Wednesday, February 02, 2011

    Beyond the Distractional Model of Youth Ministry

    Part two of my essay on the "distractional model" of youth ministry is now up at  This column follows a brief analysis in part one of the challenges inherent within the attractional model of youth ministry and suggests a different way forward:

    What would happen if, for a season in our ministries, we gave ourselves permission to let go of using flash and noise to attract youth to God and instead trusted that what they might really desire is silence, contemplation, solitude, and prayer? What would happen if we let go for a time of the idea of trying to attract youth into our buildings and instead focused on helping them to experience God's presence in every aspect of their lives, particularly beyond the walls of the church? What if we decided to see what our youth programs might look like if we locked the doors of our youth rooms and sought to do ministry together out in the world?
    You can read the entire column here. It's been an interesting exercise summing up my thoughts on attractional youth ministry recognizing the controversy over this model amongst our peers. For many years everyone jumped on the bandwagon, criticizing this approach of attracting teens to churches using whatever worked, whether it was faith-based or not. In the last year or so, the tide has shifted with some now arguing that it is not an either/or situation -- the attractional model can be a way to draw teens into a deeper Christian experience.

    My realization in the last few days is that part of the divide on this model may reflect the difference between evangelicals and progressives. In the progressive church there is very little emphasis on reaching youth as a means toward their salvation. With no talk of hell looming over our heads, we simply aren't motivated to draw in scores of unsaved teens for fear of what will happen to them if we don't. Our focus is more likely to be on the youth already in our churches, challenging them to walk the way of Christ and to invite others to do the same.

    So, all this to say that I'm still thinking about this debate and open to learning more from others, particularly those who have found the attractional approach useful and those who are seeking other approaches. Any thoughts on all this? We'd welcome hearing from you.


    David said...

    this is a hot topic right now in most of the churches in my area. My own church leadership has had several discussions on the attractional vs. missional models.
    3 years ago we started asking these questions, and our student ministry chose to start doing things differently, changed from attractional to missional.

    Here's the problem we are facing - students don't care. We have lost most of "our" kids to other churches doing attractional student ministry. There is a reason it is called attractional. Are we doing the right thing? God, I hope so. But I am questioning this very much.

    I think we threw the baby out with the bath water, and that it really is a both and, not either or situation.

    Just my thoughts, maybe worth 2cents said...

    Dude, you're getting all theological on us. Way to go! You're spurring me on to put some of those "YM and Theology" posts I have rolling around in my mind (like soteriology and eschatology) on the front burner. Looking forward to reading the whole thing when I have a bit more time to sit and reflect.

    Brian Kirk said...

    Hey Benjer. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on the second essay as your responses helped me to tempter my point of view, I hope.

    David, you raise a real issue here and I can only speak from my own experience. The ministry I oversaw several years ago made the shift from attractional to contemplative and we did it slowly. We didn't eliminate all the "fun" stuff, but we did intentionally add in more and more times for worship, prayer, and other spiritual practices. Over time, the youth came to understand where we were headed and to appreciate the new direction. But it was a shift that took a year or more. A couple of suggestions I'd make: 1) Read over the previous post on this subject and see the comments Benjer made about how he balances the two models and 2) Read any of the books by Mark Yaconelli such as Contemplative Youth Ministry. Though he is focused on spiritual practices and is not strictly "missional," his process for starting with a change amongst the leaders and slowly introducing the change to the youth is worth emulating.

    Thanks for adding to the conversation! said...


    Read the post, great thoughts. So as to avoid rehashing previous discussions, let me offer this paradigm that stays away from the word attractional for clarity's sake:

    The method must always be subordinate to the Message.

    Take Jesus: People flocked to Jesus, particularly because of his healing, but also because he taught "with authority" and had compassion for the outcast, something I think resonated with hearts that were tired of legalistic religious teaching. But he did not come just to heal people, like some sort of healing ATM. There was a deeper "something," the Message. Now, the nature of the Message is a conversation for another time, but I think we both agree to this point. Jesus did not let the method (healing) trump the message.

    Now take Taizé: In Europe, it is popular to take youth groups to Taizé for a pilgrimage. A good thing when motives are right, but we can imagine that it can become "THE THING" to do. If this method becomes more important than the Message, that would not be a good thing.

    So, a particular method would be advisable to utilize if:
    1) This method is subordinate to the Message. That is, it effectively helps us communicate the Message and is driven by the message. The method is never used simply for its own sake.
    2) It is allowable within the bounds of Scripture.

    marsha said...


    You really hit on the nose with our church. We have completely changed the way we do youth ministry. In fact we have integrated our youth kids in with the adults on wednesdays. Our concept is Bridging the Generations. And I think it has really brought depth to the youth by having the adults coming along side them and maturing their faith. Our youth have really flocked to this concept because it shows that people care about them.

    Cumberland Baptist Church

    emergingyouth said...

    well said
    i would imagine i am (or am labeled) a progressive and do align with your views regarding how we view and approach our students
    It has taken me many years to shift away from my attractional and often distractional way of youth ministry.
    keep the conversations coming!

    Brian Kirk said...

    Benjer, I think you sum up the real issue here nicely: "The method must always be subordinate to the Message." It may be that those who misuse the attractional model believe that the method is unrelated to the message. For me, that have to compliment each other.

    Marsha - you've touched on what many youth ministry folk are now saying is the next big move - intergenerational youth ministry. I'm all for it. We are making small steps in that direction in my church.

    Dan, thanks for the encouragement. This is definitely a "conversation" as I want to learn from the experiences of others.