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Youth Ministry and the 5 Whys

Car manufacturer Toyota has become known for a question-asking technique used to come to the root cause of a problem. It’s as simple as asking why until you have come to the bottom of an issue. The term ‘5 whys’ refers to the number of times you usually have to ask ‘why’ before you have found the real problem, cause or reason.

Let’s illustrate with an example. One of the most popular events in a Dutch church was the autumn retreat. This took place at the end of October and usually at least 60 students would sign up. When a new youth pastor came, he changed the date to September because he wanted to use it as a team-building kick-off event for the season. Suddenly only 20 students showed up for the retreat. What had happened?

As it turns out, there was a reason why the retreat was so late in October. First of all, many college students (who in The Netherlands are often still part of student ministry since they come home on the weekends considering how small the country is) had intro weekends in September from their students groups and organizations. Second, September was a crazy busy months for students and parents with all the changes of a new class, a new school, new routines. A retreat was just too much. Third, the new students in the ministry weren’t ready to commit to a retreat yet, not having met anyone else yet.

These were all valid, practical reasons. But there was a fourth one. It had become a tradition to have the retreat in the weekend the daylight saving time ended, the weekend in which the clock turned back an hour and everyone would have an hour extra sleep. Silly, yes, but practical at the same time. And a cherished tradition the new youth pastor did not know about. Oh, he’d been told ‘we always have the retreat at the end of October’ but he figured that wasn’t enough of a reason. Well, he figured wrong.

His first mistake was to make the decision to move the retreat to a different date unilaterally. If he’d discussed this with his leaders or even with the students before making the decision, he’d have realized it was a bad idea—if only for the practical reasons I mentioned above.

But if he had used the 5 whys technique, he would have discovered the underlying emotional reason and that it wasn’t an example of a ministry to set in its ways (and it could have been: there are certainly hundreds of examples where youth ministries do something merely because it’s always been done a certain way…)

girls asks why

This is what he could have asked one of the leaders:

Q: Why do you guys have the retreat in October?

A: Well, we’ve done it in October as long as I’ve been a leader.

Q: But why was it scheduled in October in the first place?

A: Well, we discovered that September was a busy month for the students because of intro weekends for college students. And the high school students were busy too starting a new school or new class. Parents weren’t wild about retreats in September either; they wanted their kids to focus on getting settled in school or college first.

Q: Okay, but why that weekend of October, why not the first or second weekend?

A: Oh, because we always do it when the clock goes back, you know, so we get an extra hour of sleep. Not that we sleep much during those retreats, but at least you get one hour more because of the time change.

He wouldn’t even have needed 5 whys, 3 would have sufficed.

The next time you are confronted with a problem, an issue, or a decision you have to make in your youth ministry, start asking ‘why’ until you are sure you have dug to the root cause or reason.

Have you ever tried this method?

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