I hate numbers in youth ministry. Seriously! How can so many youth pastors be so obsessed with numbers in their youth ministry? “I have ** students that come every week.” “Remember that event where we had *** students?” “In just one year, we grew from ** students to **** students and ***** gave their life to Christ in that time!“ It’s like they have become cuss words to me!
And now it is time for true confessions, I am that youth pastor. It is crazy to me how turned off by other youth pastors I can be when they boast or weep about their numbers, yet I find myself doing all of the same mind games in my own head. When our numbers are up and youth group is growing, I feel a sense of beaming pride. When our numbers dip and families are leaving the church, I feel like God’s anointing has left me and it is time to find a job in the oil field. Are these good correlations to make? Is it best to judge our effectiveness or the calling of God by the numbers?
One thing I do know is that the Bible often points out numbers. Somebody must have counted back in the day because the gospels have numbers like 12, 72, 4000 and 5000. Each of those numbers represent one person who Jesus, according to parables like the lost coin, cares quite a bit about. So if we say that numbers don’t matter, then I think we are missing God’s love for people and are letting ourselves off the hook of reaching people who don’t know Him.
However, the attendance in our ministries should not be correlated to our identity. Think of Luke 10, where Jesus sends out 72 of his best and brightest to spread his message. They come back to Jesus rejoicing because of all of the miraculous and fantastic things that they were able to do on their journey. And Jesus said “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20 ESV). Jesus knew they were grappling for ways to get the check mark “APPROVED” from God, and Jesus reminded them, you already have that!
In the Vineyard, we have always prided ourselves in something that we like to call “the quest for the radical middle.” The middle is always radical because it is easy to tend toward one extreme or another. Take a youth event for example, we could do back flips on stage and hand out money to students just to get them in the door. However, those numbers wouldn’t indicate true fruit. On the other hand though, it would be easy to say that numbers don’t matter and that we are going to invest in the ones that really care because Jesus only needed 12. The problem with that is that Jesus did not say, “Stay therefore in your part of the world and make walls around you to keep out all of the really bad people so that you can fill your head with knowledge that will make you really smart.” The radical middle is to grow in numbers and in true spiritual maturity. That’s a tough standard!
As I have been thinking about this issue over the last couple of months, struggling to find the correct balance of numbers in our youth ministry, I have realized how close of a correlation numbers in ministry can be to riches. Often, I feel that as youth pastors, we are obsessed with numbers like our culture is obsessed with riches. Scripture talks about riches and wealth a lot and I think that it would do us youth pastors good to read some of the passages on riches and be honest about our obsession with being validated by the numbers in our youth ministry. The following is from 1 Timothy 6.
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith.
Grace be with you. (1 Timothy 6:17-21 ESV)
Here are some thoughts:
- This is written to those who have succeeded (in a monetary sense), but it can be applied to those who have not.
- Our hope comes from God! Not from the uncertainty of numbers.
- Because of this, our call is to do good, be rich in good works, generous and investing our time and energy into things that matter in eternity.
- Finally, that life that is “truly life” is available to us as youth pastors now. So many of us YP’s are so concerned with meeting all of the pressures and expectations that we don’t enjoy what we do! That’s nuts! If was stop placing our hope in the uncertainty of numbers in youth ministry, I believe that we will be forced to put our hope in something more substantial.
Here’s the main point. If we know our identity as God’s children, accepted and approved because our name is written in the book of life, then I believe we will be able to start sharing more about what is working and what is not without the fear of being deemed failures. Numbers does not equal success!
You are God’s chosen instrument, holy and approved by God. You are already a success.