Tag Archives: Youth Ministry

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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Upcoming webinar: How to start a discipleship movement among teens

The 3DM team is hosting several webinars this spring, and there’s one in particular we wanted to make sure you knew about. On March 8, Dave Rhodes is hosting a webinar on How to start a discipleship movement among teens.

Here’s the description:

Starting a movement among teens by discipling people like Jesus did. Most youth pastors we meet want to start a movement. The truth is you can, but you can’t do it aside from discipling people they way that Jesus did. He started the greatest movemental force in the history of the world and we’ve found that it might even work best with teens and young adults. In this webinar, Dave Rhodes — sought after speaker and co-founder of Wayfarer — will talk about how to make that a reality with the teens in your church.

 The webinar is March 8 from 3-4 pm Eastern time. There is a nominal cost, but it’s totally going to be worth it. You can sign up here.
Please plan on joining Dave on March 8!


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What’s the Dirty Little Secret of Youth and College Ministry?

By Jordanne Bonfield

For some time there has been a secret brewing underneath the surface of most churches we see around us.

Photo via timesunion.com

It’s that senior leaders virtually never invest in youth and college pastors. On average, youth ministers stay at a church only 2 years. Could this be part of the reason?

Unfortunately, I have seen this play out up close and personally.

Coming from a small Christian college, many of my friends entered youth ministry. I saw some of them using youth ministry as a holding pattern until they had enough experience to become senior leaders.

But while too many use youth ministry as a steppingstone, I also know many youth and college ministers who are really passionate about the next generation. They eat, sleep, drink, and pray it. Far too often they find themselves severely under-supported and under-developed by the senior leaders in their churches. So they leave.

I’ve seen that youth and college ministers tend to believe that they aren’t worth hearing from unless they have a position of authority. Apparently youth ministers don’t have much acknowledged authority. Instead, they are usually seen as agents of fun and games who have a few good talks. Basically, they are seen as the adolescents they lead – and therefore as those shouldn’t be given any “real” responsibility.

Most youth ministers reading this right now are probably nodding their heads in agreement, but they can’t talk about it for fear of losing their job or of being punished for asking for help.

In my eight years in youth group, I had three different youth pastors. I never could figure out why these ministers left so soon after arriving. I didn’t know about the pressure they lived under to balance their lives and ministry, all the while not having a voice that was heard in the church staff context.

It’s interesting, isn’t it? We expect these young men and women to enter into one of the toughest roles in the church, but we practically feed them to the wolves. Youth ministry isn’t all games, camp trips, and fun. There are high expectations for these young ministers to be able to handle everything that will come their way.

What comes their way? They deal with teens and their problems (suicide, massive identity issues, underage drinking, bullying, drugs, and sex, to name just a few). They deal with helicopter parents and their expectations. All the while, the leadership above them chooses to be hands off because it doesn’t understand the next generation (and rarely tries to). To top it off, we expect these ministers to balance their own lives along the way. How can we expect a 22-year-old minister to handle all of these things well?

How could they? From my experience, most youth and college ministers have never been discipled themselves. Yet we expect them to effectively make disciples of the next generation. I find this absolutely perplexing. Youth and college ministers are no different than any other disciples – they will reproduce what they have been taught and trained to do.

So instead of making disciples, youth and college ministers try to grow a program that is “successful” in the eyes of others in order to earn the right to be heard. If you are a senior leader reading that last sentence, I ask you to read it again. Your staff will follow your example, whether you want to admit it or not. If you are set on numbers and production, then your staff will inevitably follow you down that path, because nothing else they do will seem right.

Believe it or not, it’s not always the desire to be successful or famous that drives youth and college ministers. The next generation of church leadership really does care about spreading the good news of Jesus among teenagers. But they can’t figure out how to do it on their own.

From what I’ve seen, young ministers value their senior leader’s input and accountability, but they are rarely given a chance to be heard. This generation of leaders has a strong, natural desire to be led and discipled by those who have gone before them – but no one is doing that for them. This is a hallmark of the Millenial Generation. There’s a giant scrolling marquee on their foreheads that reads “DISCIPLE ME!”

I am begging senior leaders to open their eyes and truthfully evaluate the way they lead their staff.  When I look at what Jesus did, I see a great example of how to lead their followers. I honestly don’t care how many sermons you’ve preached on Jesus calling Peter and John out of the boat if you aren’t living it yourself.

In Mark 1:15-20, Jesus told Peter and John to follow him and promised that he would make them fishers of men. In the three years that followed, the disciples lived with Jesus, ate with him, stayed with him, and traveled with him. Over time, Jesus released them to do what he had done. Matthew 28:18-20 isn’t just a cool verse to memorize. It is Jesus sending his disciples out to do everything he taught them. After inviting the disciples to follow him, Jesus trained them and then released them to live out all that he gave them.

One writer described our failure in multiplying leadership this way: “The time has come to humbly acknowledge before God that we have failed to train men and women to lead in the style of Jesus. Whether through ignorance or fear, we have taken the safe option, training pastors to be theologically sound and effective managers of institutions rather than equipping them with the tools they need to disciple others.”

The life of Jesus and his ways of multiplication aren’t just a theology to be memorized and believed. It is a calling to a life of obedience that has to be actively lived. Jesus had a natural way of reproducing who he was in the lives of his disciples. Senior leaders need to follow this example, whether they run a mega-church or a church of 50. It starts at “home” with family and staff – including those hotshot youth and college ministers with whom you don’t think you can relate.

Let me be bold and say that if you want your youth minister to stick around for longer than the two-year average, it’s going to take some effort on your part. You’re going to have to make an investment that will grow and last. And we’re not talking about a bigger budget (though that would be nice!). We want to spend time with you! We want you to invest in us. We want to make different mistakes than the ones you have made. Help us do that. We want to believe that you want us on your team for more than the numbers we produce in our youth or college ministry.

Thankfully, my ministry experience has been different from the dirty little secret. I come from a team and a church culture that is constantly cognizant of the next generation of leadership. I think of Robyn, who was the high school director in the same church where she discovered Jesus as a teenager. I think of Shibu, who has run a middle school ministry for seven years. I think of Dustin who has been a high school director for more than six years in the church where he found Christ. Theirs are rare stories, and the common denominator with these ministers is the investment that the leaders who went before them made in them. These leaders made it past the two-year average because of the relationships they had with those leading them.

The senior leadership I have been around for the last 10 years would agree that it is imperative to invest in your staff if you want to have a church that carries on long after you are gone. I’ve seen probably 100 next generation leaders come through my home church to be trained and discipled and then released into the ministry of the church and beyond. I’m only now realizing how rare of a thing that is. We haven’t always done it perfectly, but my senior leaders have made an effort for many years to grow the next generation.

I’m a rarity among my friends in ministry, given that I’ve stayed in one place for 10 years. I can’t take the credit. I have had wonderful disciplers and investors who helped me and challenged me to grow.

Here are some next steps I’d challenge senior leaders to think about:

  • Look over the Scriptures and really study about what Jesus did with his disciples. I would highly suggest the book Building a Discipling Culture by Mike Breen and Steve Cockram. It has helped me put tangible actions to the method of discipleship.
  • Talk to your youth/college minister and give him or her an opportunity to be really honest with you without judgment or reprimand. Listen to what they need before you decide what to do next. Don’t make assumptions.
  • Be honest about your expectations for your youth and college staff. Do those expectations need to be adjusted based on where they are in their growth and abilities?
  • Consider how you will begin to invest intentionally in the lives of the staff you lead. If you have a large staff, ask others around you to help you think creatively about multiplying leadership. It’s not a microwaveable process. It takes time.
  • Examine your own life and ask others to be honest with you about where you could grow in your leadership with your staff.  There are avenues of coaching and support that will help you (including from the Wayfarer team). My boss asks us annually how he can improve in his leadership. That has given me with a great example to follow.

Remember that we are called to live out the things Jesus taught, not just to memorize and teach on them. Start at home. Start with your family and staff.

If we do, maybe together we can clean up the dirty little secret.

Jordanne Bonfield is on staff with The Gathering Network, a new church plant of Heartland Community Church in Kansas City, Kansas. You can connect with Jordanne on Facebook


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A Response :: Is youth ministry subtly sabotaging college ministry?

By Dave Rhodes

Last week was an interesting one here on the Wayfarer Blog. When my good friend Chris Brooks released his blog post Is youth ministry subtly sabotaging college ministry?, I knew it would create a response. I was pretty sure it would get people talking. But the question that stands in front of all of us right now is this:

Will it keep us talking?

I hope that it will.

Defining reality is a tough job. It is a job that requires stating truth, not only in ways that are pleasant for everyone to hear, but also in all its extreme forms. When we speak truth in this relentless manner, we get to the bottom of what the true situation actually is. This is the real gift Chris’ blog gave us last week.

Chris stated his opinion brashly. He is a college minister who is experiencing the ramification of unformed or malnutritioned students brought up in youth ministries that do everything but disciple students. We need him to give voice to his frustration. We need to feel the extreme reality that he deals with and lives in every day.

To confirm the reality of Chris’ voice, we saw many comments from lots of people who feel the exact same way — some who have even dropped out of church or discontinued faith because of the reality Chris wrote about.

But Chris’ blog also generated another response. This was the response of youth ministers who felt blamed for the problem, even though they have given and laid down their very lives for something exactly opposite of what Chris described. Exasperated by the desperation of the current generation, they felt undercut and unappreciated by one more person telling them how they were not doing their job — or at least not doing their job well enough.

They too used strong words and brash language to prove their point. And their words also gave voice to others who feel overworked and underappreciated, misunderstood and mislabeled. These youth ministers continue to press into the work and calling that they feel God has placed in front of them. I believe we need to hear their words too.

The truth lies not between these extremes but in both of these extremes. Until we hear the truth at both extremes, we won’t be able to define what the reality that all of us are staring at and working in truly is.

In my view, we must have venues where we can bloody each other’s noses a little, so to speak, in order to get to the bottom of the situation. It’s not that we act unchristian or mean-spirited toward each other; instead, we create room and space to vent our real frustration so that we can move toward reality and the solutions it requires.

Unfortunately, the truth that we all are staring at is that just 4 percent of the millennial generation is in church each Sunday and that many who are in church are dropping out the moment they get their car keys or go off to college. Even more, unlike past generations, this generation isn’t coming back when they have their kids.

There is plenty of blame and sin to go around. The truth is that there are many youth ministries committed to ministry models that leave students malnuritioned and unformed. It is also true that there are many youth ministers giving their lives away every day for ministries that want to see something different happen.

Some are caught in systems that undermine their best intentions. Others are misinformed and need the space to consider a different side of truth or a different way altogether. Still others are doing incredible work and the biggest problem they face is that no one has ever heard of them and too few have had opportunity to imitate their model of ministry.

(By the way, what is true of youth ministry is also true of lots of college ministries, and other age group ministries as well.)

Here’s the reality: The problems that Chris, and those who have responded to him, described this week is not a youth problem or college problem — it’s a CHURCH problem. Now that we have done the hard work of venting our frustration and defining reality, the real question is whether we will move out of our polarities toward a better solution.

We must recognize that everything in our society will try to keep us from doing so. We live in a world that thrives off of polarization. Polarization rallies. Polarization makes money. But polarization rarely provides real solutions. Polarization is not the answer.

The answer is not balance either. Balance fails to articulate the frustration of both extremes.

So what is the answer? I believe the answer is to start speaking paradox again. When Jesus was asked whether people should pay taxes to Caesar, what people were really asking him to do was choose sides. One side said yes. The other said no. Each had its theological reasons. Each was entrenched in its own polarity.

In this situation, Jesus was pressured to give an answer, and Jesus chose not polarity or balance but paradox. He saide, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God.” (Matthew 22:21) As he did, Jesus elevated the conversation and created space for a whole different kind of imagination to take place.

An Augustus Caesar Denarius, via dartmouth.edu

Last week we asked the  question, “Is youth ministry subtly undermining college ministry?” Some of us have said yes! Others of us have yelled back no! We have heard the truth of both of these extremes. This question has helped us sense and feel the depth and breadth of the conversation. We have pulled the quiet murmurs out of the closet and out into the open.

Now we must work just as diligently to move out of our polarities to hear the paradox that Jesus is speaking to all of us. My hope is that the Wayfarer Blog will be devoted to this endeavor and that you will continue to join us in the conversation.

Some have suggested that the test of Christian love is the tone we speak in. But I think maybe the best test of Christian love is whether we just keep talking.

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Is youth ministry subtly sabotaging college ministry?

By Chris Brooks

(From Wayfarer Blog editors: This post starts off pretty fiery and says what some might say are some pretty incendiary things. We promise that it’ll be worth the read if you stick with it through the whole post!)

According to a USA Today article a few years back, 70 percent of Protestants between the ages of 18 and 30 drop out of church before age 23.

I also saw a stat a while ago that said 89 percent of youth group kids leave the church after they graduate high school and never come back.

Most church leaders are aware of the staggering statistical evidence that college-aged students and young adults who grew up in the church are evacuating our churches and ministries at alarming rates. But as a college minister, I find the responses to this data in the church at large highly problematic.

They are problematic because, first, the church for the most part paints the “secular” university (such as the University of Alabama, where I minister) as some sort of devilish adversary and depicts professors as intellectual predators from whom we must protect our vulnerable youth.

Second, this crisis is like the national debt. I didn’t create it (most of it, at least), yet I have to pay for it. Quite simply and bluntly, it’s not my fault.

Well, whose fault is it? I’m glad you asked, because I’m happy to answer.

Fault lies with the guy sitting across the table from me in staff meeting. You know who I’m talking about – the happy-go-lucky youth guy whose biggest problems are pimples and prom. He or she is the one who is always with kids at camps or with other ministers at conferences. He or she is the one who produces the coolest Wednesday deal night going down in your town.

I’m talking to you, and I’m calling you out. This is your fault. You think you have a successful ministry, but you don’t. You may think you are making a difference, but according to the numbers, your ministry isn’t making a difference no matter how many were in attendance last week or how many cool (or uncool) the T-shirts you made were.

When the youth bubble bursts and you ship them off to college, I’m the one who inherits your discipleship debt crisis. I am the one who has to set up triage for your students who are lining up in droves to liquidate their thin excuse for faith.

(If you are youth minister, please keep reading. I promise it will come full circle.)

Don’t just take my disgruntled word for it. Barna’s got my back. Here is what one of their studies cites as one of the five myths about young adult church dropouts:

Myth: College experiences are the key factor that causes people to drop out.
Reality: College certainly plays a role in young Christians’ spiritual journeys, but it is not necessarily the ‘faith killer’ many assume. College experiences, particularly in public universities, can be neutral or even adversarial to faith. However, it is too simplistic to blame college for today’s young church dropouts. As evidence, many young Christians dissociate from their church upbringing well before they reach a college environment; in fact, many are emotionally disconnected from church before their 16th birthday.

Told you.

“The problem arises from the inadequacy of preparing young Christians for life beyond youth group,” writes David Kinnaman, co-author of unChristian. He points to research findings showing that, “The university setting does not usually cause the disconnect; it exposes the shallow-faith problem of many young disciples.” (Emphasis added.)

The only logical deduction we can make from that statement is that our current discipleship models (if we even have them) are not working.

Of course, we can’t simply blame youth ministers. The truth is that this faith crisis is not just the fault of one particular ministry age group. (Certainly, parents abdicating their role as the primary disciplers of their kids also plays a role!) Moreover, it will take every age group to get us out of it.

So don’t pass the buck. Instead, here are five quick suggestions:

Take a deep breath. Since the Holy Spirit’s last name literally means breath or wind, breathe deeply of his presence, his peace, and his power. If you see that your age-group ministry is on life support and/or that your church is dead, dying, or decaying like dry bones, remember that same power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead lives within you. Seriously. Don’t be scared to channel your inner Ezekiel – Prophesy SON OF MAN! Don’t forget that God is in the historical habit of redeeming and resurrecting. That’s evident in the Bible; now make sure it is evident in your life.

Define the win. If you see your age-group ministry as “successful,” then that presupposes you have a definition of success. Write it out, and then ask yourself three questions: Is it yours? Is it God’s? Can it be sustained and reduplicated without me? If all you’re counting is attendance or conversion hands in the air, that’s just not good enough because it never once seems to be the thing that Jesus is counting. Are you counting disciples or the numbers that make you feel good about yourself?

Burst your own bubble. Take a hard, humble, and honest look at the numbers – not only at the national trends but local patterns and your church’s patterns. What do they say about your effectiveness? Never ignore or justify stagnant spiritual growth. Continue to support one another, but challenge the process. For instance, in my church, we are significantly intergenerational. But is it enough to call a college student staring at the back of someone’s gray head for one hour in worship intergenerational worship?

Stop, look, and listen. Ask the Holy Spirit for eyes to see and ears to hear the hidden rhythms of unique Kingdom impact he wants to release in you and through you. Then do something unheard of these days: Stop comparing yourself to other ministers, other churches, and other ministries. If you are reading this, chances are your next worship gathering will not look like Passion 2012. That does not mean it is not valuable or significant for Kingdom expansion. That does not mean you are not valuable or significant in God’s Kingdom. As one worship leader so honestly put it, “Today I rise above flattery and frowns. I know who and whose I am” (Coincidentally, that minister was at Passion 2012 – thanks Charlie – but you get the point.)

Invite people in. Learn how to invite people strategically and intentionally into your life. Literally. Pretend the front door to your house is the new front door of the church. Open it wide and open it often. There is something mystical and holy about your kitchen when it is crowded with people whom you are discipling and with whom you are on mission. The best people I have seen at this are Mike Breen, Dave Rhodes, and the team at 3DM. They live and teach in ways that you and I can both sustain and exponentially reduplicate.

I am committed to not letting statistics like the one I started this entry with deter or deflate my hope in the gospel and the ministry of reconciliation that has been commissioned to us. Let’s try and reverse the grueling blame game that our adversary loves to get us to sink our teeth into. I like that guys like Rick Lawrence want to challenge the validity of the “70 percent” stat. (He calls it the vampire stat because it just wont die.)

Regardless of the actual percentage, the end result is not what Jesus intended for his bride. But for argument’s sake, let’s just say that 70 percent of young adults are in fact leaving the church. And let’s just assume that the problem is systemic and that, even though we shoulder different amounts of the blame, we all equally share the responsibility to respond.

Could a possible solution to the 70 percent dropout rate be as simple and as true as starting to take the time to disciple the remaining 30 percent with the crystal clear imperative to multiply and divide?

I hope so – because what is more troubling to me than the 70 percent of young adults leaving the church is the fact that 30 percent were content just to stay there without growing or changing.

Chris Brooks is a college minister for The Well, a ministry that reaches students at the University of Alabma. He wants you to know that he likes his church’s youth minister, who approved this message.


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