About a year ago I ran into a 23-year-old former student from our youth ministry on my way to visit one of our youth cell groups. This young man was a 9th grader when I was hired as youth pastor. The conversation went like this:
Him: “So, how many you got coming now?”
Me: “There’ll be between 10-15 guys there tonight.”
Him: “No girls?” Me: “No, it’s a guys-only cell group.”
Him: “Oh, I was talking about your big meeting. You still meet on Sundays, right? How many do you have there?”
Me: “Usually between 30-40.”
Him: “Oh (pause) Must be pretty hard to get them to come, huh?”
It was obvious what this young man viewed as success – more bodies at a meeting. He was a part of the youth program when we were operating under the “pack them in at all costs” mentality.
At this point in the conversation I felt it was time to challenge his thinking. I wanted him to begin seeing that numbers were not necessarily an indicator of success. I threw what I thought was a thought-provoking statement at him. The conversation continued:
Me: “I’m convinced we could double our discipleship crowd if we’d start a dodgeball league.”
I had hoped he would see the irony in my statement. I had hoped something in his mind would have said, “Yeah, you’re right. It’s not necessarily all about how many people you have in a meeting or how much fun you have.” Instead, here’s what I got:
Him: “That’s a great idea! You should do that. The YMCA does that and they pack them in every week. That’s a good idea!”
Unfortunately, this is what we’ll find in many of our churches – an inaccurate measurement of what successful ministry looks like. And in many churches there's an extreme amount of pressure to pull this kind of numbers-based ministry off. It becomes a real problem when our leaders – especially youth leaders – view success only in terms of numbers.
I can’t ever remember anyone ever asking me any “fruit questions” about youth ministry. I don’t think anyone has ever requested, “Tell me about a kid in your group that has had a complete life-change.”
That's a conversation I’d love to have!