Shift #6: From Big To Small

Here is the over simplified statement.

We need to get smaller.

big to small

Ok, I don’t actually mean losing weight like in the Biggest Loser (kind of a cool and ironic title)

Youth ministries need to get smaller.

We have lost our sense of intimacy, community, and intimacy when we moved to the big arenas and stadium style seating in our youth rooms.  The early churches were house churches. They were small, organic, and probably felt much like a family gathering.  Small youth groups have a similar feel and that is a good thing.  These are the groups when each student is personally contacted and has relationships with the youth pastor and youth leaders.  Names are known, specific prayers are offered, birthdays are celebrated, prom pictures taken, sporting games, school recitals, graduations and hopefully one day weddings attended.

In these types of groups and settings, when one student is missing, it changes the dynamics of the entire community.  They feel special, wanted, appreciated, and invested in.  It is hard to have that kind of atmosphere in the midst of hundreds of students.  For those of you in large churches, don’t think of your situation as better.  You probably have a greater challenge in finding ways to create a sense of small and intimate than the small church leader down the road.

I personally cannot speak of that situation. I don’t know what it is like to have 500 students show up at a youth meeting like many of you might. But I hope to learn from you and possibly encourage/challenge you to put yourself in their shoes for the evening.  While I am sure the glamor and excitement of the lights, music, skits, band, and youth pastor protected on the overheard screen is appealing, how do those things reach down into the inner pockets of their heart and soul?  Sometimes students can easily hide behind the glitz never to fully engage their entire beings.  For deep healing to occur, for spiritual formation to develop, for authentic and life-long relationships to be built, and for the still small voice of God’s spirit to be heard, we must get smaller… somehow.

I have adapted and combined some previous posts regarding this and concluded with a new ending.  This new culmination serves as additional thoughts, questions, and challenges regarding the Big vs. Small issue of youth ministry.

My premise is that emerging youth ministries will celebrate being small or (for the bigger ones) find ways to create a more intimate atmosphere for students.


There exists a myth out there that bigger is better.  This myth certainly has impacted the maintstream media but has also found its way into youth ministry and has infiltrated our philosophies and approache.  I will explain.At youth group, we play a game about once a year called “Bigger or Better”

We send groups of 5 out into the community armed with one roll of toilet paper. (not to throw at houses and cars as some students have assumed over the years!)  Each group’s goal is to obtain something from a neighbor that is either bigger or better. Sounds pretty simple, but you would be amazed at the stories over the years…and the crap we have received! (not to mention a few police run ins).

One thing that this sort of game demonstrates is that the roll of toilet paper really is not very desirable.  And, while it is fairly easy to observe and judge which new item is bigger…how does each group decide upon what is better?  I would imagine their thought process and decision making would alter depending on whether or not someone really had to the use the bathroom!

Awhile back,  I was down south (in the heart of the Bible belt) and was talking with some fellow youth pastors.  One of whom had a very large youth group.  He was a great guy and never once actually threw out a number (like so many youth pastors do)

By the way…have you ever noticed when someone at a conference asks “How is your ministry doing?” generally they really mean to say “how big is yours?…..”

But this guy talked about their programs, the masses of “unreached” students who come into their warehouse each Friday to play video games, skateboard, make fried food, and hear a message about Jesus.

All of which sounded really cool (and since his youth group business card had a cool graphic design on it) I stood awed and amazed.

For some reason, I figured I could learn from this guy since his made mine look small (typical boy locker room stuff, right?)

I don’t mean to be crude, but this was actually how I felt that evening.

So when my turn came to speak about my ministry, I sheepishly told him what we did not have.

That list was pretty long and took some time to verbalize.

But then…

I shared with him the graduation parties I went to, the birthday parties, sporting events, and recitals I have been to. I shared with him the times I have had my students over for a meal, the intimate and honest conversations we have each night at youth group, and how I truly feel like part of their family over the years.

Tears started to form in his eyes.

And as he wiped away the misty glow he stated, “Man, that’s what youth ministry is supposed to be about. I envy what you guys have going up there in New York.”

Imagine that!  A big time Bible belt mega church youth pastor envious of some no name, no logo, no website youth ministry tucked away in the liberal North East!

So what’s so amazing is that in the pursuit of the Big, we have lost a sense of the Best.

Students really don’t care about being entertained or being surround by thousands of teens. Sure, it may generated a sense of temporary excitement, but what they ultimately value and appreciate are youth leaders who enter into their lives and not stand apart from it.

You see, it is easier to hide behind productions and programs that we do for the teens, than to enter into the messiness of teenage life and be burdened by their individual struggles, fears, and doubts.

But the last time I check, most youth pastors went into the ministry to do just that. But somewhere along the way we got the Bigger is Better itch (maybe at a conference or by visiting another youth group.

We come back to our tiny youth room with old couches and think..I must be doing something wrong.

We think…”Maybe a new book with new ideas will spark my ministry. Maybe I need a bigger budget. Yeah, that’s the ticket. A bigger budget will somehow lead to more students, and then somehow having more students will lead to more spiritual growth.”

I contend that sometimes just the opposite is true in emerging 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 subtitle of this chapter. 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

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.

He continues this theme in his book Youth Ministry 3.0

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.

Another problem with large youth ministries is big events.

There used to be a time where I wanted to host big events…I have to admit.

The more students who walked into our doors, the more impactful I thought the night would be.

In my mind, this equation was constantly at work

more students= better youth group

Things have changed however.

Last year we hosted a Halloween party with another youth group.

We packed the place out, the kids were crazy, and it took us about 2 hours to clean up after. Of course with that came a bunch of noisy, chaotic teenagers running around our church loaded up on candy and dressed funky.

At first i thought I was the man!

I mean really…having that many kids in our church at one time (I could even somehow manipulate the numbers so it looked like our average attendance was increasing..brownie points for elders!)

But as I got to reflecting and conversing with my team, I realized that something was amiss.

I asked these important, and often missed questions, and received these answers.

How many conversations did you have with new kids?– zero

How many in depth conversations did you have with our own kids?– zero

Do you think the kids felt or experience the warmth and love of Jesus?– maybe, but doubtful

Then it hit me like a bulldozer plowing into an old building..or more like getting smacked in the privates if the truth be told.

We were so busy doing crowd control that we could not do youth ministry!

So, why did we do this event in the first place?

Now, sometimes these events are worthwhile for a number of reasons

1)  You can get to know new students and have new students get to know your program.

2) It can provide and safe and easy way for students to invite their friends to church.

3)  Once you have them in your church, you can lock the doors, give them pizza and then trick them into listening to a message about their sins!

But what I have experienced and conclude is that an overall approach like this is unhealthy and unwise and should not be our ultimate aim or goal (as it was mine when I first started out)

I mistakingly thought that we would really “arrive” as an established youth ministry if we could begin hosting large events like this maybe once a month. I would lie awake at night imagingin having multiple youth groups, kids coming in from the streets, maybe even atract a football player or two!

All the while, never realizing that what we have already been doing…had been incredible and powerful.

The Wed nights, emails, conversations, coffee times, MacDonalds visits, recitals, dinner invitations at home, with the group we already had…these were building long-lasting friendships.

We were really entering into the lives of these students, their pain and suffering along with their joys and hopes.

It is hard to do that with teenagers you meet just once and hardly have the time to even get their names right.

So for the sake of our students, let’s find ways to get smaller.  Perhaps through intentional small groups, more phone conversations, one-on-one meetings, smaller and more frequent events, etc… we can create an atmosphere where every single student feels cared for and nurtured.

In a way, we want to be like that great TV show back in the 80’s Cheers

Cheers- Boston


Our students want to go where “Everybody knows your name”.

I will close simply by posting the lyrics to the famous theme song from the show.  I think these words can aptly describe what we hope our youth ministries feel like to students.  Emerging youth groups will have that Cheers type of atmosopher and live out the lyrics

– Cheers Lyrics

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.

Wouldn’t you like to get away?

Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.

You wanna go where people know,
people are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows
your name.


3 thoughts on “Shift #6: From Big To Small

  1. I struggle everyday with the thinking big is better, its like every new vision/idea I have gets filtered through lets get more students, have a bigger youth group or hold a huge event. So I have trained myself to say no to the inner Doug Fields of the 1990’s.

    So I thank you for your words it is good to be reminded by someone other than myself that small more intimate groups that promoted authentic relationships is where I want my group to strive for.

    It truly is comforting to go where everybody knows your name

  2. Great post! Some of us are blessed to have smallness thrust upon us! I’ve got maybe 40 kids on the youth roll but – for a variety of factors – can expect a MUCH smaller group on a regular basis and I’ve begun to enjoy it quite a bit!

    I’m learning that the 5-10 kids I can expect on any given Sunday night are developing friendships that they never would’ve had in a smaller group. The hardest part of being small is convincing the rest of the church that not only is small okay, it’s a good thing (Especially in a congregation filled with type-A business people).

    The more I pray and am immersed in the scriptures the more I am realizing that relationships are THE most important aspect of any ministry. The possibility for such relationships, I’ve found, decreases as the size of a youth group increases.

    Thanks so much for your encouraging thoughts!

    Grace & peace,

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