I love the difficult questions because they make me think. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been blessed to spend time every day with a room full of thinking people who minister to children, teens, young adults and their families. We’re at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on the beautiful North Shore of Boston (yes, it’s very easy to go to school in a place that looks like this!) for an intensive residency as students work towards their Doctor of Ministry degree in Ministry to the Emerging Generations. While I’m a member of the three-headed teaching team that includes Duffy Robbins and Adonis Vidu, I’m blessed to be learning and stretched in ways that I hope will make be a better follower of Jesus Christ and a better ministry practitioner.

The practices of ministry have been our focus in this our third and final residency.We’re asking ourselves the hard questions about what we call evangelism and discipleship. One of the tensions we’ve wrestled with over the last three years is that tension between width and depth. While I know it isn’t really fair to simplify width and depth to an either-or kind of thing, it is a balance that we have to think through. In other words, should we focus our ministry efforts (church, youth group, etc.) on strategies and practices that fill the room, or should we focus on taking people who have decided to commit to “live” in the room, deep?
Those of you in youth ministry are no doubt familiar with my friend Duffy Robbins. Duffy has been thinking and teaching about these things for years. Yesterday Duffy reminded our students of some basic principles that relate to ministry numbers. Maybe you’ve heard Duffy say that “what you win them with is what you win them to.” In other words, if we adopt at attractional model that uses magnetic props/experiences to get them in the door, they’ll be drawn to the magnet and not necessarily to Jesus. Or, as Duffy reminds us, “If you win them with pizza you’ve won them to pizza.” Duffy also talked about how focusing on spiritual depth and discipleship can be a numbers killer. The deeper we go, the fewer the people we’ll have in the room who will go deep with us. 

We’ve had some stimulating and theologically deep conversations about these matters with this cohort of doctoral students. These aren’t easy questions and we rarely all agree, but they are questions we need to be asking. This year we’ve consulted with some great writers who have led us into pondering the why and how of what we do. . . people like Gordon Smith, Eugene Peterson, N.T. Wright, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Dallas Willard. In his book The Spirit of the Disciplines, Willard has a little section under the heading “Christian Leaders Responsible for the Future of the World” . . . that’s on page 245ff if you’re following along at home! What Willard says here is worth thinking about as we ponder how we do ministry in our unique ministry settings. He says, ” . . . the responsibility for the condition of the world in years or centuries to come rests upon the leaders and teachers of the Christian church. They alone have at their disposal the means to bring the world effectively under the rule of God.” Simply stated, what I plan to do in youth group tonight and how I choose to do it has deep deep implications for the future. . . a kind of “butterfly effect” if you will. 

Willard goes on to challenge the sacred cow of ministry bigness that we are prone to relentlessly pursue on our contemporary ministry landscape: “Ministers pay far too much attention to people who do not come to services. Those people should, generally, be given exactly that disregard by the pastor that they give to Christ. The Christian leader has something much more important to do than pursue the godless. The leaders task is to equip the saints until they are like Christ (Eph. 4:12), and history and the God of history waits for him to do this job. It is so easy for the leader today to get caught up in illusory goals, pursuing the marks of success which come from our training as Christian leaders or which are simply imposed by the world. It is big, Big, always BIG, and BIGGER STILL!. That is the contemporary imperative. Thus we fail to take seriously the nurture and training of those, however few, who stand constantly by us.”
Think about what Willard says. I wonder, is it possible to have too many kids in youth group? Too many students in the campus fellowship? Too many people in church?

8 thoughts on “Youth Ministry and The Butterfly Effect. . .

  1. I wonder would you ask that last set of questions to Jesus as he taught 5000 people one day on a hillside? I don’t think this is an either/or scenario, preaching to saints or sinners. I believe it is a both/and. We preach to the saints (Eph. 4:12) and we go into the world and make disciples of all people (Matthew 28:19). Sometimes I think the church gets to caught up in thinking instead of doing, or going and being the hands and feet of Jesus.

  2. I would tend to disagree with Willard and his quote in this entry. It rubs me the wrong way (maybe it’s just semantics) but his language seems to neglect the Great Commission. Am I to believe that, as a Christian leader, I should not care about my neighbor because he does not care about God? My premise is that I do not believe that there is anything more important to pursue the Godless. If this approach had been taken throughout history then there would be a lot fewer Christians. Once you are at a point in your faith where you can accurately defend your faith and teach others to do so then by all means it is your responsibility to those individuals as well as to ‘Go and make disciples of all natons.’ Not just nations who already believe in Christ.
    Either or cannot be the end of this question. You need a balance between Christian discipleship and evangelistic outreach. To answer your question: yes, there can be too many kids in youth group. If your number exceeds the amount of capable leadership mentor relationshiops you can have. No, you cannot have too many people in church as long as you recognize that church does not stand for the name of a building or institution. Church is a collection of believers, the bride of Christ…and that quota can never be exceeded.

  3. I don’t think Willard would disregard the Great Commission. I actually think that his comments are indicative of his desire to see us fulfill the Great Commission. . . to make disciples. Is it possible that our efforts to “reach” people reflect marketing technique shaped by our consumerist mentality all done with good intent, but resulting in draining the Gospel of its deep call to costly commitment. . . and we’re doing this all without knowing that we’re doing this?

  4. I agree with what Purschy says, that it is not either/or but both/and. I think that the attractional model is necessity in some sense to bring people to you, though it is only the door in. Jesus was attractional with all his miracles that drew thousands, yet it was only a fraction of those people that remained disciples after three years. I also believe that the discipleship focused model is necessary because what is the point of bringing kids in if you can’t keep them in. I believe that who you are and your own experiences in church will dictate which model you are drawn to. If you have the gift of evangelism then the great commission is about evangelism. If you have the gift of shepherding/teaching then you might percieve the great commission to be about disicpleship. There is a great need for both in our youth ministries, as well we need to recognize that we tend to emphasize one over the other which highlights the importance of having other ministry team members who emphasize the other.

  5. The struggle to me is that we in the evangelical church have based ministry on an “attractional” model from our inspection on the ecclesiastical scene. Our ministries are more oriented toward trying to get as many people together as possible so we can preach to them or teach them. Events, whether they be youth group meetings, Sunday morning worship services or evangelistic crusades are all many of us know and the only way we know to do ministry. Even disciple making is often limited to putting people in classrooms and teaching them the principles of the Christian faith. Jesus invested himself in all of us by giving up His comfort zone, identifying with us the midst of our sins, serving the Father by being a servant to us and finally sacrificing Himself so we could have a way into relationship with the Triune God (Phil.2). While He did preach to thousands as pointed out by others, the focus of His ministry was making twelve disciples by walking with them through life and using life experiences as teaching moments. If Jesus is our pattern then that must be our model for making disciples. Events are good. Drawing a crowd is not bad – Jesus did it, yet often tried to get away as often as possible. Preaching and teaching groups of people is essential. Yet if that is the core of our ministry we are missing it. We must invest ourselves and all God has placed in us in those who are willing to grow so they can invest themselves and what God has places in them into others who are willing to grow. This kind of disciple making is the essence of the pastoral, teaching, leading model lived out for us by Jesus. If our ministries are devoid of sacrificial investment in other individuals it does not matter how well you preach or how exciting an event you throw whether it be at youth group or Sunday morning service. If we do not develop a more invest ministry model the church will never influence the world – at least not the way Jesus did.

  6. I so want to rail on Willard for these words, “too many could be bad”. I want to take offense that I could not design a program that could sustain both the interested/ uninterested searcher as well as the apprentice disciples and journeymen followers. However, as I have lived into these ministries and worlds, the truth is probably not too far off.
    We are each in this because we understand that a vital and vibrant relationship with Christ is how we were all meant to live, how we are made to thrive. This is truth and kids are craving truth and something that their soul’s resonate with even if their actions don’t always allign with it. What does it take to communicate that? What does it take to communicate that and then teach people to live like that? Time… time and love….time, love and the Holy Spirit.
    How many students can one person sustain in this journey at a time, I think the answer is not many. Jesus himself had 12 and even then lost one and really poured himself into 3. Seems like a good model. However, what can 3 or 11 become? Look around. So the question I ask myself is am I willing to be nothing so Christ can be everything? In the midst of the politics, the expectations, the craving for the lost, the crying for the broken, the struggling for the one; can I remember that the goal, or realistic expectation, is to reach a few at a depth that triggers the longing of their daily, living, breathing and walking around lives to exist within and through His love. I will not give up on the masses, but I will, and I will encourage as many other adults as I can, to focus on the few.

  7. I could not agree with Ben’s comments more! Well said. Good perspective. It strikes the balance between our hopes and dreams in ministry with the knowledge that our God is greater than any obstacle and the reality that we are broken people seeking wholeness in a broken world. Thenk you, Ben. Thank you, Walt, for sharing from your heart and for giving us hard questions with which to wrestle.

  8. I guess my answer depends on your definition of ‘reaching’ for people. Do I believe many in the North-American church have based their evangelism strategy off consumerist goals? Possibly myself at times? Absolutely (even if it’s subtle and unnoticed.) However, I also seek to embody the example set by CS Lewis in his quote “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations–these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whome we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit–immortal horros or everlasting splendors.” So in essence I believe it comes down to the motivation in how one aproaches evangelism & how you view others. Are your goals inwardly focused or outwardly? Are you driven to increase the names in your church role book or the Book of Life? In answering these questions I believe we answer the previous questions. Our perspectives and motivations must be Biblically aligned in order to simultaneously build up and reach out.

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