Small Church Youth Ministry: Critical Mass | UMC YoungPeople
Connecting young people and their adult leaders to God, the church, and the world
September 2016

Small Church Youth Ministry: Critical Mass

By Stephanie Caro

In order to grow, groups usually need to hit a critical mass – An amount of participants needed to start and maintain momentum. Now, the actual number varies from case to case, but it always starts with at least one. One youth, one adult who cares, one church willing to give energy, space, and resources to youth ministry really do matter. Hitting a critical mass is not about growing larger for the sake of growing larger. Hitting critical mass is about bringing larger numbers of people together for the sake of building momentum, and helping ministries take on a life of their own.

How to Increase/Decrease Your Critical Mass:

On one hand, my best advice for knowing when your youth ministry meets that magical critical mass is really what I said before: you’ve reached it every time a student shows up for anything. Go for the gold!

On the other hand, lower numbers than everyone thinks there should be could mean that something unhealthy is going on. It’s the same dynamic as when we take our kids’ temperature when they start to cough. If that little stick says something too far away from the 98.6 it’s supposed to be, we have to make plans to nurse our wee one back to health.

So how to build the numbers? Here are two strategies I’ve found work well in any setting:

  1. Quarterly Events
  2. Multi-Generational Moments

Quarterly Events Still Work:

In a world where nothing stays the same, including in ministry, one bastion of stability has remained: Vacation Bible School still works and smaller churches rise to the challenge. VBS planning and implementation brings out the best in small churches; everyone has to work together to pull it off. Look in any church kitchen during VBS week and you’ll see multiple ages behind the kitchen counter ready to serve up the cookies, juice, and laughter. Older men and young guys are running around, carrying ladders and setting up backdrops. Teenage girls who wouldn’t be seen with a first grader during the school year magically transform into super teacher crew leaders with kids hanging off every limb. It’s a wonderful thing; keep doing what you’re doing!

Where smaller churches fall down on the VBS trail? Getting solid contact info and then having terrific follow-up. Inviting parents to an end-of-VBS event, maybe a follow-up postcard mailing isn’t enough. It’s the same problem with other quarterly outreach events. We plan great holiday oriented events like fall festival, Trunk-or-treat, Bethlehem Marketplaces, Breakfast with Santa, Easter Egg Hunts, etc. and many churches fail to find ways to follow-up with the community people attracted to these events.

My small church friends, the gold at the end of the “grow your numbers” rainbow you’re looking for is developing a quarterly events data base. It’s developing a system of gathering contact info from the community who comes onto your properly quarterly for fun-type family events, following up with them in ways they don’t feel like your spamming them, and creating a culture where they WANT to get the invite to the next big event because they felt so good after the last one.

Why? Because if you develop a solid base of people who come to your special outreach events where you show love, have fun, maybe meet a few of their personal needs while there – eventually many of these families will turn to your church for something more.

Multi-Generational Moments

This is one of the greatest strengths a smaller church has going for it: it takes everyone to make anything happen. Since a smaller church has a smaller bandwidth for pulling off events, sprinkle the church calendar with relational times that everyone will enjoy. Ideas like the annual church talent show, New Year’s Eve party with lots of areas set up for things to do, church-wide Christmas caroling are just a few moments where you can sprinkle some intentionality in matching up your teenagers with older folks. For example, when the church goes Christmas caroling, break into assigned car teams of multi-ages where each car has something to accomplish while driving from house to house. Make it fun!

What does “critical mass” look like in your setting? How do you measure the health of the youth connected to your congregation?

What quarterly events already happen in your community? Are there opportunities to connect and partner with events already taking place?

What events are missing in your community that your church could champion and start?

What opportunities does your congregation have to encourage interactions between generations?

To further explore strategies like these, check out Small(er) Church Youth Ministry by Brad Fiscus and Stephanie Caro on No Staff, No Money? No Problem!
Our guest blogger this week is Stephanie Caro.

Stephanie Caro has been involved in ministry to children, youth, and adults in the local church since…a long time. Her humorous, straightforward style keeps her busy presenting and coaching at conferences, training events, camps, mission trips, retreats, churches, etc. She is Senior Consultant for Ministry Architects, which allows her to help churches assess, vision, and formulate their ministry game plan.

Her books, Thriving Youth Ministry in Smaller Churches and 99 Thoughts for the Smaller Church Youth Worker, were published by Group/Simply Youth Ministry. Her latest book, Smaller Church Youth Ministry: No Staff, No Money, No Problem, was published by Cokesbury in the fall of 2016. Her next book, Ten Solutions (to 10 Common Mistakes in Churches), comes out early 2017. Stephanie is a contributing author to several ministry resources like YouthWorker Journal in addition to her regular column “Smaller Church Youth Ministry” in Group Magazine. Check out Stephanie's blog, part of the #1 read youth ministry blog network, from Simply Youth Ministry/Group Publishing. She also blogs for, Princeton Theological Seminary, and others. Stephanie and her husband, Steve, live in Houston, TX. Their 7 children are all grown!