“We count people because people count.” That mantra was our church’s lifeline. Nothing happened without counting, and without a count, something might as well not have happened. During my seven years as youth director there, that statement echoed at every Thursday-morning staff meeting. I’d never experienced a ministry that watched and studied numbers so carefully.
Our leaders knew exactly how many teenagers went to summer camp before and after I joined the staff. They knew if Sunday-night youth group attendance was dropping or rising. They also knew how many kids had been confirmed year after year. As a newbie, when I reported that it looked as if about 20 teenagers would be confirmed, the team quickly responded, “It should be closer to 30 this year.” They were right. We ended up with 32. Had I blown off the leaders, a dozen teenagers might have missed that faith-building experience.
“We count people because people count.” On a good week, I bought into this mantra and could feel my ministry tank refilling. On a bad week, I resented the emphasis on numbers and sometimes felt emptied out. It was exciting to be part of a healthy, growing congregation. But I was afraid I’d grow to rely on numbers for success or fear them as a sign of failure. If attendance was high, I worried we weren’t going deep enough. If attendance was low, I worried we weren’t reaching far enough. Were we becoming too event-driven? Were we too inclusive and focused on “our” teenagers?
As reaching people with Jesus’ love became our clear front-burner priority, these fears faded into the background. We weren’t counting people to measure the success or failure of the church or its staff members; we were counting to stay connected and committed to the people Jesus had placed in our lives.
I now know we were fighting one of the church’s biggest enemies: a loose grip. While we’re tightly focused on programs, traditions, and the church’s future, we sometimes fail to recognize when people slip through our fingers. They just stop coming one Sunday and no one notices. Or they stop attending small group and no one ever checks in with them.
Years of learning the beauty behind healthy accountability and intentionality had an impact on me. Never again will I be unaware of who’s in the room or not in the room. Yet tracking attendance and growth will never be about the numbers; it will always be about the individuals who make up those numbers.
Here are three main reasons to count teenagers:
- To grow your youth ministry family—There are no visitors. If you attend youth group, Bible study, or a retreat, you’re now part of our family. Family members have names, and it matters whether or not you see them and whether or not you’ve spoken to them. You don’t just love the family members you see; you love the family members you haven’t seen, and you’ll do whatever it takes to let them know they aren’t forgotten. That’s why I was asked to turn in ministry reports and maintain a database that tracked not only attendance but also important conversations and interactions. This gave our youth ministry a better understanding of when and how we were serving each teenager. We paid attention. If a volunteer found out that someone’s dad was sick, for example, we tracked that information. If we recognized that someone wasn’t attending church, we reached out to them.
- To recognize our reach—Communities are made up of individuals. Knowing where those individuals come from helps you understand your reach. If you recognize that a surge of kids is coming from a certain area or a certain school, then you can connect to valuable ministry partners. As I tracked attendance for our weekly youth programs, I discovered we weren’t effectively reaching the teenagers in our own backyard. We were located in a heavily populated residential area but weren’t attracting kids in our neighborhood. One of the most important questions you can ask is “Who’s not here?” Within a 10-mile radius, how many teenagers are within your reach? What schools are in that area? Who’s within walking distance?
- To broker life-changing relationships—My role as a youth leader can often seem a lot like an event planner’s—but my true role is to develop lifelong, Jesus-centered relationships. Sometimes those are relationships teenagers may never have anticipated or found on their own. Tracking attendance and digging deep into every relationship allows us to be intentional about the relationships we broker. One of our new volunteers started attending youth group on Sunday nights, but as an introvert she got lost in the excitement and chaos—she hid in the background. As a relationship-broker, I knew students who would connect with this woman and began introducing them to her. Soon the volunteer began leading a small group with these young women.