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Deep Discipleship with Youth

I remember one time when we held a discipleship retreat for our students—but only about one-fifth of our regular students attended. For many youth workers, a turnout this low might arouse feelings of anguish and failure. I wasn’t surprised by the turnout, though, because the retreat called for a very big commitment from students. As I’ve learned, when spiritual commitments increase, attendance typically decreases.

Of the students who attended, most wanted to be there, and all were challenged to go deeper in their faith. The amount of time spent in discussion was intense. We raised the bar pretty high in the large-group time and gave students plenty of quiet time to read their Bibles and write in their journals.

Each year I approach this event expecting students to complain about the schedule and to be unhappy that it’s not very “fun.” Every year, without fail, the students rise to our expectations and leave the weekend with a stronger faith than they had when the weekend began. When it comes to the numbers I mentioned earlier, I’d rather have one-fifth of my students getting a lot out of an intense program than 100 percent of my students attending with meager results.

Here’s the learning that I want to share with you: If I ran my youth ministry like a personal popularity contest—needing to have every student at every event—our youth ministry would be very shallow. My challenge to you is to have events for the few who want to grow. Give students opportunities to explore following Christ, and don’t be surprised that most won’t take you up on the offer. Raising the bar will help your students reach new heights in their relationships with God.

When I first started in youth ministry, this concept of attendance decreasing as spiritual-commitment levels in-creased worked against my self-esteem. I’d come off an event that had a low turnout and tear the event apart piece by piece trying to figure out why the students didn’t want to participate. Now that I understand this increase/decrease concept, I’m able to work with the students who want to grow in their faith on a more personal level without questioning my effectiveness and calling to youth ministry. Here are some values that we used for our retreat that may be helpful to you.

1. Keep costs down. You don’t want money to keep students from attending. One way we keep costs minimal is to use the church campus for our meetings and have the students stay together in private homes for the nights of the retreat. They love it.

2. Raise the bar high. Students are giving you a weekend to help them grow in their faith. Take advantage of the opportunity by giving them a variety of ways to learn and connect with God.

3. Build strong relationships. Have interaction times that enable friendships to form. We provide a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon for home groups to spend time together. By then their minds are ready for a break, and they’re ready to relax and have fun.  

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Doug Fields has been in youth ministry since 1979 and former pastor to students at Saddleback Church in Southern California. He's the author of 50+ books, including the best-selling Purpose-Driven Youth Ministry & Your First Two Years in Youth Ministry. He's also the founder of Simply Youth Ministry, an instructor at Azusa Pacific University/HomeWord, and on the leadership team with Youth Specialties. You can connect with Doug through his blog at www.downloadyouthministry.com! More from Doug Fields or visit/subscribe to Doug's blog at www.dougfields.com