How many people are in our youth group? Well…Just one!
How many times have we engaged in conversations with other youth ministers, pastors, or church members trying to determine the effectiveness of our ministry by the number of kids who came to our last event? How do you get so many to come to your Bible Study? Why did only four people come to your four-day fasting event, and where was the pastor’s kid? Did you know that the church across town has 5,000 kids coming and they feed them with only two pizzas and five Mountain Dews? These types of conversations can be haunting, frustrating, and keep you awake at night, and they are misplaced.
In our youth ministry we have wrestled with these questions and with what we believe is a culture shift changing the way ministry should be perceived. The hard thing about any shift is changing the mindset of a culture. It reminds me of my youngest daughter who seeks great comfort in her stuffed elephant that she calls Elle. The more scared she gets as things change around her the more she seeks that Elle for comfort. In youth ministry we can be the same way, clinging to the things we have always done, and despite the shift in culture, clinging even tighter to our Elle’s.
I was brought up and trained in the youth group mentality that doing dynamic programs to attract large numbers and forming strong relationships create a great youth group. Even the questions we would ask each other reflected that, “How many people are coming to your youth group?” Many of the experiences that we set up seemed to connect with youth and their friends with one event feeding the next, and we couldn’t have enough events on the calendar because kids were engaged.
As I look back I notice a key difference between then and now. Youth didn’t have as many other things going on in their lives that I had to compete with. It’s easier to attract youth when they have a choice between coming to the juggling lawn dart outreach event or going to a movie with friends. Today, they have eight to ten other things that are competing with the church event. “What do you mean you are choosing your choir trip that is taking a ten-day cruise to Alaska to sing to orphaned penguins over our silent retreat?”
It was in light of this cultural shift that we started to change our perspective on ministry to maximize opportunity. We felt like the days of youth group were slowly fading and thus with much prayer changed our mindset to a Ministry of One’s. We have a ministry to this one, to that one, and don’t forget about that one who doesn’t come a lot. Each of our one’s has such different needs that it is not possible to meet them all with a single program and a few random events.
This type of thinking has a lot of push back in our corporate mindset where numbers reign and serve as proof of how effective we are. However, that doesn’t always translate well into ministry. We are trying to change the scorecard as Reggie McNeal suggests in The Present Future. When someone asks us how many people came to our three night lock-out we simply respond, “Just one.”
There was this one whose family is splitting and doesn’t have a strong male influence in his life.
There was that one who is struggling with self worth and identity.
There was that one who is being transformed by the Holy Spirit in the midst of her deep questions and searching.
We can’t forget that one who gave up his 127-hour streak of playing Call of Duty to be at this event.
I love that this one who was forced to come by his parents actually cracked a smile and felt cared for by the end of the second day of no sleep.
However there were some we missed with this event:
We had that one who is gone again this weekend with traveling baseball.
There was this one with no desire to be in this church and is wrestling with some major life questions.
There was that one who typically comes to everything but according to her facebook status broke up with her boyfriend this week.
This type of thinking has shifted our mindset from numbers to individual needs and crafting ministry opportunities around those needs. Our focus is not on having the biggest youth group in our community, but on meeting needs and connecting with youth where they are. Our main goal is not to have them feel a part of the youth group community, but to have them feel a part of the Kingdom community.
It reminds us when our attendance is low at an event that we have more time to spend meeting youth where they are at and creating deeper relationships. The more we can connect with them, the more their needs are revealed to us. It changes our mindset from trying to determine what events bring them to our turf (youth group) to how we meet their needs on their turf. How do we minister to the one’s that drop out after confirmation and rarely step back into the church?
This has led us to spending more time on Facebook, sending text messages, making phone calls, and focusing intentionally on a ministry to one. It causes us to equip and recruit other adults to join us in that ministry to one’s so that we can be more effective and readily available when needs arise. This week we only had eight youth at Bible study, but I connected with eight others on Facebook, prayed with ten others through text messages, and commented on nine other status updates.
With all that said we have not eliminated our programs as they do connect with a certain group of individuals who need that safe place. Programs are part of ministering to the ones, but in shifting our focus to Ministry to One’s we are reminded that God’s Kingdom is much bigger than the youth group. I wonder if our church council would ask Jesus, “How many people are in Your Kingdom?”
“Well, there is this one, and there is that one, and this one here…all whom I died for and love dearly.”