The Truth Shall Set You Free

October 3rd, 2009

Can we evaluate at least some portion of our effectiveness by how many kids show up?

Ah, the question to which many a youth pastor would calmly reply, “No,” but deep down knows that his job security and self esteem would nervously say otherwise. Elder boards and executive pastors don’t care much for youth ministries of 10 that used to be ministries of 100. I can’t remember the last time I received encouragement when I had a program that went hundreds of dollars over budget because I planned for twice the number of students than actually showed up. Oh, and I always want to come back to work on Monday when Sunday morning’s attendance was at an all-time low. The truth is, if I want to keep my job (and my self-esteem), I’d better show everyone that our ministry is effective…and an effective ministry is a growing ministry. If you’re not growing, you’re not being effective. Simple conclusion, right?

“He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature; for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)

Jesus’ words to the Pharisees often haunt me. He was unusually harsh with them. They needed to hear the truth, though, because they’d become so enslaved to legalism and religious works that they became the exact opposite of what God desired. The Pharisees had swallowed whole a lie that tickled their egos and their pride. I’m afraid that we as youth ministers are being tickled with a similar lie and are in danger of choking on it if we’re not careful. It will enslave us just as it did the Pharisees, and our ministries will suffer because of it.

The lie? “If you’re not growing, you’re not being effective.” It has infected not just youth ministry, but ministry as a whole. A senior pastor can buy into it as easily as a youth pastor can. I find it to be a performance-oriented, pride-tempting, vicious, sneaky, and seemingly irresistible lie.

Youth pastors and ministers of the gospel everywhere should stop asking this question and stop being overly concerned with effectiveness. At the risk of sounding a little unorthodox, I propose the following reasons why we mustn’t measure our effectiveness by numbers:

1. If I truly believe in the supreme sovereignty of our awesome God, I would rest assured in the fact that God will work together with and in spite of my efforts—good or bad. God’s will is going to be accomplished. That’s a non-issue. For me to be concerned (i.e. distracted) with anything else is folly. It would be folly to focus on my failures or my successes rather that the will of our heavenly Father. I mustn’t give in to the temptation to evaluate my ministry by numbers so I can know whether or not I’m being effective. If that’s the case, then perhaps it’s not the ministry that’s ineffective. Maybe it’s my faith.

2. The very question enslaves me. I currently have 120 students in my youth ministry right now. Three years ago when I started at my church, there were 30. I’m feeling pretty effective these days. But, let’s say you visit my church five years from now and I still have 120 students in my youth ministry. You probably wouldn’t consider my ministry effective any longer, would you? I sure wouldn’t. When we ask this question, we always set ourselves up to serve the question instead of the students. We program and budget so that our ministries will grow and be considered effective. All the while our bondage to the question restricts us from doing real ministry to the students already at our churches.

3. Jesus’ ministry didn’t seem overly concerned about numbers. As I read through the Gospels, I read about the parable of the lost sheep in which the shepherd leaves the large numbers, the many, in pursuit of the small numbers, the one. But Jesus’ concern wasn’t even for the numbers, large or small. His concern was, as John 14-17 shows us, to do the will of the Father. In serving God, Jesus served us. That was his focus. His ministry was effective because he was a servant to the will of God and to the people God loved. (Does anyone else see the ministry paradigm, here?)

4. Every one of us, if given the dollars we wanted, could pack a youth room. Give me what I want, and I’ll give the kids what they want. It’s not rocket science. They’re consumers just like we are. If you build it, they will come. Just because a ministry has 200 students doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s an effective ministry. A youth ministry that has 15 students could be more spiritually effective than that social club of 200.

“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32)

So if the maxim “if you’re not growing, you’re not being effective” is a lie, then what’s the truth? How are we supposed to wrestle with this question that’s forever looming in our gut and haunting our churches?

I have a quote taped to my desk that I believe is a good antidote to the lie of numbers. I see it every day and recite it every time I feel the temptation to be lured back into this question. It says, “You are called to serve, not to be successful.” Puts me in my place every time I read it. I can’t remember where I first heard it, I’m just glad that I was listening.

In abiding in Jesus’ words, I find no imperative calling me to be successful or effective. I don’t even have a standard by which to determine such (though I too often try to make up one). What I do find are ample instructions on how to love, how to serve, and how to be obedient to God’s calling. The Lord simply calls us to be servants, not success stories.

It’s in this truth that I believe youth pastors and ministers everywhere can find freedom. I don’t do it often, but when I actually stop focusing on myself and seek only the will of the Father and how I can serve my students, I cease caring about numbers and effectiveness. I can resist the urge to compete or compare with other youth pastors who have larger or smaller ministries than I do. I can plan for 50 students to come to an event and rejoice when I get to serve and minister to the 10 who show up. I can do ministry the way I feel called to do ministry, not just what will draw the most students. I can have a stable self esteem that doesn’t go from high to low in the course of a week. I can have time for a deeper relationship with Jesus than ever before.

But that’s only when I allow the truth to set me free. The choice is still mine. And the choice is one I have to make every day. One you’ll have to make every day.

If you still find yourself worrying about how to determine the effectiveness of your ministry, may I make a final suggestion? Perhaps if we stopped focusing on the ends instead of the means, we just might get it right. Focus on serving your students. Love them. Obey the Spirit’s leading rather than the lure of an enslaving question. Chances are that your faithfulness in serving and loving your students will lead to the ends that you desire. Ultimately, though, the Lord will use your servant’s heart as a means to God’s ends, which is the only thing that matters anyway.


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.