“Hey – my name is Adam. What kind of church do you work at?”
“Oh, it’s a Lutheran church, I’m the youth director there.”
“Very cool, so…how many kids are in your program?”
This is one of most common introductory conversations that happens at most youth ministry conventions. The question is often asked innocently enough, but we tend to ask about numbers.
It’s the numbers game. If you’re in ministry, especially youth ministry, you’ve undoubtedly encountered these kinds of questions from parents, senior pastors, church councils/boards/sessions, and even from some kids. “So, how many kids went on the retreat?” “That’s great – so you have more kids than last year?” “I heard only 5 kids came to youth group last night…what’s going wrong?”
For the longest time, I refused to play the numbers game. I served a church in Idaho that was pretty small, and so I was used to having 5-10 kids at youth group. I serve a larger church now, but sometimes we only get 5-10 kids at youth group as well. But I try my hardest, even though I am often disappointed in low turnout, to not get sucked into the “numbers game.” I tell myself, and others, that it’s important to focus on the kids who are there – the ones who have decided to attend youth group or a specific youth event.
But after hearing Mark DeVries talk about numbers a couple years ago, I’ve recently been changing my mind. Now I’m very concerned about numbers, but not in the way I used to be. Mark talked about numbers actually being pretty important, but the number that was important was the number of youth that have been entrusted to you.
So, I know that there are about 46 youth that are in some way connected to our church right now. Maybe they sing in a youth choir, but don’t do anything else. Or maybe they are a regular at Sunday School, but that’s the extent of their involvement. For me, that 46 is the most important number. That’s the number of youth who have been entrusted to our ministry’s care. So, when we had 25 kids come out for our kick-off lock-in last weekend, I feel pretty good about that number. Not specifically because it was 25 youth, but because it was over half of the kids connected to our church.
But tonight at youth group, we only had 5 kids. It was our first youth group of the fall, and apparently my “Hey – come to youth group” text didn’t get out to kids for some reason. So, I think that 5 isn’t a great number. But that’s not because it was only 5 kids. We had a great time, a good time of sharing our lives together, and I know those 5 students will come back. But when I look at the fact that it was only 11% of the kids that have been entrusted to us…that’s a bit of a bummer to me.
It’s a different way to think about numbers, and a way that’s more helpful and healthy I think. It doesn’t necessarily mean that bigger is better in terms of numbers, but it does ask the question, “Are you doing your best to reach out to the students who have been entrusted into your care?”
What do you think? How have you dealt with the “numbers games” in your own ministries?