The cup is 95% empty

“Adam, why are you always assuming that the cup is half empty?” 

Youth workers say this to me over coffee. Their lives are run wild with activities, planning, teaching, and meetings. Their ministries are full and something I’ve said has called that busyness into question.

My response, not trying to be trite, is “Oh no, I’m not saying the cup is half empty, I’m saying the cup is 95% empty.

Again and again I’ve challenged folks to do the math for themselves. Most people can do it in their head. You don’t need a scientist to measure impact if you know basic facts about your community.

  • How many students are in middle & high school in your community? How many students attend a youth ministry in your community? Divide. Probably less than 10% of the eligible population. (If you factor in students who attend youth group by choice… this number dramatically falls, doesn’t it?) 
  • How many years has the current model of youth ministry been impacting your community? 20, 30, 40 years? How much have churches grown as a result? At best, church attendance has flatlined over the past 20 years, likely declined compared to 30 or 40 years ago. 
  • You might be able to point to a couple of exceptional examples. (Communities of great impact or individuals greatly impacted) But for the amount of effort, amount of investment, in most communities the impact is pretty small.

My point is not to tear youth ministry down down. It’s to rebuild. We can’t think about the future until we can make a sober assessment of what our tribe has accomplished.

It’s not that the wrong people are in youth ministry, it’s not that they are uneducated, don’t care, are lazy, or even under-resourced. I actually think the frustration, the quitting, angst, and the burnout we see in youth ministry is because we have the RIGHT people working 24/7 [largely] on WRONG strategies. [More fairly, their current strategy is OK, just limited in impact.]

That’s not tearing down at all, is it?

My point is that the strategies we’ve used to date have a finite impact. We can look at 40 years of history and say “youth group” will impact less than 10% of any given student population. (How much more evidence do you need to see that this is true? 50 years? 100 years?)

The challenge to anyone who will listen is to think about the 95% of un-impacted adolescents in their community and ask themselves, “What are other strategies that might impact these students lives for the sake of the Gospel prevailing?

That’s not being negative. It’s missiology 101.

Photo credit: Mykl Roventine via Flickr (Creative Commons)





13 responses to “The cup is 95% empty”

  1. Skozak Avatar

    What I see on a daily basis is youth pastors refusing to tap into the abundance of resources that surround them. For example, instead of partnering with the world of Christian education, pastors seem antagonistic and threatened by it. Like an unnecessary competition when we could be working together doing what each does best. 

  2. Daniel Griswold Avatar

    Adam – I know your heart is right, and looking at the stats it looks grim, but I see things quite a bit differently.  There is a big picture here and a few factors, I feel, are shaping the tide.

    First, your stats are right.  That is the impetus to do what we are doing.  As a person who has just gotten into full time youth ministry within the last four years (after seminary), I’ve chewed on the seemingly grim reality.  But there is more.

    Second, the big picture affects the little picture.  Culture moves in waves, and with this transitional phase of American culture, people are saying “Am I religious?  Is God real?”  America was in a similar state prior to the Revolution (Jefferson thought that everyone would be a Unitarian in 40 years).  Look at the Books of Judges, Chronicles, Samuel and Kings.  So much perspective on how generations choose their loyalties. Good or Bad, those who serve the faithful have to continue on in faith that God is working the big picture for the greater glory of Himself (and not necessarily the church itself).  With some of the sins of the people of the church, is it a surprise that people are re-evaluating their stance toward organized faith?  It is a heated topic, but scripture and history are a way to gauge some of this.  

    Third, Smal things can lead to Big Things.  We have to remember church history.  In Methodism, John Wesley started with one Small Group, that would eventually revitalize Anglicanism, start Methodism, and lead to the end of Slavery in England.  Small sparks lead to big things, and we have to be faithful.

    I’m an optimist by nature (the glass is always 95% full IMHO, because God is greater than… I’ve seen amazing things happen in individual youth, and I’ve seen youth that carry a flame into their cultures (which can be very dark).  But God is always doing a work.  Even if Christianity becomes more monastic and is pushed from the public sphere – we are here, reminding all people that the God that created you loves you and wants your whole focus to be on Him and the transformation of the whole world.  

    I feel that we are on the cusp of some great movements in world Christianity.  I’ve learned in ministry that sometimes you have to persevere, wait, and see what God is doing, when everything has already fallen apart.  That’s how we know it was God, and not us.  

    Thanks though, Adam.  Your thoughts get my thoughts going. This is by far my favorite blog. Kudos.

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      Interesting perspective in light of church history. The reason Wesley (and Whitfield) had so much success? They did a little missiology and built a ministry around where people were at instead of trying to force them into church. 😉 

      1. Daniel Griswold Avatar

        Beautifully said.  I’m down with a new direction – As with all times, Christians need to rediscover the world beyond their walls.

      2. Shannon Avatar

        Interesting concept, eh?  Take Jesus to the people instead of trying to force them into your idea of church…. something to chew on (and probably cause indigestion) for a lot of people (staff and laypeople alike.)

  3. KJ Avatar

    As always you are making me think, Adam. A few thoughts/questions:

    1. Your math is a little off. If we are reaching almost 10%’of student population, then the cup is only about 90% percent empty! 😉

    2. How full can the cup become with true followers of Jesus? In his own words Jesus seems to indicate the cup will be fairly empty through the parable of the 4 types of soil and his proclamation that the path is narrow and few find it. This isn’t an excuse for bad methodology; in fact it is an argument FOR good methodology. If the cup is tough to fill, why go about it the wrong way?

    3. Could some of the resistance to new ways of thinking about youth ministry be due to the fact that the vast majority of current youth workers, young and old, came to Christ through the same type, (or at least similar) of ministries they now lead or work in?

    4. Change takes time….even when everybody agrees and is paddling the same direction. With something as wonderful, complex, and mysterious as the Kingdom and the church’s attempts to add to it, I imagine it will be a slow course correction, and will probably end up someplace none of us could have predicted!

    5. You volunteer in a fairly modern, programatic, youth ministry. I’d love to hear how some of what you write about and challenge us to do is showing up and impacting your youth group. Some tangible stuff we can wrap our arms around might help us as we in our youth ministry journeys.

  4. angierines Avatar

    This is right on the money and something I have been thinking alot of recently. I do ministry in North Jersey, and I would say that the number of students the ministry at my church has impact on from the community is even lower. In general there is not a big youth ministry culture in North Jersey. This is not to say that my students don’t have impact on their friends. But I have been wanting to do some more hands on ministry with non-churched kids. The question for me is how. How do I do this?? Especially in a culture that is not churched. There are no books about this. So I’m glad to see others thinking about this. But I would love to see some practical ideas or suggestions. Because this feels like a whole new world, and I am at a loss. I don’t even have many other local youth pastors to pastor with! 

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      First, I hope you’re connected to friends of mine over at Cornerstone Christian Church in Wycoff. (My uncle Fred is the pastor, they have a great team of youth workers) 

      Second, “How do I do this??” Well… I wasn’t trying to build a case for a product. But the Good News curriculum (linked on the right sidebar) teaches your students how to figure this stuff out. And I’m in early edits on a book for Christian adults! 

      1. angierines Avatar

         Wow! Wyckoff is super North Jersey! I am not connected to them! Perhaps an introduction needs to be arranged!

        I definitely have been looking at and considering that resource. At some point are you going to post a short sample of it? To be honest, I struggle with buying most curriculum because most curriculum written doesn’t seem to fit well with the NJ context. Other youth pastors around here have said the same thing. But I definitely haven’t seen anything like yours on the market! 🙂

  5. RJ Grunewald Avatar

    How would you define success in youth ministry?
    While spending hours mentoring already church-going students does nothing in the immediacy to increase the “bottom-line” of students in our community attending a church, I’d have a hard time not counting that as a win for our student ministry.  Now if discipleship happens at the expense of mission, that’s a problem, but discipleship should fuel making more disciples.

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      RJ – if you were bummed out by my post than I failed to communicate. I was not intended to say that what you’re doing isn’t success. My point is that we need to see what we’re currently doing as a piece of a much larger pie. 

      1. RJ Grunewald Avatar

        I definitely agree that what we are doing is one piece of the pie, thanks for clarifying.  I got held up by all the numbers indicating that “youth ministry” isn’t working instead of the idea that the missions piece might need some work.

  6. Steve Erickson Avatar

    The cup is never empty! if it is 95% empty of liquid it is 95% full of air. It is not that the cup is empty it is that the cup is filled with the wrong thing!

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