When a new year rocks up on my doorstep I always fall foul of the same trap – thinking that somehow this year is going to be ‘different.’ All the things that were a problem last year will miraculously disappear and something new and exciting is going to happen. This is at worst naive and wishful thinking at best and I know that, yet somehow I’ve done it again.
One issue that’s been playing on my mind for the last term is numbers. Now I know it’s not about numbers and I’d rather have 5 serious committed Christians than a group of 50 people who just aren’t fussed. But I haven’t been able to shake the fact that the 14-18’s group does seem to be smaller in number than it was when I started. There are some positives here though. Although the numbers have dropped, we’ve all agreed as leaders that what we are left with is a much more solid and committed core than we had when I started. That’s not to say that everyone who comes is a committed Christian, far from it, but we can’t shake the idea that ‘something’ is ‘going on.’ So maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe I’m falling foul of worrying more about the numbers than about whether these kids love Jesus.
I think there are probably a number of reasons it bothers me though. Since I started, we’ve definitely had a heavy focus on our bible study groups and our youth meeting to be times when we gather around the Bible. We come to hear the word of God, to be challenged by it and to be changed by it. The Bible is how God has spoken to us and so that’s what we use as our authority. What can I say, I’m pure bred evangelical and I’m very much of the opinion that it is the gospel that is going to do the work, not me or any flashy gimmicks, and so if the word is taught faithfully then we will see results. That’s not to say that we don’t teach creatively, in fact I actively encourage people not to just get up and talk at the group, but rather to teach it interactively and drawing on the culture we live in. But it has to be faithful to the word, not just a gimmick for the sake of it. It’s great for us to use videos, music, flipcharts, memorable phrases, dramas and anecdotes as long as they are servants to the word and not the other way around. It’s the word that is going to change lives, not whether I can body pop to “We No Speak Americano,” and then find some tenuous link to salvation from it(perhaps the fact that not speaking Americano wouldn’t have been a problem at Pentecost!*groan*). The word is powerful enough on its own. When I go into the local secondary school, I could give the best apologetic talk known to man but it has nothing on actually reading scripture to those kids there that have never even looked at a Bible. There’s no magic formula, it’s just the power of the word of God. And those of us that teach at the group have been really lucky to have some great training from our church and others in the wider area and so without meaning to sound arrogant, I think we’re generally pretty good at teaching the Bible clearly, relevantly and faithfully.
So why then have people dropped off?
I have a few theories. I don’t know which are right, if any.
Firstly, the people who have dropped off were never those who seemed to have any real commitment to Jesus. There may have been some commitment to the group, but that was about as far as it went. I don’t believe in sugar-coating the Bible (there’s no need too. I’ve found that when it comes to games, treat them like they’re 5 and they love it. When it comes to the Bible, treat them like their adults) and so we’ve stood up and said some things which people will have found difficult to hear, things that are challenging sin in their lives and pushing them out of their comfort zone. I think that this may be a contributing factor to the drop off. Ultimately, some people will reject the word and walk away because the price they’re being asked to pay and the sacrifice they’re being asked to make are too high, just like the rich man whose face fell when Jesus told him to sell all he owned. There were other gods in their lives, so that there wasn’t room for God. I’m very much in two minds as to how to react to this though. My natural reaction is to just let them go. Why put hours of time in trying to woo back those who aren’t really bothered (at least for now) when I could be doing a deeper work in the few who are? Sometimes you just dust the dirt off your sandals right? But another part of me is saying, should I really just let them walk away because it’s a lot of effort? I know though that if I’m truly honest, I worry about them walking away because of how it looks to the rest of the church, the ones who only see in numbers. Would I only be ploughing away at getting certain kids back because I fear man more than God?
If it’s true that they’ve left because we teach the Bible and refuse to compromise on the truth, then that would lead me to conclude that those we have left are those that God wants to be here right now, the ones that the word is at work in. Yes the numbers are smaller but I keep entertaining the idea in my head that sometimes you need to prune to encourage growth. My hope is that this smaller committed group are going to make a big splash for Jesus and we will grow again but that we needed this drop in numbers to allow us to disciple the ones we have left. This is the idea I haven’t been able to shake from my head. The ‘one step backwards, two steps forwards’ idea. But if it’s true that this is what’s happening, then it’s not even one step back. These are all steps in the right direction. It’s only in our worldly views that a drop in numbers means things are being done wrong. It might be exactly what God wants for now. My vicar has said on numerous occasions that I picked the group up at a low ebb spiritually and when I look back to when I started, I can see that to be true. Yes the numbers were bigger, but we were spiritually far poorer.
I suppose that’s the problem with me talking about not seeing ‘results’. More often than not, I’m looking through the wrong lens (the numbers lens) and wondering what everyone else must be making of it. The lens I need to keep firmly in focus is the “true disciples of Jesus lens.” And the fact of the matter is, we don’t know the result because we haven’t reached the finish yet. Sometimes things look bleak mid-race but there’s a last-minute spurt no-one was expecting. Where will we be this time next year? Doubled in size? Or halved? And if we are halved, does that mean that we’re doing something wrong? Or is God just defying our worldly wisdom.
Maybe I didn’t need anything to change over the new year. Maybe the problem is just in my head.
Of course, the other option is that I’m just doing a very bad job. Hmm…