Do you need a big budget to make a big difference in the lives of young people?

The surprising truth about what matters

Jake Mulder Image Jake Mulder | Aug 22, 2016

As the father of a two-year-old, I’m continually reminded that raising a kid in America today isn’t cheap. The cost of diapers, food, doctor’s appointments, and toys quickly adds up.

In fact, the most recent figures from the USDA report that a middle-income family will likely spend $245,340 to raise a child up to age 18.[1]

Did I mention that doesn’t include the cost of college?

Furthermore, we live in a culture that seems to believe that the more money you spend on a child, the better she or he will fare in the future. The same thing happens in churches seeking to make an impact in the lives of young people. Popular wisdom suggests that the bigger the church budget (or building), the better.

I used to work as a financial analyst, so I like to think about numbers like these and their implications. As our research team studied over 250 congregations that are especially effective with teenagers and young adults in the Growing Young project, we paid attention to their financial investment in young people.

Here’s just a sample of what we found.

Finding #1: Your church doesn’t need a big budget to capture the attention and passion of young people.

Many voices contend that today’s young people are increasingly consumerist, spoiled, and entitled. So, the logic might follow that if we want to draw young people to our churches, we’ll need to invest in flashy facilities, a pizza party every week, or multiple paid staff.

But that’s simply not what our research uncovered.

When the pastors of leading churches were asked about their biggest challenge to engaging young people, only 1 in 10 mentioned the church’s lack of material resources. This wasn’t because all the churches are well resourced. Some of the most innovative and exciting churches in the study are fairly small and lack a big budget, a large staff, or a fancy building.

Sure, we found a few congregations that were like a church version of Disneyland. The children’s ministry had three-story slides and a state-of-the-art electronic check-in system. The youth room could seat more teenagers than the average church’s main worship center and included its own coffee shop, gym, and dedicated wing for video games.

But so many of the churches we studied demonstrate that a small budget does not have to mean small impact. These less-resourced congregations creatively support young people in other ways. While the exact methods varied by church, one common theme we discovered is that relational warmth is more powerful than big budget programming.

Relational warmth is more powerful than big budget programming. (click to tweet)

Meaningful ministry on a budget

What can you do on a small church budget?

One multiethnic church intentionally chooses to meet in a local school rather than invest in an expensive building or youth facility. They redirect the funds that would go toward a building or heavy programming to provide small group leaders with meal budgets. These leaders are encouraged to take students out for meals or treats regularly to build relationships and extend relational warmth.

As one pastor explained, “We are increasingly moving toward a family metaphor for church rather than the corporate America model. We’re asking, ‘What does it mean to be the people – the family – of God? How do we as a team of leaders function as family?’”

Finding #2: Investing in young people is worth it for the whole church.

Please don’t take our finding about finances above to justify a shoestring budget for the youth or young adult ministry. While we found there’s no clear dollar amount necessary to do effective ministry with young people, we did find that the proportion of a church’s budget that is dedicated to young people is important.

But is it worth the investment?

Especially given that young people don’t tithe much, are fairly transient during their young adult years, and may have music preferences that differ widely from the rest of your congregation, it’s certainly a worthwhile question. However, the senior leaders in our study responded with a resounding, “Absolutely!”

One of my favorite examples of this came from a conversation with the pastor of a Methodist congregation. He made clear that their church’s investment in young people is first and foremost grounded in good theology. A healthy church will invest appropriate resources in young people regardless of the return on investment.

Then he went on to explain how their church had previously hired a succession of youth directors who were paid a low salary and stayed in the church only a short time. The congregation struggled to create stable and supportive environments that unlocked the passion and potential of teenagers and young adults. As a result, families would come and go and the overall church was left with the sense they were missing out on vital intergenerational relationships.

Eventually, the church realized they needed someone who could commit for the long haul—which would mean a greater salary investment. While the decision wasn’t easy, the congregation concluded it was an important priority.

Recently this youth director completed a decade of faithful service in the congregation. The church now has an outstanding and consistent ministry to young people whose unbridled passion for God both encourages and positively challenges the rest of the congregation. The pastor reflected, “Yes, it was more expensive to hire someone with experience. But to be honest, I would wager that we’ve more than made up for it financially because of those who have stuck around and new families who have joined.

Indeed, during our visit to this Methodist church we not only heard from parents who valued the ministry to their children, but also senior adults who shared that their interactions with these young people were the highlights of their week.

While we don’t want to reduce effective ministry with young people to a church growth strategy, we’re convinced that when a church strategically invests resources in young people, the whole church grows and benefits.

The importance of context

As with many of our findings from the Growing Young project, it’s important that decisions related to financial investment be made locally and contextually. We interacted with different churches in the same geographic area that took different approaches and still managed to develop thriving ministries with teenagers and young adults. While one church in the southeastern US chose to direct all of its service efforts to the local community to minimize travel expenses, another thriving church relied heavily on mission trips to national and international locations. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

If you’re ready to take a next step, here are two ways you can make the most of your church’s financial investment in young people:

  1. Conduct an audit of your church’s budget, in particular the percentage that is allocated toward ministry with young people. Consider what this percentage communicates. Is it too high, too low, or just right?
  2. Invite teenagers or young adults into your church’s budgeting process. It’s great financial training for them, and might open your eyes to insights or creative ideas you might have missed. Ask if there are areas the church is spending money (especially on young people) that is unnecessary. If they were to redirect existing funding, how might they allocate it?

To learn more about the churches that young people love and how they’re making creative use of their limited (or abundant) resources, order Growing Young today!

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Jake Mulder Image
Jake Mulder

Jake Mulder is the Senior Director of Strategy at the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and Fuller's Executive Director of Leadership Formation Division. As Senior Director of Strategy at FYI, he oversees business administration, coordinates new research, develops resources and trainings, and helps the team think strategically. Jake holds a BA in Business Administration in Finance from Western Michigan University, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is currently pursuing a PhD at Fuller. Passionate about helping individuals and organizations achieve their full potential, he is the coauthor of Growing Young. Prior to joining the FYI team, Jake worked in a variety of ministry and professional roles, including as a Financial Analyst, Youth Pastor in the Reformed Church of America, Ministry Director with Youth for Christ, and missionary with Youth With A Mission (YWAM) in Europe and Asia. Jake and his family live in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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