The danger of losing ministry to the program

I’ve been trying to keep the attendance numbers of our youth group quiet for a while now. When people ask me how many students came on Tuesday and Wednesday night, I give a vague answer. I try to tame my reaction and excitement about our growing numbers and instead share a more qualitative story about a student who prayed out loud for the first time, or who has become consistent about bringing their own Bible and participating in small group discussion. 

Our youth group has been growing steadily over the last year or so, and as exciting as this is, it’s also something I want to handle carefully. At the last church I worked in, my boss who ran the youth program used to say, “Ministry is about the numbers…but it’s really not about the numbers” and the truth and power behind that statement has stayed with me. 

There is a natural excitement that comes when we look at a program that used to host eight or nine regular kids and is now bringing in twenty or twenty five people each week. Obviously this growth is an answer to prayer! As youth workers, we care deeply about students and we want every teenager in our communities to be reached for Christ. We go to sporting events, volunteer at schools, hang out at fast food restaurants and encourage kids to invite their friends because we want to see more and more students experiencing God and plugging into the church. I’m sure we can all agree that steady growth is a good thing to be seeing in a youth program.

So while we can all agree that seeing more kids being reached in our community is definitely worthy of our excitement, I think all too often in the church (and in youth ministry especially) we judge a program’s success by how many seats are filled. Parents and parishioners are excited about the high number of junior high students we had last Tuesday but no one asks where those kids are in their faith. Youth leaders feel the tremendous pressure to grow their numbers and yet we read scripture about leaving the 99 for the one. It is a complicated tension that we walk in.

I think we need to ask ourselves as youth leaders, what kind of growth do we really want to see?

I would argue that we want to see quantitative growth (we want to see the number of students attending grow) but only if we are also seeing spiritual growth (we want to see our students being transformed by their faith). 

Often, we focus on the first form of growth and assume that naturally other one will come in time. I see this type of prioritizing as dangerous because when we care too much about the numbers and not the depth we start to fix our eyes on the program, and not the ministry. When we focus on the program, we focus on quantity and not quality. We focus on catering to cultural opinions instead of teaching spiritual truth. Programs might teach, but ministries disciple. Programs might bring in big numbers, but ministries will bring people to a true and lasting personal relationship with Christ. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3, new Christians should be moving steadily from spiritual milk to solid food as they grow in their knowledge and faith. Our ministries need to help make that happen in the lives of students.

There needs be a shift in the way we talk about youth ministry and the way we evaluate our success.

Personally, I would much rather have a youth group of eight students where I see them being changed for the Kingdom of God and growing in their faith than a youth group of one hundred and twenty where we have epic events and big alter calls but after high school, the students aren’t continuing to walk with Christ. 

When I started on staff in the youth ministry program at my current church, I asked students to tell me about Jesus and they consistently gave me a list of facts about him and his life. They could give me a “Spark Notes” Bible book report, or a historical presentation on Jesus but they didn’t have a personal relationship with him. The students could tell me who Jesus was in history, but they could not tell me who Jesus was to them today. So we just started reading the Gospels together, and taking a serious look at who Jesus is and how he interacted with others and two awesome things started to happen. 

1) First, students realized that there is no one in the world, past or present, like Jesus. They started to see his character, and were won over by his loveliness, power, selflessness, compassion and care. They would read a story about Jesus dropping everything to listen to a hurting person or provide healing and would start to believe that he would do the same in their life today. Getting to see this change in their perception of Christ up close and personal has been the most exciting season of ministry I’ve ever been in. 

2) The second change that happened was how students spent time in God’s Word. When the students, middle school and high school, caught a true glimpse of the loveliness of Christ and started to feel confident in their ability to understand Scripture and navigate the Bible for themselves, crazy things started happening. They started reading it on their own time. They organized student run Bible studies. They were passionate about the King they were reading about and started inviting more friends. Our growth grew out of their hunger for Scripture and Jesus--not from how cool our youth space is or the kind of games we were playing. 

This kind of growth is slow. It didn’t happen overnight—it happened over more than two years. But because we took it slow, because we fixed our eyes on Jesus, the growth was genuine and not bought and it has lasted. 

When we focus on the program, we might lose and we might win. When we focus on the people in our care and on the person of Jesus Christ—I can promise that we will win in the long run.

When we commit to creating space for both kinds of growth, we’ll see real Kingdom change happening in our programs. When we celebrate not only quantitative growth, but also spiritual growth, we will see a shift in our priorities as leaders. When we focus on the students that we have and invest in their spiritual lives, we’ll start to see their own hunger for God act as a catalyst for growth. And that hunger for God is more powerful and compelling than the attraction of any slick program we could ever create. We can’t compete with the world when it comes to entertainment and glamour. The coolest event, program, game, video, youth room etc that we can create will fall short when it’s held up to anything the kids can find on Youtube or Instagram. 

But the world isn’t offering them a deep and personal relationship with our Savior, Jesus Christ. So, we need to ask ourselves, are we?