A few weeks ago, I read about a youth worker using a dead octopus in a game with his group. It was, hands down, one of the weirdest things that I’ve ever heard about in youth ministry – but we’ll come back to that in a minute. First, let me tell you about the worst event I’ve ever run.

I was in my third year as a London-based youth worker, so I thought it was about time to run the obligatory large youth event. I went all out. I booked a large hall, put a big band together complete with apocalyptic-sized speakers and seizure-inducing stage lights. I hired a well-known speaker who had more awkward puns and tear-jerking stories in his toolbelt than you could shake a stick at, and I even ordered 300 jam doughnuts from a local bakery. We had stewards with florescent vests, custom lanyards for volunteers, a crowd control queue in place, and – of course – a beautifully designed flyer complete with QR code (the height of cool in 2010).

We were expecting a crowd – at very least 50 of my own group members were coming. Flyers had gone out to churches and schools all around the area. I picked up the speaker from the train station, helped the band sound check, prepped the team, took a deep breath and opened wide the double doors.

Four young people came in.

Not 400, not 40, but four. And two flies.

The next day I had to explain to the church council how I had spent half of my entire budget on one failed event. I still don’t know exactly why it happened, but what I do know is that a sense of shame followed me around for the rest of the year: the numbers didn’t come, therefore I was bad at my job. The weird thing is that I had ‘technically’ done everything right. At least, I had done everything contemporary event-driven youth ministry tells you to do.
We all know we shouldn’t do it, but that doesn’t change the fact that we too readily attach ‘low numbers’ to ‘failure’. Somewhere in the DNA of our youth work we learned that one critically essential part of the youth worker’s skillset is to attract as many young people as possible. We start to believe if we can’t do that, then we’re not really up to the task.

Attractional youth ministry

Since the late 1940s a model of youth work known as ‘attractional’ ministry has dominated almost every wing of our practice. The heartbeat of attractional youth ministry is: “How do we get as many young people into the room as possible?” Only when we’ve got them can we build relationships and share the gospel with them. So, we spread the net wide, we go for the cultural, the contextual and the relevant, and we design our youth programmes to be super fun and very easy to connect with.

To some degree, I’m all for this! Helping young people see our work, find our programmes and feel like they belong to our groups is essential. The question, however, is just how far would you go to fill a room with young people?

Entertainment at all costs

OK, back to the dead octopus. Early in the summer a post surfaced on a popular youth ministry Facebook group sharing a game called ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and octopus’. Accompanying the post was a picture of a teenage boy holding up a large – and clearly dead – octopus.

Part of me wanted to laugh, but it was a very small part of me.

The post received over 250 likes, and 120 positive comments. One of these said they played ‘Squidbee’: ultimate frisbee with a dead squid. Another said they played games with a severed cow tongue, and then – unbelievably – one other said they play sports with a dead baby shark.

I was totally weirded out, but I was clearly in a very small minority. Several commenters said that it’s our job to attract young people and relate to them where they’re at through exactly these kinds of activities. They cited popular YouTube channels for evidence and poked awkwardly at verses like 1 Corinthians 9:22. The philosophy was clear: We need to get them into the room, if we don’t then all our good intentions, relational theology and gospel messages are worth nothing. 

I think this demonstrates a misguided approach to youth ministry as ‘entertainment at all costs’. There’s no end to youth work creativity, so is doing something this much over the line totally necessary? How far is too far, and when does attractional ministry become too high a risk?

Just how far is too far?

For most of us (I hope) we don’t plan on using dead animals in our games, but when we pull back from the extreme wing, the question still remains: just how far would we go?

What about breaking the law? I imagine there’s more than a few youth groups that have 18+ rated games like Call of Duty in their PlayStations. What about risking their health – would we ever, for instance, intentionally block a child’s airways? That sounds crazy, right? Yet I too have played chubby bunnies with young people – even though there are confirmed reports of two children having died from asphyxiation playing that game. What about stocking our tuck shops with energy drinks like Monster or Relentless, which are illegal to sell to under-16s, are designed to emulate drinking culture and are (sometimes fatally) unhealthy for young people?

In my 15 years working with young people, I’ve done all kinds of unnecessary and downright stupid things to attract more young people to my groups. I’ve turned off my moral compass and suspended my best judgement in the pursuit of edgier memories and good stories.

Even just presenting with a loud, hyped-up, dramatic and extremely extroverted tone tells a story of exclusion for the many who feel uncomfortable in exactly those settings. “Everybody jump up and down or I’ll squirt you with this water pistol!” will be the last thing lots of young people want to hear – and probably the last time we’ll see them too.

Does it work?

For the last twelve months I’ve made an effort to learn from a category of people we might call ‘ex-Christian-youth’. These are young people who left Christian youth clubs and never came back, and then turned to forums and support groups to share their experiences.
There’s a real mix of people in these groups, but from what I’ve noticed, it was rarely the gospel or the person of Jesus that put these young people off. In fact, in a lot of cases, they still had some kind of admiration for Jesus. Instead, these ex-Christian-youth told stories that fell under two main categories: those who left because they had a disagreement about sexuality (that’s worth several articles on its own!) and those who left because they were increasingly uncomfortable with attractional ministry. They describe it as hyped-up, inauthentic, dishonest, manipulative and frenzied. Put another way, it wasn’t the gospel, or a relationship with Jesus, that made these youth groups ‘weird’ it was – oddly enough – all the weird stuff that we do to get them to come in the first place!
Thinking back to the octopus: to me this represents something like a mob-mentality in youth ministry. We might pull a hundred kids into a room with edgy, borderline-sociopathic stunts. However, I’ve worked with young people for a long time, and I’m guessing that for every young person that gets a kick out of this, they’ll be half a dozen who are disgusted, hurt or just confused – and they won’t come back. At that point, the numbers just don’t matter, because we’re actively pushing more away than we’re pulling in.

Is there another way?

Imagine, if after doing attractional-driven youth ministry for 50 years you saw 50 young people saved every year, then you would see a total of 2,500 new disciples. That’s amazing – what a great legacy!

Consider, however, that if instead you discipled three young people every two years and taught them to do the same over 50 years, then two things would happen: first, you would probably lose your job for having a tiny, ‘rubbish’ youth club. Second, you would bring the message of Jesus to the entire population of the planet in about 34 years. Take the rest of the day off!

Of course, we know this. There’s nothing new here. But it’s worth stopping to ask the question, how far would we go to fill a room – and why?

I still believe in running fun activities and fantastic events for young people – but I do that now with far more care and awareness – and more as a celebration of the community I have. It’s great to have fun with young people, but ‘entertainment at all costs’ needs to be a practice that we pop in the ‘tried that, didn’t work’ box, along with Comic Sans printed T-shirts and raps about being in the God-squad. Worth trying, but we’re glad we grew out of them.

TIM GOUGH is pioneer director for Youth for Christ in Wales, the author of Rebooted: Reclaiming youth ministry for the long haul, an adjunct lecturer in youth work for Cliff College and a PhD student focused on the book of Acts. He lives in Wales with his Californian wife Katie.