Youth Ministry Can’t Keep Focusing on the Wrong Numbers

About fifteen years ago, a colleague of mine — call her Mary — had an awkward interaction with another youth pastor, “Sue.” Mary was hurt because Sue, with whom she had become friends, was actively recruiting girls out of Mary’s youth ministry and small groups to come to her own Sunday night gathering. (Some people call this “sheep stealing.”) Mary confessed to Sue that the recruiting of “her” girls hurt her feelings. Mary wondered if Sue thought she was doing such a bad, ineffective job that the girls were better off in her ministry.

Sue apologized for hurting Mary’s feelings but defended her recruiting practice by saying, “My job is to increase the number of names on our roll and the number of students at our Sunday night gathering. That’s what I get paid to do, and that’s what my performance is measured by.”

Sue’s “sheep stealing” measure is what I would call a “front door focus” rather than a “back door focus.” With a “front door focus,” the mission and metrics of the ministry center on the superficial measure of how many kids walked through the front door on a given night. Less attention is dedicated to whether they have instilled deeper spiritual maturity in the child as they walk out the “back door” upon graduation.

Most youth pastors know the awkward feeling of going to a youth ministry conference or gathering where people ask, “How many kids do you have coming on Sunday night?” Historically, this has been the measure that matters and the litmus test of success; big crowds on Sunday nights equals ministry success.

Most youth ministry blogs, podcasts, and conferences have reinforced this mentality over the past thirty years. Generally, the focus of resources and instruction centers on ways to recruit more students with games and creating the right ambiance to attract more kids. Given that most youth ministry training and content deals with these matters, a “front door” focus continues to be reinforced at the local church level.

As the pandemic has sabotaged large gatherings, many youth pastors have panicked, and we have seen the “front door” syndrome flare up quite a bit in youth ministry during the Covid-19 season. The youth ministry conversation seems preoccupied with maintaining attendance numbers now or regaining them when the pandemic passes.

A Back Door Focus

For too long youth ministry as a whole has measured success based on the front door with less or no attention on the back door. Part of why Rooted was founded was to shift the focus away from mere attraction and toward effectively forming kids with life-long faith in Christ through gospel-centered discipleship. Cultivating sustainable faith in kids is the bottom line of youth ministry, and it is the bottom line of the mission of the church as seen in the Great Commission.

Do I think bigger is better? Yes, in most cases I do. I want as many kids being discipled in my youth group as possible. But numbers for the sake of numbers are useless. If a ton of kids are attending but they are not hearing the gospel, not being taught scripture, or not being cared for, then it’s worthless. Measures that actually matter focus on how many kids are consistently hearing exegetical biblical teaching with gospel proclamation (to both Christian and non-Christian kids) in a relational environment that fosters Christian community.

Grace-filled, gospel-centered, and Bible-saturated youth ministry possesses the power and substance to instill lasting faith in kids. A back-door focus begins and ends with the power of God through his word and gospel, and it flourishes best in a relational environment with life-giving Christian community. Effective discipleship must stem from a back-door mindset.

This discipleship ideal may take the form of small group Bible studies, one-on-one mentorship relationships, Sunday school, or Sunday nights. The form matters far less than the substance: the gospel, the word, relationships, and community.

Moving Toward a Back Door Focus

How does one move forward with a back-door focus at this strange Covid moment in history?

First, ensure that all of your ministry programs have the transformative substance of the Bible: the gospel. For example, at our Sunday gathering, we have a “gospel nugget” after kids hang out and after we play a game. The gospel nugget is a two-minute word of encouragement based on the basic gospel of grace. We sing three worship songs and then we have a talk based on a scriptural passage. Then kids eat dinner together. Everything focuses on biblical and gospel substance and life-giving community. There was a season when it lacked much substance and needed to be enhanced.

Secondly, recalibrate your numbers. Think less about Sunday night attendance and think more about how many overall students you have who are engaged with the word and gospel in a relational setting. In our case, the most critical measure is the number of students who are in small group Bible studies. In my youth group over the last twelve years, we usually have 2 to 3 times more students involved in Bible studies on a given week than we have in attendance on Sunday night. We have found small group Bible studies to be more transformative and effective discipleship tools, so we concentrate efforts there, rather than Sunday night.

Overall, we go through the list of all students in our relationship base and see how many are involved with one of the following: (1) regular attender of Sunday school, (2) in a committed, one-on-one mentorship relationship, (3) small group attendance, or (4) very committed to the Sunday night gathering. In our ministry, these are all places of consistent, substantive discipleship.

As you look to the future, I encourage you to drop the focus on the front door. First, concentrate on instilling as much biblical, gospel substance across your ministry as possible. Then, reconsider the way you measure success in the ministry. Let it be broader than numbers on Sunday nights. Finally, maximize the number of kids involved in substantive programs and relationships—it’s not about getting more students in the front door, but about discipling, equipping, and preparing students for a lifelong journey with Christ.

Ultimate success involves seeing kids walk with Christ in a lasting relationship. However, we cannot control that. That is the business of the Holy Spirit and the child. All we can do is try to engage as many kids as possible in Christian community with biblical, gospel substance. Those number advance the ultimate number, which is the number of kids who walk with Christ for life.

Cameron Cole has been the Director of Youth Ministries for eighteen years, and in January of 2016 his duties expanded to include Children, Youth, and Families. He is the founding chairman of Rooted Ministry, an organization that promotes gospel-centered youth ministry. He is the co-editor of “Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: A Practice Guide” (Crossway, 2016). Cameron is the author of Therefore, I Have Hope: 12 Truths that Comfort, Sustain, and Redeem in Tragedy (Crossway, 2018), which won World Magazine’s 2018 Book of the Year (Accessible Theology) and was runner up for The Gospel Coalition’s Book of the Year (First-Time Author). He is also the co-editor of The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School (New Growth Press) and the author of Heavenward: How Eternity Can Change Your Life on Earth (Crossway, 2024). Cameron is a cum laude graduate of Wake Forest University undergrad, and summa cum laude graduate from Wake Forest with an M.A. in Education. He holds a Masters in Divinity from Reformed Theological Seminary.

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