More Than a Meeting, Programming as Discipleship

October 8th, 2009

Popular wisdom of late has it that the way to build disciples is through relational ministry, through missions and service projects. Programming… sure, it keeps the fringe kids happy. But can it do more?


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Several years ago Rhode Island's Providence Journal ran a story under the headline “Big Names To Have Dirty Linen Aired.” The article detailed the results of a study conducted by the state of Massachusetts that examined cases in which state funds were alleged to have been poorly used. Ironically, the two-year study itself cost the state $1.5 million. The results were almost amusing (except to Massachusetts taxpayers). When the report came out, there were a lot of red-faced public servants running for cover.


Among hundreds of case studies were these highlights, written for the Journal by Loring Swaim:

  • “The Boston State College 13-story tower, one of the largest buildings ever built by the Commonwealth. Its top five floors, intended as a library, have been shut off since 1976 because the designer failed to include any centralized security checkpoints. Accordingly, the five floors have been heated, air-conditioned, and unused for four years. The college's auditorium is so constructed that one cannot see the stage from the balcony.”
  • “The Haverhill (Mass.) parking deck. It is so poorly designed it can only be demolished and rebuilt.” Apparently some ramps in this magnificent structure weren't large enough to admit cars.
  • “The multimillion-dollar University of Massachusetts power plant. It was built too far from the buildings it services—and never used.”

These state-financed gaffs tragically reflect what goes on today consistently in youth ministries across the country. We continue to spend astronomical amounts of time, money, and energy on programs and structures so that we can say, “It's the largest ever built” —yet half the time the finished product cannot even be used. We're building power plants that don't deliver power.

Immediately following some very serious statements about discipleship, Jesus said, “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, This fellow began to build and was not able to finish'” (Luke 14:28-30).

To build the kind of youth ministry program that accomplishes the purpose for which it was built, serious consideration needs to be given to the blueprint.

I've often wondered about the architect who designed that impotent Massachusetts power plant. What do you say to a university trustee board when you've just spent several million dollars on a power plant that doesn't deliver power? Do you walk into the meeting, grin big, and say, “Do you guys want to hear something funny?” Or do you take a more constructive approach: “All we'll have to do is teach our night classes during the day.”

There is no shortage of proposals about how youth programs should be designed. The youth ministry landscape is littered with programs that were built and cannot be used. That's why it's worth looking critically at various models of youth ministry programming. Mark Senter, professor of Christian education at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has identified the standard designs. Here are the most prominent models.

Model 1

Also called the “bright light” approach, this model of programming is especially prevalent among parachurch youth ministries. It's based on the theory that on a dark night, the brightest light in the neighborhood will attract the most moths. If we really want to reach students, the model says, we should build youth programs around a central personality, a charismatic figure who naturally appeals to teenagers. As the Bright-Light Knight attracts students, so will those students attract other students, and so on, like so many moths buzzing around a streetlight.


  • The Hero model is typically incarnational and relational. The Hero is an individual who is willing and able to get close to kids, and to build significant relationships with them. That's good.
  • To some extent, this approach offers a genuine reflection of the way teenagers think. After all, it's a fact that students are attracted to a program not because of what it stands for, but because of who it stands with. Television shows like “Walter Cronkite's Universe” and “Bill Moyers's World of Ideas” attest to the sad fact that personality is far more important than ideas. If teenagers are attracted by strong personality, it makes sense to assume that David Letterman would make a better youth leader than Mr. Rogers.


  • This strategy of programming breeds mavericks, Lone Rangers—people who tend to shine better and brighter when they work on their own. That means it will be very difficult to develop any kind of effective team ministry in the program. And without the diversity and cooperation of a team approach, a youth program will be severely handicapped in the type of students and number of students it can expect to draw.
  • It takes a particular type of personality to make the Hero model work. All the ministry is based on one person, and—unless that one person is Jesus—that's kind of risky. For one thing, as leaders we all tend to reproduce not only our strengths, but also our own weaknesses. Without the balance of a team of people, it's easy for students to focus more on a human being and less on God.
  • There is the danger that when the Hero leaves the program, the program leaves, too. A program built on a personality falls quickly when that personality is no longer around to prop it up.
  • We should not be doing youth ministry to attract moths. If we were just trying to draw a big crowd, we could ask Wayne's World's Dana Carvey to come give his testimony at youth group. But that approach to youth ministry tends to breed a fly-by-night commitment that lasts only as long as we're the hottest game in town.

Model 2

There are lots of different ways for students to get involved in a program built on this model—puppet ministries, youth councils, clowning, drama teams, youth choirs. The key word here is involvement. Some programs aim their involvement at ministry within the group (the games team handles recreation each week at youth group, the audio-visual team prepares special multimedia presentations each meeting). Other programs aim their student involvement toward outreach.


  • Students do something. It makes youth fellowship more than just a spectator event, particularly for those students whose gifts are not musical—the sole, traditional sphere of church involvement.
  • Using all of these means of involvement can give a group powerful outreach into the community—which translates into a positive evangelistic impact.


  • Because the Involvement model doesn't adequately attend to nurture and discipleship, we occasionally end up sending out half-filled Christians who are trying to overflow. Students especially in leadership often make the mistake of thinking that mere involvement is the same as a vital relationship with the living God. That's not only wrong, it's exploitative.

Model 3

During the sixties—my own youth group years—everyone was trying hard to be relevant. Otherwise well-adjusted adults wore beads and medallions, talked groovy, and dressed in bell bottoms and Nehru jackets. Not a pretty picture.

But we were relevant. We'd walk into Sunday school, where the teacher would ask, “What do you guys want to talk about this week?” So we'd plunge into yet another session of whining about world problems. It was youth ministry based on relevance and felt need. It's no longer as popular as it once was, but it's still the preferred approach in many mainline churches.


  • This model remedies a common complaint of teenagers about churches: that church is irrelevant, that is doesn't touch them where they live or scratch them where they itch.


  • A relevant youth ministry can easily lose its focus, constantly changing goals to fit the changing tides.
  • The Relevancy model often presupposes that the Bible is irrelevant and therefore, that any time spent studying the crusty, dusty tome is time poorly invested—contrary to what Scripture contends: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8).

These aren't the only models to youth ministry programming. Look around, and you'll see others—maybe like these:

  • The Spring Break Model emphasizes exciting activities: Bowl-A-Rama, Burger Bash, Bungee Bible Jump for Jehovah, Big Band Bash, Pastor/Church Board Mud Wrestling Extravaganza. Big crowds, high-profile events, strong on excitement, weak on content—that's the Spring Break model.
  • The King James Model emphasizes heavy-duty discipleship and Bible study. These are the folks who may not have a big group, but the kids who are there are getting serious in-depth, teaching. We're talking Scripture memory, workbooks, role plays from Leviticus…the works. You can hear their leaders: “We don't have time to mess around with fun and games, Mickey Mouse activities. If kids don't want to get serious about Jesus, they can go elsewhere.” These folks are into hard-core, industrial-strength discipleship.
  • The Boot Camp Model has emerged in recent years with an emphasis on work projects, missions, and service. This is the youth group that runs a Kids' Club in the city, raises money for a mission trip to Haiti, sponsors three Compassion children, and smuggles Bibles into Episcopal churches. The emphasis here is to take kids beyond the glamour of the wow-'em-and-woo-'em Spring Break approach, beyond the all talk-and-no-action King James holy huddle. Boot Camp calls students from being hearers and studiers of the Word to being doers.

One programming model is not necessarily better than others; they all have distinct weaknesses and strengths. What each of them individually lack, however, is balance. None of these approaches by itself is holistic enough to meet the diverse needs of teenagers at various levels of Christian commitment.

That is why the trend during the last decade has been to formulate new programming models that adequately address the needs of students who are serious about growing in Jesus—and that, at the same time, do not ignore the needs of their friends who don't even believe there is a God.

Enter the popular pyramid (or funnel) configuration. It has several variations, including a helpful concentric-circle model (which is basically a top view of a funnel). What this diagram does is help you evaluate and develop your programs by visually representing the kinds of students your programs are addressed to. Each of the pyramid's levels represents varying levels of Christian commitment among your students. The higher the level, the deeper the commitment (see sidebar at the end of this page).

After you've been in youth ministry for a while, you begin to grow skeptical of models and blueprints. I suppose it's like shopping for a car: the design may be beautiful in the drawing room, the lines may be sleek and attractive in the showroom…but the ultimate question is, “How does it run?”

The pyramid “runs” by reminding you that, for your ministry to be well-rounded, you need some type of formal or informal programming that meets the needs of kids at each of these levels of commitment. Sketch a large enough version of the pyramid so you can write the names of all your kids at the level you estimate them to be. Then ask yourself if there's something in your program for all of your students, whether at the come or the multiply level. If you do this systematically, you'll see where your program is overweight and where it's underweight, what kinds of students you've been unconsciously programming for and what levels of commitment you've been inadvertently ignoring.

It's here you make the hard decisions that determine whether your current program fits the kind of blueprint that will yield the program and product you intend.

Ten Years and Several Geometric Shapes Later…

It's been a decade since I first published my reflections on the funnel/pyramid approach to youth ministry programming. Since then I've been exposed to a number of different youth ministries, and I've noticed some things about them.

  • Bigger is still not better. In a culture with a Big Mac mind-set, it's not easy to remember that mammoth power plants don't necessarily deliver power. This is still the most common trap for those of us in youth ministry. Just because lots of kids come to your group doesn't mean you're producing students who will multiply themselves spiritually.
  • If you aim at nothing, you'll hit it every time. I'm amazed at how much youth work simply happens by inertia. No real plan, no real vision—just a mind-set that says, “Here's a neat resource…it might work…let's give it a go.” Thoughtful youth workers will submit themselves to a vision statement that stubbornly and consistently guides their program planning.
  • The “unspiritual” is important. I heard a youth speaker (you'd recognize him if I told you his name) complain about his impatience with kids who have “only a bubble gum commitment to Jesus.” He said he just wasn't “interested in working with those kids anymore.”

    I hope someone is, I thought to myself. Unless you're willing to endure the hassle of just getting kids in the door, you'll eventually run out of students who want your help to grow. Somebody had better maintain a vision for getting these kids into the funnel. Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do with a student is something that appears eminently unspiritual, where you simply meet kids at their point of need, and try to listen and love them.
  • The development of student leaders is spreading. Especially encouraging is the increasing attention youth workers and publishers are giving to developing leaders in youth groups. Youth ministers around the world are awakening to the tremendous potential in missions and service types of programming.

    In Mexico, Haiti, Central and South America, Africa, Asia, our own inner cities—thousands of teenagers every year take part in student missions teams. The good news is that we're discovering that teenagers can accomplish great works of ministry if we will give them opportunities and training.
  • One size doesn't fit all. A common error is still trying to meet the needs of all the students with one program a week. It simply won't work. We tend to program to the lowest common denominator. If you're working with a group of students whose commitment levels range from spiritual dynamo to likely axe murderer, you can bet you'll focus your efforts on the likely axe murderer. If you get too heavy for the come-level kids, you reason, they'll either riot or just stop coming. On the other hand, the committed kids will probably keep on coming, even if I'm forced to neglect them. After all, they tend to be more tolerant.

So the rowdy kids keep getting entertained, and the spiritual kids starve to death from spiritual malnutrition. Don't be afraid to program deeply enough, with enough content, with enough challenge that some students will balk. Be willing to say, “Maybe this Wednesday night program is a little too heavy for where you are right now. Why don't you just keep coming Sunday nights for a while and see what happens?”

Youth ministry programming is not about feverish activity or frantic planning. It's about taking the time to ask, “What are we building here?” It's about looking beyond the size of a group to ask, “Is this program going to really accomplish what it was designed for?” Ask hard questions and take creative action that will help you fulfill your mandate. Without that kind of vision, the church will continue to build power plants that deliver no power.

This article was adapted from Youth Ministry That Works by Duffy Robbins. Copyright 1991. Used with permission from SL Publications, Inc.


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