I have recently seen a few different blog posts about numbers and youth ministry. One of them at youthmin.org and one at dougfields.com. I encourage you to read both of these posts, as they both offer some great thoughts and insights. As I read both of these I can’t help but get excited because I see more and more people asking (and writing about) the right questions. I see youth ministry taking steps in what I consider to be the right direction.
My book is making progress towards it’s debut to the world, and in it there is an entire chapter devoted to this topic. Here is a sneak peek:
Every time I get into a conversation with someone I don’t know very well, like on an airplane, or with a new neighbor, or with the random stranger you get teamed with at the golf course, eventually the question gets asked—what do you do? When I blurt out “youth pastor,” I can tell a lot about the person by their next question. If the next question is “a what?” then I know they have not ever been around church. If they have been around church, their response to my career choice is, “oh cool, how many kids are in your youth group?” Most youth workers will tell you that this question bothers them, yet we usually always give an answer—which is inflated by at least ten percent. We have heard the mantra chanted over and over that “it’s not about numbers,” yet we all know that isn’t entirely true.
Numbers are a big deal. Numbers is how our society and world track everything. If you are successful, or you are a dismal failure, the numbers will reveal it. We have all heard the phrase “the numbers don’t lie,” but they don’t always tell the whole truth either. Many things that are a part of a successful church, especially if you are challenging the paradigm, cannot be tracked by raw data. Spiritual growth is hard to chart, how much of a message actually sunk into a student’s heart isn’t measurable. However, there are two things in the world of the church that are very measurable: money and attendance. These two things are exactly what most churches track the closest. Since mentioning money is a common party foul, and teenagers don’t have a lot of their own money, our conversations as youth workers center on attendance. As important as programs are in a church and a youth ministry, the most important thing is how many people are attending those programs.
Another of the several ways the paradigm defines success is by how many teenagers show up. It tells me that the more students that are in my group, the better the youth worker I am. If this were actually true, then mega church pastors and youth workers would be perfect people; they would never have a moral failure or a ministry failure. And if this were actually true, the lead youth worker would have complete responsibility on how big or small the group is. The size of church, type of facility, what sports season it is, or the students’ own life decisions would have no bearing. We all know this simply is not true, yet we still judge our own success based on the size of our mailing list.
The truth is that most of the numbers we keep track of and that we throw around to other youth workers are based on hype. Our goal needs to be health, not hype. The numbers we should be focusing on is how many teenagers there are in our area that are not attending a church and don’t know Christ, the number of students that are falling through the cracks in our churches, and the number of students that are genuinely sharing their faith on a regular basis. Those are numbers that will reflect health. Those are the numbers that should get us jazzed up or sick to our stomach.
How much do you tend to talk about numbers? What numbers keep you up at night? What numbers do you pray about?
I also must admit that I have had virtually no experience with or knowledge about Orange, but the more I hear, see, and read about it I need to check it out. I might already be more Orange that I ever realized…