Category Archives: Robert Neely

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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How to calibrate invitation and challenge

By Robert Neely

Who is the best teacher you ever had? The best leader? The best mentor?

No matter whether you’re thinking about a teacher, a coach, a conductor, a parent, a youth-group leader, or some other guide in your life, chances are that the person who sprung to mind when you read those first three questions did two key things:

1)   He or she gave you access to his/her knowledge, expertise, experience – and maybe even life.

2)   He or she called you to be better than you were at a specific skill, talent, task – and maybe even life.

To put it another way, the best teachers and leaders and mentors both invite us and challenge us. Both are necessary to truly help a person grow.

This is true for music teachers, volleyball coaches, dance instructors, and head chefs, and it’s also true for people who disciple others to become followers of Jesus. As in all of these other areas, invitation and challenge are necessary to truly help a person become like Jesus was and to do what Jesus did.

So how do we calibrate invitation and challenge? Our team uses a matrix to help us evaluate what our culture is.

Failing to provide either invitation or challenge leads to a bored culture. We all know what this is like from our days in high school. The teachers who were disinterested (low invitation) and who let students skate by (low challenge) were the ones whose classes seemed to last forever. Even worse, it would take a herculean effort for a student to learn or develop in such a class.

None of us wants a bored culture, and most leaders who are leading by choice won’t fall into this trap. That’s as true in secular arenas as it is with those who are seeking to disciple others.

But often, we fall into the trap of emphasizing either invitation or challenge at the expense of the other.

When leaders are high on invitation but lacking in challenge, they create a cozy culture. This is a pretty pleasant place to be, quite honestly. Everyone feels good about being loved and cared for and included.

The problem is that a cozy culture doesn’t develop people. Again, think back to high school. The teacher who was a friend to all the students may have been popular, but you didn’t want that teacher for certain subjects. A cozy pre-calculus class, for example, leads to a miserable experience in calculus, because you weren’t challenged enough to learn the basics to succeed at the next level.

Obviously, this is a huge problem when we’re trying to develop followers of Jesus. The goal when we’re discipling isn’t only to make everyone feel included or loved – it’s to help people become more like Jesus. At some point, this will require challenge that a cozy culture simply fails to provide.

On the other hand, leaders who are high on challenge but lacking in invitation create a stressed culture. This is a culture where people can develop, but only if they have enough mettle and fortitude to survive the leader’s constant pushing.

In my hometown, one of the big inner-city high schools had a football coach who was this way. He was extremely successful, winning four state championships and turning the team into a nationally recognized powerhouse. But eventually, his rules started to wear on the players. Each year, his teams had fewer and fewer students sign up to play. Before long, his team was half the size of the football teams at other schools with similar enrollment, and he was pushed out of his job.

This coach knew how to challenge players to get better, but the level of invitation didn’t match the challenge. So kids just bailed. That’s a disturbing trend with a football team, but it’s downright catastrophic when it’s true of the people we’re trying to develop into followers of Jesus.

Ironically, a leader in a stressed culture often looks at dropouts and thinks about how they didn’t have what it takes. Too often we hear this kind of talk from fellow church or youth leaders. The truth is that the one who didn’t have what it takes was the leader, because the invitation was so lacking.

Instead of emphasizing either invitation or challenge, we need to calibrate both in order to develop a discipling culture. In this kind of culture, learners feel welcomed and gain a sense of belonging from invitation, and they also grow because they are challenged when it’s appropriate and necessary.

So how are you in terms of invitation and challenge? Here are a few diagnostic questions:

  • Are the people I’m leading too cozy? If so, what are the first steps of challenge that I need to begin to introduce?
  • Are the people I’m leading too stressed? If so, what steps can I take to add invitation into these relationships?

To learn more about invitation and challenge, check out the transcript of Mike Breen’s recent keynote at Anglican 1000, as well as these blog posts from Steve Bremner and Brian Williamson.

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What is the biggest threat to God’s best in your life?

By Robert Neely

In the days after 9/11, all of us living in America were especially aware of threats around us. The U.S. government even created a terrorism warning scale on which different colors described the current threat level. For years, that threat level color appeared on the tickers at the bottom of news broadcasts, alongside weather forecasts and the latest headlines.

The reason this threat scale was so prevalent is that we all want to be aware of the threats around us. But the truth is that we are far too often unaware of the threats on the inside.

This is especially true as we live out our Covenant relationship with God. The threats that come from inside us are usually more damaging to this relationship than any external threat could be. Still, too often we get it backward and focus on the external threats instead of the internal threats.

This certainly happened to Abraham and Sarah in the story we find in Genesis 20. Abraham and Sarah were afraid as they lived in a place called Gerar because they believed there was “no fear of God in this place.” (v. 11) They were especially afraid that the king of Gerar, Abimelech, was going to kill Abraham and take Sarah as his wife.

Why would Abimelech do such a thing? There are a couple of reasons. The first would be any physical attraction he had to Sarah. Also, Abimelech could stake a claim to Abraham’s household and wealth through this kind of relationship.

So Abraham and Sarah lied, as they had in Genesis 15, and said that Sarah was Abraham’s sister, not husband. Believing Sarah was available, Abimelech sent for her. But before they could sleep together, God revealed to Abimelech that Sarah was married.

The face that this happened before they slept together is important. “Abimelech had not gone near her.” (v. 4) That’s because a few chapters before, Abraham and Sarah had been promised a son within a year. Sarah was not yet pregnant, and if she had slept with Abimelech, he could have claimed that any son was his heir, not Abraham’s.

Had that happened, the child of Covenant that God had promised Abraham and Sarah would have had questionable paternity. In the days before DNA tests, this could have called the entire Covenant God had made with Abraham into question. How could anyone have known for sure that God had kept His promise?

So God stepped in immediately to prevent any paternity questions by making sure Abimelech did not sleep with Sarah. In fact, Abimelech and his entire household suffered with some form of barrenness or sexual dysfunction. (v. 18) This left no doubt about whether the king had slept with Sarah. God told Abimelech that he knew the king had done nothing wrong: “I know you did this with a clean conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. This is why I did not let you touch her.” (v. 6)

Abimelech rebuking Abraham, by Wenceslas Hollar. Via Wikipedia.

When Abimelech learned that Sarah was married, he went back to Abraham to confront him about his lie. He asked Abraham to explain himself, and then he asked Abraham for help. Abimelech even gave Abraham and Sarah gifts in an attempt to get their blessing.

Abraham prayed for Abimelech, and God healed him and his whole household. The blessing of children returned to Abimelech’s household through Abraham. As God had promised back in Genesis 12, He had blessed the one who had blessed Abraham.

Abraham had thought that Abimelech was threatening the fulfillment of God’s promises, but Abimelech had done nothing wrong. The ugly truth was that Abraham himself, the bearer of the Covenant, was the biggest threat to the fulfillment of the covenant.

What Abraham did in this passage is all too familiar to us. We know that the bearer of the promise is the biggest threat to relationship with God because we too have acted faithlessly in ways that have threatened the Covenant.

Abraham threatened the Covenant through a failure to trust. He did not trust God to do what He had promised to do; instead, he was afraid Abimelech would kill him before the promise was fulfilled. So instead of walking in faith, Abraham deceived Abimelech, and because he did, God went to extreme lengths to protect the Covenant. Abraham’s harm impacted Abimelech and his entire household.

We need to admit that, like Abraham, we do not always walk in faith. We act faithlessly in ways that violate our Covenant relationship with God. We are faithless when we forget God, overlook God, disobey God, distrust God, and sin against God. This faithlessness takes different forms, and all of them violate the Covenant relationship God has made for us. Someone must pay the price for this violation. The Covenant was cut in blood, and now someone must pay in blood for the violation of that Covenant.

Thankfully, Jesus died Himself for the times when we do not die to self. Even when we are faithless, God is faithful to His Covenant promises. Grace is the engine that makes Covenant work. God is so committed to atonement that He intervenes. He intervened to protect the Covenant when Abraham lied to Abimelech, and He intervenes on our behalf as well. He does this through the sacrifice of Christ. The price that must be paid for our violations of Covenant was paid by the blood of Christ. This is why the idea of atonement is so tied in with forgiveness. Jesus sacrificed Himself to atone for the ways we have broken Covenant so that the Covenant relationship can continue.

We respond to this sacrifice, this grace, by walking in faith. Sin is a struggle of faith. We don’t trust that God will give us what we need, so we grasp onto possessions instead of being generous. We don’t trust that God will provide fulfilling relationships, so we exploit others to gain popularity or to find sexual gratification.

But it does not have to be this way. Instead of being faithless, we can walk by faith. We can have faith that God is going to do what He has promised. We can have faith that the way God fulfills His promise will be even greater and even better than we can imagine. We can have faith by obeying God and by embracing the responsibility that God calls us to take on.

And as we walk by faith, we will find ourselves living in faithfulness. We will be honoring our Covenant relationship with God not out of obligation but out of trust. We will live with grace because we live by grace.

And as we do we will find that the threats against our Covenant relationship with God will slowly disappear, because we are focused on dealing with the threats on the inside and not just the outside.

This post is adapted from the One Life series from Room 1228. Find out more at


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What do your followers say about you?

By Robert Neely

My first job was as a sportswriter. I covered many different sports for newspapers (remember them?) and magazines, but pretty early in my career I focused in on the National Football League.

I still love to watch NFL games and read stories about the league, and one of my hobbies is to write about the NFL for a couple of websites, including my own.

(At this point, I need to apologize to European readers. I’ll do my best to make this story accessible; feel free to share a comparable example from the Premier League or La Liga in the comments if you wish.)

One of the biggest stories surrounding the NFL since the 2011 season ended was just how much dissension and conflict there was in the New York Jets locker room. Players have anonymously thrown each other under the bus, and several veterans have talked about just how divided the locker room became by the end of the season.

In all of the tabloid hubbub about these issues between players, one quote resonated with me. One of the team’s leading veterans, LaDainian Tomlinson (likely a future Hall of Fame running back), said that he wasn’t surprised about the blunt conflict that emerged among Jets players.

That’s because it followed the example of the Jets’ leaders – head coach Rex Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum.

“Think about this,” Tomlinson said in a radio interview. “They created this. This is the type of football team that they wanted. Mike Tannenbaum, Rex Ryan are both brash, in-your-face type of style, say whatever you want, just get it done on the field. And then it leads to other things, as guys are calling each other out and saying, ‘I’m not getting the ball,’ or whatever it may be.”

Tomlinson wasn’t talking about discipleship, but what he said highlights an important principle that we need to consider as we lead others:

You reproduce who you are.

Rex Ryan and Mike Tannenbaum are brash leaders who say whatever they want. So it’s no surprise that the players they lead developed into brash loudmouths too. These leaders reproduced who they are.

This is what Jesus sought to do with the disciples, and it’s what Paul sought to do as well. See what Paul said to the Corinthians:

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God – even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1)

As a leader, Paul was not trying to tell the Corinthians what they should do; he was trying to show them what they should do. Because he was seeking the good of many over his own good, he could challenge the Corinthians to do the same.

This is a huge bar to clear for us as leaders and disciplers. We have to be willing to say with Paul, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”

Let’s take this one step further. Since we reproduce who we are, one of the things we as leaders should do is to check our followers to see what they are saying about us.

We’re not talking about the words they say to us or about us (even behind our backs). We’re talking about what their lives say about our examples.

So how can we do this? Here are a few diagnostic questions you can ask:

  • What traits do they people I disciple/lead have in common?
  • Do I see these traits in myself? If not, why not – are they not there, or do I not want to see them?
  • What do the traits of my disciples/followers show me that I need to change?

We reproduce who we are. So let’s think about what our followers say about us so that we can be the kinds of leaders and disciplers who can say, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”


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Everyone has a cause – but do they have a clue?

By Robert Neely

We live in a world that loves its causes – whether you’re having a tea party or occupying something.

The longing for a cause is especially pronounced among the millennial generation – those under 30. This generation is constantly pushing for social justice. If you don’t believe it, hang around some millenials and see how long it takes you to spot a pair of Toms.

The passion for causes in this generation is a great opportunity for those of us who lead students and young adults. It’s natural to help Christ followers funnel the desire to have a cause into a missional lifestyle. Obviously, leading millennials toward Kingdom mission is a great thing to do.

But it is not enough – and therein lies the challenge of leading a cause-driven generation. The challenge arises because it’s possible to have a cause without having a clue.

This happens in the church when we separate mission from discipleship. Mike Breen of 3DM writes about the why it’s a problem to have a missional cause without having a clue.

“Mission is under the umbrella of discipleship. It is one of the many things that Jesus taught his disciples to do well. But it wasn’t done in a vacuum. It didn’t happen outside of knowing Jesus and being shaped by that relationship in which a constant refinement of their character happened alongside of their continued skill development (which included mission).”

After reading this, you may be patting yourself on the back, because you are a leader with a clue. If that’s the case, celebrate it – but make sure that you haven’t lost all causes in the process.

Let’s use a matrix to help us better understand what happens when you have a cause or a clue but not both.

Obviously, if you have no cause and no clue, then you have a huge problem. But we also need to consider the problems that come when you have either a cause or a clue but not both. Let’s use Mike Breen’s descriptions (from the upcoming book Multiplying Missional Leaders) to explain what happens in each quadrant.

Cause but no clue: High mission/low discipleship church cultures have issues with Biblical literacy, theological reflection and deficiencies in character and creed that, in the end, sabotage the very mission they’re about. Critics are rightly concerned that these kinds of churches are a hair’s breath away from heresy, with people largely not experiencing the depth and transformation of heart and mind into which Jesus invites us.

Clue but no cause: High discipleship/low mission church cultures lack the adventurous spirit and heart of compassion and Kingdom compulsion that so stirred the Father into action that he sent his only Son to a world he so loved. Their transformation isn’t leading to the place God is taking them. Critics are rightly concerned that these kinds of churches will turn into Christian ghettos, creating people who lob truth bombs and create an “us vs. them” mentality.

A cause and a clue: A true discipling culture (as Jesus envisioned it) must have both discipleship and mission. It cannot live in either ditch. It’s not either/or; it’s both/and. We should never choose between depth and breadth; instead, we must embrace the tension of having and shaping both discipleship and mission in our communities and in our leaders.

This year, as we lead, let’s seek to become leaders who disciple followers to have both a cause and a clue.

As we do, we will see a generation’s love of a cause leveraged for mission as they get a clue by following the King.

For more on the tension between having a cause and having a clue, check out the upcoming Multiplying Missional Leaders book by Mike Breen and Doug Paul. 3DM will release Multiplying Missional Leaders later this spring. You can go here to find out how to be on the list when the book is released.


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PowerPlant presentation

PowerPlant camps visit 25+ locations every summer, and these North American Mission Board mission camps for students partner with church planters throughout many areas and teach students what church planting is all about. Wayfarer has worked to help PowerPlant with curriculum for a few years now, and starting in 2011 Wayfarer has designed and created all the pre-camp curriculum, devotions, and sermon guides for PowerPlant camps.

Today, the ministers who will be serving as project coordinators for PowerPlant are meeting in Greenville, SC, and Wayfarer will be there to introduce the 2011 theme for PowerPlant and World Changers camps. We’re excited to get time to personally interact with these people who will be helping thousands of students this summer learn what it means to be church planters and help hundreds of church planters minister to the areas where God has called them.

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YEC Weekend

The Wayfarer team has already had a busy week, with visits to WinShape Boys and Girls Camp, Dave Rhodes speaking at Student Life Camp in Orange Beach, Alabama, and Chad Norris speaking at Student Life Camp in Sherman, Texas. But this weekend, the whole team hits the road to head to two YEC events.

Wayfarer has worked over the past year with the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions’ Student Ministry department on YEC, a weekend event that hundreds of Alabama students will attend this weekend. Chad Norris, Dave Rhodes, and Chris Brooks will be speaking, David Reichley will be working to make sure to execute the program, and the event will use art created by Blake Berg and Valine Mullen. In addition, every student that attends gets a follow-up evangelism challenge that Wayfarer created. It’s exciting for us to see all this work come together in person.

In addition, Dave Rhodes will commute over to Mississippi for the weekend to speak at that state’s YEC Friday and Saturday night.

Please pray for the entire Wayfarer team on the road this weekend.

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