When Youth Numbers Do/Don’t Matter
When youth workers are asked about their student ministry numbers, a common answer is, “We’d rather have fewer students who have deep relationships with God than lots of students who have shallow spiritual depth.” Really? Shouldn’t the answer be, “We’d like to have lots of students who have deep relationships with God”?
One numbers camp leans toward “the more in attendance, the merrier!” They sound something like this: “We had (insert some fantastic number here that’s sure to impress the board) come to our annual ‘glow-in-the-dark-capture-the-flag-midnight-manhunt competition.’ More than 6,432 students heard the gospel!” The reasoning behind these big events makes sense: the more arrows you shoot, the more chance of hitting the target.
Here’s the perspective from the “but who’s counting?” camp: “We have 15 students solidly attending small groups. No fluff here!” They have a point, too. A smaller student-to-leader ratio has a proven track record for effective and meaningful mentorship of students.
The truth? Numbers do matter. The other truth? Numbers don’t matter.
When numbers do matter:
- If you go on a trip with 12 students, you should come home with 12. Extra points for coming home with the same 12.
- On Youth Sunday it’s important to have your students there to interact with the larger church body. The more youth faces, the more youth funding.
- During fundraisers, more hands make your work easier, and more faces make the church happy.
- You’d be wise to keep a monthly/quarterly contact spreadsheet, and the more check marks, the better.
During my time as a senior consultant for Ministry Architects, I learned that churches benefit from an agreed-upon target number of students. That way, everyone is on the same page and the youth leader doesn’t suffer the slings and arrows of unmet expectations. According to Ministry Architects’ research, a church can reasonably expect to see 10-20% of their average weekly worship attendance in the form of students in grades 6 to 12. Less than that 10% means it’s time to look at who is missing and what can be done to shore up the numbers.
When numbers don’t matter:
- If you plan an event and only two students show up, do the program anyway and have a great time!
- When a student needs you, and there are 50 other students in the room, let your other adults take over the larger group. Don’t have other adults? That’s a numbers problem right there.
- When you’re planning a killer Bible study—whether you’re planning for 25 students or for just one—give it all you’ve got! The Word never goes out without some kind of return on the investment.
- School lunch dates or after-school coffee/coke chats are best one-on-one.
It’s those “numbers don’t matter” moments we all live for in youth ministry—those times we’re forced to slow down, take a breath, and look a student in the eyes to say, “Tell me what’s happening, friend.” These are the times when the only number that matters is the one student standing in front of you.
STEPHANIE CARO has been involved in ministry for more than thirty years. She’s the author of Thriving Youth Ministry in Smaller Churches and 99 Thoughts for the Smaller Church Youth Worker. She’s senior consultant for Ministry Architects and lives in Houston with her hubby and puppy.
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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.