Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Prevent Church Tumors

In the youth ministry world, there is this concept of the one-eared Mickey Mouse. It looks something like this:

The church congregation is the larger Christian community, while the students in the youth ministry are barely connected to the overall church.

I call these types of ministries "church tumors." It's a bit of a gruesome image, but the concept is theologically-based. If the church is a body of believers, church tumors are those smaller, symbiotic clusters of people that have attached themselves to the larger body, using its resources but never fully integrating or connecting. Examples: a rogue small group of adults, an ingrown Sunday school class of retirees, or a thriving youth ministry program.

I was reading this post I wrote a few years ago. The principles still feel fresh:
I think youth ministry can unintentionally turn youth groups into church tumors. The church is a body of believers building one another up. But the youth group can often be a disconnected-yet-attached growth on the church body, having its own youth leadership, youth services, youth small groups, youth worship team, etc. It exists in the context of the overall church, but never fully contributes to the greater community. When a high school senior graduates from the tumor, all of the habits and comforts of the tumor are gone as they attempt to integrate into the body. The tumor-graduate can't integrate very well; he or she has always been part of the tumor, and this new body has vastly different expectations and values.
How can we prevent church tumors in youth ministry? It requires a paradigm shift in how we view adolescents. Tumor-ministry views them as a distraction needing to be in a spiritual holding-tank until they can finally be disciples as an adult ("let's give the youth their own service so the adults can worship in peace"). Healthy-body-ministry views adolescents as active, participating disciples with enormous potential and leaders within the church ("let's graciously invite students to participate with the body, recognizing their value to church community").
There is a movement in the youth ministry world towards intergenerational ministry, integrating both younger and older in worship together as a common community of believers. It requires buy-in from parents, students, and fellow pastors, but this kind of ministry truly needs the ownership of the youth ministry leaders.

Let's not grow church tumors. Let's lead the way in building healthy local bodies of believers.

Question: what are some practical ways to foster body-ministry instead of tumor-ministry?


  1. I have no answer to your question, but I do have one or two of my own - Youth Ministry has evolved as a specialism within the church because the needs and ideals of youth are different to adults? True? With this in mind, how can you please both at the same time? It's akin to having a group of Pentecostals in a traditional Anglican service - we're all shapes and sizes with different walks. Perhaps it's not seeing it as a separate entity that needs to be integrated, but a group that can make its own contribution to the church and the community, with a common destiny...Jesus.

    What would I know about it?? Just some thoughts anyway.

    1. Great thoughts and questions, Fiona. I'd say that the concept is different than denominational differences or personal preferences--though those can become tumor-like too, if they become exclusive factions. This is 1 Corinthians 12 language, about the foot not being able to say to the rest of the body "I don't need you." A healthy youth ministry views itself as an integrated member of the body that functions in an organic system. It has its own unique developmental needs, but still must remain as PART of the body, rather than just ATTACHED to the body. I think there is a distinction.

  2. Hi Joel, probably a little late in the day to comment on this post, but I discovered I'd kept it within my inbox and found it really relevant for today. I'm the Director of Youth, Children's and Families Ministry in an Australian Anglican context, and the issue you raise here is one of the really big ones for me. I strongly believe in inter-generational ministry as you describe it here, but I hear people who say that we should be setting up separate "youth congregations" within a parish as this will create growth more quickly. I tend to think it's a case of needing to allow for some 'give and take' between the age groups, but do you have any further thoughts on this, or sources for more info on how youth can be allowed to do things that meet their needs and still be clearly part of the wider congregation?

    1. Hi Jonathan, sorry to respond so late to your post! I think the metaphor of a body is so healthy and Biblical, so let's keep viewing this situation through the lens of that metaphor. The young people in a church body require unique attention and care, just like how one would care for one's eyes would be different than how one cares for one's teeth. Both are valued; both are part of the body; both receive nourishment and health from being fully integrated and connected with the body. Yet they also have distinct and particular roles and need different attention.

      How do we do this? By recognizing and openly valuing the uniqueness of the teen years WITHOUT either worshiping the youth or neglecting them. It's a tough path, but worth pursuing.