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.