The Trapeze Model Doesn’t Work (especially for college students)

August 3rd, 2017

I need to start off with a “Fair Warning” paragraph.  If you are the type of person that likes articles to present a problem and then offer solutions, then you should probably stop reading this.  I don’t have a solution to offer.

The Trapeze Model of Ministry

The problem that I see is how many churches are using what I call the “Trapeze Model” of ministry.  Have you ever been to the circus?  The trapeze artists are amazing to watch.  They perform high above the ground hanging upside-down on a swing.  A person jumps off a platform and someone on the first swing (hopefully) catches them.  After a couple of swings to gain momentum the person is let go, does some flips and twists and then (and this is the cool part) is caught by the next guy hanging upside-down on a swing.  The thing that makes it exciting is that catching the person after he is thrown into the air is not easy – it’s not even LIKELY.

And this is exactly what I see churches doing all the time.  Perhaps you have a preschool in your church.  Kids come in and when they graduate from the preschool, we let them go and hope that they are caught by our church’s elementary school ministry (Sunday School, etc.).  And when they graduate from there, we throw them and hope that they are caught by the church’s ministry to teens.

There has been some progress in this area over the past few years.  Computer programs are now helping us “track” people in our congregations.  Churches have started to recognize this issue and have worked on being better organized.  Ministries within churches are developing more holistic views and realizing that “No Ministry is an Island.”  It’s definitely getting better, but there’s still a problem.

The Trapeze Model and High School Graduates

In the Trapeze Model of ministry, the biggest gap seems to be when we throw our high school graduates out into the world hoping to God that someone somewhere catches them. There are an infinite amount of horror stories in the Youth Ministry world about how the “Leadership Kids” went off to college and “outgrew their faith.”  The statistics tell us that 40-50% of ACTIVE CHURCH KIDS abandon their faith within four years after graduating high school.

The thing that drives me crazy is that we seem to have come to terms with this.  I once heard a pastor speak about this and he almost made it sound as if we should expect our college students to go away from God and the church.  It’s as if churches are agreeing with the wisdom of the TV series South Park; “There’s a time and a place for [drugs and alcohol] and it’s called college.”

Connecting Seniors to Adult Ministry

Maybe we need to invite our students to be more active in adult ministries.  It would have to start before college – 11th and 12th graders should be included. Most of our graduates have never learned HOW to “get involved” in their church – they just have always gone where they were told.  Not too many churches seem to WANT their youth actually “getting involved.”  How many people under the age of 20 are on your church board?  Are there even any under 30?

A church I worked for years ago surprised a lot of people when they asked a 9th grader to not just JOIN a ministry but to actually TAKE CHARGE of it!  This was not a small church and the ministry they offered him was one of the more active ones!  There were hundreds of adults that could have been asked.  And you know what?  He did an incredible job and it opened the door for more teenagers and young adults to get involved with the church.

Easing the Transition

Remember what makes the trapeze exciting to watch?  Why do people clap when the catch is made?  Because it isn’t EASY to be caught – it’s not even LIKELY.  The same thing is true with the church model.  It’s not EASY to catch someone thrown our way – it’s not even LIKELY.  So why do we continue to do it?  Churches need a model where transition is an easy and likely occurrence.  Instead of tossing people over the gap, we need to overlap the process and do more of a handoff.

But as I said in the beginning, I don’t have THE solution.  I don’t know the answer.  I just see the problem.  I know one thing for sure – THE CURRENT WAY OF DOING THINGS ISN’T WORKING.  Change is needed.  New thinking is needed.  Churches need to stop throwing people.  Throwing is very inaccurate.  People are getting lost, and even hurt in the process.  A handoff is much safer.

Safe…wouldn’t that be a great thing for the church to be called?

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2006 (THE ISLAND PACKET, Bluffton, SC). I think the point still rings very true and I was honored that YS asked me if they could put it on their blog.  Today, there are many movements to help address exactly the issue I am trying to present – most notably Kara Powell and her team over at “Sticky Faith.”  The stuff they are putting out is nothing short of excellent.  In the end, I hope you hear that while the “answer” may not be clear, we all really need to stop pretending that there isn’t a problem.

JONATHAN HOBBS is the Director of Youth Ministries at the Church of the Good Samaritan in Paoli, Pennsylvania. He has worked in youth ministry for almost 20 years, including churches in New Jersey, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania. He has spoken and/or led worship for multiple camps, retreats, and events around the country and has written multiple articles for blogs, newspapers, and magazines.  He also co-wrote/edited a book called “Don’t Do This” which is full of stories about failures in youth ministry. (Something he knows a lot about).  He is the founder of J3 Youth Ministry (WWW.J3YOUTHMINISTRY.COM) and is one of the hosts of the J3 Youth Ministry Podcast. He took karate in high school because he thought it would help make him cool. He was wrong. Jonathan and his wife, Carolyn, have two beautiful daughters, Kaylin and Julia. He loves golf, can juggle two balls skillfully, and does a halfway decent impression of Kermit the Frog. He’s also a big fan of the Oxford comma. Follow him on Twitter @JONHOBBSTWEETS.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.