Pictured here is the foam off the edge of a wave hitting a rock on shore. What an impact that usually goes overlooked! Student ministries at all ages, in all churches, experience waves. However, what looks like just the foam off the edge of a wave in a large congregation, looks like the whole wave in smaller congregations.
Most rural churches can relate. When a large ministry of 50+ students loses one family to a move or graduation, the impact is minimal. But in a small ministry of 15 or less, one family, coming or going, has the potential to make a HUGE impact, and that impact can be positive and/or negative to the overall ministry.
Consequently, as new generation ministry leaders in rural churches, we (and/or our congregations) more often than our larger church counterparts, question our leadership abilities. So, how do we ride these waves in rural ministry?
First, we must remember that all ministries have waves. So when attendance drops, take a moment to do some reality checking: Is there a problem, or is this a natural wave? Can you see a new wave coming in, and if so, how close is it? This time of year, it is natural for numbers to drop, but new students may be growing in to your ministry next month and former students may return when school starts in the fall. Celebrate how your ministry has set those students up to continue in their relationship with Jesus Christ on their own in the meantime. If you do discover a problem, pray and seek wise counsel for solving it.
Secondly, don’t neglect those who remain. Show up and be fully present with them. Enjoy them even if it is just one student. Find a common interest and use that to connect with each other and with Christ in meaningful ways. For the month of April, our youth group has been meeting at a local gas station for fro-yo and board games. In the midst of the game, we are checking in with each other about life and faith. There isn’t a formal lesson plan, but we are connecting with one another and with Christ through prayer and the Holy Spirit’s work among us whether we have six students or just two.
Third, plan strategically for times you know attendance will struggle. For the summer, we have bi-monthly opportunities planned that will engage students and mentors in service and fellowship. This summer we won’t be sending one student home and canceling youth group just because she was the only one who showed up.
Finally, use these slower seasons to evaluate and make long-term changes as necessary. How balanced is your overall ministry? We realized that our ministry got pretty heavy on Bible study this year, so, as I plan for the next school year (and beyond), I am working to find a better balance between study, fellowship, and service opportunities. I also am working on intentionally building relationships with parents who aren’t involved in the ministry, which is probably a topic for another post!
As always, continue to seek God’s direction in prayer. If you have an idea you just can’t shake, it may be what God is leading you to! Gather a few other adults who want to reach new generations and give it a shot.