I recall some years back a friend being diagnosed with cancer. Some seemingly minor symptoms had emerged that led them to have a check up through which the cancer was discovered.
To me they looked outwardly healthy and yet their “health” was deceptive. They needed treatment before what was unseen became evident. Without such treatment any health they were experiencing was not sustainable.
This example comes to mind when considering healthy and sustainable youth ministries. We can easily look at what is happening on the surface and mislead ourselves into thinking all is healthy and that such health is sustainable.
Here are three symptoms that appear positive (and may actually be positive) but can in fact mask deeper problems that threaten health and sustainability:
1. “The young people enjoy coming and attendance is growing.”
The most common rule of thumb we utilise to measure success in youth ministry is numbers attending. Why? Because numbers are easy to see and can be measured immediately.
In my spare time away from ministry I’d much rather build something than plant something in the garden. When I build things, I can see clearly at the end of the day what I have accomplished, and when I wake the next day it’s still there waiting for me to further build on what’s been done.
When I plant seeds in the garden I look out the window the next day and nothing looks different. In fact it can take weeks before I see some indication of success, and more weeks still until I can enjoy the fruit of my labours.
Equally in youth ministry the “success” of what we’re doing can take a long time to show. It’s not too difficult to attract numbers: provide food and drink, make it fun and young people will come. But the question is not “Who came last week?” but “Of those who came last week, who will continue to come and who will still be coming a month, a year, five years from now?” In other words, “Who will develop a mature lifelong faith?”
If we use entertainment to get people to come, chances are we’ll need to use entertainment to keep them coming and eventually the world will offer far more attractive entertainment than we do, and they’ll be gone.
Instead of being preoccupied with numbers, churches should be more interested in what a youth ministry is doing to build disciples.
Disciples last. Attendees come and go.
2. “The youth leader has really turned the group around in a short space of time.”
Jesus told a parable that made mention of a seed that fell on shallow soil and quickly sprouted, but when challenges came it died again because the roots had not gone deep enough (Matthew 13). While He was referring to the effect of His word in people’s hearts, He might just as well have been talking about youth ministry.
Youth ministries that are founded on a leader’s personality, gifts and charisma, and rapidly grow through these things, can just as easily collapse again once that leader leaves. I’ve seen this happen too often.
In contrast, a leader who builds on God and His word as their foundation, may see less spectacular growth but that growth is likely to be longer lasting (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). Such a leader will build on the person of Jesus, the head of the Church (Colossians 1:18). He will be the one people look to – not the leader themselves, and as such they will build something that lasts beyond their own tenure.
This leader will not seek the limelight by doing everything themselves, but will have an approach to ministry that seeks to develop other leaders, equipping them to share in the work of ministry (Ephesians 4;11-13).
This approach takes time. Health and sustainability is unlikely to be evidenced by a “quick turnaround”.
3. “The youth ministry has discovered a formula that’s really working.”
The moment we reduce the reason for our youth ministry’s health down to a formula that works, we start down the road to becoming unsustainable. That’s because God’s Spirit doesn’t work according to formula’s – He “blows where He wills (John 3:8). If He only worked according to a formula, we would have no need of Him once the formula was in place.
My favourite subjects at school were maths and science, because once a formula was understood and memorised, results were consistent and right. I realise I can wrongly take the same mindset into ministry: “If I continue to do a, b and c, God will necessarily produce results x, y and z.”
But God is not bound by mathematical or scientific formulas.
While it’s true that He works according to certain principles, and that such principles are common to ministries that are healthy and sustainable, somewhat paradoxically, one of these principles is that leadership needs to continually seek God and discern where He is leading. What He is doing today will alter in the future as needs and people change. This is no better illustrated by the way He led Israel in the wilderness. He didn’t provide them with a map – instead He lead them personally by a pillar of cloud and fire (Exodus 13:21,22)
A healthy and sustainable youth ministry will therefore have a continual sense of unease and restlessness. It will constantly be asking, “What is God doing? Where is He leading?” and will alter and even abandon previous formulas that worked, in order to keep in step with the Spirit.
So in summary, let’s see health and sustainability as goals to attain, but let’s not be too quick to label outward evidence of such goals as being the real thing. Building these takes time and can only be discerned by the Spirit.
Attempting to discern health and sustainability by short term outward evidences is rightly labelled “folly” (1 Corinthians 2:14).