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The challenges of small-church youth ministry

Youth group members from the Cheyenne Church of Christ in Wyoming pose for a group photo at the local Dairy Queen. Youth minister Wes Baldwin is in the striped polo shirt. Elder Scott Smith, whose face is partially hidden, can be seen in the back. (Photo by Brady Ross)

Blogging live from Cheyenne, Wyo.
Since attending a session on small-church youth ministry at the National Conference on Youth Ministries back in January, I’ve been contemplating a story on that topic.
Wednesday night, as part of the research for that piece, I got an opportunity to worship with the Cheyenne Church of Christ and join youth minister Wes Baldwin and a group of teens at the local Dairy Queen afterward.
I really appreciated the Cheyenne church inviting me to speak for a few minutes about The Christian Chronicle and giving my son Brady the opportunity to share a devotional message.
Of course, when you start talking about small church, you have to define that. Is it 200 or less members? Or 100 or less? The Cheyenne church is about 150, with about 15 or so regular youth group members.
If you are a leader or a participant in a small-church youth ministry, I’d welcome your feedback. What are the challenges that you face? What are the benefits? Please be sure to include your full name and home congregation in case we decide to quote you.

  • Feedback
    The church is losing 70 to 90% of it’s young people. God bless this effort.
    Jason Goldtrap
    June, 23 2011

    Wyoming has been a forerunner in distance education
    http://briandeutsch.blogspot.com/2010/03/teaching-korean-students-from-wyoming.html and supercomputing http://www.rmscinc.org . In a national economy where college grads have difficulty finding employment and biz leaders keep pleading for Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) skills, there are plenty of collaboratory activities for youth groups to be engaged in — if the congregations will stop being obsessed about church buildings rather than the church.
    Ed Dodds
    June, 23 2011

    Our youth group has about 4 (9-12 graders) all involved in sports and with sporatic attendence if only 1 or 2 show up for class it’s a bit awkward (I’m assuming, I’m not actually the teacher) It makes it unappealing to come if you are going to be the only one in the room with the teacher. Considering moving the 8th graders in since we have no seniors or 7th graders. That would double the group, plus, at the moment they are more regular attenders. Our congregation has about 150. We’re a little heavy on the retired senior side. Not as many young families.
    June, 23 2011

    I just started with Peachtree Corners where we have about 7. In class, on sunday morning is about 3-4. I started a facebook chat class, with about 3-4 joining it on Wednesday nights during Bible Study time. If I did not offer it, there would be no youth class. I fine that the students are as strong in their attendance as their parents. This is a very hard ministry. Harder than I ever thought it would be. I have been a worship minister a long time, and now realize even more how hard it is. You always picture the youth group you were in and how strong and energetic. It is hard to get momentum at times. It is well worth the challenge. My focus the rest of the summer is setting things up locally with FCA, and other local organization to gain more youth. Look forward to your article.
    Terry Davis
    June, 23 2011

    I was part of a trio of young marrieds that were the Youth Ministers for a church in Southern California (Yucaipa, CA). It was tough but we were close and worked hard to reach out to our teens. I moved to Texas 8 years ago (Austin area)and the churchs here are so rich with talent and youth. Our congregation has made many attempts to share our wealth with smaller congregations that outly our area. We are blessed and strive to understand the value of our blessing and share it.
    Someone commented on the small class situation as being embarrassing if the teacher and the student are 1 to 1. My son spent most of his 5th grade and 6th grade classes 1 to 1 with a teacher that is very special to me (and my son). That one life, my son, is going to make a difference in many lives thanks to Mike O’Conner and his teaching.
    David Ellis
    June, 24 2011

    awkward was the word, not embarrassing…. and yes kids/teens can be intimidated by 1 to 1.
    David Ellis
    June, 24 2011

    We have a small congregation in North Alabama where I am the youth minister. I have 7 7th-12th grade students in our teen youth group. 3 of those you can count on being there for most services. All guys. The girls are very sporadic in their attendance. I blame it on the parents. Everyone wants an energetic, do-everything youth group, but no one brings their children to church, whether it is sports or everything else. It seems like EVERYTHING is more important than attending church and worshipping God. We have monthly youth devos and other activities, but I still cannot seem to interest them enough to attend regularly.
    June, 24 2011

    I believe a small group can be more effective than a large one, but it depends on the attitude of the adults. I’ve seen so many just complain and moan that their youth group is so small and they are not sure what do do about it. We are good at complaining but sometimes not so good at acting on a need. Kids respond to adults who care and SHOW they care. I don’t believe that people don’t care, they are just not sure what to do. It makes no difference if the youth group is one or a hundred, the attitude of the adults ALWAYS makes the difference.
    I am the unofficial youth leader for our church in Texas. We have no budget for a youth minister. I have to work a full time schedule with heavy hours sometimes and its a challenge. All I really do is just organize events, and get as many members to fulfill all the other tasks that need to be done. Its not the perfect scenario, but folks are willing to help as long as they aren’t over-burdened with doing everything. As I have seen other churches do. (Only a few do 90% of the work) So I ask certain people who are not as involved to host, teach, or do other things. I have been very pleased with the success.
    Its not easy for older kids to be involved with younger ones, they prefer their own class, but when you don’t have many One of things that helps is to give them responsibility such as teaching the younger ones. It is important to give the older teens as much coaching, encouragement and materials as possible. I have found some awesome materials on the internet for sunday school activities and lessons. There is a wealth of resources available for those willing to look and its easy for anyone to follow or adjust for your own needs.
    John Dunigan
    June, 24 2011

    I’m currently the minister for a small church (less than 100) in the Pacific Northwest (I actually went to summer camp with Wes–good guy!). Before that, I worked as a youth minister for a small church in Kansas City (also less than 100). Here’s my take:
    PROS: You get to know your kids really well, and develop strong bonds with them. Kids get to have more 1 on 1 time with you than they would in a larger group. Transportation is easy. The kids get really close to each other and can form a very solid group. It takes on more of a family feel. It’s also easier to get buy-in from the whole group when you’re doing something because you really do notice when someone isn’t there. You don’t need a lot of chaperones because there aren’t a lot of kids. The church really loves the kids it has, and teens are more integrated into the church body because there aren’t a lot of them. Often times I’ve seen in larger churches where the teens are kind of exiled to their own part of the building–a church within a church. In smaller churches this doesn’t happen. It’s easier to get excited about growth, because you really notice when someone new shows up.
    CONS: It becomes easy to blur the line between ‘youth minister’ and ‘friend,’ not only undermining your ability to effectively minister to them, but making the students feel a bit too comfortable with you. It can be difficult to plan class/events when you aren’t sure how many will show up. It’s also very difficult to use any pre-packaged material because most of it is designed for larger groups and when it says things like “Divide your teens into groups of six” you realize you only have one group. Kinda hard to play those games with only one team! If the youth minister doesn’t have a good relationship with the kids, it can make those 1 on 1 or 2 on 1 Sunday morning classes uncomfortable. It can also be difficult for new members to integrate into the group. The kids become so close that they subconsciously exclude new kids–unless they’re very gregarious. It can become somewhat clique-ish. I had difficulties getting others from the church involved in part because it seemed like, with so few kids, I didn’t need the help (both their perception and mine). You often feel like, if you have a certain number of kids who can’t make it, you need to cancel the event. Eventually, I decided to follow through on every event, regardless of how many were coming. You also become very aware of the economic status of each family, and that plays a huge factor. It’s one thing to exclude kids because they’ve got sports practice, but to exclude them because they can’t afford it? Easier to get by with in a large group, hard to justify in a small group.
    There’s probably more, that’s just my first take!
    Fletcher Hammond
    Hazel Dell church of Christ
    Vancouver, WA
    Fletcher Hammond
    June, 24 2011

    Thom and Joani Schulz of Group Publishing related a personal story from Joani in one of their books about youth group education. Joani was living in a small town in South Dakota. She would show up for the teen class and be the only teen present. The teacher (youth minister?) who was teaching would be very positive about the situation and just jump into the lesson. She actually developed her love for Christian education in those years.
    I try to remember that story when I teach teens. Instead of letting your mood and expression reveal that you are disappointed that this week’s attendance is unusually low, keep your enthusiasm and teach the highest quality class you can. The kids will pick up on your attitude towards the situation, whether it is positive or negative. Don’t unintentionally project to them “I am disappointed that it is just you guys today.”
    Clark Coleman
    June, 24 2011

    I am the minister at a congregation in Northern Alabama that averages around 95 in Sunday morning attendance. Our congregation was aging in years gone by and had largely neglected the few young people it had. We have worked for two years to change attitudes and demonstrate to the young people they are a priority. We do not have the luxury of youth ministers or associate ministers or the like, so I take on the work.
    It has been a blessing. We started with my family and one other in regular attendance, but we just kept going. Now we have 12 or 14. We convinced our elders of the need to host one of the annual youth devos that rotate among the area congregations. This brings in 300-350 young people and is a real challenge to every one of our church members. However, they have grown to look forward to the annual event. We keep our other activities relatively simple and inexpensive. This year, we combined all the youth on Wednesday evenings and I teach them myself. I’ve learned more from them than they have from me, I’m sure!
    Small is a huge challenge, but small can also be incredibly rewarding. My advice is to be authentic and focus on what you can do well. If you have 10 kids, don’t try to do what a group with 75 kids can do. Be who you are. God will give the increase.
    Mike Rhodes
    June, 25 2011

    I have grown up in mission fields and small churches all my life. Yes, it can be hard at time, but also creates incredible evangelistic opportunities. In Wales I brought my friends to church, in Wisconsin and Alaska we took advantage of area youth rallies and camp. Those are some of my greatest memories of early church life. My teen daughters now bring their friends to church and have almost doubled our youth group to 15-20 in our group. My elders and the church as a whole have invested heavily in our youth spiritually knowing that most will not come home to our small town. We want them to have a strong faith base wherever they go. We also give a small scholarship if they choose to attend a Christian college. Small is no excuse for giving up!
    Jim Dillinger
    June, 27 2011

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