I will never forget the very first time I lead a youth group meeting. In my early days of seminary, I was volunteering in the youth ministry, working closely with the youth pastor, learning all I could. When he gave me the chance to plan and lead group for the night, I jumped at the opportunity and spent countless hours in study and preparation. I rehearsed and refined over and over again until I was confident that my message, my questions, my object lessons, and stories were dialed in just right.
The moment had arrived.
I sat near the back of the room praying and preparing myself, asking God over and over to fill me with the Spirit, to speak through me, and to use me.
The moment had arrived.
I came around the corner to begin the night, and there were a total of five students. In a youth group that boasted a regular attendance of twenty to thirty, there were five. In a moment, all the preparation and prayer faded into the backdrop and a flood of emotions overtook me.
Perhaps even relieved?
I admit it. A small part of me figured (even hoped) the youth pastor would cancel the night or change the plan. Nope. It never even crossed his mind. So I pressed on. It was awkward at times. At times it felt like I was talking to myself with a few other people in the room. At that moment, if it were up to me, I would have canceled the night. I am glad my pastor didn’t, because let’s face it, it happens. We plan for a gathering of many and only a few show. It happened to me then, and plenty of times after. I am sure it has happened to you. If not, give it time—it will.
That first experience could have sent me down a very negative path. Getting discouraged and disappointed was easy. We all want big crowds. The energy in the room feeds us and our message. However, that doesn’t mean at the first sign of trouble we jump ship, nor should we stick to the plan no matter the cost or attendance.
While attending a conference, I walked past a workshop room with only a few people and the presenter was plowing through his material from the podium as if there were a hundred people. It was odd and out of place.
So what should we do, when we expect a large crowd, only to be welcomed by a small few?
There are several ways of handling this so we can preserve our message and soften the blow to our ego. Let me give two of what I think are the most valuable.
The value of what you have prepared is never lost, even if you have only one student. But change the delivery method. You don’t have to deliver content pretending there is a large crowd. There is no shame recognizing the smaller group and adapting to the environment. Talk over the same material, but perhaps over coffee or in a small circle. There was a time I had only a couple of guys show up, so we played some basketball while I taught them the lesson I had prepared.
Take the message to your students
We often think that if we can create a good enough event students will show up. However, that is not necessarily true anymore. There are far too many things pulling for the attention of those we minister to. So, instead, take the message to them. Be there. Be at games, concerts, lunches, etc. Reminding students that you care by showing up on their time, will significantly increase the chances they will make the time to come to group, participate in missions, etc. Find out if there is a time when a group of students can meet with you outside of regular youth group time. Chances are if you show them you value them and their time, they will reciprocate and appreciate their time with you.
The landscape of student ministry is beginning to change. Depending on your circumstances and demographics, the traditional model for youth gatherings (as in students come to a designated night for games, food, and teaching) may not serve as the best possible method for reaching your students, so be creative.
Be open to change. Remember, your methods may have to change, the message and mission never does.