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Tales of Adventure Blog

Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
with the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.

We ask you to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push back the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

This we ask in the name of our Captain,
Who is Jesus Christ.

 

Glimpses of Glory #1

Matthew Overton

For the record.  Our truck is not nearly as shiny as this one.

For the record.  Our truck is not nearly as shiny as this one.

What can a dump truck, snow, and bricks teach us about Christian ministry? Something maybe.

Some weeks ago I brought my girls with me to complete a large landscaping job in which we were building a stone retaining wall.  The job was finished and there were about 150 extra bricks that needed to be loaded into a large dump truck and hauled back to Home Depot. When my girls and I got to the top of the ridge in our neigborhood we found that while it had not snowed at our house, it had snowed a couple of inches up there! It was also a good deal colder. As a good Dad, I of course had not anticipated this and brought no work gloves for my girls, 5 and 8 or for me.

Over the next couple of hours I patiently helped them help me load each brick onto pallets in the truck. I stood up on the back end looking down at them as they handed up each brick covered in snow. I felt badly looking at their pink little hands, but I also knew that this was a really good character building experience for them. At one point a couple of older boys bicycled by with gloves on. My oldest could hear them complaining about how cold it was and that they needed to stop and warm up. At one point she looked up and said, "You know at school, the boys always talk about girls being 'fancy'. Sometimes I think boys can by pretty 'fancy' too." I couldn't help but laugh. While my girls were cold, they were learning the borders and testing the margins of their mental and physical toughness through work. All children need to do this. We talked about sometimes needing to focus on the task at hand when things get difficult, that when things get difficult you sometimes have to just keep moving forward until the job is done. I believe these things. But, it was their in their looking up during and after the work that I was most struck.

One of the hopes in pursuing Kingdom work (and specifically youth work) through the vehicle of social enterprise is that as we pursue it we think reflectively about the theology that does or does not undergird what we are doing. In the past I have tried to write on theological frameworks for Christian Social Enterprise and the other day I ran into one of these ideas while in church. There was a connection point between the experience with that dump truck and what I was hearing.

At least part of what we are doing in youth ministry through social enterprise is giving students glimpses of glory.

     In his lecture/sermon on "The Weight of Glory", C.S. Lewis draws an analogy to children and parent while he is trying to define glory as "fame or good report". Lewis is careful to say that glory, on the human side at least, is actually our need for the recognition of God. What we often pursue is fame or good report from our fellow human beings as some kind of substitute for this divine embrace. But, his point is that we are wired to seek recognition from God. A kind of divine approval and blessing.

     All of us long to hear from some final authority the words that we see in Matthew 25, "Well done good and faithful servant." In Matthew 3 we also find that the Son of God, after being baptized receives praise from on high. "And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." Again in Matthew 17 we see in the Transfiguration that the Father again is well pleased with the Son.  The point of all this, and its one that I think I agree with, is that as human beings we long to receive the praise of God. Shoot, apparently even God needs the praise of God! We are in some sense wired for it. But, the trick is that in order for us to believe in that God who delights in us and hope for its future day of fullness, we need to experiences glimpses of glory here and now. That is to say that it is often human beings, our neighbors and perhaps most importantly our parents, who provide that foretaste as we live this side of God's Kingdom. We need somebody, sometimes anybody to tell us, "Well done, I am proud of you!"

     Lewis says that in this way we are rather like children. Anyone that has children can verify that there is nothing they long for more than to earn (honest and genuine!) praise from their parents. They long to hear that they have worked hard and done well.  This is what I ran into with my own girls.  At several stages of the work, while they hardly complained, they did seek out my approval. They clearly wanted to know that they were doing a good job at the task at hand. This dynamic continued after the fact as well. Tucking one of them in at night I told them that I was proud that they had worked so hard and toughed it out.  They wanted to hear what every human being wants to hear from some higher authority, "Well done you hard worker! You are doing great! Keep at it! I am proud of you! I often try to offer them this praise apart from the tasks they perform, but I also want them to be able to honestly assess when they have worked hard and done well. And all of this of course is exactly what Lewis is driving at. We are all looking up in some sense. I think Lewis is exactly right about this impulse to receive glory from the one who made us and it is an important theological pillar that supports all the intergenerational ministry and youth ministry that my church is working on. We are engaged in Christian Social Enterprise through mentoring because it gives us an opportunity to add an adult, or perhaps the first adult, to the lives of local teenagers that need to catch a glimpse of glory.

    Part of what we do when we do ministry is we provide glimpses or foretastes, or inivitations to glory, for those that we work with. We have an opportunity to help people believe and hope that somebody out there is interested in them precisely where they are. One of the reasons that we have created a program around intergenerational mentoring is because we believe that our mentors have much more to offer our students than professional experience. They have much more to offer than years of wisdom. Part of what they have to offer is a glimpse of the glory of God that we all long to hear and know in fullness one day. The voice that says to us, "Well done child! I am proud of you! How did you walk that road!?" In short, what we are providing is foretastes of glory, hints of divine love and approval. We are offering human beings opportunities to be caught in the tonal warmth and magnetic light of God's voice and gaze.

At the end of the day, the world is full of people with technical skills. It is full of people with soft skills. It does not have enough people with the ability to offer these divine glimpses.

My hope is that our program can continue to offer that.

The 4 Rings of Christian Social Enterprise

Matthew Overton

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Over the past few years of trying to run a profitable social enterprise that is meaningfully connected to my local church there have been a number of revelations. Most of them have had to do with various aspects or growing awarenesses of how isolated I have been in my church role from the community at large. For those of us that have read books on missional theology, this is nothing new. It was only a revelation to me in the sense that I thought I had cleared the church/community wall a number of times in my ministry. But, engaging a model of social enterprise that truly interests the community has resulted in a volume of extra-ecclesial connections that I had never thought possible. I have met with superintendents, church folks, community service providers, and business people and the web of connections in my community to good work has formed at an unexpected pace.

Over the course of this season I have begun to construct an economic model (a very humble one!) that describes the degree to which I think the church has been isolated economically. I call it the 4 Rings of Kingdom Economics. The basic idea is that if we truly believe that whatever we are working on is good Kingdom work, we need to find better ways to fund it. I believe that in my life time the people of God are going to need creative ways to find resources to live out the hope that they have. If we want to bless the world, we will need new economic engines to do so. The model I created simply articulates where I think we are and where we need to broaden our economic thinking.

Ring 1- The Christendom Economy

This ring represents the majority of Christian history. I don't think I need to explain Christendom to you all. This ring represents the church's most isolated thinking. Basically the church is/has been funded off of the benevolences of the christian empire and people's private morality for the better part of 1700 years. However, this ring has begun to shrink. The church has lost its privileged status in a few respects and its influence is declining rapidly. My suspicion is that this trend will only increase (and I happen to think it is a good thing in some respects!).

In my mind this is a ring that reeks of dependency and apathy. It causes the church to be safe, isolated, and frumpy. It also incentivizes the church to engage in charitable work that does not actually cause real uplift, but rather robs people of their dignity and tends to maintain the status quo. We have a veneer of balm, that never really engages the roots of the justice issues we are trying to resolve. It looks like we care, but only to a point do we really want to help others. Why risk a steady flow of capital when you have plenty to take care of your baseline?

Ring 2- The Passion Economy

This ring represents other individual charitable resources. Many people in Christian communities give very little of their actual wealth to what they at least say is the most important institution in their lives. I think the average is about 2.5% or something around there.  I have heard many pastors lament this. "Gee, we could do so much more good if people gave more to the church!" I have always been frustrated with this sort of thinking. The problem isn't the people. It's the passion.

Many people in my church have privately acknowledged as I have been engaged in this project that they give quite a bit outside the walls of the church and outside of Christianity. They will often say in a kind of half whisper that it is because they don't find what we are doing at the church to be compelling enough.  They don't trust that if they gave more that it would actually be used on the right sort of work! I am not sure they are wrong.

I believe that churches and ministries need to stop complaining about people's lack of giving and look at their own repetoire of missional ministries. Is there anything there that is compelling enough for someone to actually lay their life down for? If there isn't why would they bother parting with their treasure? I continue to believe that most of human beings are looking for something so worthwhile that we would trade or very lives for it! In fact, I am often shocked at what we waste laying down our time, money, and health to pursue. People "passion" for our ministries as my friend Kenda Dean might say, if we had something worth suffering for! If we can develop ministries that are actually worth people's blood, sweat, and tears then maybe they would actually lay down their lives and their dollars!

In short, we don't have compelling ministries.

When we begin to develop ministries that are compelling I think we will find that our people have way more human and monetary resources than we have even begun to imagine. This second ring represents their untapped heart/passion dollars.

 

3. The Non-Profit Economy-

This economic ring represents funding that might come to a compelling ministry from denominational sources, granting organizations, family foundations, charitable trusts, and corporate entities that have a social mission. Many churches have never considered these as viable ways to fund the good work that they might be doing. The difficulty is of course that many of these potential sources do not care to fund a local congregation specifically. However, by setting up a 501c3 (relatively easy these days) with its own board and mission, one can clear that hurdle. There are billions of dollars available for organizations that are well organized and have a clear sense of what the mission is that God is calling them to engage.

4. The Wallet Economy-

This ring represent the multi-trillion dollar economy that is ebbing and flowing every day in our world. This ring is one that Kingdom based enterprises can engage with regardless of whether or not our world/customers share our faith or justice goals. There are many people who don't care about faith, but who do care about the poor and just want a good cup of coffee. They might want fair trade clothing. They might want their lawn mowed by an ethical company that is teaching teens how to work. What is great is that by accessing this ring of the economy, ministries can use the normal to create to accomplish the hopeful. We are simply tapping into the day to day purchases of ordinary folks in order to accomplish Kingdom good.

In many ways this source of funding Kingdom work is limitless! Think how many dollars change hands in our economy every day.  However, this ring also will require excellence because to exist in this ring will require a level of efficiency and competetiveness that is high. It will also require the providing of goods and services that are top notch. The marketplace just won't tolerate mediocrity for very long as a general matter. This represents a challenge because in many ways the church is known for mediocre. No one goes to a church supper expecting excellent food. In the confines of the 1st ring mediocrity works and is even expected. People actually might get kind of irritated if the fare was superb at church meal. They would wonder how much we spent and why!? But, when you step into the every day economy people want bang for their buck. They have much higher expectations because they are not giving to you out of benevolence.  So while this ring has access to trillions, it comes with a challenging set of competitive costs.

 

Note: I am still refining this model and what it means. I would welcome some comments from folks to help me reflect and revise it. I would also love to know how it strikes you theologically and intellectually. What questions does it bring up and what challenges? Do I have some presuppositions that I am blind to? Let me know.

For Profit, Non-Profit, Hybrid

Matthew Overton

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For the last several months I have been writing some articles for Duke Divnity's Faith and Leadership publication on the church and social enterprise.  This is the 3rd article in the series and it takes a very brief (and simplistic) look at choosing between various for profit or non profit structures in doing Christian Social Enterprise.

You can read it here.

How to Launch a Social Enterprise (Faith and Leadership)-

Matthew Overton

Duke Divinity allowed me to write an article on the most basic steps of launching a church based social enterprise. It is extremely broad and general, but I hope it might be of some help to others. The journey has been inordinately more complicated and challenging than one article can get to, but I think it's pretty good. Enjoy! You can read it here.

Jim Bridger, The Revenant, and Room to Roam

Matthew Overton

A few months ago I wrote an article for Duke's Faith and Leadership journal on "Why I Started a Social Enterprise." I think it turned out pretty well, but one of the more frustrating aspects was the fact that it was limited to about 1,000 words. The difficulty is that whenever I sit down and think about how my journey into trying to do ministry through social enterprise started, I am floored by all the little and big factors that brought this about. One of the key features of it all has been this compelling sense that I "had to do this." I have encountered it many times along the way, but it him me pretty hard a few months back.

I was on a plan back from New York and I had purchased Michael Punke's book, "The Revenant". One of the key characters in the book is the young Jim Bridger. Bridger is of course one of the early trapper, explorer, trailblazers of American history and folk lore.  But, in the book he is a young man paddling a ferry boat post to post on the Mississippi river. Part way through the book, the author seeks to describe Bridger's "call" to go west into the frontier and it struck me. It seemed to capture everything I have felt over the last few years.

"The frontier for Bridger became an aching presence that he could feel, but could not define, a magnetic force pulling him inexorably toward something that he had heard about, but never seen. A preacher on a swaybacked mule rode Bridger's ferry one day. He asked Bridger if he knew God's mission for him in life. Without pause Bridger answered, "Go to the Rockies." The preacher was elated, urging the boy to consider missionary work with the savages. Bridger had no interest in bringing Jesus to the Indians, but the conversation stuck with him. The boy had come to believe that going west was more than just a fancy for someplace new. He came to see it as a part of his soul, a missing piece that could only be made whole on some far-off mountain or plain."

Ministry has often felt like Jim Bridger's ferry ride to me. It has been something that I have enjoyed and felt called to, but there has always been something missing. I think the problem has often been that ministry has not lent itself to enough innovation and exploration for me. There has been too much that is stayed and defined about it. Part of what social enterprise has offered me is a kind of new frontier. Many people along the way have sounded to me rather like the frontier preacher. They have wanted to do things that seem outmoded, counterproductive, awkward, and even outright hurtful in order to maintain the institution of the church.  It's not that I have no interest in carrying Jesus, it's that I am not always sure that I have liked the ways and means and even the Jesus that others have articulated for me to carry forth. These kinds of experiences have often felt stifling to me. It's one of the reasons that I haven't wanted to become a head of staff at a church.  The role doesn't allow enough risk or innovation. The articulated frameworks of the church feel a bit like a ferry ride. Post to post. Over and over again along the same route. I realized pretty quickly that was going to be difficult for me over the years. I love Jesus and the church, but I need space to do something stupid.

For me, like Bridger, freedom of movement has always been a premium. Even in my outdoors experiences I have rarely enjoyed doing the same hike twice. I need frontier space. Social Enterprise has offered that in a way that I could not have imagined. I never wanted the stress of entrepreneurship. My Dad was an entrepreneur and it never seemed to fall his way. At least part of why I went into ministry was that it was stable, if I am honest with myself. But, I have never like doing the same thing the same way, twice.

Christian Social Enterprise is for me, more than a fancy. It is as clear a mission as Bridger's, "Go to the Rockies." It is not a passing fancy or something new. It feels like a westward movement and like a puzzle piece in my soul has descended into place from out of the cosmos. It's exciting, though every once in a while I do envision the bear attack from the movie the Revenant and it gives me pause.

Turf Grass, Economic Specialization, Christian Social Enterprise, and Kingdom Work

Matthew Overton

This past Sunday I was asked to share with my congregation for the first time about my social enterprise. There are many people at church that know that we run a landscaping company and also a number who know that we also do mentoring and life skills coaching. But, many of those people didn't understand the whole picture of both Mowtown Teen Lawn Care and The Columbia Future Forge until this Sunday. I had been reluctant to share about the project until I knew it was viable and because I don't like talking about myself in front of people generally.

What was interesting was that after the service a gentleman came up to me to offer his help. He was totally excited. He let me know that he had 35 years in of a career in turf management and that his forte was teaching landscape courses in how to manage various kinds of grasses for home lawns and even golf courses. He offered to teach my workers, when we were ready, on how to manage turf better.  It was a remarkable conversation on a number of levels.

During the presentation to the church, one of the things that I highlighted was the idea that Social Enterprise allows the church to mobilize a whole bunch of acquired professional expertise. It actually allows us to use the gifts and talents of many of our congregants in ways we had never conceived of. I have said many times that one of the things that social enterprise has taught me is that there are a whole bunch of people in our churches who are struggling to connect their unique gifts and honed skills with Kingdom work. We only generally allow them to do this within a really narrow bandwidth of roles:

-Can they speak?

-Can they play music?

-Do they have accounting skills?

-Are they good with children and youth?

-Do they have leadership gifts?

If you look at that list it is pretty short (and I am sure I have missed a bunch), but it is also incredibly non-specific. This is what struck me as I reflected on a conversation with a guy with "35 years of turf grass experience". Our modern economy, however, is highly specific.

Part of what social enterprise offers the American church is the ability to engage specific gifts. In economics there is a concept called economic specialization. Essentially it argues that each economy (I think this would apply to individuals as well) must specialize over time in order to increase its efficiency. One country might become really good at making cars while another will have to focus on more agrarian advances. The idea is that if they don't make those choices they will be out competed by those that do. Some specialize because of certain resources they have while others because of certain human resource capabilities or global location.  A country or individual then can use the excess of that one specialized item to trade for other things.

Over time this trend toward efficiency and specialization has radically changed our economy. This is why for instance that someone cannot expect to have an easy career road with a generic degree or no college/tech degree at all. The modern economy has specialized to such a degree that general skills are less and less rewarded. There are some significant downsides to this of course, but it is simply a reality.

I remember being struck at my university when I started in my forestry major that we had about 60 freshman in our program and they offered 15 different focus areas for the major within the college of science! How could you have 15 narrow tracks for just 60 people?!  It's this kind of specificity that presents a problem for churches. While I had thought about the ways that social enterprise can mobilize gifts, the problem of economic specialization had never dawned on my until this past Sunday when an individual with a highly specific set of gifts suddenly engaged with me.

Churches, because they have been asked to be stewards of our whole culture have often had to remain non-specialized institutions.  We are responsible for every stage of life! Just look at the average seminary education. I had to take History, Exegesis, Pastoral Care and Counseling, 2 languages, Theology, Polity, Worship, etc. etc. etc. There were so many areas we had to cover for such a broad role that by the time I had finished seminary I had only been able to actually take 2 specific courses on individual books of the Bible. That seems highly counter intuitive to me for someone training to be a minister. Each one of those areas is a focus area in and of itself. But, because the church is expected to be and do so many things we had to take just a little bit of everything.  The biblical texts don't really help us in some ways either.

Typically when Christians think about giftings and talents, we tend to think non-specifically as well. When one thinks of Paul in 1st Corinthians 12 we are thinking about a Body of Christ image that in Paul's mind contains 100-200 parts that are nameable. Well, even the most basic modern assessment would regard such a metaphor for anatomy as highly simplistic. The human body contains 206-270 bones alone depending on life stage. We haven't even touched on the complexity of each system within the body from muscles, to hormones, to digestion, etc.!

The church is geared to thinking of the Body of Christ the same way. We look out in our church for gifts of leadership, finance, hospitality, etc. but we fail to realize that the people in our pews and chairs are actually HIGHLY specialized subsets of each of those groups. We need ministries that can actually mobilize those highly specified gifts.

I think part of what Christian Social Enterprise forces/allows the church to do is create very specific missional ministries that require highly specific sets of skills. This is a good thing. To be sure, it's a bit of a guess as to what ministry might mobilize best the unique people in our churches.  But, I am unclear as to what other way a man in my church with 35 years of turf grass experience would be able to stand up and say, "Here I am Lord, send me", than with the specific ministry that I accidentally created. The nature of social enterprise and the necessity to compete in the actual marketplace with the built in effeciencies of that market forces the creation of specific ministries that require specific gifts. The end result of that is an opportunity to engage the Body of Christ in meaningful Kindgom work in ways that we never could have controlled or conceived. I think that is pretty cool.