I recently asked a youth director, let’s call him Ahmed, how his youth program was going, and he said it was going really well. They had over 150 youth who regularly attended the Friday night lecture, and regular sports (primarily basketball) activities. Of those, there were 8 to 10 youth who seemed particularly promising – both active as well as sincerely interested in their religion, and Ahmed was considering starting a special halaqa for them. It was clear to me that Ahmed felt his youth program was very successful, and many in the community would have agreed with him. In fact, the majority of communities would consider an attendance of 150+ youth coming regularly on a Friday night for an Islamic lecture plus other times for sports to be very successful.
However, this type of thinking is exactly what’s wrong with our assessments of our communities. The simple truth is that most of our communities don’t actually have any specific goals for or programs or even our masjid. We may see vague statements such as “contributes to the betterment of the Muslim community” or “to foster a better understanding of Islam” or “to provide religious, social and educational services” and rarely any that are specific to youth. But the lack of specificity leaves many questions: What do they really mean? How do we know if they have been achieved? Has there been improvement? And at the end of the day, the majority will define success simply by numbers – how many people attend juma, or the seminar, or the youth program. And numbers, like statistics, don’t mean much without a great deal of context – context we typically don’t have.
I asked Ahmed – of the 150 youth who attended this time last year, how many are no longer coming? He didn’t know. I asked, of those who stopped coming, why did they stop coming? He didn’t know. I asked, of those who are still coming, why are they still coming? He guessed for the knowledge, but he wasn’t confident and it certainly wasn’t true for all of them. I asked, in what way, specifically, have those who have been coming for at least 6 months personally benefitted from attending? He didn’t know. I told him that without knowing those answers, he can’t truly claim that his youth program is successful – unless his objective was simply to have 150 youth in a lecture hall every Friday night.
I couldn’t really blame Ahmed though. He, like most youth directors, was overwhelmed. It’s simply not possible for one person to connect with and get to know 150+ youth, keeping up with each of them in a meaningful way, and to develop and deliver programs, and to do the various other tasks that are assigned. Even if he simply wanted to spend 30 minutes a week with each youth that would be a 75 hour work week, and that assumes the youth are lined up at the door for their 30 minute meeting. And all of that doesn’t even begin to address the need to have active and effective outreach to the hundreds and thousands of youth who live in very close proximity to the masjid, yet who don’t attend at all.
A truly successful youth program is one in which the vast majority of the youth feel connected, seen, heard, safe and welcomed, and in which they benefit personally. It is one in which quality of the youth experience and benefit is the measure of success, and that there are mechanisms in place to both deliver and assess effective programs. It’s not about how fun the youth rate the program, but how much they grow and are impacted by the program. And it happens with a good youth director or leader, who is properly supported with a team of trained mentors, so that each youth can have personalized attention.