Numbers matter

Numbers matter in youth ministryThe old ministry mantra is, “It’s not about numbers.” In one sense, it’s true: numerical growth does not necessarily equate to spiritual growth in the lives of teens and families.

But too often youth leaders use the “we’re not about numbers” thing as an excuse to be lazy and to avoid taking a hard look at their ministry’s effectiveness.

In the words of Perry Noble, “Numbers matter because every number represents a soul.” Numbers don’t necessarily define health nor success, but numbers do matter to God “who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

“All people” is a big number! Don’t be content with “a few people.” God isn’t.

QUESTION: What role do you think “numbers” play in ministry?

Posted on March 23, 2011

  • David Mehrle


    You nailed this one on the head. It seems that we think numbers are a curse when we don't have them in our ministry. Yet, we numbers are good we see them as a blessing and that we are doing a good job. Just listen to any conversation between youth minister's and those who are doing well will have numbers come up and those who aren't we hide their numbers.

    Yes, numbers are a measuring stick to how you are doing in reaching people.

  • I think numbers matter, but they should not be the sole basis for job performance. Churches rely too much on Sunday School Attendance numbers, Role percentages present, and baptisms/salvations (in my denomination) that at times those souls can get lost in the shuffle, when in reality the church is called to make those souls into disciples. I would agree that we can use numbers as a copout in both directions. Just because you give pizza and ipads away and you have 100s of students doesn't necessarily mean you are doing a good job. But also just because you say "Jesus had 12, so I'm happy with these that I have." doesn't mean you're doing a good job either. I think being diligent in pursuing new folks into your ministry is very important, but when you get them there, you have to be diligent to disciple them.

    • David Mehrle


      This is why I think that we need to be careful to make sure that our churches are functioning on all the purposes of the church, not just discipleship or evangelism. It appears to me that most churches are unsure of how to do both.

      • I dont think it's an either/or, but a both/and, deal. I truly believe that if students are focused on discipleship and evangelism, then fellowship, worship, etc. will take place. One thing I think is a decent gauge is are your leaders reproducing themselves in their students, who are in turn reproducing themselves in other students? A lot of times when the word "numbers" are mentioned, addition is the rule of thumb. "Are we getting more kids in the seats?" But I think the numbers Christ is more concerned with is in regard to multiplication – are we making disciples who make disciples or are we just giving students fire insurance.

  • pastorE

    Numbers can be deceiving. We should not equate big numbers with God’s blessing. Neither should we equate low numbers with God’s blessing. God forbid we criticize mega-churches and then begin to take pride in dwindling numbers just as some pastors take pride in swelling numbers. Both mentalities are centered on numbers. If we begin patting ourselves on the back because our churches are shrinking, we are just as prideful as those who pat themselves on the back because their churches are growing.

    Numbers do not tell the story.

    Emptying your church does not mean you are faithfully preaching the gospel. You might just be boring. Filling your church does not mean you are faithfully preaching the gospel. You might just be a good entertainer. Numbers should never have the last word. We must commit to faithfully preach the gospel in season and out of season. And let us never succumb to the temptation to see success or failure solely in terms of numbers.

  • mkenn17

    I would agree with Brandon's assessment. Numbers matter but they can become an idol in our ministry. They can also be a great picture of what is going on in your ministry as well. Ultimately, though, I think we need to realize that numbers do not always represent whether we are doing a good job or not. Paul reminds us that it is God that gives the increase (whether numerically or spiritual depth). My advice for every student pastor is to passionately seek after God, encourage students to do the same, and honestly evaluate your ministry on multiple levels (student involvement, parent involvement, spiritual growth, numerical growth, salvations, integration within the overall church body, etc.).

  • BroTroy

    Yes and No. Success is not numerical growth. We can not keep up with Walt Disney or Chucky Cheese. If you try you will wear yourself out. As youth ministers we do not have the budgets. What success is, is spiritual regenerated growth. The move of the Holy Spirit through the youth ministry to change lives. This can only be done by a youth pastor that is obedient to the Word of God and committed to prayer. But yes, the more students that hear the Word, the more opportunity for this regenerated growth. So if you have enough volunteers to disciple 100-200 student successively thats great, but if you only have you and your wife, you better stick to group around 12 to 15. Success should not be in the eyes of man but in the eyes of God.

    • David Mehrle

      "if you only have you and your wife, you better stick to group around 12 to 15"

      This is a sign of a bigger problem in your ministry.

  • Rob Johnston

    What role do you think “numbers” play in ministry?

    I think numbers are a great way for the general congregation to see how well you're doing. IE: "We don't have a clue what goes on in there, but there's a lot of kids, so it must be doing well."

    To those on the outside:

    Numbers are misleading..

    Numbers are for show..

    To those on the inside:

    Numbers are infinitely important if viewed from the right perspective.

    The more kids who come to youth, the more kids I get a chance to tell about Christ and who He is. The more kids who come to youth, the more kids i can tell to bring a friend.
    The more kids who come to church now, the greater number either stay in or return to church as young adults.

  • I think we also forget a lot of times that the single most dominant factor in youth group size and growth is church size and growth. I used to get frustrated that we didn't have 50+ kids each week. But our church is less than 200 people, and more than half of our families have kids who are either too young or too old for youth group. My church is growing slowly and steadily, and as it does I know our youth group will, too.

    It's easy to talk about and achieve explosive growth when God gives you a new vision and you start a new church. It's much harder to see explosive growth when you're trying to turn around a 95 year old church that has a very well-defined "culture".

    • matt

      Show me a youth pastor who sees growth through the lens of who is already coming and what families are already here, and I will show you a youth ministry that is merely "keeping" and not "reaching."

      I know youth ministries running 600 in a church running over 20,000 and I know youth ministries running 150 in a church of 400.

      Size of the church is not the most important factor in youth group size. Leadership is.

      • mkenn17

        I hate to disagree but I'm not buying the "Everything rises or falls on leadership" mantra. I think leadership is important and student pastors should seek to follow Christ and lead as effectively as possible. However, the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of students (ie. God's work) is the most important factor in any student ministry. I don't care how great of a leader you may be, without the work of God, nothing built will be lasting!

        • That's very true. Totally agree. That doesn't mean we're off the hook for our leadership, but we definitely need to lead while relying on the Holy Spirit.

        • Matt Lawson

          Agreed. I assumed that was assumed.

      • Wow, Matt. It's hard not to read your comment as an insult, but I'll give you the benefit of the doubt…

        I didn't mean to imply that I only view youth group growth as a function of church growth. Not at all. It's simply the biggest influencer of youth group size. You might know of a church of 400 with 150 kids in youth group, but my guess is that for every one of those you probably know of 15-20 churches of 400 who have 50 kids or less in youth group.

        • Matt Lawson

          Sorry bro. I didn't mean for it to come across that way. I tried to delete it after writing but I couldn't.

          I guess my question in response to "for every one of those you probably know of 15-20 churches of 400 who have 50 kids or less in youth group" is…what makes the "unusual" circumstance different? Why does a youth group of 150 exist in a church of 400? Obviously the move of God has a lot to do with it. I also have to think it has something to do with leadership. I talk with/to/for hundreds of youth pastors every year. I'm convinced the missing ingredient for most is leadership.

  • my senior pastor's favorite mantra right now seems to be "we measure what we value" so each week at staff i have to report the number of students from each grade that attended our programming that week. I agree that we need to keep track of students coming into (and running out of) student ministry so that we can follow up with them, help them connect beyond just student ministry and make sure they know we care about them as people. The only problem I have is when "how many kids do you have?" or "what does your program look like?" become the only questions I'm asked by senior leadership. So I've taken it on myself to not only report numbers but share stories of how God is moving in students lives. It's true "we measure what we value" but we need to be careful of what kind of value we are placing on those things we are measuring. Are they souls in desperate need of a savior that we are striving to reach…or simple statistics to put on a graph that will make or break my position in ministry?

  • From the comments so far, I think one thing's clear: numbers are a great tool for measuring effectiveness, and they can be abused to hurt ministries and people as well.

    Here's a story our lead pastor tells: Imagine if he went camping with his wife and two kids, and they came back with only one kid. If you asked him, "Where's your other child?" wouldn't you think it odd if he said, "Well, it's not really about the numbers…it's about the quality of what goes on in our family."

    Great questions…EVERY person matters to God.

    • I wish i could "like" this, but apparently that takes place on some other site….

      And I will steal your lead pastor's illustration – that's great!

  • Great post Tim. Albert Einstein said, "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." For instance spiritual growth is hard to "count" but it really counts! And, attendance numbers can come from all sorts of things (a "juggling flaming poodles" youth group night comes to mind!) I guess the only thiought I owuld add to your excellent post is that, while attendance numbers matter, they don't matter nearly as much as a growing percentage of new conversion growth due to teens reaching teens with the gospel. In other words the best numbers come from teens reaching teens with the gospel and bringing them to youth group as a result. That counts and can be counted!

    Keep up the great work brother!

    • Shawn_Michael

      I wrote this a few years ago:…. My take on the whole NUMBERS thing.

      I agree that numbers are important because "numbers are lives", but it is also not the best measuring stick of a ministry's effectiveness.

  • Student Minister

    I think we need to look at horizontal numbers as well as vertical ones. I look at numbers from who attended a seeker event, small group, service, mission trip, fun trip, etc. I want to see where our students are spiritually and not just attending. I have found that when your horizontal numbers go up your vertical ones will follow. When the vertical only grows they usually outgrow church.

  • Matt Lawson

    Resisted the urge to respond but here goes…

    #1 – We lead a generation in this country where 96% live Christless lives all around us. I find it difficult…no impossible…to justify an argument that suggests having fewer students attend church is somehow greater than having a larger number attend.
    #2 – Kids "don't get it" is a terrible reason for not wanting more students to hear the Gospel and have the opportunity to mature like Christ. Student minsitry offers possibilities and opportunities for students to be saved and mature. Beyond that, God and the student are responsible.
    #3 – Tim, love you but disagree. We should "corral" students where the Gospel is preached. Too many student ministries will be empty tonight because we've made no effort to get students there.
    #4 – Leadership matters most (both yours and the leadership above you). Other reasons for having a student ministry that doesn't grow are subordinate.
    #5 – I agree wtih Stier

    • As for #3, I don't think we necessarily disagree, I was just emphasizing that it's better for our youth group kids to be missionaries than it is for us to unintentionally teach kids to outsource their evangelism efforts to someone on a stage at a Christian event. I'm not saying the event is wrong or that you shouldn't corral kids there, just that I don't think it should be the emphasis of our group's evangelism strategy.

      And thus, we both agree with Steir. :)

    • Liljo

      I am driving the bus tonight for students. On the other hand, I come back week after week thinking, who came up with this concept that churches have to have a night at the church where youth gather? and if you don't then what will the kids do? What I am saying is, let's go to where the kids are is a great concept. Why does it have to be in our building with a band, games and Bible study. Could student pastors be more effective as assistant coaches, teachers and such? The way I see it yes but the church or should I say the ones who hire us would never call that student ministry. I have devoted myself this year to volunteer at a school and you know what? Sometimes I feel like more of a pastor to those students then my own church kids. They don't seem to be consumers, they just seem to care that I care.

    • Matt, I'm going to admit that the posts ypuve placed seem rather judgmental of those youth pastors in the trenches at small churches. The impression comes that if your youth group is small then its wrong. I'm not saying that's your intent, but its the vibe I get. You mentioned in a post that you speak to/for/with youth quite a bit. Perhaps you speak to large groups. That isn't the same thing. I've spoke at camps, churches and other youth groups and its great. Most love you, but they also don't have to hear you every week and you don't deal with the deeper mess every week. The guy there loves when a speaker comes because it is fresh and can bring out some great decisions, but then he does the hard work afterwards. I do wish for higher numbers and we make that effort. Some of us have limited budgets and resources and do what we can with what we have and what God gives. Jeremiah preached the Word with no converts from what we can tell, but God still had him preach. We must do the same – whether a large group or small; whether it grows or evcen shrinks – continue to give the truth and to love. And pray for a harvest. Maybe you will see it and maybe the field will be plowed and planted for the next guy. Butt I encourage you all, as a 9.5 year veteran at the same church, keep on keeping on. I look forward to a new thing we can afford with 3 teensin 2 weeks – dare2share in chicago. Maybe God will use that to help our group reach out to those around them. Thank-you for the opportunity to share here.

  • While I am one that often says stuff like "numbers shouldn't matter," I do find myself taking a number count at youth group every week. This is purely for evaluation, though. The thing I get tired of is when I go to a conference or something and all the other youth ministers ask, "How big is your youth group?" Like that's the thing people judge by…as if they should be judging at all. What we should be asking are things like, how many baptisms have you had in the last year…or how many new people do you have coming…or how many are in mentoring relationships and working on their spiritual growth? Those are the numbers that should really matter. It's not about how many butts you have sitting in your chairs every week. It's about the souls that you are affecting.

    • I used to feel the same way when people would ask, "How big is your youth group?" and some people may be using it to judge or evaluate the wrong things, but often I think people ask it for more innocent reasons, like to learn more about your ministry context, the kinds of responsibilities you carry, and how much time you spend in an office. The size of the youth group tends to determine what those things look like.

      • True, and the majority probably are harmless/innocent. But I guess I just don't like those questions. It feels too "corporate" to me. If I were in a business, I would expect to be asked those questions, but I think church/ministry should be different. We should have different standards to how we evaluate. Not to mention, I get the idea that people want to compare when they ask, "how big?" Many times, the future of that conversation depends on the size of your group compared to theirs. That saddens me.

  • Benjer, I like how you think! Excellent use of numbers.

  • Mike

    Numbers matter, because with a bigger crowed, there's more people to hear, BUT. Let's say I have a core of 10 kids, they are always there. Those 10 kids are fired up, they like what we do, how we do it, and grow and learn. Each one of those 10 has 2 friends that they witness to, and their friends are attracted to the idea, so they come. Maybe I don't connect with all of those kids, maybe out of the 20 brought in, 5 stay, the other 15 go to other groups, and find groups that feed them and they feel a connection, but because of the impact of the kids I do reach, they are now in Church. Is that a failure? After all, we only had a 25% retention of the new kids. Or is it a success, my ministry brought 20 kids in to the kingdom of God, even if they didn't join my group, they joined the important group.

  • Enjoyed reading all those comments. As most of you said, numbers mean people. The more people that attend an event, the more teens can be reached. Usually, the process that can be measured, can be looked at more critically which can then be seen if it is effective or not.

  • Every number has a name. Every name is someone we should hope to see in eternity… Numbers matter…

  • Alexx

    I see what you're saying and I can see how easy it would be to make a transition from 'numbers don't matter because the spiritual growth that is happening is amazing' to 'numbers don't matter … and then i can be lazy'. I am the volunteer youth leader in my local Salvation Army corps (church) and our numbers are small to start with. Yet at the same time, when I take on the ministry fully within the next 3 months or so as I begin a year of discipleship with the Salvation Army after my degree, with God's grace and mercy, we may expand. Am I/ Should I be discouraged that we are a small group, or should I be showing them God? God asks us to go out and bring His message to people, granted, but if that does become our only concern we forget to pastor those who need it and are trying to get there already. I'm not trying to say that I personally would not go out on the great commission, but I feel God has asked me to minister to those who are working towards Him, and focus in on those who may come to church, but not be His, rather than going out and recruiting new disciples for Him. Any thoughts welcome on that.



    • I think it's good that you have a sense that you know what target audience you're called to reach, but two thoughts come to mind (since you asked for feedback).

      1. Try not to mistake your calling with what feels comfortable. Do you just prefer the church kids because they're easier to work with and are more interested in what you have to say?

      2. I'm not sure scripture gives us the option to primarily focus on just kids inside the church nor those outside. The great commandment and the great commission both mandate that we focus on both. Discipleship is often more comfortable, but everyone is called to share Christ with unsaved people around us, whether evangelism is your spiritual gift or not. It's like the gift of giving: not everyone has the gift, but everyone is commanded to tithe, ya know?

  • I believe it is important to place a high priority on the numbers, especially on the numbers not present. The parable of the lost sheep is a great indicator of how numbers should direct our hearts. But I think it can be difficult to explain this focus to the 99 when you are in a congregation setting. A great deal of energy, effort, and sometimes change is generated to reach a measly 1%.

New eBookGo
Focused Youth Ministry ebook

85% off!

Focused Youth Ministry

This practical "how to" ebook will walk you through a 30-step process to discovering God's vision for your unique ministry context. The process also shows you how to implement that vision and put metrics in place to evaluate what is moving the vision forward and what isn't.

Price: $12.95 Limited time: $1.99