Attractional Progression

“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” 1 Corinthians 2:2 NIV

[Read each of the six lines below one at a time. After each line, pause and think what that word of phrase means to you.]  [Pause]

Appreciation & Affection
Positive Communication
Time together
Spiritual well-being
The ability to cope with stress and crisis


James was the new youth worker for the church. It was voted on last Sunday. He had been raised in a family that was known for its regular attendance on Sundays and at most church events. He went off to college and received a degree in civil engineering that enabled him to return home and live near family. Over the course of his six years away from home a new group of teenagers had come into his old youth group, the music had changed, the clothes were different . . . pretty much everything was unfamiliar to him.  He went to a youth ministry conference that encouraged him to enter into the youth culture through learning to speak their language, know their music, and dress the way that youth dress today. James was not sure what to do since his youth director had never dressed the same way he did as a youth.

Marshia was voted in as the new youth worker for the church a month ago. She was unfamiliar with many of the ways of her church since she was not raised as a Christian. Her days of college were spent in a whirlwind of relationships and substance abuse. Now twenty years later after several years of being a follower of Christ, she was becoming aware that the youth culture music had changed, the clothes were different . . . pretty much everything was unfamiliar.  She went to a youth ministry conference that encouraged her to enter into the youth culture through learning to speak their language, know their music, and dress the way that youth dress today. Marshia was not sure what to do. She felt strongly that how she talked and dressed really carried a lot of meaning.

Both James and Marshia are faced with a dilemma. Each is trying to understand the message they convey by the choices they make regarding the language they use and the clothes they wear.  Each is questioning what it takes to fit in and whether or not it is necessary to be “cool” as a youth leader and how to still be authentic. Do we have enough money for the next big thing? If we don’t, will we lose our “cool” factor?

[Change Gears]

What are you most afraid of as a youth worker? Youth workers know the blaring need to be authentic if youth are going to have any kind of respect for the message we intend to share. What stops us? The foundational temptation is to let fear rule. Fear of how to be known. Fear of acting foolish. Fear of not fitting in. Fear either keeps us from being free to share openly or causes us to overreact and share inappropriately. Fear is the great inhibitor of authentic relationships.

[Read the Story]

The junior high youth were involved in a team building activity called “The Spool”. The youth claimed the task was impossible, the puzzle could never be solved, and that the facilitator of the activity was mean. Really mean! The roar of complaints became so loud that total groupthink took over. “You’re stupid. This activity is stupid. I hope I never have to do this ever again.” And later, “We hate this activity. You don’t know what you’re doing. Let’s just get this stupid thing over with.”

[Stop Action]

If we were to evaluate our own level of “coolness” at this moment we might give in and encourage the youth to end the process. Give up on them to save face…(as if the focus was supposed to be on us). This is the second temptation of the youth worker: give in and give up.  Give up the moment of transformation, in order to save face.

[Start Action.]

. . . A new strategy was suggested for the activity and the junior high students suddenly found themselves willing to get dirty, stepped on, and grapple with the situation. Much later the entire group successfully completed the activity and as they brought the last person into the “finish” they cheered and said . . .

[Stop Action]

What matters at this point? That the youth praise the accomplishment? That they praise the facilitator? At some point in our lives as youth ministers, it is important to get kudos. It is important to know we are appreciated. The third temptation in youth work is to seek praise. I have been that youth worker. It is an invalid way to evaluate life in Christ. It is an invalid way to evaluate the effectiveness of youth ministry. But we still have that temptation. We want to know we are praiseworthy in the eyes of the youth we work with.

[Start Action]

. . . and [the junior high youth] said, “This was the best activity. I love this. Can we do it again?”

[Stop Action]

What did the junior high youth focus on after this activity? The activity. The temptation is to get disgruntled and think, “Those kids are just self absorbed and unappreciative.”  Way back we could have saved face and ended the activity. We could have protected the youth from the hurt feelings, protected them from their own poor choice of words, or protected our own reputation by never letting them begin. Protectionism is the fourth temptation of youth ministry.

[Shift Gears]

There are at least five temptations we progress through that keep us from being truly authentic in youth ministry.

Giving up
Seeking Praise
and . . . (well . . . let’s wait on this 5th temptation in the progression)
Remember James and Marshia? They both stood at a crossroads in their lives. They face the dilemma of determining how to “fit in” with a youth culture that does not reflect their own life experience. James and Marshia can give in to this fear, they can give up on transformational youth ministry, they can seek praise for their own “cool” behaviors (or look), they could choose to protect their own reputation, or . . .

[Consider the Alternative]

Instead of eating the “cool” fruit of fear, giving up, self praise, protectionism, and . . . (hmmm . . . let’s keep waiting on the 5th “cool” fruit), youth workers can practice the transformational skills of interaction.

Appreciation & Affection
Positive Communication
Time together
Spiritual well-being
The ability to cope with stress and crisis

Even though these skills were developed out of research by David Olsen and John Stinnett for families, they are very appropriate for youth workers.   These are the interactional means of youth ministry.

[Attraction and Interaction]

Youth workers around the world face a struggle between the balance of attractional methods and interactional methods of youth ministry.  There is value in attracting youth to an event in order to interact with them. However, attractionism, attraction at the expense of interaction, is the fifth and final temptation in the progression.  The skills of interaction are the foundational fruit of youth ministry.

This fall my wife and I received a letter from Richard. We have not seen Richard for over 5 years. He just got married. Richard had been a part of a very attractive program in our previous ministry. He was part of a group of guys who rode mountain bikes down a canyon gully, descending 1,500 feet in about 5 miles.  We were never able to ride with these guys (although I dearly wanted to). However, we were able to bring them extra supplies and spend time with them. We talked.  We shared dreams, fears, and faith. They were from the skater crowd. We were not, but we were committed to them. Still, Richard did not thank us for the fantastic adventures. Hear what Richard thanked us for:

“ . . . Thanks again for everything. In a way you two were there [at his wedding] with all the lessons you taught me. Till we meet again . . .”

The temptation to attract people to ourselves has often been a battle in youth ministry. We, however, are called to be conformed to the image of Christ. Christ, who showed his commitment to the point of death on the cross. Christ, who shared appreciation & affection to an unpopular and misunderstood group of young men. Christ, who told stories (positive communication). Christ, who walked and spent time with those who followed his ways. Christ, who nurtured the faith well-being. Christ, who allowed the hard experiences of life to become the teacher and prepare the way for the harder stands of faith yet to come.

We are not called to progress into attractionism, we are called to the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5) – a ministry that requires the transformational skills of interaction.


Published April 26, 2007

About the author

Craig has served in elementary education, youth ministry, outdoor ministry, and challenge course facilitation and development. He is the former DCE program director at Concordia University, Portland. He currently serves as the director of Camp Concordia, located on the Woodbeck chain of lakes north of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Craig and his wife Mary have one daughter, Whitney.
View more from Craig

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