"If you’re a youth worker, you’ve probably been asked this question before – “When I was a youth, we would had nearly 50 teens and young adults in our youth group. We were always doing things together - league events, rallies, camping, and conventions. Why doesn’t youth ministry seem to work anymore?”
I think part of the problem lies in the assumption underlying the question (another problem is the assumption of cultural similitude between generations, that yesterday’s teens are basically the same as today’s teens). But more on that in another post…)
The assumption is in the word “work”. For many people, a program or ministry is “working” if lots of people are participating. Something is not “working” when people aren’t showing up.
There is a great deal of truth to this – numbers do tell a story.
However, is this first question we should be asking when it comes to church programs, especially when it comes to youth ministry?
While numbers are an important tool to help a youth worker gauge the relative health of a ministry (I always keep attendance for my own records), high attendance does not always mean that all is well in the group or that youth are being transformed by the Gospel.
Sometimes high numbers mean that kids are being drawn to the program because of the depth of teaching they are receiving and the opportunity to serve others.
However, usually high numbers are related to either:
- the “fun factor” – are we playing lots of games, is the food decent, what is the boy/girl situation, is the “God’stuff” at a minimum
- the “parent factor” – mom and/or dad basically force their kids to go to youth group
Neither of these factors is a bad thing – fun is fun, especially when it is fun with a purpose. I only wish more parents were diligent about encouraging their kids to attend youth group without accepting typical excuses for not attending (sport and homework are the two biggest excuses for non-attendance).
This leaves many youth workers in a bind – congregations and church council’s love to see big numbers – big numbers justify youth ministry as a budget item (particularly if there is a paid youth pastor on staff).
So, rather than take the time and effort to deal with the underlying structural issues (a long term process with no easy solutions) that are affecting turnout, youth workers are forced to look for the next best form of infotainment to keep “butts in the seats”. This is only a band-aid solution that cannot be classified as ministry since it is merely a form of child care and only serves to exacerbate the problem.
The quest for numbers leaves many youth workers, unfortunately out of necessity, over-emphasizing the “fun factor” which makes it very hard for the “parent factor” to play in. As a parent, I’m not going to make my kid go to something that is simply fun and games with no substance, especially if they have homework to do or have the opportunity to participate in an extra curricular activity.
So, the challenge is how do we create youth programs that:
- focus on discipleship first and foremost,
- parents are behind 100%,
- use numbers as a tool to gauge health rather than a justification for youth ministry in and of itself, and
- emphasize fun with a purpose.
This kind of structure will certainly not guarantee high numbers; in fact, it may drive numbers even lower because it will place high expectations on those who want to be involved. That’s the funny thing about God’s math – sometimes he does addition through subtraction; he makes it pretty clear that making disciples is his top priority and that quality not quantity is key.
When parents and church leadership see the bigger picture and the emphasis on discipleship, they will stop asking the question “how many kids showed up?” and start asking “what kind of fruit is our youth ministry growing?”
When we ask the latter question, we are talking about discipleship – are students growing in their walk with Christ, being equipped to use their gifts to serve others, and being prepared for life beyond high school (vocationally and in terms of “worldview” formation)?
Only when we’ve determined the type of fruit that we are growing can we turn around and ask about numbers. If we are seeing good fruit, then we will ask – “how can we get more kids and parents to be passionate about what God is doing here?” If we are seeing bad fruit, then we will ask – “what is God telling us needs to change about how we are doing things?”
Numbers is a book in the Bible, not a Fruit of the Spirit – when it comes to ministry, let us follow the wisdom of Jesus’ and measure things by the fruit they bear.
I think we would all agree that youth ministry has not outlived its usefulness – it is still an important and necessary element of church ministry. However, we do have some structural issues that we need to face that will need to start with the question – what kind of disciples are we making?"