No, I’m not talking about falling asleep in church on Sunday morning. I’m talking about the ministry numbers game that leaves many of us discouraged and burned out.
I have been part of a big youth ministry family for years now. Most of my close friends either are youth pastors or help out with their local church’s youth ministry group. Whenever we hang out we always end up talking about the number of students we had at this event or that event and it can get exhausting. I alway ask myself, “am I doing something wrong that I didn’t have 100 high school students at our outreach event last week?” We start to lose track of the real reason we are here, to teach the next generation how to be a disciple and help them discern what God’s call for their life is.
I hear a lot of other people talk about ‘numbers are not everything’, but no one ever gives us a way to get over that nagging feeling that we just never have enough. That’s the ‘American Dream’ right? If you work hard enough then what ever you want will be yours. To bad that it doesn’t always work out that way. No matter how hard I work, I will never find a Youth Ministry job that pays $250,000 a year, plain and simple. I’m ok with that, and I hope you are too. So, how do we keep ourselves from becoming discouraged and burned out when our groups don’t grow ten fold by the end of the school year like church down the street did?
There is no way to stop ‘counting sheep’, but we can learn how to get over the syndrome of comparing our ministry to others.
4 Way to Get Over Sheep Counting Syndrome
1. Give 100%, 100% of the time
Students can tell when we are not all there. Last year my church tried to start a contemporary service at 5:30 on Sunday evenings. I was put in charge of it, and it took a lot out of me. By the time 7:00 sr. high youth group rolled around I was wiped out and the students could tell. I could tell in my ministry those nights that I was not able to give my all because I had already given my all about an hour before. Give yourself enough time to rest, enough time to plan well, and enough energy to give every last bit to the students you have. A Methodist pastor once told me that after a great 1 or 2 hour service or youth group, you should feel like you have gone through an 8 hour work day. You have to leave everything you have on the table for your students. You may very well be the only gospel they ever see or hear.
We also have to avoid thinking, “well I only have 50% of the students I should have, so I only have to give 50% of myself tonight.” The students and leaders that are there have taken time out of their weeks to learn and grow spiritually. When we focus on the people who are not there, we are criticizing the worth of the people who are.
2. Avoid the popularity contests.
17 God didn’t send me out to collect a following for myself, but to preach the Message of what he has done, collecting a following for him. And he didn’t send me to do it with a lot of fancy rhetoric of my own, lest the powerful action at the center—Christ on the Cross—be trivialized into mere words. ~ 1 Corinthians 1:17 MSG
In this first chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul is discussing the divisions in the church in Corinth. The church was separated into 4 different camps of people who follow either Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or Christ. In verse 17 Paul warns us that fancy words and rhetoric remove the power of Christ himself to add followers to The Way.
Todays youth ministries have many things that we use to attract people, ranging from skate parks to fancy websites. This inevitably has people fall into the camp of “if only we had ____ then we would have more students.” If we only had a youth worship band. If only we had a bigger and better youth room. If only we had more volunteers. Youth ministry, especially in suburban regions, has become a popularity contest to see who can attract the most youth with the most gimmicks. A lot of the time they target the students that are already involved in The Church instead of the untouched. These gimmicks have become our fancy rhetoric. Paul tells us we don’t need it, and that, in fact, it will lessen the power of Christ himself. We just need to stop comparing ourselves to the neighboring churches and focus on the students that we have already and the un-churched youth in the community. We should be encouraging one another instead of being jealous of one another.
Last weekend, I helped a friend with his confirmation retreat by doing the music and worship for the weekend. Instead of being jealous that he had 15+ youth in his confirmation class when we are struggling to get past 4, I was finally able to see past it. I am so excited for him and his ministry. When we can turn jealousy into excitement, we grow the unity of Christ’s Church!
3. Don’t forget your own spiritual life.
As Church workers, we are all here because we have faith in something so great that we have to share it with the world, and for myself and others, God has called us to teach the next generation. All too often though our spiritual life falls to the wayside while caring for other’s spiritual lives. We all need to fed from somewhere. Whether that is from the church we work at or another one, it doesn’t matter; it just needs to happen.
Ask yourself when the last time you read scripture not while you were preparing for a lesson or a sermon. If you had to stop to think about it for more than 5 seconds, its been too long. I admit that I forget all the time to let myself be fed by scripture. You could even ask the same thing about prayer. We work in a house of prayer yet sometimes we can go the whole day without praying once. If we have a continual relationship with God and Christ, like we ask our students to do, we will be blessed. That could mean with more sheep to tend or a joy in the sheep that we already tend.
13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. 14 Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. 16 Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. ~ 1 Timothy 4: 13-16 NIV
We need to remember not to neglect our gift and the giver that gave it to us!
4. Never ever give up.
11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. ~ Romans 12: 11-12 NIV
This has been one of my favorite verses for years! Never be lacking in zeal! The Contemporary English Version says never give up. Giving up is not an option. You have to take that off the table as possible outcomes. Without giving up as a choice, what do you have left to do but press on and give it your all. I have met people who have gone through the hell of being let go by a Sr. Pastor and have still pressed on to change the lives of students they work with. Giving up is taking the easy way out; it’s selfish. Youth ministry, and ministry in general for that matter, requires your to be selfless, not selfish. If we wanted an easy job we wouldn’t have picked youth ministry. We are here to serve the Lord where ever and to whom ever we are called to! Dont forget that!