If you teach a Sunday school class of 2nd graders, you get lots of feedback. They’re either engaged or they aren’t. They are happy to be there or they aren’t. They easily show affection. If you volunteer in the parking lot ministry of your church, the cars either get parked or they don’t. People either easily find their way into church, or they’re frustrated with circling the lot. If you preach sermons in “big church”, people let you know what they think, both with body language and verbal (or written) feedback. It might not all be positive; but you’ll get feedback.
Really, almost every other ministry area in the church provides natural feedback loops. Not so with middle school ministry. And I’ve seen, over and over again, that middle school youth workers look for feedback (a normal and healthy thing to do) in the wrong places. If we hope to get verbal or written feedback from middle schoolers as a barometer of our ministry effectiveness, we will always be wanting for more (at best) or completely misguided (at worst).
What I’ve observed is this: when middle school youth workers don’t get feedback from the kids themselves (or their parents, or the church), they often look to unhelpful measuring sticks to gauge whether or not they’re on the right track. The most often used measuring stick, of course, is numbers. We wrongly assume that more kids means we’re doing things right, and that—conversely—less kids means we’re doing things wrong.
Numbers do mean something. But they can be misleading. It’s fully possible (I’ve seen it, many times) that your ministry can grow because you’re entertaining kids more. Or, your numbers can drop because the church down the street is entertaining kids more. If your ministry starts to see an attendance increase or decrease, you should certainly pay attention, and do some digging to find out why it might be occurring. But don’t assume it’s good or bad!
Another measuring stick middle school youth workers often wrongly apply is whether or not kids seem to be quickly “getting it” and radicalizing their lives to the end of being Christlike. Certainly, we do want to see middle schoolers move toward Christlikeness; but instant results are often misleading, and an apparent lack of movement can be equally misleading.
So, use thoughtful measuring sticks. Are we shooting in the dark, then? How are we to know if we’re having any impact? What feedback can we look to?
I’d like to suggest a handful of “measuring sticks;” but, I’d also like to encourage you to look further, pray more, and discern how God might be leading you and your team in the area of considering success, or the lack thereof.
- Are middle schoolers known? Do the kids in your ministry have an adult who knows them by name, and is connected with them at a personal level?
- Is our group inclusive or exclusive? Are there kids who can’t find belonging? Are new students welcomed, and made to feel that their presence is valued?
- Do kids (and leaders) in our group care about the things that God cares about? Does our group notice others, especially those at a disadvantage? Does our group care about worship and justice and serving others? Or do we only exist to make ourselves happy?
- Are we actively walking alongside middle schoolers in their physical, emotional, and spiritual development? Are we normalizing their experience, and helping them understand how much God loves them?
- Are we providing opportunity for real belonging, where middle schoolers can know and be known? Are we cultivating genuine communion (community with Christ in the mix)?
- Are we engaged in the mission of God in the world? Are we discerning where God is active and present, bringing restoration and redemption, and joining up with that work?
- Are we helping middle schoolers to understand scripture? Are we helping them speculate about how scripture might implicate their lives? Are we helping them see the scope of God’s big story, and how their lives connect to what God is doing?
- Are we honoring parents in our ministry? Are we communicating well? Are we working to support parents in their spiritual work of raising their children? Is there anything we’re doing that could be counter to this value of supporting and building bridges with parents?
- Are we, as leaders, modeling a life of Christ-connectedness? Are we pursuing God? Are we transparent and real about our pursuit, success and failure?
- Are we focusing on teens or programs? Which takes priority in our planning, time usage, and resources?
My suggestion is to do this: spend time prayerfully discerning, with your middle school leader team, the values and emphases of your ministry (these might morph and evolve over time, by the way). Then regularly spend time checking in on this list. Ask:
- “How are we doing on each of these?”
- “What have we allowed to slip?”
- “What do we need to do to strengthen those areas that are weak?”
Ask for input from parents, other church leaders, and middle schoolers themselves.
Mark Oestreicher is the author of a bunch of books, and a partner in The Youth Cartel