In Ministry, Addition is Easier Than Subtraction

Will is a new youth worker I recently met. He’s young and excited to hit the ground running. As someone who’s been doing this for twelve years, I need young guys like him to remind me that being paid full-time to serve teenagers is something to treasure. During a recent gathering for youth workers in our area, I was struck by the importance of starting well in youth ministry.

Greg is another guy who used to be a part of the youth worker network in which I participate. He was young and single, so he spent almost every night doing ministry, “because he could.” But when he eventually got married it became another story. Even though he was serving in a good church, he had added so many programs and expectations during his single years that he couldn’t dig out from under them all.

Using Greg as a cautionary tale, the other veteran youth workers and I have tried to encourage Will to be slow to add new ministry programs; because in the world of ministry, addition is easier than subtraction. Busyness can easily become a false-indicator of fruitfulness. This is just as true in Christian ministry as it is in other spheres of life. In the same way that busyness can be confused for fruitfulness, restfulness can be confused as inactivity.

This timeless struggle is evident whether we look at students’ sports schedules or at Israel’s struggle to keep the Sabbath throughout the Old Testament. The inner craving in our hearts to fill our time with busyness is relentless. Rest takes effort and intentionality.

If this is your first year in ministry or your twentieth, beware of how much easier it is to add ministries than it is to remove them. When you add something new, do it slowly, intentionally, and prayerfully. Doing so will ensure that you add something worthwhile that truly strengthens your ministry to students for the sake of the gospel.

Eliminating programs or other initiatives can leave people feeling betrayed, hurt, or confused. When you subtract something, resist the inner-temptation and external-pressure to immediately replace it with something new – perhaps you need to implement more rest and Sabbath in your students’ lives.

Personally, I often feel that my worth is measured by how well I “do ministry” – and that “doing ministry” is measured by my calendar and attendance. Do I spend enough time with students outside of programs? Is the calendar too thin? Would the youth group grow more if I did more? I’m sure there are parents in my ministry who would read this and answer, “No / Yes / Yes.”

Fellow youth workers (especially newbies), this pressure is real. But our God is enough. Cherish the gospel, and apply it to your own heart first. Be a faithful steward of the gospel. There will be sacrifices required to spend yourself for the sake of Christ, students, and the Church. We can rebuke the temptation to busyness with the power of Sabbath – let us not mistake this with laziness.

Jesus did not come to heap expectations upon his disciples. Instead, he said his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:30). When ministry becomes wearying and full of exhaustion then it’s time to remember the rest and freedom of the gospel (Hebrews 4:9-11).

Add slowly. Subtract with care and wisdom. Resist the promise of “more,” and cling to the promise of gospel-fueled rest. Students are changed by your faithfulness to the gospel, not because you worked so hard.

Here are a few practical diagnostic questions to consider as you evaluate addition and subtraction in your ministry.

  • Am I adding or subtracting because I feel pressure to make certain people happy?
  • Does this ministry opportunity meaningfully establish or strengthen relationships whereby the gospel is proclaimed?
  • Is this ministry sustainable, or is it likely to be a “flash in the pan?”
  • What will have the most long-term impact, saying “yes” or “no” to this new idea?
  • Would I like to see this ministry opportunity still happening ten years from now?

Because subtraction is so much more difficult that addition, these are questions to consider before approving of or adding new ministries this schoolyear. Here are some additional resources to consider:

  • Register to attend the Rooted Pre-Conference, which is specifically designed with the new youth worker in mind.
  • Listen to a workshop I led at last year’s Rooted Conference entitled, A Theology of Fun & Games, where we talked about the blessings and the challenges of “fun” in youth ministry. Fun is not the enemy… but it can often distract us from the reason we got into ministry in the first place.
  • Kevin DeYoung’s Crazy Busy and Tim Challies’ Do More Better are both very helpful books that can help you evaluate how you spend your time, both personally and as a ministry.

Mike McGarry is the Director of Youth Pastor Theologian, has served as a Youth Pastor for 18 years in Massachusetts, and has two youth group aged kids at home. He earned his D.Min. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has published three books – most recently, “Discover: Questioning Your Way to Faith.” Mike is committed to training youth workers to think biblically about what youth ministry is and to training them to teach theologically with confidence. You can connect with him on social media @youththeologian.

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