“Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta
We all want to have ministries that attract big numbers of highly engaged people, right?
We spend days, weeks, and even months planning big events or designing curriculum and programs to get people excited about their faith.
The same is true of mass attendance. We want to see as many people in the pews and often lose sight of what is actually going on in the heads and hearts of the people who have shown up.
The unfortunate temptation when doing ministry is to get caught up in a numbers game. Sometimes, we focus on a number of people as an ideal outcome, but that can be a huge distraction from what is really important.
When you focus on numbers, the temptation is to measure your success by the number of bodies in a room rather than the actual impact you are having on people. Do this and you might find yourself trying to get people in the room at all costs.
What happens as a result of focusing primarily on numbers?
Youth ministers scrap any actual catechesis and focus on pizza and socializing instead.
Churches post sign-in sheets at masses as a requirement to receive Confirmation or First Communion.
RCIA presenters water-down their lessons so they don’t scare away the candidates and catechumens.
Marriage preparation retreats get shortened from a weekend long experience to a day-long event or even just an afternoon because they know they will get more people and less complaints that way.
Instead of focusing on large total numbers, focus on just one person at a time.
I had the pleasure of moderating an incredible discussion with a panel of expert young adult ministers. One theme that seemed to come up again and again was the notion of “grassroots” ministry. They were able to start successful young adult ministries by forming a relationship with one person at a time.
They would meet people for coffee or participate in running groups. They would start up a conversation after mass and get to know new people they hadn’t seen before. They would go where the people already met and start a relationship with no real ulterior motives and no “program” to initiate them into joining.
I’ve seen the same kind of success in youth ministries and campus ministries that start small and then grow in momentum and excitement to become vibrant ministries today.
But it all starts with one person at a time, one conversation at a time.
Don’t forget that Jesus spent most of his time working with a small group of disciples.
Beyond that small group of individuals, he shared meals with people he met on his journeys. He encounter individuals and changed hearts one by one. Even among large crowds, he would change the lives of the individuals who asked for his help.
This is how Jesus built momentum and it is how we can build momentum in our new ministries as well.
From Traditional to Grassroots Ministry
But not all of us have the opportunity to be involved with new and uncharted ministries and mission fields. Some of us work in traditional ministries that have a steady stream of participants.
Parents bring their kids to religious education and Catholic schools because their kids to learn about the faith and become good people when they grow up. Marriage preparation is a requirement if you want to get married in the a Catholic church.
How can we apply this non-numbers mentality, this grassroots mentality to traditional ministry?
The sacraments bring them to our ministries, but we can’t take that for granted.
We still need to take on that grassroots mentality in ministry even if we know the people have to be there. How else can we keep newly married couples coming to church after their weddings? How else can we avoid the Confirmation as graduation mindset?
With this grassroots mentality, what can we do instead?
Grassroots are dirty. A grassroots ministry takes time, effort, and a lot of emotional hard work.
Get to know people one person at a time.
Every DRE and principal, if it is possible, should be in the hallways at pickup and drop off time saying hello to parents. They should be inviting catechists and teachers out to dinners, coffee, or drinks. At the very least, non-work conversations should be a regular occurrence.
Spend time at parish or school sporting events.
Take every opportunity you can to start conversations with people who feel obligated to bring their kids or themselves to your ministry.
Ask questions, lots of questions.
Colin Nykaza left us with a great quote at the end of the webinar. This is the advice he gives to his ministers: “Be interested, not interesting.” Ask lots of questions and find out what is going on in people’s lives.
You don’t have to be overwhelmed by the numbers. Recognize that every ministry grows just one person at a time. You can’t expect to create the silver bullet program or curriculum that is going wow people into showing up.
Often the best strategy is just being a real person interested in starting up a relationship of trust.
To watch the full one hour discussion about young adult ministry, visit the Ave Maria Press website.
(photo credit: sunnybeats)