Rules of attraction: When youth ministries shouldn’t (and should) use attractional models

By Robert Neely

There’s an old maxim that says you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. What the old saying doesn’t tell you is that once you start catching flies with honey, you have to keep giving them honey or else they’ll go away.

Too often, youth ministries overlook this reality when they seek to attract students to their events. We’ve all seen ministries that use all kinds of means to get students in the door. Unfortunately, we’ve also seen these students walk out the door never to return.

That’s because the means you use to attract students are usually the same means you must use to keep them.

Free pizza, concerts, and massive game nights are proven ways to draw crowds of teenagers. But we need to ask ourselves whether we are going to be able to keep that crowd – and if drawing the crowd that we’re drawing actually accomplishes our mission. This is the dilemma of the attractional approach.

The attractional approach is not bad in and of itself, and it would be foolish to make a blanket statement that it is the wrong approach for a student ministry to take. But it is something that requires significant analysis – especially because it is so common in the current day.

Here are three questions that youth ministries should ask about attractional models, whether they are existing or in the planning phase:

Is it sustainable? Attractional models make a promise that is hard to deliver on for two main reasons: finances and time. Putting together a whiz-bang worship service week after week after week requires a lot of time on behalf of the leaders, and it also requires a ton of resources for equipment, instruments, band costs, and more.

Likewise, an attractional model in which you feed students week after week quickly adds up to a lot of money. That’s fine, but if your entire ministry revolves around free pizza, what will students do when the pizza isn’t there anymore?

Of course, some large churches have the funding and staffing to provide food week after week or to put on a huge service each week. But even if the resources are available, leaders need to ask the question of whether the means of attraction are actually accomplishing the mission of making disciples – or if they are merely getting people in the door. If the latter is the case, the resources are better spent elsewhere.

Let’s get concrete: As a youth minister, what percentage of your time do you spend on your weekly gathering? Is it so preparation-heavy that it takes away from your time discipling students or simply hanging out with them? If so, is it worth that time? These are questions we must ask.

Is it authentic? Another problem with attractional events is that they are often so polished that they are not truly reflective of what the youth ministry really is about. If you draw in students with a concert with a seven-piece band, a light show, and a smoke machine, but your ministry is really about discipleship in huddles or small groups, you’re sending a mixed message. Even a description from stage about what the ministry is about can’t overcome the feel of the event for many students.

So attractional events should match the values and the feel of a ministry. If discipleship in personal spaces is important, then plan an attractional event that includes new students in personal-space-sized groups. You can do this through mission-project teams or through a fun competition night where students are in teams.

In this scenario, these kinds of attractional events better communicate the character and values of a ministry and also show students what it’s like to build relationships with students and leaders in smaller groups. A student who is looking for a personal-space connection knows that it’s available. Just as importantly, a student who returns to a subsequent event won’t feel like he or she fell victim to a bait-and-switch.

Is it intentional? Remember that our commission from Jesus is not to attract students – it’s to make disciples. So if attractional events and gatherings are part of our strategy, we must ask ourselves what the in-road to discipleship is.

Often, the transition from getting a student to attend a fun event to getting them involved in a discipling culture is difficult. The back door of such events is huge. To close the back door, both leaders and Christian students must be intentional at the attractional gathering.

The good thing about an attractional gathering is that it is a way of finding people of peace. A student who is willing to come to such an event – and who is willing to talk about it afterward – may well be a person of peace who is on the road to faith. But for the attractional event to work, there must be intentionality about using the event to find these people of peace.

This kind of intentionality may not be possible with a weekly attractional gathering. But it could be quite effective at quarterly or even monthly events. Such a timeline would give Christian students time to invite their friends and then to process what happened at the event afterward.

As we answer these questions and analyze our events, our burden as leaders is to figure out how the way we attract students helps us accomplish this mission – or if it detracts from making disciples. These are questions every minisry – big or small, attractional or not, should be asking.

What do you think? When has an attractional model worked well for your ministry? When has an attractional model failed? Share your story in the comments so that we can learn together how best to answer these questions in our ministry context.

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