His name was Andy, and some weeks he was the only teenager who showed up for my youth group.
It was a small church. And when things were good, the youth group might have 15 kids show up. But things suddenly became not-so-good as our senior pastor and congregation battled over whether or not he should resign. Families were leaving the church to escape the awkwardness. But Andy’s family decided to stick it out. I’d already decided to dig in to try to keep the youth ministry afloat. Some weeks, when it was just Andy and me, we’d head over to McDonald’s to talk through a lesson (originally intended for an actual group) over fries.
In the midst of it all, I noticed how a few small decisions really added up to a huge impact in that small church. For example, because Andy and I continued to meet, other teenagers eventually found their way back to the youth ministry. If you’re serving in a small church, these are the action steps I learned the hard way…
1. Do one thing really well.
Small churches often feel overshadowed by larger congregations that have the resources to offer multiple ministry options. It’s tempting to morph your ministry into a large-church clone, but I think it’s important to simply embrace the best version of who you are and what you can do. Andy would often tell his friends: “I get to hang out one-on-one with my youth pastor at McDonald’s every week. He said if you wanted to come and talk about anything he’d pay for the food.” A few weeks went by, and soon we had a booth-full of teenagers.
2. Develop two other leaders besides you.
I’ve noticed in smaller churches that it feels good (a little too good) to have others see me as the only expert in the room. I think it’s strategically important to morph a couple of “passive” volunteers (willing to serve as chaperones, but little else) into valuable ministry leaders. Begin by spotlighting their stories—ask them to share their perspectives and insights from the front, and make sure to point out what you appreciate about them. Plan ministry gatherings where you’re on site but they are running things—even if you get there one hand-off at a time. Make it easier by developing an easy-to-read guide of what you “intuitively” do so that others know how and why you lead the ministry.
3. Talk often about your guiding vision.
It’s one thing to develop a vision statement or core values, but it’s another thing for others to know it and own it. Make sure you’re reiterating your “differentiator”—maybe it’s a focus on “The Big 3” or “Jesus-Centered and Outward-Focused.” Vision-casting isn’t about speeches—it’s about emphasizing what matters in your ministry, and why. If you want your people to bleed for something, they need to get close enough to get cut.
4. Develop four forms of financial support for yourself and the ministry.
One of the hardest hits in ministry is when you can’t do what you feel called to do because of financial constraints. Because youth workers have big hearts, we’ll pay out of our own pocket for curriculum or supplies. That’s not sustainable without additional “streams.” So, find your side hustle—develop primary, side, seasonal, and annual income streams.
A predictable experience at church makes Jesus seem predictable, and he’s anything but that.Click to tweet
5. Give five minutes to everyone around you.
You can’t maintain the same depth of friendship with everyone, but smaller numbers mean you can connect with everyone. Slow down, notice people you pass by, turn in their direction and plan to not be distracted for five minutes. This can also be contagious in a small church. Find ways to promote what your teenagers are doing: “Hey, everyone! Joe’s in a play on Friday. Go support him! You’re invited to ice cream afterward, too!”
6. Shake things up every six weeks.
A predictable experience at church makes Jesus seem predictable, and he’s anything but that. But be creative, not reckless. For example, what if you surprised your group by piling into a van or two so you can travel to an off-site location for your lesson? Just make sure parents have a year-long release form on file so you can be safe, strategic, and spontaneous.
7. Sabbath without apology.
Other area churches may be able to do things you can’t, like meet throughout the year. If you and your leaders need to take time off to reset, do it. Every church must run on God’s energy, not ours.
Some years after Andy graduated from college he asked me to speak at a camp for the youth ministry he led—he was thriving as a youth pastor in a large church. Those precious moments over fries at McDonald’s helped prepare him for this opportunity and multiplied my impact. And Andy is still doing really well with Jesus. He’s spent years growing spiritually, investing in his marriage and serving the Kingdom. That’s our real goal in any sized church, isn’t it? Look for the Andy’s right in front of you. Jesus changed the world with a dozen disciples and poured extra attention into just three of them. Your ministry, however small, is worth it.