little good, and it leaves them feeling like church doesn’t fulfill what they need. Because they understand, on some level, that they really do need something beyond themselves. Something powerful, radical, worth living and–at the risk of sounding trite–worth dying for. When we fail to trust students we end up creating a cycle that, if statistics are any guide, leads to them not having a vibrant faith to sustain them through life.

My point in saying all of this isn’t to bash on youth pastors or youth ministry. At least a sizable chunk of us doing ministry for and with students have acknowledged that the youth ministry status quo is unsustainable. So, yes, I’d like to convince those who haven’t been convinced yet that attractional youth ministry isn’t the way forward. But I’d also like to encourage those who are trying to figure out a different kind of youth ministry. As I try to trust my students, it’s sometimes very difficult. It’s tempting, at times, to imagine that they don’t really care about Jesus, the Bible, or spirituality. But I have to remind myself: they really do. I have to take a step back and tell myself that–as much as I have to trust the Holy Spirit to work in people’s lives–I also have to trust my students to genuinely want the Holy Spirit to work in their lives.

Figuring out a new kind of youth ministry is worthwhile because students need a new kind of youth ministry, one that challenges them. One that expects more out of them. One that feeds them. Students need this, and I have to trust that–yes–they want it.

*I’m not trying to imply that the folks at Saddleback haven’t helped a variety of students. But we certainly have strong philosophical differences.

What is Attractional Youth Ministry?

Although most youth ministry professionals will already have a prior knowledge of the term attractional youth ministry, I’ve received several requests from those of you who read my blog who aren’t youth ministry professionals. I commonly use the term attractional youth ministry to describe a type of youth ministry that I do not want to engage in. This post is for those who may not have any idea what I’m talking about when I say attractional youth ministry. For this reason, I’m going to try to define this type of ministry and flesh it out a little bit. There is always a danger in this. It is extremely easy, because I don’t agree with many of the ideas behind attractional youth ministry, to simply create a strawman. I will do my best to resist that temptation.

Simply put, attractional youth ministry is youth ministry as you probably know it. It is youth ministry as it was conceived in the 80s and 90s. It’s the youth ministry that I grew up in. The thinking goes something like this: students find church boring. Church shouldn’t be boring. Students need Jesus. Students like fun. We should attract students to our ministries with fun and then give them Jesus. In other words, youth ministry becomes about getting students in the door through entertainment and fun, and then slipping them a little Jesus and hoping that something takes. Their entertainment and comfort become our first priorities.

The general thought process might be too abstract though, so let me try to flesh out how this could look in practice (and for the visual learner, check out this post at Rethinking Youth Ministry) A local church plans a youth ministry event for a Friday evening. They have a Christian band come in to give a concert. They setup the church gym for basketball, rent a popcorn machine, provide nearly unlimited soda, and setup two Xbox systems running a multiplayer game of Halo on two large projectors. Students come in and hear loud music, see Halo being played, and are encouraged to have fun. After a couple hours all the students are corralled into the auditorium where the lead singer from the band gives a gospel presentation. The presentation is emotional, talking about the lead singer’s own life story. The gospel itself is presented something like this, “being a Christian doesn’t mean you can’t have fun anymore. Look at all the fun we’ve had tonight! It isn’t even that hard! It doesn’t mean you’ll be all weird, or a crazy fanatic. Being a Christian means that you believe that Jesus is the son of God and because of his death you don’t have to spend eternity in hell!” Some students cry. Some “get saved.” Then we return to playing games.

If you’re curious, I once planned that exact event. The students in my ministry loved it. I would never do that again. It is fairly typical youth ministry, at least as conceived in many churches. Now, if you’ve been involved in the church you might be wondering what the issue is. It’s true, you might quibble over the scare tactic of hell in the gospel presentation, but otherwise you might not see anything wrong with that type of youth ministry. That’s OK. But let me explain why I refuse to do youth ministry like this anymore.

Attractional youth ministry, as I’ve described it, is intensely concerned with getting students in the door. The problem is that we often get them in the door with gimmicks and entertainment. As I’ve matured in my own philosophy of youth ministry I’ve found something that should have been obvious to me: I don’t need Halo and unlimited sodas to bribe students into coming to church. I have something far better to offer them: Jesus. The story of God is riveting, worthwhile, helpful, and life changing. Our religion is able to stand on its own. It doesn’t need a spoonful of sugar.

In my experience, students can often find far more entertaining engagements outside the church. But they can’t find the meaning, community, love and acceptance that the church offers. The Christian story has something to offer to the world, and we don’t need to trick individuals into coming to church with entertainment in order to get that message out. We need to be open about the fact that we have a message that can change the world. Then we need to live out the way of life that Jesus offers. But here, perhaps, is where things get difficult. Because it’s far easier to say a prayer, have some fun, and be assured that our entertainment and comfort is the top priority.

Perhaps the issue that most convinces me that attractional youth ministry really isn’t the way forward is the dire statistics in terms of youth ministry. Books like Almost Christian make it pretty clear that we’ve raised generations of Christians who are more concerned with feeling good about themselves than with following Jesus. It is overbearing to lay all the blame for this at the feet of youth ministry as we did it in the 80s and 90s. But at least some of the blame has to be laid squarely at our feet.

That’s why we need a different kind of youth ministry. A kind of youth ministry that takes theology seriously, that takes the Bible seriously, and that takes students seriously. Our students need more than entertainment, even if they argue that the only reason they come to church is because it’s “fun.” Their lives are more than fun, and somewhere deep inside themselves they want a religion that does more than give them a place to hang out a couple hours each week.

Of course, these are only my thoughts. I certainly can’t capture every aspect of attractional youth ministry. I’d love to hear how others would describe it, perhaps in more sparkling terms than I have been able to.