The Purple Zero Syndrome
On Thriving in Small-Church Youth Ministry
I was feeling really self-conscious and a bit nervous. I was meeting—for the first time—a group of youth workers in a local family restaurant. Some had large programs, and I was the new student minister at a small church—and had a very small youth group.
Suppressing my anxiety and plowing through my breakfast discussion, I reached for a large bagel, hoping to assuage my emotions—and stimulate my taste buds. Still talking, I perched the bagel precariously between my fingertips, smeared the surface with butter, and slathered a generous coating of grape jelly on top.
While in the middle of a major point, I felt my bagel slip. Wanting to maintain control, I tried to squeeze the bagel between my fingertips. But that action—coupled with the bagel’s smooth surface—only made it slide faster.
The bagel shot from between my fingers, and my hands began a fast, devilish whirl, trying desperately to reclaim my prodigal breakfast. Everything seemed to be going in slow motion. The silence was deafening.
Then—in a final, dramatic attempt to regain control—I slapped the bagel into my chest with a resounding thud. Which side of the bagel? you ask. Let’s just say Murphy’s Law applied here.
Yup. There it was, in the middle of my white sweatshirt—a big, purple zero. Everybody looked at me as if I’d planned the whole thing. Then the table burst out laughing. (Thankfully, so did I.)
Many of us in small churches get frustrated when in the company of youth workers with larger, “more successful” programs. One of the ways we compensate is by imitating what our fellow, large-church youth workers are doing. But it just never seems to work, does it? And you know what happens next…
Ministry stuff slips through our fingertips, we grasp for what we never were meant to hold, and a mess results—big, purple zeros on the fronts of our shirts.
No wonder the burnout rate among small-church youth workers is so high. No wonder so many of us get discouraged and quit.
Why I Felt Like a Zero
You see, just a few months prior to that breakfast meeting, I left a large, “successful” student ministry to attend seminary full time—and found myself ministering at a much smaller church. Before I made the move I thought myself immune to caring about things like how many kids are in my youth group. But soon much of the confidence I once had was eroding.
As I reflect on that experience, I’ve concluded that three primary frustrations contributed to my “zero” feelings:
1. Lack of resources. When I left the large church, I also left behind a kickin’ sound system, video projector (complete with a portable reverse screen), a 15-passenger van for our exclusive use, computers, color printers, and a generous budget from which I spent hundreds of dollars annually on materials. I also attended seminars, conferences, and two to three conventions each year—all paid for by the church.
But when I arrived at this small church, I simply didn’t have the resources to compete for students like large churches had. There was no van; instead I spent a lot of time making phone calls, arranging transportation, and worrying about the car that inevitably became separated from the rest of the group.
Because of the church’s limited resources I couldn’t draw from the “budget” to subsidize students who couldn’t afford certain activities, refurbish antiquated setups, or have cool movie nights. My ability to create events that would attract students was seriously hampered.
And since I was only part time, it was impossible for me to run separate senior and junior highs, small groups, attend school functions, and visit students at home like my large-church colleagues did. I only had 20 hours to spend—and that’s all the hours the church could afford.
2. The comparison game. “So how many students are in your group?” I really began dreading that question. And answering it didn’t help my attempts to get past playing the comparison game—I only questioned my abilities as a youth worker. I found myself demoralized repeatedly because I chose to believe that, unless I had as many “toys” and as many students as larger youth groups, I simply didn’t measure up.
I vividly remember choking down embarrassment when describing my program to youth workers from larger churches. Even conversations with my buddies from large programs were tinged with angst because I continually made comparisons. So for months I actually struggled with resentment toward my church and my students.
3. Green apples to bell peppers? You’ve no doubt heard the expression “comparing apples to oranges.” I submit that comparing small-church youth ministry to large-church youth ministry is far more complex: How about “green apples to bell peppers”?
Why so complex? Well, a bell pepper certainly doesn’t taste like a green apple any more than an orange does, but it’s closer to a green apple in color and texture and—until you bite into it—might be mistaken for one. In the same way, smaller youth groups are surprisingly different than larger ones upon closer examination.
The Large Church as Corporation
One helpful metaphor for the large church is corporation. While there are always exceptions, most “corporation” churches share common traits that must stay intact in order for them to remain large:
1. Emphasis on outreach and evangelism. Entire portions of the large church’s calendar, laity time, and resources (printings, mailings, radio and TV spots, et cetera) are devoted to outreach and evangelism.
I once served in a church that spent tens of thousands of dollars annually—and recruited and trained dozens of lay leaders—to work specifically on sharing the gospel. (Conversely, in my small church, the best we could manage was a cheerful invite to passersby on the church marquee.)
2. Less dogma and fewer denominational ties. Large churches generally aren’t as zealous for denominational particulars that tend to scare the average person away. They’re big enough that there’s little need for denominational dependence or assistance.
3. Well-developed hierarchy. The large-church pastor’s responsibilities are relegated to inspiring and casting vision—as well as acting as CEO. The other leaders are usually reluctant to micromanage—their roles are setting and developing megapolicies and ministries and facilitating major renovations and building programs.
4. Purpose driven. Every ministry element in the large church is created to serve the church’s overall vision. Even committees and departments have their own purpose or mission statements.
5. Suburban or high-growth locale. This geographical decision attracts young, affluent, upwardly mobile professionals with kids. People in this life stage are looking either for a new church or are more open to the carefully planned outreaches and evangelism programs that large churches offer.
6. A mosaic-ministry approach. Large churches often have vast assortments of ministries for wide varieties of people, all geared to meet the most needs of the most individuals.
7. Stable finances. Creative spending is encouraged, with an “investment mentality” as a typical part of the equation. This perspective is very much ingrained in corporate culture—i.e., spending money to develop ideas that won’t necessarily bring a clear or immediate return. This money is then usually delegated to committees and personnel responsible for specific ministries.
The Small Church as Family
Perhaps the best and most positive metaphor to describe the small church is family. But just as families in our culture are diverse, so is the small church. And not unlike families, small churches share strengths—and weaknesses.
1. Inward focused. Small churches are typically closed, tending toward enmeshed communities, with little emphasis on intentional evangelism outside the church. Membership either is at a maintaining stage or in a state of decline.
2. Denominational loyalty. Depending on the tradition, most small churches stress denominational participation and value conservative biblical teaching.
3. Lack of hierarchy. The organizational structure is flat, usually dominated by three to five families (often related to each other) with most of the important decisions always voted on by the congregation. The pastor’s primary responsibilities are to teach, visit, comfort, perform the sacraments, marry, and bury—i.e, to provide security, not necessarily inspiration.
4. Not purpose driven. Opinions vary greatly as to the purpose of the small church. Ask 200 attenders why their particular church exists, and you’ll get 200 different answers.
5. Low-growth locale. Most small churches are located in declining population areas (e.g., the northeast).
6. Ministry to select few. Small churches tend to program only for those members who’ve established themselves over a period of time. New, creative programs are often frowned upon because of the extra time and money needed to run them. It’s not uncommon in these instances to hear the last seven great words of the small church: We never did it that way before!
7. Unstable finances. Cash flow is often unstable, micromanaged, and organized with a fixed-income mentality. This is because most small churches are dominated by older members who tend toward blue-collar ethics—survival always has been the name of their game.
Avoiding the Purple Zero Syndrome
1. Realize that small-church youth ministry is the neglected majority. According to George Barna’s The Second Coming of the Church, congregations with 1,000 members or participants represent only three percent of churches in the U.S.—and yet today’s youth ministry models are driven by this tiny portion of churches!
These large churches share much in common, particularly their corporate-world organizational and operational structures.
And what is the result? Virtually all established, college-level student ministry training is taught from a corporate context; the majority of youth ministry training on a national level (through seminars and conferences) emanates from a corporate paradigm; and most resource materials are produced with an eye toward the large-church, corporate paradigm.
In essence this corporate approach says that unless youth workers use corporate methods and principles, they can’t be successful. While there is much to be learned from the success of the corporate paradigm, the latter is false.
There are many healthy small churches that need the freedom to think differently about what “successful” student ministry is and how to create models that are most helpful to them.
After all, our small churches represent 90 percent of all the churches in America. Apparently a lot of people like how they taste—and for good reasons.
2. Accept the position and calling God gave you. Your performance evaluation shouldn’t be compared to those of large-church youth workers. You have a different set of principles and models.
You know as well as I that small youth groups can be a real advantage, if only for the increased time you can devote to each kid—something large-church youth workers struggle with all the time.
We need to embrace our callings and be at peace with them. And this isn’t a principle merely for small-church youth workers…it’s for every youth worker! So let’s make sure our attitudes and spirits are in the right place. That way small- and large-church youth workers alike will make a world of difference in the lives of our students.
As for me, my struggles with my small youth group finally dissipated when I decided that it wasn’t fair to myself or to my students to make unhealthy comparisons to larger ministries. I began to understand that it’s inappropriate to hold small-church youth ministries to the same standards and expectations.
3. Know thyself. Knowing who you are helps you define what you can do. You can immediately identify the nature of your bell pepper’s soil by asking questions: What’s our identity? What’s our location? What’s our theological tradition? What’s our status in the community? What’s our stage of ministry?
Researching and assessing your church’s environment is crucial for making your youth ministry the most effective it can be. I have found a very, very effective assessment guide within the pages of Rural Congregational Studiesby Shannon Jung and Mary Agria (Abingdon Press) that can help small-church youth workers create ideal ministry models for their particular situations.
4. Do your own thing. Small-church youth workers have a unique opportunity to develop student ministry models that will work only for their church’s youth ministries.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to small-church youth workers who’re frustrated that the resource materials and ministry pointers they’re trying to incorporate aren’t working. That’s because they haven’t figured out that they need to adjust these ideas to meet their particular needs.
“Success” in the small church simply looks different than it does in the large church. Bottom line: We must work through the difficulties, accept our position and joyfully embrace our calling.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.