by Paige Bach
In my first year serving at a small church, there were fifteen youth regularly attending programming. In my second year, the number dropped to ten. By my third and final year, I had a core group of just four youth consistently coming to programming. At first glance, this seems bad. You might be thinking that I’m a complete failure of a youth minister. In reality, it was just a fluke that things worked out that way. Every year students graduated out of the program, and there were no students in children’s ministry who were ready to move up. This meant that not only did the youth program not grow in numbers, it actually continually shrunk.
Everything I thought I knew about youth ministry flew out the window because everything I knew was designed for youth ministries much larger than my own. Most of what is frequently advertised and promoted about youth ministry has a programmatic focus. I spent the better part of my second year at my small church figuring out what it meant to do good youth ministry in my micro youth ministry context. You must learn your context and understand the needs of the people in and around your small church community. After better understanding my context, I switched from a programmatic focus to four guiding principles.
Build Relationships One of the biggest blessings of having a small youth group is that you can invest significantly more into the relationships you have with each youth, their parents, and their siblings. Take the opportunity to not only build strong relationships with your youth, but also with their parents and siblings as well. This effort helps bond you together and helps you better minister to the whole family. One of the best ways you can build relationships is by doing life with your youth and their families. Go out to dinner with them, go to sporting events, plays, dance recitals, band concerts–anything your youth are involved with. Just show up. Most likely you won’t get to spend much time with your youth, but it’s valuable time to spend with their parents and siblings. This valuable time helps to build stronger relationships on a foundation of caring about the youth and what they are involved in.
Listen to Your Youth When ministering to a small group you get the unique opportunity to actually listen and find out about their individual interests. Because I only had four students, I was able to tailor events, activities, trips, and lessons to exactly what my students wanted and needed. When you have a big group, programming can become generalized, but with my core four, I was able to give them exactly what they wanted and needed.
Go Big or Go Home With fewer youth in your ministry you most likely have more money per student to spend, SO SPEND IT! Go all out for events or trips! Make your students feel the love, and make every moment you spend with them special. I was also able to regularly treat my youth to whatever they wanted at Sonic. There is no joy like a middle school boy being told he can order anything he wants off the Sonic menu. If you have giant numbers in your ministry it’s hard to be able to treat students like this often, if ever, but it’s one of the perks of a small ministry. I made sure that when it came to youth group at my church l, students knew that they mattered and that meant investing time, effort, and resources into giving them the best I could. Small numbers don’t mean students deserve lame events, in fact, it means the opposite. Invest big in what you do for them, it pays off in the long run.
Show Up and Stick Around There are going to be times when no students show up to Sunday school, or Wednesday night youth, or the event you spent weeks planning. While it may be easy for you to just leave after five minutes of no one showing up, it’s important that you stay for the entire time. You never know when someone will show up late. It’s important that you are present even if no one else is. Just show up. Half the battle is physically being there, but you have to have your head in the game as well. I made the habit of always having a deck of cards or a question book on hand just in case only one or two students showed up. By spending the time playing cards or answering funny questions, you are showing those one or two students that they matter.
Having a small youth ministry can initially seem disappointing, but it can be an absolute a gift. Enjoy all the moments you spend with your students and their families. Invest in their lives because it matters. God has called you to ministry and has placed you in this church, and you have the incredible honor of getting to invest in the church and its youth and families.
Use this week’s download to investigate your church’s culture and the community you serve. The assessment has questions that will guide in this process no matter where you live and serve and no matter how long you’ve been there. Use it with your student ministry team or if you are new to your church do it on your own. The guide is especially helpful to churches who have lost connection with the community around the church. It can also be helpful to churches who think their community makeup is one thing but the needs of their people are actually different. Let us know what you learn! Download Here.
Paige Bach is the Director of Next Generation Ministries at Providence Presbyterian Church in Fairfax Virginia. Paige has a Master of Arts in Youth Ministry from Memphis Theological Seminary through CYMT, as well as a bachelors degree from Florida Southern College in Religion and Youth Ministry. Paige served as the Director of Youth Ministries at Connell Memorial UMC for 3 years before moving to NOVA with her fiancée Diane and their one eyed cat, President Abraham Lincoln (PAL). Paige loves all things outdoors, and on the weekends, you’ll often find her hiking, hammocking, or camping.
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The Center for Youth Ministry Training joins the millions of people around the country and the world crying out for justice. We are praying for the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, for all impacted by racial injustice, and for all who are experiencing anger, fear, sorrow, and pain from these horrific incidents. We are concerned about how these killings and the deep divisions of our country are impacting all young people.