Riding the Cycle: The Ebb and Flow of Small Youth Group Ministry

Most youth ministry tips and books are written by people with big youth groups. I mean, who wants to read a book from a guy who is struggling to get 20 students to come consistently. Those books can be very helpful, informative, and invaluable resources to the average youth minister. The problem with that is there are some problems and struggles that are unique to the small church youth group.

One of those that I have seen in my 12 years of small church youth ministry is the cyclical nature of numbers. This may be a problem in bigger groups too. Since I have never led a larger group I don’t know, but I know that it is a problem that all small youth groups face. If you are a small church youth minister let me tell you a big important truth. The number of people in your ministry will not be stationary it will rise and fall, sometimes swelling too big to handle and sometimes (if things all happen at once) falling so low that you feel like quitting.

Think about it like this, if you are a group of around 30-40 students. Losing just a few to college or other factors makes a big difference and it is easy to look out on a sea of empty chairs and feel like the everything is going wrong. I want to encourage you and let you know that sometimes it isn’t that anything is wrong, but rather that is just the nature of being a youth pastor.

Let’s take a look at some of the factors that contribute to this ebb and flow of students:

  •  Students graduate. If you have 40 students and happen to have a disproportionately large class (which tends to happen ever 6 years or so) you could easily graduate 11-12 of those and suddenly be back to feeling like you are a “small” youth ministry.
  • Family dynamics change in the church. As much as I would like to claim that youth ministry brings families into a church (and I think it does), there are many students who aren’t coming to church unless they are brought by their family. If you are in a down cycle check around and see if there are students who aren’t coming or if maybe there is just a gap in the age of the children in your church.
  • Key families move away. This one can be very detrimental to small town, small church youth ministry. There are some students/families that are magnets for other students. Sometimes when one of those magnet families moves away your group will suffer much more than the loss of just that one family.
  • The “Cool” Ministry Shifts. OK, this might be something that is more for small towns than large ones, but in our little town there is always one ministry that seems to be “HOT.” It is the place to be. It is growing and jumping and things seem to be perfect over there. Like I said, I have been in the same church for almost 12 years. In that time we have been the “cool” youth ministry at least twice (and maybe a third time). It wasn’t that I was doing something differently at that time, it is just that the right combination of people were around to create something with buzz. Eventually those students graduate and then the cycle continues.


These are just some of the reasons why small group ministries tend to fluctuate. I would imagine that these are also reasons why large groups fluctuate as well, but as they are larger they can absorb the swells better.

If you find yourself in one of these down times in youth ministry here is a little of the wisdom I have learned the hard way over the years.


  • Don’t take it personally. They are not rejecting you, your ideas, your ministry, or all your hard work.
  • Keep proclaiming the gospel. Even if there are just 3 people there proclaim God’s truth.
  • Examine what you are doing. Have you lost your focus on God? Have you gotten in a rut? Have you been teaching the same 3 points over and over again? Have you gotten lazy, complacent, or arrogant? If not then relax and keep doing what God is calling you to do. If you have take a deep breath and dive back into it.
  • Look for new groups to focus on. Sometimes after a large group of seniors graduate you may find that you have neglected some of the younger students. If your group is grades 7-12 then you may need to return your focus to the middle school students or maybe it is clique or social group that you need to reach out to.
  • Embrace your small group as an opportunity, not as a problem. I remember fondly the days when my wife and I were able to take our whole group to camp in one vehicle. When there are fewer students you have more opportunities to get to know each one.
  • Do more “hands on” ministry. A smaller group is perfect for quick micro-mission trips. Grab 4 or 5 students and go out into your community. You will build relationships and invest in the lives of students.
  • DO NOT try to run down the “cool” youth group in your town. Never speak negatively about another group unless they are doing something that is blatantly anti-Christian. You will just end up looking petty.
  • DO NOT try to imitate another group. You have your own strengths and weaknesses. Do what God created you to do, not what he created someone else to do.


I guess that is about all that I can think of on this subject. If you have your own thoughts or ideas let me know.