The pendulum is always swinging, and over the past decade, attactional ministry has become a looked down upon and even scorned. But, I think it is time to turn the corner and bring back the era of big fun, giveaways, and easy on-ramps for kids to get connected to the church.
Don't get me wrong; I think there is plenty to critique about the attractional models of the past. They were shallow; the rubric was only butts in the seats, and, on top of that, it is so expensive. With some harsh evaluation and the changing economic environments of churches, it makes sense that this way of ministry has gone away. But I would like to argue that it is time to bring it back!
You see, our culture is rapidly changing and with this comes some important changes that we need to take seriously.
1) Students are developing much more slowly then they were in the past. iGen is the latest book that addresses this reality. Not only is adolescence lengthening on the back end, the front end is happening much more slowly. This means that kids are individuating more slowly. This means that middle school and high school students aren't even sure what they believe and don't have the maturity or convictions to own their own faith enough to be able to share it with friends who may disagree. They are in the early stages of faith development and still working out what their faith means to them.
2) Students who are not connected to a church are really not connected to a church. Gone are the days that everyone had some sort of connection to a church and simply needed some more adults and peers in their life to breathe new life into a smoldering faith. Now, any student not connected to a church will never have the opportunity to learn about Jesus or the incredible gift it is to be attached to the family of God. They have no moral or spiritual framework for the Christian story, and for them to become mature Christians into adulthood, they need to be connected to the church. We often think that students outside the church as starting from zero. But that is nieve. Rather, they are starting a negative 100, and we need to do ministry with this reality in mind.
These two cultural realities mean that we must change our ministry model. If we want to reach this next generation of Jesus, we can not rely on our church students to be "missional" and bring their faith to campus. And we can not hope that our unchurched kids will figure it out because a coach or a friend is nice. Rather, we need to help these unchurched kids get connected to the church.
The best way to connect kids to the church is by going old school and actually getting them to show up at church! Attractional ministry makes for a fun and safe place for kids from all over the spiritual spectrum to come and experience what it is like to be part of the family of God. The attractional ministry is missional ministry because we recognize as cross-cultural missionaries that this generation needs space to be a kid and wrestle with adult issues. They need help understanding the relevance of Jesus and how to grow in their faith. They need to know how to make friends and develop community. All of these are lost skills to this generation of student.
So, maybe it might be time for the professional youth worker to live into their calling and leverage their unique gifts and calling and create incredible spaces and environments that meet kids where they are truly at. (Not where we want them to be) And build an attractional ministry that casts the net as wide as possible, and intentionally helps kids develop community, wrestle with faith, and actually give them a good taste of what the church is and should be. All of this will actually help kids be connected to the church for the long haul which means that they will have the best shot of following Jesus into adulthood.
It is a tough pill to swallow to examine our student culture and relevance of our ministries within this culture. But for the sake of the vast majority of kids out there in our communities, we must do ministry to real kids in our communities, not the kids we nostalgically remember from when we were in high school.
Our kids are truly lost. Let's be bold and quick to leave the 99 and search high and low so that, by God's grace, some may be found and join the family of God.