It’s one of the most embarrassing and difficult things to admit, in the world of youth ministry.
You really only confide in your closest friends about it. And even then, you feel guilty about it.
It’s one of the things that keeps us up at night. And keeps us reading articles and blogs about how to deal with it.
Some of us walk away from youth ministry because of it.
Some of us lose our jobs over it.
It’s the problem of the “Slowly-Deflating Youth Group”. You know, the situation where you quietly, gradually lose teens one at a time and your youth group shrinks.
Admittedly, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of why we’re losing kids in youth ministry. I suspect it’s a confluence of dozens of reasons–kids are busier than ever, people socialize in different ways, religion has lost popularity in our society, parents are less supportive of faith education as a priority, students are less prone to commit to anything and countless other explanations.
While some of you out there in youth ministry are doing just fine–even growing!–a lot of youth leaders are struggling, feeling like failures and wondering if they’ll have jobs in a year. More people than I’d care to admit have confided in me about how hopelessly dismayed they feel, and how much they doubt their decisions to enter youth ministry in the first place.
It’s something that dozens of my friends all across the country are wrestling with, at this very moment. Age and experience have nothing to do with it–it strikes newbies and veterans alike.
I wouldn’t dare claim to have a grasp on the million-dollar question of why this is happening, or what we can do to fix it. And I don’t think one article could ever give proper justice to the complexity of the problem.
But as someone struggling personally with this issue, I speak from the heart when I talk about this subject.
In the last several years, I’ve volunteered and served at very large churches and led events with hundreds of teenagers and adults in attendance. Youth events were packed to the point where we would even have wait lists for trips, outings and groups. Our students were inviting their friends–sometimes by the van-full–and we were growing at an incredible rate.
And while all along, I knew that the size of my youth groups had nothing to do with me–it was an outpouring of blessing from God–it was quite the shock when I started at a new church recently, where only a handful of youth were actively involved.
Organizing games and Bible studies for four or five kids instead of hundreds of kids is a dramatic difference, as you can imagine.
And to be quite honest, there are a lot of times where I feel like I’m a failure because my youth group is small.
That dismay and doubt that my friends have been struggling with? The constant devouring of resources and articles to try to find a remedy? The questions that keep me up at night? Check, check, and check.
Our responsibility to serve God’s children as youth leaders is not easy. And the temptation to be consumed with how many kids we have showing up to our youth events is a very real one. As leaders, we can vacillate between feeling arrogant and proud that we have big youth groups to feeling bitter and distressed that we have small youth groups.
And really, either end of the spectrum isn’t healthy. Whether we’re proud or bitter, we’re measuring ourselves against the Law’s demands of perfection, and we come up wanting either way. Both ends of the spectrum leave us stuck in the law, focused on our own work.
In the moments when I feel that doubt creeping in, I am reminded of the importance of being firmly grounded in Scripture. God’s Word is efficacious, as Isaiah 55:11 tells us. And certainly, more than anything, I need His Word to work in my heart, reminding me that my worth comes from being a forgiven and redeemed child of the Living God, through the sacrifice our Jesus made for us.
Titus 3:4-7 reminds us, “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”
Not because of the righteous things we’ve done. Not how many hours we’ve worked, how many leaders we’ve recruited, how many programs we’ve put on or how many kids show up to our youth events.
God’s grace gives us the hope of a better life–an eternal life–after the disappointments of this world, the mistakes we make and the decisions we question. God’s grace gives us peace to live in today, relief from the crushing weight of our failures and disappointments. We can rest in His grace now and for all eternity.
I know there will still be times when I despair over the number of kids attending our church, no matter where I am or what I’ll be doing. I’m aware that frustration and worry and doubt won’t disappear overnight, because I’m a sinful person who struggles with fragile human emotions.
But despite the difficulty of the “Slowly-Deflating Youth Group” problem that so many of us face, we are heirs with the hope of eternal life.
And that’s a truth that certainly fills us up with hope.