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How Do You Define Success In Your Youth Ministry?


Picture the setting . . . It's the monthly community youth pastor gathering at the local pizza place. It's a great time of fellowship and encouragement. But before this can begin, the key question must be asked: "How many students do you have coming to your youth group?" Student pastors will then proceed to share their numbers. Some will feel like All Stars since their numbers are larger than most. Others will feel like failures because they are just not measuring up.

According to many in our American, youth ministry culture, numbers seem to stand as THE mark of success. If a youth minister has "X amount" of students coming to his youth program, he must be a success. God must be moving in his group.

But, is this always the case? A leader of a very large para-church youth ministry approached a friend of mine a few years ago. This leader was sharing the mission and vision of his ministry with my friend in order to see if my friend was interested in being involved. This leader shared the extremely large number of people who had been attending the programs of this ministry and said that these numbers indicated that God was moving in this ministry. Never one to walk away from a little well-intentioned jab, my friend questioned this gauge of success by reminding this leader that the Mormon church is growing by large numbers, as well. Would that be a sign of God's hand on their movement? While the point might have been a little harsh, there's truth there.

By themselves, numbers can't be used to gauge the success of your ministry. They cannot be the only metric, or even the main metric you use for measuring effectiveness. The problem is that in our church culture, we've become lazy when it comes to defining success in ministry. We've not done the work to set goals for our youth ministries and then measure ourselves according to those goals. We rarely make the time to intentionally articulate what we want to see happen in the lives of students. Instead, we have lazily adopted the marks of success from the business world.

There are better ways to gauge the effectiveness of our ministries.

Jesus' ministry flies in the face of the American church's numerical approach to ministry success. If Jesus was a youth pastor in today's church, He would probably be fired because He spent three years discipling twelve people, one of which fell away from the faith. Based on our numerical standards of ministry success, Jesus' ministry was a complete failure.

He had many opportunities to get the crowds. He was healing people from their sicknesses and performing miracles. Jesus was truly the talk of the town. The shocking thing is that whenever Jesus was around the crowds, He would minister for a little while and then leave the crowds to be with the twelve. Jesus could have spoken of the countless numbers of people who he healed and taught, but Jesus' focus was on these twelve men. Jesus had this wild plan that these true disciples would be the foundation of a force that would sweep the world. This is exactly what the Bible records as happening in the book of Acts. These relatively small number of believers, through the power of the Holy Spirit at work inside them, spread the Gospel to the entire known world.

In Jesus' ministry, the focus was clearly not on numbers but on true discipleship and commitment to the mission.

For Jesus, discipleship was learning from the master and longing to seek His will. Mission was going out into the entire world with the transforming message of the gospel. How different would student ministry be if we defined success based on discipleship and mission rather than numbers? Do we still believe that a few students empowered by the Holy Spirit can change their friends, campuses, communities, and churches? The message and mission have not changed. Let's make sure the way we measure success is in line with these principles.

About the Author

Ben Birdsong

Ben Birdsong serves as the Minister of Students at Meadow Brook Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Ben has a Masters of Divinity degree from Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School and is currently pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree with a focus in Ministry to Emerging Generations from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary outside of Boston, Massachusetts. Ben loves to minister to students, challenging them to become campus missionaries and to live out their faith. Check out his blog,

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"Never one to walk away from a little well-intentioned jab, my friend questioned this gauge of success by reminding this leader that the Mormon church is growing by large numbers, as well." As a Utahn, love this statement. You're so right that judging success just by numbers is lazy. That's actually the best way I've heard it put. Because numbers can be a gauge and certainly something to celebrate, but real evaluation is hard work...sometimes it involves examining our hearts as leaders rather than results! Great post, Ben.
by: Benjer McVeigh February 1, 2011 11:39 am
Yeah, Benjer. I liked Ben's laziness angle, too. Thanks for stopping by, as always. Hope all is well with you and your ministry.
by: andy@ym360 February 1, 2011 11:57 am
Thanks for the reminder. Makes you wonder if this is what Christ was talking about when he said they (disciples) would do greater things than He.
by: Chad Johnson February 1, 2011 10:41 pm
As one who has stepped away from attractional models of church and now serves in a missional community focusing on discipleship, I am really grateful for your challenge to evaluate "success." I recently wrote a letter to the board of one of my youth pastor buddies' churches as they were working to wrestle with their definition of success. It is a bummer how rare this discipleship model of success is within the Western church.
by: Jon Huckins February 2, 2011 11:29 pm
Jon, Thanks for stopping by and for sounding off. I checked out the blog and added it to my Reader. Let us know if we can serve you and/or your ministry.
by: andy@ym360 February 3, 2011 7:32 am
I might as well be the voice of contention here. It is absolutely true that Jesus didn't shy away from speaking truth to those listening to him, but to say that Jesus' ministry was a failure by the numbers is a strong statement. Jesus feeds 5000: Jesus probably feeds 5000 men meaning that this could have been as many as 15000-20000 people. In this situation the truth that Jesus spoke was able to plant a seed in the hearts of as many as 15000-20000 people. I think that the majority of youth ministers tend to look down upon "numbers based" youth ministry, but when one of those youth ministries gives a presentation of the gospel they can be planting that seed of Christ in 3-4 times as many students as non numbers based groups. I'm not saying that they are completely right, but I don't think you can say that they are completely wrong.
by: Jakob Brown August 31, 2011 2:45 pm