An Attractive Alternative: Magnetic Youth Ministry

Saddleback Youth
Saddleback Church's youth ministry promises to be magnetic instead of attractional. (Facebook)

Over the past several years, one of the hottest topics in the youth ministry world has been faith abandonment—specifically, when kids "graduate" from youth group. It's an important conversation to have, for sure.

Experts have identified lots of culprits that cause young people to fall away. Some seem on target, while others, in my opinion, have been unfairly accused.

A favorite scapegoat is what's traditionally called "attractional ministry." As it's usually defined, this approach focuses primarily on doing whatever it takes to attract (read "lure," "con," "bribe") teenagers to youth group.

The problem, according to critics, is that attractional ministry serves only to entertain kids; therefore, it creates a shallow faith that doesn't stand the test of time—or even the test of high school graduation. That's why attractional ministry is supposedly flawed and an alternative is necessary.

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And, alternatives definitely abound. There's no shortage of books, blogs, workshops and even entire conferences dedicated to helping youth workers create a deeper, longer-lasting, "stickier" faith in their students. Out with fun and games; in with missional strategies and intergenerational opportunities. In light of all the research about faith abandonment, this is a welcome addition to traditional youth ministry methodology.

Unfortunately, when youth workers are presented with these two opposing approaches, they feel as if they have to pick one or the other. I think there's a better way. I call it "magnetic youth ministry." And youth ministry, especially junior high ministry, needs to be magnetic. Here's what I mean:

  • A magnet attracts. It's okay—in fact, it's vital—that your junior high ministry is attractive to junior highers! You'll need to determine which attractional approaches are appropriate, but it's definitely worthwhile to consider and implement some programs and activities that strategically draw students to your group.
  • A magnet holds on. It's okay—in fact, it's vital—that your ministry is sticky. Once junior highers show up, they shouldn't want to quit coming! And the best way to keep students coming is to provide meaty opportunities for developing a deeper, longer-lasting faith.

What attracts junior high schoolers to your youth group won't necessarily keep them there. And what keeps them around long-term might not always seem super-attractive at first. You need both attraction and stickiness. Make your junior-high ministry magnetic.

Kurt Johnston has been a youth pastor since 1988 and currently leads the student ministries team at Saddleback Church in Southern California. Widely regarded as one of the most trusted voices in youth ministry, Kurt loves to encourage other youth workers and has written and created over 50 books and resources with that goal in mind.

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