By Pastor Joe Epley
Defining success in youth ministry can be like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. At times, success is who can unwrap a Christmas gift the fastest while wearing crab claws. Other times, success is seeing how far someone can throw a marshmallow and still land it in someone’s mouth. Taking miscellaneous candy bars and shaping them into a replica of the Titanic or the Golden Gate Bridge is sometimes a measure of success in youth ministry. The way I see it, success all depends on how and what you measure, and the tragedy of rural youth ministry is that our metrics are usually wrong.
Nobody likes to feel like a failure. While no one likely calls youth pastors and volunteers failures openly, I am willing to guess that the struggle of feeling like a failure is there. It can be seen by how and what we measure. Many youth groups are measured in weekly attendance, with some churches reaching 10, 20, 50, or 100 students on average. Some are measured in number of leaders, with large churches frequently leading the pack in recruiting college students, event chaperones, and small group leaders. A look at the numbers can give an unfair tilt toward urban centers, because rural churches simply cannot measure up to a megachurch whose weekly attendance is more than the population of their entire county.
I stepped into a rural youth ministry context where my first youth group meeting consisted of two students. I was brand new to the role and naturally apprehensive about such a low showing. The next week there were four and a few weeks later we managed 8. I lamented the slow progress to a more seasoned rural youth pastor, who jokingly said I should write a book on how to double a youth ministry every week. It may have been wrapped in humor, but what stuck with me was the drastic change in perspective. In comparing myself unfairly to large churches or youth ministries, I was failing to value the growth happening in front of me. In this third part of our look at rural youth ministry, I want to challenge us to see youth ministry with a new measure of success, one that is instantly achievable regardless of context, youth group size, or community population:
Love the student in front of you.
It is simple, short, and easy to remember. Additionally, this statement speaks of infinite possibilities because it is inherently easy to start doing. One does not always need the perceived pastoral gifting of growing something to staggering numerical heights or preaching sermons full of witty and relevant exposition. Instead, the metric can be as simple and sustainable as loving the student in front of you. The best part is, this metric is perfectly suited for rural contexts.
In a brief breakdown of this principle, I hope we can come away with tangible ways that volunteers and youth pastors in rural settings can love the student in front of them. I hope this becomes a rallying cry for a new perspective on rural ministry. And I sincerely hope this helps pastors and volunteers value their experience in a rural setting and the immense potential it has for kingdom impact. The first perspective shift we need to see is this:
1) Rural youth ministry has fewer blind spots.
Small towns are perfect for loving the student in front of you, simply because students are always in front of you. When I lived in a larger town, I could subconsciously avoid difficult students. We lived in different parts of town, or had different social circles, or they went to a different high school than the one at which I frequently ministered. In a small town, it is considered lucky to have more than one grocery store, or even to have a grocery store at all. In this setting difficult students, parents, families, and situations are never far away. What an extraordinary opportunity God has given rural youth pastors and volunteers to lead the way in loving students. If love can be defined as continually choosing to act in kindness, grace, and good will towards another, small towns offer endless opportunities to do just that.
2) Every small-town student has an advocate, except the ones who don’t.
Small towns are full of students who are lifted up and propelled into a successful future by school administrators, teachers, coaches, civil service workers, and other key community members. Whether they are academically gifted or the star quarterback, these students do not lack for people to support them. However, small towns also have dozens and dozens of students who lack that support. I believe rural pastors and volunteers are uniquely called and equipped to fill that role of advocate, loving students that would otherwise succumb to a system of resignation and failure to thrive as they enter adulthood. Again, these situations exist not as a challenge, but as an extraordinary opportunity waiting to be seized by rural youth pastors and volunteers.
3) Each small-town leader can join in calling David in from the field.
A dear friend of mine made it her mission in youth ministry to find students from obscure places and disciple them into achieving God’s calling on their life. She believed that small towns were full of David-like students waiting for volunteers and youth pastors who refuse to overlook those from humble origins. This model rings true over and over again. Rural youth ministry cannot be about getting a youth group of hundreds or thousands because the population denies this possibility. However, it can be about committing to loving and discipling individuals living in overlooked corners of the world.
One thing I am confident of is that other youth pastors will always ask about how many students attend your youth group weekly. Inevitably, some rural youth pastors and leaders will sheepishly respond with small numbers and quickly excuse themselves from the conversation or change the subject. However, as 1 Corinthians 12:31 puts it, God wants to show us “a still more excellent way” (ESV). Success can be many things, but I would hope that rural youth pastors decide that loving one student is enough. History will display in vivid detail the contributions of rural students to the advancement of God’s kingdom for the cause of His glory. I am confident of this because it has already taken place. Our Christian history is filled with revivalists and reformers who were the product of dedicated disciplers who lived in obscure places.
To put it practically, take a student out to lunch. Show up at the one activity they are a part of, even if they ride the bench. Meet with one student for a Bible study every week simply because they really want to be there. Talk about how glad you are to see them instead of how sad you are that more did not come. Invest creatively, continually, and consistently. Commit to the one, and give of yourself to see them succeed. This model makes small town students into disciples, and disciples of Jesus can change the world.
To read more of Joseph Epley’s series, “Principles for Rural Youth Ministry” click the links below: