I’ll admit it: I’m a noob. I’ve only been in the trenches for a few years. But during these years I’ve been able to learn some important things, such as how to illustrate the Trinity using a soft taco, how to restore sight to a dehydrated teenager, and how to best get the smell of teenage vomit out of the carpet using a simple blend of household chemicals. But inevitably, I come to the point of wanting to see results. I know that what I’m doing matters, but I want to see progress. But this can be extremely difficult in youth ministry. Unlike the satisfaction of seeing the lawn as it’s being mowed or the wall as it’s being painted, youth ministry rarely reveals the progress being made.
While in college I spent a summer working as an ice cream truck driver. I’d work all day to refresh the community with my frozen wares as I graced each neighborhood with my obnoxious music. The children would flock and the mothers would reluctantly follow with jaws clenched as they opened their wallets once again. The parental “thank you” was always delivered with a dose of sarcasm. As menial as it was, the job was somewhat fulfilling. Not in an epic purpose-of-life sense, but in more of a I-sold-twenty-cases sense. At the end of the day I could look at my worksheet and see that product had been moved and progress had been made. So how are we, as youth workers, to measure progress?
Whether or not we want to admit it, numerical growth has often been used as the dipstick of a youth ministry. We figure that if God is happy with what is happening, then surely, he’d bless it by sending a billion teenagers. Yet as teachers, we know that the best learning and growth occur in the smaller groups of dialogue rather than in the larger groups of monologue. So what is it that drives this longing for a ginormous youth group? Yes, we want them to know Jesus, but let’s be honest, we want to see progress as well! We want observable data that can be recorded, analyzed, and learned from. What makes this so very difficult is that the life-change we’re hoping to see in the lives of our students may take years to surface. It would be like painting a wall and waiting for the color to reveal itself. We know without a doubt that we’ve painted it, but how are we to know if we did it the right way? What changes, if any, should we implement next time we paint a wall? Should we try a different technique? A different brush? Should we drop the bucket and leave it to the professionals? It’s very frustrating. And so we gravitate to the one aspect of our ministry that we can actually see: numbers.
The dangers that result from a numbers-based ministry, though there are too many to count (pun intended), include the obvious threats of pride and comparisons, but also the less discussed perils of discontent and apathy. Though neither is exclusive, I’ve experienced the former when my ministry is flourishing and the latter when it is struggling. I tally the attendance Monday morning and interpret a low number as a letdown. The questions start running through my mind. What went wrong? Why didn’t God bless my efforts this week? Am I an expired youth worker? These thoughts reveal my beliefs. They claim that good times represent God’s favor and hard times result from the lack thereof. This is clearly against everything in Scripture. Just ask Job. So if the numbers can’t be counted on to ensure progress is being made, what can we look to?
We look to Scripture. We ask ourselves, as well as those keeping us accountable, if we’re doing what God has asked of us. Over the last year I’ve compiled a short list of passages that explain our job description well. When doubts begin to rise as to whether or not I’m making progress in my ministry, I look to his word for validation or correction. I pray you too can begin the intricate process of proving progress.
They read from the Book of the Law of God and clearly explained the meaning of what was being read, helping the people understand each passage. (Nehemiah 8:8 NLT)
He cared for them with a true heart and led them with skillful hands. (Psalm 78:72 NLT)
I will search for my lost ones who strayed away, and I will bring them safely home again. I will bandage the injured and strengthen the weak. (Ezekiel 34:16a NLT)
The words of a priest’s lips should preserve knowledge of God, and people should go to him for instruction, for the priest is the messenger of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. (Malachi 2:7 NLT)
Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God. Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3 NLT)