The Distractional Model of Youth Ministry, Part 1

Brian KirkWhat do the internet and youth ministry have in common? Quite a lot, it seems, particularly when it comes to strategies for keeping "users" engaged. But is this a good thing, and what are the implications for those of us engaged in ministry with teens?

Did you know that repeated use of the internet might be having a physical effect on your body? Research conducted in 2007 indicates that repeated web surfing can actually rewire the brain, resulting in the growth of new neural pathways particularly in the prefrontal cortex that governs decision-making. Sounds great, right? The internet is helping us expand our brain power. Not so fast:

Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

When you stop to think about it, doesn't this make sense? Deep learning via the internet can be a real challenge because of the constant distraction of checking email, following links, clicking on ads, skimming through blogs, and receiving pop-up notifications from Twitter. It's the difference between reading The Kite Runner, for example, in linear book form (going page by page) or reading an on-line version where every paragraph includes links that beckon you to take internet detours to learn more about life in Afghanistan or read comments left by other readers on various turns in the plot. According to research, those who stay focused reading the traditional printed text in a book have a much higher level of comprehension than those reading on the web because, quite simply, there is less distraction.

Relatedly, distraction has been the name of the game in youth ministry now for decades, its history detailed in the recent text Reinventing Youth Ministry (Again) by Wayne Rice. Sometimes labeled the "attractional" model of youth ministry, I think a better term for what we've been using with teens is the "distractional" model. In its simplest form, the "distractional" model implies a strategy for youth ministry that encourages designing activities and events that will get teens in the door of the church and keep them engaged and interested. Most often these activities are entertainment-based and high energy. They need not even be faith-based, as long as they open the possibility of reaching youth with the gospel message at some point during the event.

Not unlike the constant clicking of links on a website, this approach leads to youth ministries with programming centered around rock concerts, skateboard parks, lavish mission trips (I think that might be an oxymoron) to exotic locales, wacky games and movie nights, road trips, and youth facilities crammed with state of the art video screens and the hottest video game systems. All of this is done in the hopes that, in between the endless rounds of "Halo," rocking out to the latest Christian band, and playing games that involve somebody getting a face full of peanut butter, you might get the chance to mention Jesus and offer a prayer.

I know this "distractional" approach well for I was a part of it for much of the early days of my ministry. I firmly believed that if I were to have any hope of keeping the attention of the teens in my care, I would need to provide constant stimulation and activity with a little bit of Bible study and worship slipped in when they weren't paying attention. So, as youth arrived each Sunday, I had loud music playing to set the mood. We opened each meeting with games to create a tone of fun and entertainment and we balanced out the faith exploration with plenty of lock-ins and Friday night football games. And the truth of it is, this approach worked then and it works now, particularly if our primary goal is to get lots of youth in the door.

But what of the long-term effects? Like the superficial learning that comes with the distracted surfing of the internet, do we run the risk of nurturing a shallow and distracted understanding of faith within the teens we mentor? Recent surveys conducted of mainline Protestant youth found that many of these teens had very little understanding of their own faith story or the basic beliefs of Christian doctrine. In our pop-culture inspired efforts to keep teens engaged, are we in essence rewiring their spiritual brains to expect that the Christian faith can be summed up in sound-bites and simple theologies?

Fortunately, the tide is turning when it comes to the distractional model. Many youth workers are taking a lesson from the past and seeking a more meaningful approach to discipling teens. In part two of this essay, I'll explore this new way forward—an approach to youth ministry that can help encourage youth to seek a deeper understanding of the Christian faith and the radical and life-transforming teachings of Jesus.