“We count people because people count.”
One of the churches I was formerly employed at had this in their weekly church handout. The cynic would say this is a cop-out, a cheesy motto that reinforced that it wasn’t about people; it was about the bottom line…measuring success by attendance. And some pastors measure success this way. Conversely, I’ve known many youth pastors who measured their success by the number of students who were showing up to their program. The biggest giveaway to these kinds of leaders was their response to my question, “How are things going?”
Their first answer, “Great, our attendance is way up this year and things are growing.”
Unfortunately, I’ve heard many horror stories of youth pastors whose experience from their senior leadership made it clear that there were consequences to falling attendance in their youth program. Most youth pastors I know are required to turn in some kind of attendance report on a regular basis. Being on the other side of things now and talking with senior leadership around the country in regards to youth ministry, most leaders I know hold a healthy balance of understanding that attendance trends are only 1 health indicator of several that are to be used.
So what is the deal with attendance? How much of our attention does it deserve? How concerned should we be about how many are showing up to our program, especially if those numbers are declining this time of year? What does this trend say about our ministry? Our leadership? Our program?
If you’ve been in youth ministry for any amount of time, you know that this time of year things typically taper off attendance-wise. Where I live in Michigan, we recently have been seeing the first break in the winter weather. The sun is out, it is warming up, and people are finally able to shake off the cooped-up feeling of being inside. With this seems to shift a downturn in youth ministry attendance.
Here’s the general trend I see throughout the country when it comes to youth ministry attendance – things start off in the fall with a burst of energy. It’s a new school year, new start, and often most of our new faces are showing up in our weekly youth group meetings. Things tend to peak mid-fall in attendance. The new year is generally a bump up in numbers and then a slow trend downwards until summer hits. You may or may not relate to this generalization of attendance trends in youth ministry, but these trends are common.
First off, let me say my bias about numbers…they are a reflection of, but not the most important indicator of the health of a ministry. In my opinion, either polar opposite view of the relevancy of attendance (from it doesn’t matter AT ALL…to…it’s ALL that matters) is skewed. In my experience, most leaders agree that either view on its own is unhealthy.
It is unfair to say that attendance doesn’t matter at all. Growth is exciting, and having been a part of it in several contexts, it brings with it a lot of energy and momentum to your ministry. I think every ministry should strive to reach out to more students simply for the fact that students need all the support they can get in this world.
But it’s also unfair to say that attendance is all that matters. Leaders with this view tend to equate their leadership level with their attendance. If the numbers are up, they are feeling great about their leadership; if the numbers are down they are feeling not-so-great about their leadership. Yes, we should strive for growth, but that’s not all that matters.
These thoughts will give you a basis for some guidelines I’ll throw out to ponder about dealing with spring drop-off.
1. GO TO THEM
Reactive youth ministries that only connect with students who show up to their “stuff” are missing opportunities to reach out to students in the most effective place possible…on THEIR turf. Jesus’ ministry wasn’t Temple-based, it was out where the people were. Model after his example and go where students are. Physically go and visit their home, work, activities, and most importantly if you can their school campus.
If you keep these face to face meetings brief, you’ll find it will go a long way to helping students know that they are cared for and thought about by your ministry.
I asked my volunteers to commit to 3 things as they led in our ministry:
- They committed to a “501” level of discipleship (find out more in the Don’t Climb Alone Bible engagement series that we used)
- They showed up 15 minutes early and stayed 15 minutes after the program they served in
- They spent at least 30 minutes a week reaching out to their group of students they led.
The last one goes to this principle, go where students are, not just when they are in your building/meeting space, but to their world.
2. PRACTICE LONG DISTANCE MINISTRY
Spring sports or different schedules may keep your students from being at your program this time of year. This doesn’t mean they have to be totally disconnected to your ministry. Through social networking and other means of connectivity, it is easier than ever to stay in touch.
Just because a student can’t make it, don’t count them out. Out of sight out of mind ministry let’s students know that they only matter when they show up to your youth ministry. Be intentional and keep them in the loop with your ministry.
3. DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY
If they stop attending it doesn’t mean they are falling away from God or that they don’t care about you or the youth ministry. Don’t ever forget this and don’t assume that their lack of presence is because of a negative reason.
4. STAY ON THEIR RADAR
Let students know they are missed and keep planting seeds in their life regardless of whether or not they show up to the events and programs. Constant communication is key to any healthy organization and ministry. If people know what is going on they can still feel a part of the movement of your ministry.
This is where the good and great ministries find their separation: in their communication rhythms.
Good youth ministries communicate… Great youth ministries communicate…
…programs matter …people matter
…with little or non-relevant information …with current and precise information.
5. PROVIDE NEW ON-RAMPS
Provide what I call “on-ramps,” places where students can reengage in your ministry, as often as you can. Create entry points where students can step back into your ministry stream. These can be events, new series, or upcoming seasonal changes. With summer approaching, let them know about summer events and options your ministry will be offering. Churches throughout the country in our network are promoting NTS Camp right about now which is providing an on-ramp for this summer in their ministry.
As we transition into spring and then to summer, remember that every student truly does matter, not just for padding your attendance numbers but because they are an opportunity to see the glory of God grow in them through your service.
Jeff Eckart, CEO
Never The Same
© 2015, Never The Same