Wednesday, January 19, 2011

    What is the Distractional Model of Youth Ministry?

    My latest column at takes aim at a popular model of youth ministry I refer to as the distractional model:

    [D]istraction has been the name of the game in youth ministry now for decades, its history detailed in the recent text Reinventing Youth Ministry (Again) by Wayne Rice. Sometimes labeled the "attractional" model of youth ministry, I think a better term for what we've been using with teens is the "distractional" model. In its simplest form, the "distractional" model implies a strategy for youth ministry that encourages designing activities and events that will get teens in the door of the church and keep them engaged and interested. Most often these activities are entertainment-based and high energy. They need not even be faith-based, as long as they open the possibility of reaching youth with the gospel message at some point during the event.
    The essay makes a connection between this model and current research suggesting that the distracted way we surf the internet is actually rewiring our brains -- and not for the better. Is the distractional model of youth ministry rewiring the spiritual brains of our youth? You can read the complete essay here and let us know what you think.

    Update: Read part two of this post here.


    Anonymous said...


    Thanks for this post. You and I agree in that we both have a distaste for events that have little purpose beyond padding attendance stats and entertaining teenagers. However, I think you've set up a straw man in your post on Patheos and misrepresented an "attractional" style of ministry. If an event, environment, etc. makes teens want to be at a church or church event, and you build meaningful relationships in that context and share about God's mercy and unconditional love, great! How many people came to see Jesus because of his reputation and their curiosity, but left realizing they had a deeper need--to be reconciled to God?

    I agree with you on this point: we can misuse attractional events and teach students that following Jesus can be the equivalent of lots of fun plus a short Bible study thrown in. If that's all we do, shame on us.

    Looking forward to part 2...

    Brian Kirk said...

    Benjer, I appreciate your reflections and I agree that if events allow us to share God's mercy and unconditional love, that is the important thing. I'm just concerned that in providing so much distraction in the form of fun and games, we are 1) suggesting that simply spending an hour or two thoughtfully and contemplatively focused on our faith is "boring" and 2) socializing our youth to a version of the church that will look very little or nothing like the church they will encounter once they graduate from youth group. So, while I'm not condemning all events that might be labeled "attractional," I do wonder sometimes why it is we seem to be saying that studying scripture, praying, sitting in silence with God, etc are not enough.

    Let me try to parse this out differently in a way that I hope reflects what you wrote, too: I would welcome an attractional event in which youth gathered to play non-competitive team building games that were both fun but also taught them how to support each other and rely on and care for each other. I would not support an attractional event that involved, for example, teams playing simulated war games or highly competitive activities with winners and losers or that included pranks being played on some kids for the benefit of entertaining the crowd present (which many youth ministries still do). Though such an event might be fun and make kids want to be at church, they would probably want to be there for the wrong reasons. Do this make sense?

    Anonymous said...


    I totally agree with you that unhealthy competition and bad stunts do not help in the long run. But that's not what attractional events have to be like. However, I feel like you've painted all attractional-type ministries and events with that brush in your post.

    Let me give an imperfect illustration: this summer, some LDS missionaries came by our house, and we met with them every Monday for about seven weeks (until they were transferred). They were great young men, and my wife made a point of making treats for our conversations in our home. She always made extras for them to take back to their apartments, which they loved. I believe my wife's hospitality made them feel at home and more open to what we had to say about Jesus.

    That's how attractional events/environments ought to work. It's about making teenagers feel at home in a way.

    Another illustration: Some parents try to have a home teenagers want to hang out in so that their house is one that their friends want to hang out at, including a game room and plenty of snacks available. I see this as a great strategy for parents who want to know who their kids' friends are. However, it can get out of hand (spending far too much on the latest equipment and trying to show off) and even dangerous (parents hosting parties with alcohol and such in their homes to give kids a "safe" place to party). Once we get to that point, it's obviously not a good idea.

    I know you've seen this, but if your readers haven't, there's a good defense of attractional YM at

    Thanks for continuing the conversation!