Tuesday, April 21, 2015

4 Problems with the Funnel of Youth Ministry

Photo Credit: C X 2 (Creative Commons)
The funnel of youth ministry is dead.

If you're a youth worker, you've probably seen or heard of this funnel diagram. I've used it before in training volunteers, and heard many use it as the model for describing their philosophy of youth ministry.

This funnel is the primary metaphor and model for how evangelical youth workers commonly do ministry in North America. I'll make a bold statement here: I believe the model is inherently flawed, and does more harm than good to our views and practices of Christian spirituality.

The funnel begins with the pool of humanity, which includes any teenager within range of our church. It's wide at the top for the come teens, who we invite to our big, fun events and programs. They're just in it for the fun and friendships, and maybe someone they have a crush on. But if we can convince them to stick around, the funnel narrows a bit for the grow teens who will attend our main youth group-style program, which has a bit more "spiritual" stuff like worship songs and a teaching lesson. The funnel further narrows for the disciple teens, who are going to be mentored by adult leaders in small groups, then moves into the level of student leaders who develop others. The funnel finally ends with the multiply kids who, having reached teenage spiritual maturity, will now practice that maturity by inviting their unsaved friends to the "come" events. Variations of the funnel exist, using different terms for students and programs, but all have a linear-driven narrowing effect--students move from one spiritual level/program to the next, with each level getting smaller in attendance numbers.

Here are four problems I see in the youth ministry funnel:

1. The funnel assumes spiritual growth is linear. While I can appreciate ministry leaders and practitioners who have given quality arguments for the value of such a strategic approach to ministry programming, I also believe real life just doesn't work like this. I've rarely seen a teenager (or anyone!) actually follow such a linear model in their relationship with Jesus. I've experienced long-term Christians complain about discipleship or student leader programs because they aren't as fun as the "come" events, and I've seen non- or new-Christian teens excited about serving on a missions trip, which falls in the "develop" or "multiply" level. Human beings and spiritual formation are more complex than linear systems. There are no absolute formulas for spiritual growth. My own spiritual journey has had ups and downs, back and forth, darkness and light, joy and pain. There are students who may not fit within our linear model who are genuinely wrestling with living by faith. I think a linear model of spirituality stems from more Western Enlightenment-influenced thinking than it does the person and ways of Jesus.

2. Discipleship and evangelism are separated. A student isn't considered worthy of discipleship until halfway through the funnel. Similarly, evangelism is only meant for the spiritual elite, when the teens are called to "multiply" by inviting their unsaved friends to Christian events. This model for evangelism also places less emphasis on truly knowing and living out the gospel in everyday life; it's more about figuring out how to get students to come to the church event so the pastor or youth worker can share the gospel message. When we create an evangelism-discipleship dichotomy, it promotes the false notion that discipleship is only for super-Christians. Yet we don't see this in Scripture; evangelism and discipleship are intertwined in the Great Commission: "go and make disciples."

3. The measure of success is programmatic involvement. Ministry success becomes less about actual spiritual growth and development, and more about giving clear metrics for the youth worker in order to defend their significance and value. "Hey, look, I moved more kids through the funnel, so they must be spiritually growing. I am clearly doing a good job!" If more students attended your "come" event this year than last year, you must be doing something right...right? But what if the students are just good at moving through funnels, the systems adults put in place to maintain a sense of control and have a linear metric of success? That's exactly what students do with our current education system--we funnel them through, they pass the tests we give them (the standardized one-size-fits-all tests, instead of practical application or personalized assessment), and we tell ourselves that students are prepared when they graduate from high school.

4. Spirituality is divided from fun. I've written before about the fun-spiritual dichotomy. The funnel model of youth ministry promotes this separation of personal enjoyment and spiritual maturity. The wider the funnel, the more fun it is. As the funnel narrows, the fun dissipates and becomes serious spiritual growth. When we equate "spirituality" with "serious" or "boring" or "elite," teens will likely lack a desire to pursue Jesus further. If it becomes increasingly less enjoyable or meaningful the further I grow, why bother? The thing is, living fully for Jesus *is* fun, though maybe not in the sense of being constantly entertained. It's meaningful, joyful, enriching, and full of authentic friendships and purpose and direction.

I'm not the only one declaring the funnel dead. But the more I've thought about this and seen the funnel used in various youth ministry contexts, the more I doubt its effectiveness. I'm all for having strategic approaches to youth ministry and using metaphors to communicate our ideas. I'm also not saying that those who continue to use the funnel are necessarily deceived or poor youth workers--I'm just saying that I disagree with the premise, and think we can do better.

Spirituality as a funnel is a bad metaphor. A funnel is inherently static and linear and inert. Taken literally, it's akin to a toilet. Do we want to promote a downward spiral of spiritual growth as our model of ministry?

A better metaphor for spiritual growth is a garden. The metaphors used in Scripture are dynamic, agricultural, and living:

A seed sown in good soil

Planting, watering, tilling, and reaping

Bearing good fruit

Abiding in the vine

The movement and changing of the seasons.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed

Gardening requires creating healthy and safe environments for spirituality to flourish. Success is not measured by program attendance, but by spiritual fruit and character transformation. Patience and grace are required, because no formulas or linear methods will work here, and it requires time and a bit of the miraculous to see any growth. Most importantly, we don't make people grow--God does. We simply foster healthy environments and pray that the Lord of the harvest would do his thing.

Where I live, spring is slowly arriving with buds and flowers on the trees, sunshine breaking through the grey clouds of winter, and the chirping of birds in the trees. It feels like the whole world is experiencing resurrection. This is life, and I want to foster a living spirituality.

So let's kill the funnel. It was dead to begin with. Let's plant seeds, till soil, get our hands dirty, and pray for a fruitful harvest.

Youth workers: what do you think? Agree? Disagree?

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