I heard clapping in the worship center and breathed a sigh of relief. I was waiting in the senior pastor’s office for the final tally of ballots, and the applause suggested the vote had gone positively.
After six years as a pastor of a small rural church, perhaps my life had grown too predictable. For reasons that weren’t readily apparent at the time, God was moving me from the pastorate to youth ministry. It wasn’t quite the move that I had anticipated as I completed degrees in biblical studies and ministry, theology and divinity—but it was, without any doubt, God’s direction.
A few months later, I found myself waiting for the results of a vote in this mid-sized exurban congregation. When I heard the applause, I rightly assumed that the position was now mine. My predecessor in this position had attracted sixty or more students each Wednesday evening and more than one hundred students each year for camp. Attendance on Wednesday nights had dropped into the twenties after the previous minister’s departure—but everyone in the congregation seemed certain that as soon as they called a new youth minister, the numbers would race back to their previous peak and beyond.
When I walked out of the office, a host of smiling church members greeted me; a decade removed from that moment, I can recall the words of only one well-wisher. The reason I remember his words is because they came back to haunt me many times in the months that followed. The words came from an older man known as Buck who walked with a limp and spoke with a smile.
“So glad to have you here, Brother Timothy,” he said as he gripped my hand. “I know, with that guitar of yours, you’re going to keep these youth here in our church—and bring in a lot more too. They’re the church of the future, you know.” With that, he hobbled down the long hallway, shaking hands with everyone he met.
Buck was one of the most godly and faithful men in that congregation. To this day, I still cherish Buck’s contributions to the church and to my ministry. And yet, in that moment, Buck was wrong. He had, with the best of intentions, bought into a vision for youth ministry that has driven untold numbers of student ministers to the brink of burnout and beyond. This false vision runs something like this: The purpose of student ministry is to gain and retain youth by entertaining them until the time comes for them to serve the church as an adult.
When that false vision becomes the focus, the standard for success becomes attendance and retention, and the central agenda becomes finding the right ministers and methods to attract the highest numbers. The result of such a focus tends to be a frenetic and unsustainable search for the latest hints and methods from the fastest-growing ministries. Driven by this false standard for success, ministers become the ecclesial equivalents of the philosophers of Athens who were known to search incessantly for “something new” (Acts 17:21).
I must admit, however, that Buck’s words felt good to me at that particular moment: I and my trusty six-string were like a congregational life insurance policy that would retain a rising generation of youth for the church’s future.
I quickly discovered that a loud guitar and a hunger for numbers simply weren’t enough.
On my first Wednesday evening, I received my first hint that this task might be more difficult than I’d imagined. After a couple of games, I gathered the students for some high-energy worship songs, followed by a few slower choruses. At the end of the musical set, I leaned my guitar against an amplifier, lifted my Bible over my head, and asked, “Okay, how many of you brought your Bibles?”
At first, no one responded.
And that’s when he said it.
He was a senior in high school and five-year veteran of this particular youth group.
“This is youth group—we don’t do Bibles here,” he said. “We’re here to have fun.”
Over the next few weeks, I persisted in my focus, and I discovered that this senior wasn’t alone in his motivations for attending youth events. Numbers plunged into the low double digits. Parents complained to the pastor that their children weren’t having enough fun. Church members—unaware that the previous minister’s weekly youth group had frequently consisted of an hour of games and horseplay with a devotional tacked at the end—wondered why youth attendance on Wednesdays hadn’t spiraled into the seventies and beyond.
I spent most of that first year torn between the conflicting expectations of the pastor, parents, students, and my own conscience. The pastor wanted greater numbers of youth and peace with the parents of these youth. The youth wanted a constant string of entertaining events. The parents wanted entertaining events too—but they also expected these activities, in some inexplicable way, to result in their students’ spiritual growth. From the perspective of some parents, I was the person that the church had hired for the tasks of discipling and entertaining their children.
What I did not recognize at the time was that the primary problem was not the students’ desire to be entertained—that was merely a symptom. The problem was a model of ministry that I was embracing even as I tried to move the ministry in a discipleship-focused direction. This ministry model positions a professional minister at the center of the ministry and makes gaining and retaining students the goal. In the case of student ministry, it turns youth group into a holding pattern for the church’s future instead of calling students to live as servants of the gospel in their community of faith here and now.
But what if this ministry model is flawed at the very core?
What if gaining and retaining numbers isn’t the right goal in the first place?
And what if the center of the ministry isn’t supposed to be the efforts of a pastor or professional minister?
Sometimes, when a ministry makes much of Jesus and the gospel, the results do include numeric gains or stellar retention rates. Seven weeks after Jesus erupted alive from a garden tomb, three thousand women and men confessed Jesus as the risen Lord, and the congregation still kept growing (Acts 2:41–47). Before long, well over five thousand names could be found on the church rolls (Acts 4:4). Even after two church members dropped dead while trying to bamboozle the apostle Peter, new believers still swarmed into the community (Acts 5:1–14). The earliest Christians rightly thanked God and recognized this growth as a glorious and wonderful outpouring of God’s grace (Acts 2:47). And yet, gospel-centered proclamation of Jesus Christ doesn’t always result in visible growth.
Sometimes, it’s possible to make much of Jesus with negligible results, at least as far as any human eye can see. The same Word of God that yields manifold fruit in one heart may be rejected as repulsive in another (Luke 8:4–18). The results of proclaiming God’s truth could even include outcomes that seem negative from the perspective of retention rates (1 John 2:19). Furthermore, it is possible to attract and even to retain a multitude of followers for all the wrong reasons (2 Peter 2:1–2).
Yes, growth is part of God’s good design for his cosmos (Genesis 1:11–12; 2:9) and for his church (1 Corinthians 3:6–7; Ephesians 2:21; 4:15–16; Colossians 2:18–19; 2 Thessalonians 1:3). And yes, the proclamation of God’s Word does result in growth and in the fulfillment of God’s purposes (Isaiah 55:10–11), but this growth may take place in ways that are difficult to quantify in ratios of attrition and retention. Growth often unfolds less like a series of figures on a ledger sheet and more like seeds sprouting in the soil or like yeast seeping through a lump of dough (Luke 13:18–21). Godly growth is sometimes slow, often hidden, and frequently frustrates our dreams and designs. But it is always centered on Jesus and the gospel.
All of this has profound implications for why and how a church ministers to families. If the congregation’s motive for forming a family ministry is to find a programmatic panacea to solve a perceived problem of losing young adults, the strategy will have failed before family ministry even begins—even if every church member applauds the new program as a resounding success. Such a congregation has bought into the soul-draining delusion that growth depends not on the Word of God but on implementing the right programs to respond to each problem.
This sort of family ministry results, at first, in a rapid flurry of family-friendly activities. Then, as soon as new problems and new programs come along, the family events fade into the background as the newest quick-fix takes center stage. Such patterns reflect much of the pragmatic consumerism of Western culture and little of gospel-centered community. According to the apostle Paul, the pagans of past cultures “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” (Romans 1:23). In our own way, we too trade the glory of God for the short-lived pleasures of lesser gods. Whereas the pagans exchanged divine glory for images of terrestrial beauty, we tend to substitute one more curriculum, one more series of steps to success, one more problem-solving program that eclipses the gospel.
Gospel-motivated family ministry is not a program to fix a congregation’s retention problems. It cannot be reduced to a series of conferences or activities or seminars. The kind of family ministry is a movement that equips Christian households to function as outposts of God’s kingdom mission in the world. Families become contexts where Christian community is consistently practiced with the goal of sharing the good news of God’s victory far beyond our families. The gospel is rehearsed in families and reinforced at church so that God’s truth can be revealed to the world.
For more on gospel-motivated family ministry, try this resource.