Faithful readers of this site know that we've been talking about leaving behind attractional youth ministry from almost our very first post. I have coined the term "distractional model" to critique this approach which is more about entertainment than ministry and we offer a new way forward in our book Missional Youth Ministry. Recently, fellow youth minister Calvin Park began to explore his own journey toward a new understanding of ministry with youth. You can read more about it at his blog. We invited Calvin to share some of his thoughts on the topic, his reason for making the shift, and the challenges and blessings he expects to see along the way. For anyone about to start the journey away from attractional youth ministry and toward something more deep and meaningful, Calvin's responses below will offer you hope and some thoughts on a path forward.
Calvin Park currently serves as Director of Youth Ministries at Gaithersburg Presbyterian Church in Gaithersburg, MD. He holds an MA in Biblical Languages and an MA in Old Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He and his wife are expecting their first child soon, and they dearly hope he'll be ever bit the geek that they are.
What do you understand attractional ministry to be and how does it differ from the "model" of ministry you are working towards now?
Attractional youth ministry is difficult to define. It's incorrect to assume there is this monolithic thing called attractional ministry. It varies from ministry to ministry. I've written quite a bit on my own blog about what attractional youth ministry is, and I'll probably revist the topic in the future. It's just extremely broad.
In short, however, I think attractional ministry is ministry that is focused on me (as the student, not the youth pastor). It is ministry that places my desires, needs and wants ahead of others. It is ministry that entertains instead of discipling. It is ministry that attracts instead of sends. In other words, when we seek to attract youth to our ministries through any means other than the Gospel of Jesus we've missed the point; and we may be implicitly teaching our students that--just like our culture--the Gospel is all about them. As the old adage goes, what you win them with is what you win them to.
In terms of how this differs from the model our ministry is now working towards, we're still in the process of discerning where God is leading us. At the least, I think a different kind of youth ministry has to include three elements:
1. Intergenerational diversity - No longer can we confine youth to their own ministry apart from the larger church and expect them to grow into fully committed disciples of Jesus. Not only do the students miss out, but the rest of our churches miss out on what students have to offer.
2. Depth of faith - We need to understand that students don't want a five minute devo that we threw together on the way to church. They are searching for a hope in the midst of a difficult world. That means we need to be willing to wrestle with some hard questions. We need to encourage doubt and questioning overall. One thing that is close to my heart is helping students learn the whole story of God--not only the easy, sanitized, out of order parts. The whole story teaches us about who God is and who we are. That means that, as youth workers, we have to go figure out who Athaliah, Ahitophel, Jael, and all the rest are. That way we can help our students know who they are and--in doing that--help them know who God is and who they themselves are.
3. Outward Focus - I'm pretty sure you guys here at Rethinking Youth Ministry would label this "missional," and that works for me too. What I'm trying to get at here is that, IMO, we really need to help our students learn that the Gospel demands we place others above ourselves--not in a codependent sort of way, but in a loving, self-sacrificing, Jesus sort of way. I think this has to start with our programing. If our programing is built on the idea that we have to attract students to our ministries with games, lights, free stuff, etc, then we implicitly teach them that they ought to be A) concerned with what they get out of it and B) the Gospel isn't actually radical enough to warrant their attention. Instead, our programing should implicitly teach students that the Gospel is life-giving and worthwhile and that they ought to be concerned with sharing the life-giving love that Jesus' way of life opens to all of us.
What was the impetus for your decision to make this shift?
For me personally, this has been a very long journey. I started to realize something was wrong with the youth ministry status quo when I became dissatisfied with the lack of depth I saw in youth ministries while I was in college (studying Bible, with a minor in Youth Ministry). I started reading on the topic, and within a few years a number of statistics started to come out that revealed a major problem in youth ministry: students tended to leave the church after high school.
So, my own dissatisfaction with shallow teaching of Scripture and theology combined with the situation "on the ground," to create very fertile soil for some new ideas to take root. The next step for me was to read books like Contemplative Youth Ministry, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, and eventually Almost Christian. These books have had a major impact on my thinking.
In my present ministry, a lot of our efforts to rethink youth ministry are a direct result of the tendency we see in our own church for students to be disconnected from "big church," and also for some of our very involved students to end up entirely disconnected from any local church once they go to college.
How have you/will you help your church, volunteers, and youth in your ministry understand and make this transition?
I think it is different for each group of people. The other staff members at my ministry are largely on board and happy to see this transition beginning to take place. I am blessed to have an extremely supportive supervisor, and also a very helpful and caring senior pastor. Both constantly help and challenge me to continue this process. Parents see the statistics and want their children to have a faith that lasts--even if we are all walking a journey together of figuring out how to do that. In fact, most of the adults in my context want a deeper, more outward focused, more generationally diverse ministry. They may not know how to get there, and change can still be scary, and sometimes there is concern about whether students will really come just for Jesus, but we are really all on this journey together.
One thing I'm learning is that students will probably need the most help making this transition. I'm discovering that it's really helpful to talk to them about it, explain what's going on and why, give them input. Then, do all of it over again. Explain what you see the differences between attractional youth ministry and a different kind of youth ministry to be. Then explain it in another way. Then in yet another way. Sometimes students will only hear that the entertainment is going away, and they won't understand why. They might see some things changing and not quite understand why. So explain it again. Give them a chance to plan things, and help to guide them through the process of thinking differently about things. In my present ministry, we've typically done "fun nights" as events to which we encourage students to invite their friends. I have encouraged students, instead, to invite friends to our normal midweek meeting or our Sunday morning meeting. At both of these meetings there is a lot of prayer, a good amount of Bible, and plenty of religious talk. It's been a transition and sometimes students are still like, "Would my friends really want to come to a church thing?" The answer, of course, is yes, but sometimes it takes a while to realize that.
Something that has been helpful for some of the students in my youth ministry is my blog. I never intended for my blog to be something that would help explain things to students, but for some of those who read it, hearing me talk about things in a more general, objective manner has really helped them to understand what I mean when I talk about ministry and why we're making some of the changes we're making.
What do you foresee as challenges or conflicts as you make this shift?
One of the challenges is that we all become familiar with certain ways of doing things, so any change produces stress. As we attempt to become more intergenerational in my ministry, I expect students to resist the idea of adults "invading" programs, and I also expect some adults to resist ways in which we try to help students become involved in other programs. It's going to be a learning experience all around.
It is also natural for us to be selfish, and so the move to focus on others instead of ourselves has caused and will cause some consternation. I'm sure there are other challenges or conflicts that will arise that I'm not thinking of just now. The path is long, and to be completely honest, I'm not sure anyone in the youth ministry world really knows what the end result looks like--which might be good, we have a tendency to seize on "one size fits all" models, and that simply isn't reality.
What do you think you lose when you move away from an attractional form of ministry? What do you hope to gain?
I'm not sure there are any positives that we have to lose when we move away from an attractional youth ministry. For instance, attractional youth ministry takes the immediacy and importance of students' problems and crisis very seriously. That's good. I think we can move away from an attractional form of ministry without losing that.
We will lose the focus on entertainment. We'll probably also lose some of our safety. Certainly we'll be pushed to love others in radical ways that we might rather not have to navigate.
In terms of gain, I hope that down the road our youth ministry helps students have what the folks at Fuller would label "sticky faith." I hope that our students learn that the Gospel is better than laser tag. I hope that our students learn to rest instead of constantly do. I hope our church learns and benefits from having more students involved in worship, and more adults involved in ministry to and with students. I hope I grow right along with my students. I guess, in short, I hope that we are able to live out the faith together and share Jesus' love with a world that is hurting and desperately looking for hope--not entertainment.
-- Calvin Park