When Numbers Matter

For the past couple of years, I’ve struggled with having a small youth group. I moved to Sunland, CA to work in a church with a group of about 8 kids, 6th through 12th grade, from a church in Fort Worth, TX that had over 60 kids in their middle school program alone. I kept telling myself over and over, “It’s not about numbers, it’s not about numbers.”

The pressures to grow youth group numbers come from several sources, but here are a few:

Myself: In an unhealthy way, I attributed the success of the student ministry to the number of kids that showed up. In an even more unhealthy way, I attributed my self-worth to the success (or perceived success) of the student ministry. So getting people to show up wasn’t about them, it was about me.

Other youth groups: I compared my youth group attendance to other youth groups in town. I would inflate my numbers by about 25% (I call it the rule of 25%, if a youth pastor says he has X amount of kids, he actually has 25% less than that). I would always justify it by saying I had X amount of kids “on the roster.” I would use the phrase, “on the roster,” because my average attendance was not as high.

Senior leadership: Some churches pressure their youth leaders to grow their group (fortunately, my pastor does not pressure me into doing this and defends me when other leaders in the church ask about youth group size). I know of a local youth worker whose job description is to increase the average attendance of his youth group by one person a month. While this might not seem like a lot, starting with a group of 6 kids can make the task seem daunting (expecting to have 18 kids in one year).

Why do we make such quantitative measurements rather than qualitative evaluations of our ministries? I’d rather have six solid kids that are growing up mature in their faith who can invest in six more kids each (42 kids total) rather than having 42 kids showing up to my youth group who are not transforming but are there for the “show.” Forty-two looks good on paper, but it’s hollow.

Numbers Matter

Perhaps in our frantic attempt to get away from an unhealthy view of numbers, we’ve thrown the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and forgotten the value that Scripture places on numerical growth:

  • When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” (Genesis 17:1-2, three more similar references in Genesis, one in Leviticus, three in Deuteronomy)
  • The entire book of Numbers.
  • “The LORD your God has increased your numbers so that today you are as many as the stars in the sky. May the LORD, the God of your fathers, increase you a thousand times and bless you as he has promised!” (Deuteronomy 1:10-11)
  • “I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever.” (Ezekiel 37:26)
  • “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” (Acts 2:41)
  • “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47b)
  • “[The priests] were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day. But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.” (Acts 4:4)
  • “The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.” (Acts 5:12-14)
  • “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7)
  • “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.” (Acts 9:31)
  • “Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” (Acts 11:19-21)
  • “News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.” (Acts 11:22-24)
  • “So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.” (Acts 16:5)
  • “Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.” (Revelation 7:4)

When I began working with other youth leaders in the area, I began to have a new understanding of numbers. We asked ourselves, are our numbers fluctuating because kids are migrating from one group to another? Is the total amount of kids coming to youth group across all youth groups in the area growing, shrinking, or staying the same?

Then something clicked: numbers matter. Numbers matter because God cares about everyone. The sad and destructive thing is when we, as youth leaders, have an unhealthy view of numbers.

Caring About Numbers Together

Here are some ways that youth groups can care about numbers in a healthy way with other youth groups. I’m speaking more as one who is learning rather than one who has a lot of experience. I am growing at this.

  1. Rejoice over new kids who show up at other youth groups.
  2. Pray for kids who are non-believers to connect with Jesus, no matter which church he or she ends up going to.
  3. Share stories from group to group.
  4. Celebrate new believers together as a network.
  5. Work together with other youth leaders when kids begin “church hopping.”
  6. Value incarnational witness and relational ministry over trying to attract new kids to show up. Relational ministry cares about them, attraction-based ministry cares about us.

What About You?

What is your view on numbers? Is my assessment fair?

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7 Responses to “When Numbers Matter”

  1. Christian McNeilly Reply Oct 30, 2009 at 9:31 am

    Thanks for this post. I've recently come on as director of student ministry at my church to a youth group of about 20 kids ('on the roster') ranging from 6th through 12th grade. Average attendance fluctuates between 50% to 75% of that number, so yeah, this post strikes pretty close to where I am right now. My church is very supportive of the current state of things, but it's difficult not to feel some looming pressure from some unspoken judgement, even if it doesn't actually exist. Your reminder is refreshing.

    I'm just recently beginning to connect in network with some other youth ministers in my area. We're finding that numbers are most significant when they mean something. The number of kids engaged in discipleship is a lot more substantial than the number of kids in attendance.

    This has prompted me to take a hard conscious look at what assessment tools I use to actually measure the health and growth of our youth group. A growing number of students is only one piece of the puzzle, and a rather conditional means of measuring at that. Instead I've found that measuring kids by their depth, desire to know Christ more, desire to worship, desire to serve, desire to share the Gospel, desire to engage in discipleship, are all ways to more accurately measure whether or not our ministry is growing.

    Looking at all those verses you posted on numbers, I can't help but notice that in almost every case it's God who does the work of increasing the number. A sober reminder that we stay committed to the task before us and spend the rest of our time on our knees that God would please himself in continuing to add numbers.

  2. Nick,

    I 100% agree.
    I just find it detrimental to everyone when number even become a part of our conversations. All they do – when talked about – it puff up our ego or make us feel like trash.

    In reality, I think we've just got to set some values or goals and they've got to be super-rooted in God's calling and design. If we're going to measure something, we've got to be SO SO careful because of the world we live in. Back when Scripture was being written, they had a very different culture than we do, so numbers would have been handled differently.

  3. That's a great observation, Christian: God does the growing, not us! It's too bad that not enough people realize that.

    I hope the best for you youth group and your leadership.

  4. This would be a great conversation point: what should the values be?

    Also, I understand your point about numbers being used differently. I'm only playing with the concept here for those who use the phrase “it's not about numbers” to justify being lazy in evangelism, discipleship, and kingdom growth. :)

  5. My leaders are struggling with this more than me right now. When they hired me five years ago, we went from a roller coaster ride up from 8 to 45…and now we are back to 8 again. They are questioning many things…including my job! And rightfully so. It isn't the questioning that bothers me, but how we arrive at our answers. And I think you hit on that–there is a right way (healthy way) and a wrong way (unhealthy).

    I especially liked your comment on REJOICE OVER ALL YOUTH IN ALL YOUTH MINISTRIES! We have a pretty good youth network here–the best in my 22 years of youth ministry.

    I would suggest that number 6 be a both and…but definitely want relationships OVER attractive…but relational IS attractive… :)

  6. kkkessler, thanks for your thoughts. I know it can be tough to see a decline in numbers in a positive light. We had a similar experience with the youth pastor previous to me, before I got here, where the attendance went from about 40 to about 10. It ended up being a time of pruning because a lot of those kids were causing more trouble than it was worth. They needed a different kind of ministry. I inherited those 10.

    Also, to your comment on #6, I do think they are mutually exclusive in that the primary goal of one is in conflict with the primary goal of the other. It does not mean you can't have elements of both, but I don't think that you can be an attraction-based youth group AND a relationship-based youth group at the same time. Attraction-based ministries are all about the show and the program, not the people who show up (they just count heads). I know I am generalizing here, and I'm not saying everyone who cares about running a professional event is evil, haha, I just hope that the primary focus is the relationships. Will the leaders of this youth group stop their big show for the sake of a few students who need their attention?

  7. This is BS bro's.Success in YM = HUGE YOUTH GROUP. Period. Look at Joel Osteen bros.