This week I got to hang out with a group of youth workers for a day of training workshops. The group turned out to be a very experienced bunch who really knew their stuff. So, I took the opportunity to pick their brains about what they think is working in youth ministry, and about some of the challenges youth workers face.
As we discussed challenges, someone brought up relationships with senior leadership. As we unpacked this some, a couple youth workers talked about disagreements that had arisen in their church over declining numbers on Sunday mornings.
Of course we all know that this isn’t a new issue. This tension has been around as long as there have been programs in youth ministries. The logic is of course, this:
- There is a baseline of X number of teenagers attending Sunday morning.
- If there is a number of students in attendance greater than X, the youth ministry is a success.
- If there is a number of students attending less than X, the youth ministry is a failure.
Except this equation doesn’t take into consideration any variables. Case in point: A youth worker in my workshop felt like his ministry was doing great, but that certain factors (such as children whose parents have joint custody with weekend visitation, and travel sports teams) had contributed to numbers being down on Sunday mornings. A focus on numbers as the sole means of judging the overall effectiveness of a ministry might result in the feeling that the ministry wasn't as effective as it could be.
Again, this is an issue youth workers have been plagued with for a long time. And yet, I was really interested in this discussion because it parallels something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I shared my thoughts in our gathering and I’ll share them here. Here’s what I have been thinking . . .
I think we’ve arrived at a place culturally where over-emphasizing attendance in our “main” programs is the wrong way to go about gauging effectiveness.
In my mind it’s always been a poor method of measurement. But I think we’re at a point, culturally speaking, where measuring success by numbers might actually be harmful.
I think it’s past time that we change our metrics.
What’s the alternative? What set of metrics am I suggesting? I have two thoughts here:
- We need to judge ministry effectiveness by quantifying spiritual growth in individuals. This can only be done from a relational perspective.
- We need to take a “big picture” view, tracking overall ministry engagement opportunities rather than looking at attendance in one or two “main” programs (i.e., Sunday mornings, Wednesday nights, etc.)
Let me unpack this a little bit . . .
Spiritual Growth vs. Butts In Seats
We count butts in seats because it’s easy. But we’re not ticket agents. A sold out show is the least of our concerns, or it should be. We exist to see teenagers grow in Christ-likeness. This growth is what we should be looking at to determine the effectiveness of our ministries.
The challenges of this model are real. First, it takes time. Spiritual growth is hard to measure week-to-week. And it’s much harder to plot on a line graph in an excel spreadsheet. Second, it’s grounded in relationship. You have to know a person to establish a baseline. And you have to do life with them to track growth.
To begin measuring spiritual growth as a sign of ministry effectiveness, your church’s leadership has to break free from an organizational, institutional mindset, and embrace a relational, organic mindset. If we’re gauging ministry effectiveness based on spiritual growth, we’ll have to rely heavily on the small group leaders and the adult volunteers in your ministry.
Engagement Opportunities vs. Program Attendance
For a variety of cultural reasons, the idea that we can still measure ministry effectiveness based on Sunday morning or Wednesday night attendance is just silly. For example, how many Sunday mornings a year do your students miss because of travel sports? How many miss because of spending every other weekend at their mom or dad’s house? How many miss because of family vacations? How many miss because as a culture, Sunday morning participation is simply not what it once was? And yet, there are some leaders who still measure ministry effectiveness based on Sunday morning attendance.
There’s a better way . . .
I think our ministries need to embrace a strategy of multiple engagement opportunities, where A) multiple relational and ministry “engagement points” are a part of your weekly ministry strategy, and B) where these “engagement points” are used to measure our students’ level of involvement. Here’s an example of what I mean . . .
I am an adult volunteer in our youth ministry. I lead a discipleship group of 9th grade guys. We went and saw Iron Man 3 last Saturday and hung out before and afterward. This is an example of an “engagement point.” I know that two of the guys didn’t attend Sunday mornings that week. Yet I would argue that they were engaged in the ministry efforts of our youth ministry because of the time we spent hanging out. Want some other examples of engagement points?
• An adult volunteer leads a small group Bible study at a coffee shop or in someone’s home.
• A youth workers hangs out at a church-wide service project with three teenagers who showed up with their families.
• A couple of adult volunteers play a Saturday afternoon game of touch football with a group of students.
• A youth pastor attends a cheerleading competition for some of the girls in the youth ministry.
When we begin to be aware of all the ways our ministry engages our students’ lives outside of one or two sacred programmed events, we gain a truer measurement of our ministry’s effectiveness.
Is counting attendance at programmed ministry events easier than what I’ve put forth here? Most definitely.
But numbers of attendees, especially in our current culture, is not really measuring ministry effectiveness at all. In most cases, it only serves as a point of stress between a youth pastor and his or her senior leaders.
I’m interested in what you think? Is this a tension you feel? And what do you think the solution is?