from big to small..the art of downsizing in youth ministry


I was recently at a panel discussion for youth pastors and the question asked by one of the youth ministry students was “how large is your youth group?”  While a few were teetering around 10-15, the majority of youth groups in our area hover around 25-35 students (who actually attend). Of course there is always that anomaly. This particular youth leader proudly boasted of over 100 students. Everyone was enamored until they heard me.

(you are probably thinking to your self, “self, how big is his youth group?)

I answered by saying we have _____amount of students, but are trying to get…smaller!

Stunned silence. This was probably not the reaction or answer they were expecting.

You don’t often hear youth pastors saying that they are trying to decrease in size.

Have you ever heard any type of entrepreneurial business or organization boast of downsizing?

But, if we were to be honest with ourselves, isn’t  that what youth ministry has actually become?

A sort of self-promoting entrepreneurial enterprise…that exists for the glory of God..(and self) but of course we keep that on the hush hush!

Usually, youth pastors try to get large budgets, higher attendance, more buses, and use what they have to leverage for more and better.

Kind of sounds like a start-up company turning into a Fortune 500!

And certainly the Wall Streets of youth ministries are known across the country, and envied by everyone.

well..not everyone

Now let me clarify the title of this article. By downsizing I do not necessarily mean preaching so hard a message that would drive away even the apostle Paul from your youth group. Nor do I advocate installing morality detectors at the door to minimize the number of unruly or uncommitted students.

It should be noted that some argue for this, because Jesus was apparently always thinning out the crowds looking for the “true disciples”.

I don’t think it is wise to intentionally try to eliminate kids (yes even the really smelly and annoying ones who always seem to show up early and leave late)

However, rather then focusing so much time, effort, and often money into bring new kids in…

let’s focus on equipping and ministering to the ones we already have!

If the youth group grows, so be it.

But even if it does not (numerically), your current students will experience life-changing relationships that will impact their high school and college years through adulthood (and probably will be a greater impact for the kingdom of God down the road then many of the mega groups)

Here are some ides:

Rather than do your annual winter ski retreat that 50 kids will come out to, change your winter retreat to a weekend service project. your may “downsize” to 25 kids but will guarantee have more of an impact of those who do come.

Change your popular progressive diner night to a feeding the hungry night (help out with a food pantry, soup kitchen, or actually walk the streets and feed the homeless)

With big groups comes big challenges (see article on “Crowd Control vs. Relational Ministry)

But I think that one of the biggest problems is that the sheer size of a group can limit the possibilities and potential.

It is hard to be accountable to 50 friends.

It is hard to see how you make a difference when lost in a crowd of 2,000 at some conference

It is hard to commune (fellowship) with God and others when being shuffled around like cattle from thing to thing in the midst of an endless torrent of media.

Simply put, it is really hard to journey down the path of spiritual formation and connectivity in the big.

This could be one of the reasons why house churches worked so well for the early church and some people argue that the institution of Christianity in Rome (and subsequent building of massive worship centers) began the downfall of the early church.

Mark Oestricter (YS Marko) brilliantly states,   “Smallness prioritizes relationships over numbers”, and only in the small can students genuinely and authentically discover true mission, identity, communion, and intimacy with others and God.

Communion necessitates small.

Contextualization begs for small.

Discernment requires small.

Mission is lived out in small.

So, if your current youth ministry is not as big as you once dreamed, thank God for that and refocus your time and effort on the spiritual health and growth of the students.

It’s time to get small again!


3 thoughts on “from big to small..the art of downsizing in youth ministry

  1. I appreciate these thoughts and they resonate with me. I think discipleship is done in the small and not in the sea of big.

    Man, where was this blog 3 years ago when I got canned from my last church? Its good to see you expressing the same questions I have. I’m sure I have something to learn from you.

  2. Good article – I would have loved to see people’s faces with the whole getting smaller comment. : ) My first senior pastor used to tell me that “numbers are key, spiritual growth will come later.” Bit of a conflict since I believe the opposite, spiritual growth is key, numbers will come later! : )

  3. Amen. Amen. Amen! I couldn’t agree more. In the past 20 years I’ve seen youth ministry really grow into a business where the key is to increase your customer base as much as possible. Your understanding of downsizing is just what many ministries need to hear. Thanks.

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