Be Cautious about Number Fixation


by Mark Oestreicher

Like King David counting the troops (which, if we’re reading the Bible correctly, sure didn’t have a happy response from God), youth workers and other church leaders tend to be obsessed with counting. I do not believe that numbers are useless. They are an indicator of something. We just have to be very, very careful not to quickly assume what that something is.

It kills me when I hear a youth worker (especially a young youth worker) say something like, “We have 27 in our group right now.” That kind of accuracy is usually a reflection of number obsession. When pushed on this, some will respond with, “Yeah, but each of those numbers represents a real teenagers. Numbers are a reflection of people. I really care about people.” No. You are wrong. People are not numbers. Numbers quantify people, dehumanizing them. Numbers are not a reflection of people; they’re a reflection of our own need to justify our youth ministry jobs and feel good about ourselves. Dang, I wish I could wave a magic wand and deprogram this youth worker self-image building block.

countingOften, the question of numbers is one of comparison. As in, “I have more teenagers that that church, so I must be amazing.” Or, “I have less teenagers than that church, so they must be amazing.” Or, “I have less teenagers than that church, so something must be wrong with me.” We wrongly do this math: quantity = significance.

Maybe you even do this when you read articles on this blog about other churches’ 30 Hour Famine numbers. If that’s you, know this: some of the best youth ministry (and 30 Hour Famine experiences) is taking place in small churches with small youth ministries.

Again, I am not saying that numbers have no place. If your youth group suddenly swells from 4 to 72, you should probably ask some questions about what’s going on. It could be that the Spirit is moving. Or, it could be that something is significantly wrong, like they’re only coming because you’re giving away free beer. If your numbers steadily drop over a few years, it’s probably a reflection of something. But it could be that God is winnowing the group down to a size that makes sense for your gifting and calling. Or, it could be that your group is inbred and exclusive, and that there’s no place for outsiders.

I’m thinking about this today, because I came across an old comment on an old youth ministry blog from a veteran youth worker in a new church. He was sitting at a youth ministry roundtable event, at a table of 8 youth workers. During a discussion time, this occurred:

I did get asked the numbers question by someone. “How many students do you run?”

I said, “Somewhere between 2 and 1,000. I’m not sure; I’m still new”.

I love it. Focus on being true to your calling with whatever numbers you have. After all, Jesus only had 12 disciples.