A Tumor on The Body

“Well I don’t think what you have to offer is going to work for our family.” I’ve heard those words more times than I’d like to admit, usually from parents looking for a youth ministry that will take their kids off their hands for a few nights a week. While they might not say it, I’m often left feeling like they want a babysitter, which is certainly not what I do.

The “Average” Youth Ministry

Even though I was 19 when Jesus saved me, I spent my first few years as a Christ-follower serving as the ever ambiguous “student leader” in a youth ministry. While the church had an energetic and imitable youth pastor, the youth ministry was in the church annex and had little overlap with the rest of the church body. In fact, while it never spoken out loud and was likely unintentional, it was hard to avoid the impression that the rest of the church wanted little to do with the youth ministry. Sure, parents might drop their kids off and enthusiastically give them money and supplies for events and missions trips, but the leaders and folks without teenagers seemed thankful that the “loud” and “awkward” teens were out of sight and out of mind. As I’ve grown and witnessed more youth ministries, unfortunately I’ve found this to be all too common.

The Problem With The Status Quo

This method of doing youth ministry is problematic when we contrast it to the biblical view of the Church as a body. When the youth ministry starts to operate as if it is an autonomous unit, yet, still brands itself as an umbrella of the local church; it looks less like a healthy body and more like a tumor. A sobering image for us to face when we are striving for healthy church bodies, yet an image I’ve seen far too many times. There is hope, however, for bodies suffering with the growth of tumors and it doesn’t always involve radiation or chemotherapy. The cure is much more simple.

Strength Through Weakness

Three years ago I accepted a call to pioneer a brand new youth ministry at a young church plant. I had to be creative in building it as I was only a volunteer and still had to work full-time in secular employment. Additionally, the church plant was regional and attracted students from six or seven different school districts making it difficult to host frequent-midweek events. Yet, just as Paul found “when he was weak, then he was strong,” (2 Cor. 12:10) these weaknesses ended up being some of the strongest parts of our youth ministry. From the beginning the vision has been to partner with parents and offer very few events. Largely, we have stayed faithful to this vision and it has born fruit.

Absorbing the Tumor

Out of necessity and design our youth ministry meets only twice a month on Sundays for Bible study and prayer and then once a month for fellowship, games, and outreach (which a family hosts and I don’t always attend). We then offer 1-2 big events per year and usually partner with another church for these events. On the other Sundays of the month the teens worship with their parents with the rest of the church.

The blessings of this model of ministry have been that parents are very involved, both out of necessity and out of desire (both mine and theirs) and that they are bought in to the vision. I am not expected to shoulder the burden of being the only spiritual influence in the lives of the teens. It’s my conviction that parents should be the primary influence in the lives of their teens and this design helps that happen. We intentionally avoid doing lot of events in order to ensure students have more time with their parents. We also look for ways for the teens to join the “adult church” on mission trips, retreats, small groups and service opportunities within the church. Ultimately, I’ve found that we our youth ministry is very much a part of the greater body of our local church and has been embraced by disciples of all ages within our congregation. Now and again I’ve had a hard conversation with a family that wants to hand off their responsibility to some youth worker and decides the ministry isn’t for them, but I’m okay with that as our call is to make disciples and the families that have stuck around want to share in that call; they too want to be a part of a healthy body and not just dead weight being carried on the body’s back.

What about your youth ministry? If you assessed it honestly, do you feel you are partnering with parents to disciple their teens? Or are you operating independently of the rest of the church body? What will you do in the future to ensure a healthy balance?

Stay tuned for future posts where I will discuss some more of the theology behind this approach and some additional ways it plays out in the real world.

Sean Headshot

Sean Nolan teaches hermeneutics at Augustine’s Classical Academy and leads the youth ministry at Terra Nova Church in Troy, NY. He’s an aspiring church planter and is married to Hannah and father to Knox. He irregularly blogs at Hardcore Grace. He likes activities that don’t involve sweating.


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5 thoughts on “A Tumor on The Body

  1. Great approach to youth ministry Sean! We too have backed off on activities. Students have enough to keep them busy in life and we don’t need to add to it, especially when it interferes with families spending more time together. Our students are involved in our Sunday worship. We have youth group on Sunday evening but on Sunday morning they attend “big church” and like it and many of them serve on our childrens, nursery and first impression teams. This helps the church view youth ministry as a part of the boy and not a “tumor”.
    Thanks for the thoughts!

    • Thanks, Andy. I was nodding and saying “amen” to everything you wrote. We also have students serving in those same ministry teams. I also find myself always saying to students, “next week remember you will worship in ‘big church.'” I have yet to find a more natural way of referring to the ‘larger congregation,’ but hope there is a better language to incorporate into this model/vision for youth ministry. My question for you is, do you think there is a better word that could be used? I have yet to think of one. If you stumble across a more strategic way of communicating it than “big church” please let me know. Blessings to you and your ministry. With 15 years in the game you’ve probably acquired more wisdom than 95% of the youth ministers out there.