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"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:

  1. 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
  2. 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?" 


Great article!!!   I am copying this and giving a copy to every youth worker, and every parent of youth in our church.  Well written!!

This is undoubtedly the most insightful writing I have read on Youth Ministry in some time.  I especially enjoyed the questions it posed.  IE: ""what kind of disciples are we making " .  I pray that we are willing to look at these questions and answer them honestly.   It is such a promising piece of writing on the topic . 

Nice work Jason!

Here are a few things that I've learned over the years:

SOME STUDENTS JUST WANT TO COME OUT FOR THE FUN STUFF - and I encourage them to come to the fun stuff! I can recall a discussion with one parent who lamented that their kid "only wants to come out to the fun stuff." I say, GREAT!  Some students crave positive relationships with adults and peers who desire to be present in their lives, and the "fun stuff" is a great place for that to happen.  We take our "fun stuff" very seriously, with events that focus on inclusion, encouragement, laughter.  And while there might be little "God talk", the gospel is being preached through positive and powerful relationships.  There are some that just aren't in the space to hold hands and sway to the latest worship song, and throw themselves into a small group to have their ideas about God and faith dissected and potentially rejected. That's ok. We have an opportuntiy to develop relational trust in our fun stuff.

SOME STUDENTS ONLY WANT THE DISCUSSION STUFF - and I encourage them to come to the discussion stuff! Messy games night? No thanks. Lively debate about justice, church, living your faith? Count me in!  Some students thrive in intellectual idea sharing, debate, exploring ways to deepen faith and engage their world, and a discussion night is a great place for that to happen!  Fortunately, there is no chance I will ever be able to out-entertain the entertainment industry, and there are some youth that understand that we're not about entertaining, but about loving God and engaging His creation, and we love to explore ways to do that.

SOME STUDENTS JUST WON'T COME OUT. And I really want them to, so that I can pad my numbers.  But no matter how many backflips I do, they're just not coming.  For me this is always a great reminder that I am not their savior.  And they also probably don't like me. But even if they choose not to be involved in the community that I oversee, I want to make sure that they are connected to a community that will help them grow in their faith. Some of "my" students go to other youth groups. Some students who don't come are active in their school's Christian group. Some students take their faith and shine it in the locker room of the hockey team that they're a part of that runs at the same time as my youth group.  And to each of them I say, great!

OUR YOUTH GROUP IS BIGGER THAN OUR CHURCH KIDS: Lately I've been trying to convince our students and community to answer the question "How big is your youth group?" with the answer "5000."  There are approximately 5000 high schoolers in our community, and we want to start working on ways to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to be welcomed into our youth group. And while we don't want to get caught in the numbers game, I want to make sure that each person that comes in knows that they matter.  And that they know that all other 4975 students matter too, even if they don't know we even exist. But, yes, I do get strange looks when I say that we have about 0.5% "active" youth.

IT'S A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE: We've all had that event where only a small handful of students came out, for one reason or another.  That doesn't make it a flop ("We ONLY had 4 youth come out, so we tossed our big event out and ended up playing euchre, what a drag!). That makes it a special moment to connect with those few, and solidify those relationships, ask more personal questions, and dig deep into the few that came out.  I love those moments, and secretly wish our big events were flops more often. Maybe it's the introvert in me. 


Numbers DO matter.  Jesus' parable didn't end with the shepherd waiting for 2 of the 99 sheep to procreate to get that 100th back.  But we need to get past the idea that faith growth only happens in youth group. We need to stop seeing the youth program and youth workers as the saviors of our children.  And we - the entire church community - need to be faithful first to our calling to deepen our own relationships with Jesus first and foremost before we worry about the faith of our kids.  Discipleship works best when those doing the discipling are deeply rooted in their own faith.



Thanks for sharing your wisdom on this.

I appreciate the way you’ve described “fun with a purpose”, especially as it pertains to relationship building.  I totally agree that this should be a primary focus of our fun events.  What I had in mind when talking about fun events is in youth groups where the fun is the main emphasis and purpose of the youth group, as if youth group exists solely as a form of Christian entertainment – keep our kids entertained and then they will like church.  I’ve seen it happen too many times where youth leaders/pastors are criticized by parents, youth, and other leaders when fun is not the focus - "give our youth what they want to keep them happy".

I agree with you that creating a safe space to have deep discussions is very important and that, unfortunately, this is not going to appeal to every student.  However, I suppose this is also true to the church as a whole – I’m sure you’d agree that it is not the task of church leadership to cater to all wants and interests represented in the church.  After all, the church is not a country club, right?  The question is, how do we move ahead with the task of discipleship with the realization that not everyone is interesting in following Christ?  I'm not suggesting that we leave those who are uninterested behind, but I think our priority needs to be focused on those who are hungry for growth.

I also echo your attitude related to “your” students going to other youth groups.  They aren’t our sheep – they belong to Christ, so as long as they are getting fed, we should be saying “thank-you and Amen”.  How can we create a partnering attitude between churches when it comes to “sharing” youth?  Too often, churches are in the business of competing with each other and resort to some very interesting tactics in trying to reach out to youth.  This attitude also extends within churches too – I’ve seen youth pastors pressured to create similar, if not identical, programs to other churches in an attempt to “win back” their youth from other youth groups.  This seems to be a poor use of resources and it is certainly not fuelled by a kingdom vision.

I love your perspective on the size of your youth group – Amen!

How do we strike a positive balance between “large group”, “small group”, “missional”, “outreach”, “spiritual formation”, and “fun” events?  I have a hunch that the only way to do this is to be more intentional in our congregations about shifting from being “multi-generational” to “inter-generational” churches.

I agree that numbers do matter, especially in terms of the way you’ve framed the discussion.  What I had in mind in this article is the presumption (by parents, church leadership, youth, and youth leaders) that a youth group is “failing” if there is not 100% attendance by all church youth and/or if there is a specific son/daughter, niece/nephew, granddaughter/grandson who is not attending.  I think there is tremendous pressure put on youth leaders from a number of different fronts on this issue.  I understand the motivation behind the concern, but I think the responsibility is often misplaced.

Thanks again for sharing, Mark.

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