Numbers: the most important indicator of ministry health

When I meet a fellow youth worker, the most pressing question I have is, “How many kids are in their youth group?” and the answer to this question dictates my emotional state for the rest of the conversation. Now, don’t get me wrong, I may care about many other things, but this question is always somewhere in my not-so sub-conscience. But maybe I have been trained to think this way since it seems like every conversation I have with my collegues, supervisor, parents all seem to circle around one main topic, numbers.

Whether we want to admit it or not, the numbers of students in our ministry is important, and maybe the most important thing fact of our ministry.

The reason that numbers are so important is because they are the only real facts that we have to evaluate. How many students have come to our programs, how many come to big church, how do those numbers compare to last year. Unfortunately there is no way to really evaluate the deeper and more "spiritual" aspects to our ministry.  How can we really tell if students are growing in their walk with jesus?  How can we really tell how many of our students have made decisions to become Christians? How can we tell if any of our students are following Jesus when they graduate from high school, into college and adulthood? We can't. So we are left with numbers.

But before we freak out and bash on the culture of success or growth, or blame our pastors, church boards, or parents, for only caring about numbers, or write off using numbers as an indicator as simply being unspiritual, maybe we should live into the reality, that numbers are important. And they aren’t just important, they are very important. We can’t even get to the importance of using numbers as a true measurement tool until we own some of the reasons we push pack so hard against this rubric. so, what are some of these reasons:

  • We don’t want to be judged. Nobody wants to be judged. It is humbling to be evaluated and to come up wanting.  We never want to be evaluated, we never want feedback, unless we know we are going to get positive marks. To get a “needs improvement” grade cuts to the core of who we are. We pour our entire lives into our students and our ministry, and it is too painful to hear we might not be cutting it.
  • We think that deep and wide can not co-exist. When our group is not growing and /or we are not meeting the expectations of others for growth, we tell our selves that our group is deep. Our focus is on discipleship, and those other youth groups are shallow and just fun, that is why they are growing. But the truth is I have seen fun seeker style youth groups struggle to reach critical mass, and fundamentalist pentecostal churches be the biggest ministry in town.
  • Numbers are not spiritual. Jesus had 12 disciples. This is such a narrow view of scripture and jesus‘ ministry. It is like saying we want a new testament church, like in acts. but what about the church in Corinth. Yes, Jesus poured his life into the 12. But there were also the 72, all the women, the multitudes. Jesus had a huge earthly ministry. He was truly able to find the balance of casting the net as wide as possible, and discipling a small group of people to continue his ministry.

If we can get to a place of not being writing off numbers and welcome evaluation, we can actually learn a lot about our ministry. Being focused on numbers often reveals:

  • That our group may be too much like us. Anyone can collect a small group of people who have similar interests and passions. There will always be at least a group of students who like what you like, connect with god the way you connect with God, and even think your jokes are funny. I have met many good hearted youth workers who can only connect to students if they fit a certain mold. We usually call that mold “deep.” But what it really means is that we have written off the 90% of students who aren’t like us.
  • That our leadership development may be lacking. It is true that we can only really care for a small group of students. and the second our ministry grows past 10 students, we start to struggle. there are plenty of students out there who want to and need to be loved on and cared for by adults, and it is actually our job as vocational youth workers to inspire, train, equip, and empower others for ministry. Then we go from a small ministry, to a ministry of small groups and we can actually multiply our effectiveness. Without developed leaders our groups will never grow.
  • That we may have a lousy program. I know it is cool to hate programs. But claiming to be relational and not programatic means that you should probably just be a volunteer. Volunteers get to be relational. vocational youth workers develop programs. Programs create structure for relationships to happen. If we have a lousy program, then there is no way for people outside the small group of natural friendships to ever get connected and assimilated. In the short run, time developing programs do take away from relationship building. But in the long run, an excellent program creates opportunities for a wide range of students to build relationships with you and your volunteer team.
  • That we may need to put more time and energy into follow up. It is amazing the amount of new kids that come through a ministry in the corse of a year. It is a tragedy how few stick around and become part of the group. If growing our group numerically mattered, we would approach the way we handle new kids differently.

Allowing numbers to shape our ministry is not a surrender to the forces of american-capitalistic-success-watered down Christianity. Allowing numbers to shape our ministry is actually recognizing the passion, gifts, and values that god has given you, and intentionally expanding a ministry around that. and growing a ministry numerically takes exactly that, intentionality.

If your task was to grow your youth ministry by 20% this year, what are some things that you would do differently? What if your job was dependent on it? This question is not a shot across the bow or a rebuke. This is a question that forces action and is one that I have been wresting with in my ministry. I do not work in a mega church and my numbers are probably C- at best.  But i do not want to be satisfied with that sort of ministry. And in order to do a better job I must develop a plan. But an effective plan can not happen with out an honest evaluation.

We can not pretend that numbers don’t matter. So, let us not run from the brutal truth that numbers can expose in our ministries. Rather, let us welcome evaluation and take it’s conclusions as refinement. Instead of settling, let us re-engage our community and strive to bring as many kids into the kingdom of god as possible. With the thousands of students in our communities, it is a given that there are at least 10-20 of them out there who would thrive by being a part of our ministry. What would it look like if we cared about numbers and used our gifts, talents, resources, and creativity to track down, love on, and hold on to those new students? Let’s find out!