If the first question someone asks me is about numbers, I’m backing out of the conversation from the first word of my reply. If that question comes from within my church, it saddens me.
I once worried about numbers. Not a lot, but the amount usually provoked by people that didn’t know any better asking questions about them. If you don’t know anything about ministry and have no point of reference for a long-view on attendance and growth, I suppose it might seem to be a reasonable thing to compare last February’s numbers to this February’s numbers and make some value judgment about the quality of ministry. When you’ve been around youth ministry for more than a minute, you realize that always growing just isn’t how things work. Even when you know that, it’s easy to forget that growth and content aren’t the only factors determining how many show up.
When you get a little more well-versed in your it’s-not-about-the-numbers pitch, it’s easy to forget something else: just because it’s not about the numbers doesn’t mean that the numbers aren’t an indicator. They very much are an indicator. Of what is a conversation that your youth leadership need to be wrestling with on an ongoing basis.
Because you’re the only ones who will take the time to realize that they’re not solely an indication of how good the youth leader is. Or how good the program is. Nearly every other person in the church might presume that any dip in the headcount is a staffing issue or that you’re playing the wrong kind of dodgeball, but your work to know what your numbers are actually indicating will not only improve the work you’re doing but will keep enough voices in that conversation that one day when you need it that knowledge might just save your butt.
So, by way of example, here are a few numbers you might be forgetting to consider when considering your numbers with your leadership:
1. How many lead youth persons has your church had in the last ten years?
This one is tricky. If it’s a high number, you know that rapid turnover drives away youth families like nothing else. It feels like inattention, at best. But there are cases where only having one youth director over a ten year span can be unhealthy. Like most things, it depends upon your context. How has your number affected your group?
2. How many lead children’s persons has your church had in the last ten years?
This one is even more important than the last, and many churches somehow remain blind to how much this number affects youth ministry. There’s an argument to be made for funding children’s ministry before bothering to fund youth ministry–families with children are often more likely to be seeking a church home than families with youth-aged children. Why? Because the average American family is nice and settled in somewhere by the time their kids reach middle school.
This number might be killing your youth ministry’s chances of natural growth. If your youth leader has been in place for 15 years but there’s a revolving door down the hall in children’s ministry, the children’s program likely won’t have the stability young families are seeking for their kids. So they don’t stay. So they don’t grow up in your church and become youth.
This is also a great reason to buddy up with your children’s director–they’re more help to your ministry than you may have thought.
3. How many tornadoes have destroyed your town?
As our leadership recently talked through the story of our group’s size, we had to acknowledge that we’d experienced a serious negative impact a couple of years ago in the wake of a EF3/EF4 tornado. We’re a small town church, and in the rebuilding process the tension between two of our high schools grew so poisonous in the community that even our church group emerged a little shattered, reversing within a few months the growth of a few years. That’s just an example from my context; your tornado may have been different. Not all disasters come from the sky. There may have been a polarizing divorce in your group. A major miscue by a volunteer. An “incident” of any shape or size.
The point is that numbers do matter. But not if your going to use them to judge instead of learn. Not if you’re trying make a larger number the right answer every time. A much better question we need to start asking (and teach others to ask) would be, “What do our numbers tell us about what’s going on in our ministry right now?” Your growing number might be an unhealthy attachment to your video game room. Is that good? Your shrinking number might be due to some kids actually listening to what’s required of us in a Christian life. You may be teaching your way down to a core group of world-changers. Can your church accept that?
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Flora