Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Another Numbers Game

One of the on-going themes for me in youth ministry has been numbers; counting young people like beans as a measure of success, whatever that means.  I’ll have to be honest and say that a big driver for this has been the smallness and lack of the usual marks of success in my ministry.  Don’t misunderstand me; I work with some absolutely wonderful young people who I have known for the last three and a half year and of whom I have become very fond.  It’s just that my youth ministry doesn’t look like Mike Pilavachi’s.  My young people don’t spontaneously run prayer all-nighters, lead worship at church, go to extra bible studies or any of the other things I hear about from other youth ministers.  Plus, for quite some time there has only been a few of them, and that is the most significant fail of all!  I don’t get 150 young people to my youth camp, or take 75 of them to Soul Survivor.  But this doesn’t mean that it has been a failure or that the wonderful young people I have come to know in the last three years haven’t been worth it all and more.  It’s been one of the things I have muttered about though…I’ve made pleas to other youth workers to think about what effect they’re having when they boast about the size of their ministries, and on one occasion had a rant to Pete Ward without realising it was him*!  (It was at a Greenbelt Youth workers breakfast but that’s a whole other story)

However, recently things have started to change: young people are coming more regularly, and they are prepared to get involved in discussions about God and Jesus and stuff!  And there’s another change, and this is where my problem is…because of a promise I made to myself, I can’t tell you about it.  But I have to confess that I very nearly did.  I was so pleased about it that I nearly forgot the things I said to myself when times were thin.  But isn’t it interesting how deeply ingrained it is in Christian culture to use only numbers to assess what we do?  Can you see how I’m tying myself in knots not to say the thing that you’ve probably guessed already?

The discipline is paying off though, because the effect of it is to lead me to some important realities.  The reality is it’s not my youth ministry, and they aren’t my young people and success and failure aren’t dependent on me.  It’s God’s youth ministry, and just at the moment we are having a season of blessing** for reasons I don’t completely understand.  And they are God’s young people, and their own, and just at the moment they are choosing to show up at my door, but taking the long view (and I do, I’ve been in youth ministry for more than ten years) they might choose to move on to something else, and this will probably be nothing to do with anything I do or don’t do.

My job, or calling to say what it really is, is to keep faithfully “holding out the word of life” (Phil 2:16) to the young people, by my actions and my words, and to pray for them.  If I’ve done that then I’ve been obedient to my calling and I’ll have to leave the success and failure thing with God.

*Pete Ward is a major youth work icon and has been for many years…what he doesn’t know about youth work…well, you get the picture.  And I had the temerity to have a rant at him about this!  Personally I think he should have introduced himself at the beginning of the seminar then I might have been awed into silence.

**I know that sounds a bit twee but I don’t know how else to say it


  1. haha - love the Pete Ward incident!!
    I am with you on the numbers thing. It really does seem to be the thing that everyone is interested in.

    In my years of Youth Ministry I have had (excuse the numbers thing coming up - but it is to make a point!)anywhere between a group of 8 going up to a group of 70. When we went up to 70 - I felt as though we were a great ministry - until reality struck and I realised that apart from babysitting and crowd control - we weren't really impacting much! During this time we hardly had any extra time, space or energy left to really get to know and encourage and challenge and develop the young people. This happened far more effectively when the group was smaller.
    It is so difficult not to base 'success' on numbers - especially when it seems to be the first question people ask about your ministry! If God sends loads of yp your way - then that's fantastic! Praise God for that. But, if he entrusts you with the lives of only a few yp - then what an honour and privilege and responsibility - and wow! Praise God for that too!
    Rant over :)

  2. I'm with you Jo...I think it was Mark Yaconelli who talked about the importance to us as human beings of being seen by others, and that as youth ministers one of the best things we can do for a young person is to really see them. He suggested it starts with something as simple as being able to say "Hi John, good to see you" How can you do that in a real way if you aren't really sure that you know a person's name because they're one of 150 faces in a crowd.