Measuring Effectiveness in Youth Ministry
I envy students. Every few months they get a report card that evaluates their growth. They are told how they are doing, where they need to improve, and how they can be sure they will graduate to the next level of their “career.”
Ministry, however, doesn’t have such a reporting system. We get no report cards that tell us when we are doing well or warning cards when we are failing. Measuring our effectiveness is an elusive task.
How can we tell if the youth ministry is going well? Are numbers the best gauge? Do unique programs guarantee that We are doing our best? Does a meaningful retreat measure our ministry’s success?
People measure the effectiveness of youth ministry in many ways. Some point to the number of unchurched students we have reached. Others point to relevance or big groups or flashy programs. How do we measure?
Evaluating our youth ministry requires that we know who asking the questions, what the questions are, and what we should do with the answers.
IDENTIFY THE JUDGES
Who evaluates the youth group? Ultimately, God himself our judge. He declares us forgiven or effective or healthy by the standards of Scripture. He reassures us that our youth ministry important, even when outside circumstances may tempt us to think otherwise. In the midst of apparent failures, he can let us know his grace and peace.
The opinion of the judge, however, is general. God’s Word can tell us how to live or the qualities that should characterize our groups; personal time with God can shape our leadership qualities, standards of behavior, or relational effectiveness, but it may not give us an overall sense of the quality of a retreat, the long-term growth in a junior high student, or the way to deal with a troubled family.
To assist us in the evaluation process, we must incorporate others as judges. Who sits with us to measure our youth ministry’s effectiveness? Who is the “jury”?
1. Partners in ministry. Spouses, fellow pastors, or volunteers who work with us often have the most realistic view of our youth ministry and of our effectiveness as leaders. They can sit back and evaluate without the subjective involvement that we might have. My wife keeps me from becoming overly optimistic or pessimistic. My peers help me look sanely at how I am doing as a leader.
Partners in the ministry can help us identify strengths and weaknesses that we might otherwise overlook. They can offer constructive criticism, point us to resources, or affirm us when we are discouraged. “Wounds from a friend can be trusted,” Proverbs tells us; our friends can wound us for the sake of our own growth and the sake of the ministry.
My partner in ministry, Tim, has served as a very valuable critic in our youth ministry. After over ten years of ministry in the same place, I was getting dull, and Tim came with some healthy and challenging questions. “Do you realize that there is very little Bible study going on?” “How long since you’ve talked on sex and dating?” “Shouldn’t we start using the video resources available for teaching?”
Without such questions, I’m sure my dullness would have increased, but our ministry has grown because of these healthy questions.
2. The young people. Other youth leaders often ask, “How can I tell if my program (or Bible study or Sunday school) is effective with my teenagers?” Many are quite surprised when I respond, “Why don’t you ask your students?”
Our teenagers are great resources and sources of feedback because they are right in the center of the teen world. They know what reaches them and what doesn’t. Questions like, “Are you feeling at home with our group?” or “Do these lessons help you understand and apply the Bible to everyday life?” will help us determine whether or not we are reaching our students.
Beware, though, because teenagers are not subtle. “Did you enjoy the retreat?” I asked one student (secretly hoping that he would comment on the quality of my talks). “Oh yeah,” he exclaimed, “the girls in your youth group are awesome.” Oh, well. . . .
3. The parents. For many youth leaders, the parents are viewed more like the executioners after the trial rather than the objective jurors. Nevertheless, we can’t evaluate our effectiveness without consulting them. Parents can give us good insight into what makes their teenagers tick, what programs are working well, or how consistently our students are applying the gospel to daily living.
A parent advisory board in the earliest days of my youth ministry was very helpful to me. A group of ten parents met with me monthly to talk about programs, to discuss ways that our youth group was succeeding and failing, and to brainstorm with me. At first the advisory board made me feel scared, defensive, or judged. but I eventually learned that these parents wanted the youth group to succeed even more than I did. Through them, I could learn what students talked about on the phone, what the “hot” movies or TV shows were, and what student responses were to youth group Bible studies.
4. Church leaders. The elders, deacons, or other ruling body in the church can inspire fear in any youth worker. To see the chairman of the board headed my way on a Sunday morning after an outreach concert still makes my knees tremble, but we need to hear from these leaders so that we can understand where the youth group fits into the priorities of the church at large.
Talking with church leaders helps us see if we are meeting church or ministry expectations of the youth group. I know of one leader who was reaching a large number of street kids, and he easily could have settled back and thought, “Wow, things are really going great.” He was devastated, however, to learn that—in his church’s opinion—he was missing the mark. The church leaders’ priority was a ministry to children of church families. This youth leader resolved the question of expectations by giving himself to the church youth and training them to reach the street kids, but he could have saved himself a lot of grief by identifying the church’s expectations in the first place.
5. Outside observers. Youth leaders from other ministries or other people in our own churches can be the most objective observers and evaluators. Allowing them to look over our program, watch us in action, or talk about our priorities can help reveal our own ministerial astigmatisms.
I was humiliated one day as I was having lunch with a fellow youth worker. I shared my frustrations about unappreciative kids, griping parents, and failed programs. As the older man sitting in the next booth stood to leave, he turned to me and said, “Let me ask you one question: do you love the teens you are working with?” Then he left. What a slap in the face! But I needed the rebuke, and this unknown exhorter helped me see that a good portion of my problems was in my own lack of love, not in my students or their parents.
ASK THE HARD QUESTIONS
No one likes to squirm under the pressure of questions like “Do you love your kids?” But we must face those questions if we are to grow. In our ministry, we evaluate by asking these seven questions:
1. Are students’ needs being met? Youth ministry needs to be addressed to the felt needs (like what does a Christian do about rock music?) as well as the real needs (like understanding the truth that Jesus is God) of young people. We must look at our ministry’s ability to address both as one way to measure our effectiveness.
How relevant is our ministry? Are we answering questions that no one is asking? Are we talking to our junior high students about when it is permissible to kiss when they are wondering about saving their virginity? Are we having seminars on career planning when our students are scarcely thinking about the next day?
We can’t blame the teenagers for disinterest if the focus of the youth group is irrelevant to their worlds and needs. We must listen to them, get to know the pressures that they face, and come into their worlds if we are to be effective.
2. Are our students learning the basics of faith? We must not spend all our time on the felt needs alone. If students know all of the answers about sexual morality, but they are unable to articulate the message of salvation, we will produce moral, nice people, but they will be incapable of leading others to faith.
Jacques Ellul has written, “We must not shelter the young from the world’s dangers, but arm them so that they will be able to overcome them.” Arming our youth means not only training them in Christian responses to secular media or teen phenomena like “Dungeons and Dragons,” but also equipping them in the basics of prayer, Bible study, and Christian disciplines. Certainly we need to make the learning of these basics relevant to the youth, but they must be a focal point of our ministries lest we build young Christians with high morality but no Scriptural foundations for what they believe.
3. Does our ministry challenge the whole person? The growth of Jesus in Luke 2:52 provides an apt model for youth ministry: he grew intellectually, physically, socially, and spiritually. Unfortu¬nately, some youth ministries focus on only one of these growth aspects rather than realizing the interrelationship—especially in the teen years. A young person may find it impossible to grow spiritually in a group where she feels like a social outcast or where he thinks that his physical appearance makes everyone hate him.
Solid youth ministries need multi-faceted growth. Do our ninth grade boys need a weekend away with male leaders that they respect so that they can learn some social skills? Does the obesity of twenty-five of our students tell me that an athletic “get-in-shape” program, offered sensitively, might meet a need? Seminars on “How to study” or workshops on “Healthy relationships at home” all can be part of a ministry that tries to address the multiple needs of students.
When I wrote an article about this subject for Christianity Today, a woman responded by pointing out an oversight in my questions, an oversight that revealed a weakness in our own youth ministry. She suggested that I add another question to my list: Are youth being taught to worship? If we are devoting ourselves to the growth of the whole person, we also must address their spiritual need to learn to worship the God we want them to obey.
4. Are we building families, not just young people? One pastor identified his ministry as “helping parents carry out their ministry to youth.” Parents hold the greatest God-given responsibility for their young people. An effective youth ministry must seek to minister to parents and the whole family as well as to the teenager.
Building families has meant offering seminars, writing letters, and even sending out lists of books available to parents of teenagers. Parents often respond enthusiastically to the help we can offer. If we communicate that we understand a little of their fears and frustrations, and if we are willing to offer them our listening ears, whole families benefit.
5. Are students challenged to serve? In an age where young people are called “self-absorbed,” someone needs to be challenging these same youth to live by the biblical truth, “we find ourselves by giving ourselves away in service to others.”
In an October, 1985, interview in Christianity Today, Taylor University President, Dr. Jay Kesler, discussed the apathy of modern youth. He pointed out that their apathy was not based on their lack of information but rather on their failure to believe that they could make any difference.
Challenging young people to serve means that we challenge them to make a difference. As Christians, young people need to be equipped to do the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11-13). We must train our teenagers to serve—each other, the elderly, the poor, and others who are beyond their normal sphere of influence.
6. Are our students prepared to move on? One of the greatest challenges of long-term youth ministry is that it lets us see the five-or ten-year results of our youth ministry efforts. The long-term view helps us to see where our youth ministries need improvement in training and preparing young people for the challenges and decisions that lie ahead.
Youth need training related to the college world or the working world into which they graduate. In the short span that we work with them, we must try to supplement the learning that takes place in their homes with biblical standards about decision making, ethics, and discernment.
Effective youth ministry means taking time—especially with high school juniors and seniors—to train teenagers in the dynamics of integrating faith into the “real world,” starting their own ministries, and witnessing in ways that are understandable in a secular world.
7. Are our students gaining a vision for reaching unbelievers? The ideals of evangelism and world missions are often missing in youth groups. This must change because we are working with the students who will lead our youth groups, churches, and mission organizations in the future. If they develop no sense of compassion for unbelievers in the teen years, it becomes increasingly difficult to build it into their lives later.
In the years when youth are most pliable, our ministries must build compassion for those without Christ. From their locker-mates to the unreached in China, youth need to be taught (and personal example is the best teacher!) to reach out, to witness, and to pray for others to become Christians. Complacency that is fostered in adolescence will be tough to extract in the adult years.
RESPOND TO THE RESULTS
After we hear from the “jury,” what do we do? How do we incorporate their evaluation into our ministry?
1. Affirmation. Good evaluation should lead to a sense of success—at least in a few areas. Maybe we aren’t reaching the whole person, but we’re starting to care for parents in a new way. Maybe only a few of our students are established in the basics, but there are a few—and they might be influencing others!
If every evaluation is negative, then we must be courageous enough to do some probing. Either God has put us in a tough setting to test our stamina and trust, or it may be time to get out of youth ministry. While I am not saying that success is the measure of effectiveness or obedience to God, total failure may be God’s way of telling us that our skills and gifts are mismatched to the jobs we have been given.
In most circumstances, however, the answers will be mixed. Some questions will reveal our strengths; comments from students or parents or co-workers may help us see where we are doing well. Don’t overlook these positive comments. We need affirmation in youth ministry. For our own health and sense of self-worth, we need to hear the positive answers before we proceed to correct the weaknesses.
I was reminded of this recently as we sent out another mission team. This one was full of problems. Oversights, problems with leadership, and stresses between me and the team were evident. In a moment of gloominess, I thought to myself, Why do I do this? My wife was God’s voice of affirmation: one problem doesn’t nullify the dozens of successful ventures. Sure, there were problems and areas that needed correction, but I needed to remember the positive factors before I moved out to correct the negative ones.
2. Balance. Do the responses show some area of weakness? Then we need to start taking steps to correct the flaws. But remember the need for balance. Too often we can overreact to a negative evaluation by swinging to the opposite extreme. If the youth group is too inwardly focused, the answer is not to destroy the small group network and force everyone into street preaching. The answer is to make slow changes within the existing system to work toward the desired end.
A few years ago we evaluated our youth ministry. Parents, volunteers, and students all agreed that we needed more adult leadership. At first I was tempted to rush out to recruit anything that breathed. My supervisors, however, helped me to keep balanced. We drew up a job description of the people we needed as youth leaders, and then we began the slow process of recruiting. A balanced approach to the needs of the group enabled us to recruit those who were gifted in youth work and committed to the teenagers rather than those who were willing but not able (which would have been the result of my hasty approach).
3. Change. Perhaps the most courageous act of a youth worker is to discontinue a program that has outlived its effectiveness or is no longer meeting any ministry goal. A healthy evaluation will inevitably reveal that some of our efforts are ineffective, that we aren’t teaching students what they need to know, or that something needs to be added.
Before making changes, however, we must go back to the jury. Do other people agree that a certain program is ineffective? If so, then we may want to work with that program and make the needed changes.
Before making changes, we also must ask if there are people in our ministry to help accomplish the changes—especially if we are considering adding something to our programs. For several years, I have wanted a support system for our single parents, but we have never had the appropriate people to do it. Each year we decided it was better not to start the program than to start it and see it fail four months into the year because it lacked leadership.
Before making changes, we also must assess our students’ commitment to God (and to each other and us). A heavy-duty discipleship Bible study is an unnecessary addition if no one in the group is a Christian, but a one-month discovery study in the Gospel of John may be appropriate.
Healthy evaluation should lead to deletions, additions, and modifications. These changes are best, however, when we have a realistic picture of the group situation in which we are working.
I used to work in a warehouse with a young man named John. Every night when John came to work, he would greet each person with a question: “Paul, do you like me?” “Peter, do you like me?” “Joe, do you like me?” His insecure questions never ceased, and eventually no one responded. They knew neither his question nor their answers were taken seriously.
We, on the other hand, must be willing to ask evaluative questions about ourselves and our ministries if we are to be serious about our growth. We don’t need to manifest the insecurities of my friend John constantly wondering if we are liked, but we do need to be willing to examine how we are doing and whether or not our ministries’ goals are being met.
Is our youth ministry effective? Gather the jury, ask the hard questions, and build for growth!
The above article, “Measuring Effectiveness in Youth Ministry” was written by Paul Borthwick. The article was excerpted from chapter 21 in Borthwick’s book, Organizing Your Youth Ministry.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”