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.