The Pressure of Numbers

Do you ever feel the pressure of numbers? You probably know the feeling.

When you meet with other youth pastors for the first time, the question is always asked; How many student do you have in your group? How do you answer?

When the elders call you in to hear an update of how things are going, what do you say when they ask about how many youth are participating? What statistics do you give them?

When you look at your youth group’s mailing list, do you mail to everyone, because it looks good going to the post office with a huge stack of mail?

As I get ready to launch the 2010-2011 season, I have been thinking a lot about numbers. For the first time in a long time, I find myself struggling with the pressure of numbers. Our mailing list is up over 100 students. But in all honesty we only see between 30 and 40 students weekly. Sometimes we see more. Sometime we see less. We have a good pool of “regular” attendees. And we have a pretty strong, small but strong, core. But at the beginning of the summer, I met with a group of students who said they were afraid they wouldn’t have the “time” to give to the group this year. A feeling of anxiety rushed through me. Rejection, failure, and a desire to do whatever would be necessary to keep them flooded into my heart. I did not want to lose them, or anyone else for that matter. So I scrambled to come up with an idea that would appease the small group and perhaps draw in additional students who might think or feel the same way.

Now I’m asking myself, “Why I am feeling the pressure to have a BIG youth group instead of being content with the students God brings?”

Somewhere, somehow, the idea of what makes a youth group successful is the number of students in attendance at the weekly gathering. Youth workers across the country are dealing with the pressures of numerical growth being the benchmark of success. And believe it or not, some are loosing their jobs because they’re not “growing the youth ministry” fast enough.

A number of years ago, the session of the church I was serving considered a “bonus” approach to ministry. The idea was to “reward” numerical growth with a “bonus.” For every family who joined the church membership because a ministry or program they were responsible for, that staffer would be rewarded. Well this didn’t fly. But the shear thought of such a program made me realize that numbers mattered. Someone was counting.

Yes, numbers do matter. There should be numerical growth in the church. We should want to see new members joining the church family. And we should be aggressively inviting friends and neighbors to church. But not to receive the year end bonus.

This summer, I’ve had to stop and pray about my heart, and how I respond to the pressure of numbers. Following that lunch meeting, I realized it was my pride that was hurt. I wanted a BIG youth group. I wanted to be able to boast about the number of students attending weekly. Now, students were telling me that school and other activities were going to eat up the majority of their time. And I was fearful of what might be said if someone notice the numbers missing.

But while numbers are important, we shouldn’t get lost in the idea of building a BIG youth group. Real growth must be measured in the spiritual growth found in a students life. The problem is, spiritual growth is at first difficult to measure. Unlike numerical strong, spiritual growth isn’t always visible, especially when teenagers very often make poor decisions concerning their behavior.

Growth, true growth, is a God thing. Success is in seeing God moving in the life of a teenager; changing them from the inside out.

I’ve spent a lot of time praying about the numbers. How awesome would it be to know we could do ministry without worrying about an elder standing by to count the kids. You can.

It’s God who calls and rejects. It’s God who causes the watered seed to grow. It’s God who changes the heart. The crazy thing is, when you let God have control, He brings the numerical growth.

What do you do to cope with the pressure of the numbers? Share your experiences, comments, questions, and let move our ministries beyond numerical growth and into spiritual growth.

And I’ll be back with what we’re doing this year to be more intentional about growing student spiritually AND numerically.

– jay

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