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.
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.
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.