With the beginning of a new school year, it is a good time to kick-off another year of youth ministry at the majority of churches. With this comes planning for which things will change from last year, what will stay the same and a transfer of leadership from one grade to the next. Along with this whole process should be some intentional goal setting on the part of the leadership of the youth ministry. What are our goals for this year? How do we know if we’re reaching them? What are the steps we need to take to get there?

It is easy to get through years of youth ministry without really setting any specific goals, because it seems like there’s only one factor that the majority of parents, youth and congregation members ask about or pay attention to: attendance. If people are there, then apparently we’re doing something well. If they aren’t there, then we’re doing something wrong. The problem with this line of thinking is that we then change our programming with one goal in mind: to attract more people. The problem is that simply having more people there is not the job of the Church, contrary to what is being preached in many congregations today. We’ve diminished the Great Commission of “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19) and turned it into the Not-So Great Commission of “go and get more people in the pews/couches/thrones/beanbags/whatever you use for people to sit on.”

The words of Jesus in Matthew 28 provide a clear direction for what the Church is supposed to be about: making disciples. Yet it’s so easy for us to put the focus on attendance as the mark of discipleship. If someone has been confirmed, have they finished their discipleship journey? If they’re at youth group, worship or a small group have we done our job? If someone “put in their time” being active in church when they were younger, do they now get to coast until the Lord calls them home?

Here’s the simple truth: as long as we are here on this earth, we are continually both being made disciples through the Word and Sacraments and also being called to be active as disciples in loving and serving our neighbors. This is the twofold journey of discipleship, and it is never finished. Our goals in ministry need to be based in these areas rather than just attendance. “Be at youth group” is not a discipleship goal, neither are “join a small group” or “be confirmed”.

As I’ve been wrestling with these goals myself, I keep coming back to the application of that Matthew 28 passage. How do I get out of the habit of judging by attendance rather than focusing on making disciples? What can “making disciples” look like for our ministry this next year? While there are certainly a seemingly limitless number of answers to that question, I’m keying in on three points of application for our youth ministry that I believe are also relevant to any other ministry as well. They are all written from the first person plural “we” perspective because these points are best accomplished by a team of people, not just one individual leader.

First, we need to write out new goals for the youth ministry. These goals need to be specific and focused on making disciples. So we trade in our “what are we going to do” goals for “what are we going to develop” goals. Instead of “we’re going to go paintballing”, the goal is “youth will develop a stronger relationship with one peer and one adult on the trip”. Replace “we will study the Bible,” with a goal like “youth will develop skills to foster a regular personal devotional life.”  Get rid of goals like “we want 30 youth to attend this lock-in,” and change them to “youth will be given opportunities to use their gifts to serve others by leading in various capacities for this event.” Our guiding questions are: How do we want the youth to grow? In what ways do we want to see them living out their faith? What skills do we want them to develop? Goals that are focused on answering these questions will give a more focused, intentional purpose to everything that we do.

Then, once those goals are agreed upon, we need to organize our programming around these goals, not the other way around. If we look at our schedule and have a bunch of events planned that don’t hit any of our goals, we may need to find some new events that fit our mission or adapt our current events to fit these goals. Every event, program, gathering, Bible study and meeting needs to address at least one of our goals, and over the course of the year, we need to have ways to measure how we are doing with meeting our goals.

Finally, we need to talk about the youth ministry to youth, parents and the congregation in light of our goals. When someone asks about how an event went, we need to answer not with an attendance figure like “Great! We had 15 youth there” but with a goal-focused answer like “Great! The event was planned by 2 of our upperclassmen with 3 other youth assisting, giving them all opportunities to use their gifts in service.” When we talk about small groups, we can’t just leave it at “we have 6 small groups” but to continue on with “our 6 small groups are currently developing skills in prayer and personal devotion, and each serve out in the community once a month.” When giving announcements to the congregation about how the youth ministry is going, we share stories (short stories or else we’ll get in trouble) about how youth are growing and what we are building on rather than just what the schedule is. Instead of giving all the announcements ourselves, we pick individual youth to give an announcement about the upcoming event they are helping to plan, recap the retreat they just went on, or share what they learned on the summer mission trip.

As a reminder, we are continually both being made disciples through the Word and Sacraments and also being called to be active as disciples in loving and serving our neighbors. The more opportunities we can give youth for both of those things, the better. Plan for that in your youth ministry, set goals based on that, and then praise God for the work that He does through our meager offerings. “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7-9).