It’s the Jimmys and the Sues, Not the Ones and the Twos

It was my early days of youth ministry, and I went into the office to meet with my senior pastor in our new facility. We sat down to talk church and ministry.

Then a question caught me somewhat off guard. “How many times have you been out to eat with a student?,” he asked.  The answer? I hadn’t really done it.  And that’s when he uttered the phrase he wanted everyone in the church to know: “know your role, and know your roll.” In other words, know what you are supposed to do, but more than that, know the people whom you are supposed to serve, the attendance “roll.” The implicit question of course was, “how can you know your roll if you aren’t spending time with them?”

In football, there is a popular saying: “It’s not about the Xs and the Os, it’s about the Jimmys and the Joes.” Xs and Os are often written on a board to indicate where players are on the field and what they should do. But a coach has to connect with his players first before he can effectively teach strategy.

The same is true in ministry. So, I set out to try to come up with a similar saying that pastors, especially youth pastors, can use as an adaptation from this popular refrain: “It’s the Jimmys and the Sues, not the ones and the twos.”

The numbers issue brings out the worst anxieties in pastors – specifically youth pastors – because it often throws the biblical truths of our identity in Christ, the redemption of our souls, and our worth as people on its head. While we functionally believe these truths, we act as though we are defined by how many people show up to our services, how many people attend a retreat or camp, the percentage of growth in the past few months, etc. If your numbers trend in the right direction, you are a good pastor, a good person, husband, wife, parent, etc. If they trend in the wrong direction, well, shame on you.

If we’re honest, this is how a lot of us can feel.

But what if we could reframe the discussion around numbers? What if instead of asking, “how many students came?” we asked, “who came?” Instead of looking at the ones and the twos, we look at the Jimmys and the Sues. In my early days of youth ministry, I wasn’t really getting to know the students, the people behind the numbers.

Behind each number is a name, behind each name is a story. Each student has a story: a unique set of experiences, aspirations, hopes, fears and insecurities. They have families and other adults who have shaped their life, their worldview, their beliefs, and their habits.

When you conclude a service, there is a tendency to think, “wow, we had 40 people here today!” We should instead be thinking, “40 stories came through our door today!” We can think through each of the stories and how this particular event might have influenced them.

Youth ministers must wrestle with these questions in order to be faithful in youth ministry. Let me offer four ways for us to more effectively learn our student’s stories and connect with the Jimmys and the Sues.

Increase Face Time – I am more comfortable in a teaching role, so it was an adjustment for me to learn that many students value the time you spend with them more than the lessons you teach them. The old quote from President Theodore Roosevelt still sings true: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Your teaching will not be effective until you spend time in conversation with your students, getting to know their world, their interests, priorities, and insecurities. It doesn’t have to be a complex conversation. Simply asking how they are doing, asking about their school, or their favorite free time activities can go a long way. 

Get Out of the Ivory Tower – I can’t tell you how many concerts, recitals, football games, baseball games, and theatrical productions I have attended in my time as youth pastor.  When you meet students at the church or in your office, they are on your turf and therefore less comfortable. But when you meet them at school or a school–related event, you meet them on familiar ground and immediately put them at ease.

Get to Know the ParentsContrary to popular belief, one of the best ways to get to know a student is through their parents. Parents know their students; after all, they gave birth to them, live in their home, and practically pay for everything they do. This may shock you, but I have had more parents share insider information about their students than I have had students share insider information about their parents.

During one year of youth ministry, I had as many parents confess to me their child’s use of pornography as I had from students themselves. The largest source of students’ self-harm and suicidal ruminations came from their parents.  Some parents actually told me about their separation or impending divorce before they told their kids. The same is true for church attendance. Parents, I have found, are often a more thorough source of information as to why their teen is or is not in church. Getting to know parents is vital is you want to truly know the student.

Use Your Personnel – You can’t do it alone. It’s essential to leverage the gifts and abilities of your volunteer leaders in this regard, especially for those students who are of the opposite sex.  You may not be able to learn every single story of every student, especially if you are in a larger ministry. This is where recruiting a solid, biblically-grounded volunteer team can help.

Numbers can be a dirty word in ministry, but it doesn’t have to be. Numbers are useful in calculating and sustaining ministries. Real growth, however, happens when you make ministry about the Jimmys and the Sues, not the ones and the twos.

Let’s remember that Jesus is the ultimate example for this kind of ministry. Philippians 2:6 says that he did not consider equality to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant. He didn’t just snap his finger and to save us from heaven. He left his ivory tower of Heaven and walked among us—on our turf—for decades, suffering and dying at the hands of criminals in our place. His incarnational example can be an impetus for us to love our students in the same way.

Steve Eatmon has over 12 years of experience in youth ministry and a Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary.  Currently, he serves as the pastor to high school and middle school students at the Chinese Bible Church of Maryland. He is married to Heather and they have two children, Ryan and Rachael.  

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