The God of the 99

Youth pastors, trying to appear humble and spiritual, will tell you numbers don't matter. We lie. Sometimes they matter. A lot.

Last night there were 99 people at our high school youth ministry, which we call SOS. The name is a mystery to most, but it actually stands for "Stoked On Sunday," a tag I brought from my days in Denver, where people tend to say the word stoked a lot. For the past 15 years, we have been gathering students and youth leaders together on Sunday nights to talk about God and hang out together.

I still remember my first Sunday night at Mountain View. It was May 2000, and I was a candidate for the youth pastor job. As part of my vetting, I was asked to meet with the few high school students of the church. There were about 10 of them gathered in Dave Carruther's living room. The church had only existed a couple of years, so they didn't know each other very well and didn't seem to care. We played a stupid game where you make shapes out of bubble gum. I'm pretty sure they were all thinking, "loser."

I got the job anyway.

That fall we started a youth ministry from scratch. The high school kids met in a nice basement in Holly Hills. I recruited my first high school volunteers, Scott and Erika Rape. The kids were cool, they seemed to like me, and pretty soon we had 25 or more every week. We started small groups. We talked about the Bible. We ate a lot of pizza and shot a lot of pool.

Over the years things steadily grew and changed. We met in lots of different locations. We filled the basements of Katsotises, Sheehys, Joneses, Leggits. We romped around the corridors of the Landon House for four years. We'd average 35 or 40 kids, maybe 50 on a big night. We added lots of great volunteers. We did so many retreats, mission trips and conferences that sometimes I felt like a travel agent instead of a youth pastor. Even with all the changes and activity, I remember nearly every student who was ever a part of our ministry.

Five years ago, things changed dramatically. We opened our new building, home of the coolest youth room in Frederick County, which we called the PIT. We optimistically bought 80 chairs. We had live music and a snack bar and a legit arcade-grade air hockey table. We had modular sofas aptly named "Love Sacs" and tons of pictures on the walls. The night we opened, we had about 75 people. We settled at an average of 50 or so. We've grown steadily since. Last year we bought 20 more chairs to accommodate that growth. You can do the math. It has been very rewarding and humbling. I reflect on it often, and I'm blessed to have been a part of this.

Yet, despite the success we've had, I still have doubts and fears. Mine is this: I worry that I'm getting too old for this. I worry that I will lose my relevance, my youthfulness, my ability to relate to students, my identity as a youth pastor. I worry that I'll be left in the dust, like an old piece of stereo equipment in the digital age. This has been my life's work--what will become of me when I'm no longer "Pastor Steve" to the students of Mountain View?

In a moment of vulnerability, I shared this with the students at SOS last night. I talked about fear and how it hinders our relationship with God. Fear is really lack of trust that God is powerful and that he is good. The truth is, we all have fears which hinder our relationship with God. High school students have lots of them -- the fear of being alone, the fear of being left out, the fear of failure, the fear or unrealized dreams. I'm sure you have your own fears. They are always with us, reminding us we're not in control. The key to defeating them is to remind ourselves what God has done for us, and that he is capable of even greater things.

This morning I awakened with a refreshing sense of confidence. I looked at last night's attendance and smiled. 99 is such a unique number. It represents where we've come from, and where we are going. It represents what God has done, and a threshold we are going to cross. There may be 99 in the fold--a beautiful number to be sure--but there is always room for another. God makes room. And he makes room for us to play an important role in his work of adding to the flock. I have 99 reasons to trust God's faithfulness, and one big reason to keep going. I don't know why I ever doubt him.

I trust the God of the 99. I hope you do, too.