Jesus once said that it was easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than it was for a rich person to enter into God's way of doing things. It's one of his more difficult statements, but I think part of what I have been learning while working on my "Youth Ministry that Works" project is that it may in fact be even than that for someone in the American church to use their God given gifts in their local church.
About three years ago I had catapulted myself into a pretty mediocre scheme to recover from the great economic downturn. My wife and I lost our home in California and a substantial down payment along with it. Having lost my own home as a teenager, I cannot express what a difficult time it was (in hindsight). It was one of the most distasteful experiences of my life in which I felt absolutely powerless over the forces that were at work. I don't think I had ever had to swallow so bitter a pill in terms of pride. We had taken out no extravagant loans, made every payment on time, and had borrowed nothing against our home. In the end it was worth about 40% of what we had started with. Barf.
Many weeks went by where all I could do was check CNNMoney from work in anxiety as I watched the stock market, and therefore the housing market, plummet to new lows. But along the way I developed a new skill. What I got really good at during the housing downturn was watching housing stocks, understanding a local real estate market, and seeing my home as an investment. When I moved to my new community I began to see an opportunity. Houses were really really low in value.
Over time we managed to get back into the housing market and I bought the most beat up dilapidated house I could. It was a complicated bankruptcy foreclosure that no one wanted to touch. It took us just over a year to actually buy it and somehow along the way I convinced myself that we could remodel this thing. And we did. It took six months of gutting, wiring, permits, home inspections, stress, and a few contractors to get it all done, but get it done we did.
As I was remodeling I began to think about hiring a couple of my teenagers in the youth group to help me out. I tended to reach out to students that I hadn't connected with in a while. And as I hired them (illegally) I began to discover something. I was doing better ministry in those settings than in many other places in my life. But the new discovery wasn't limited to my students.
Several adults from my church who came on our work service trips began to come over and help me on the house. They saw it as an opportunity to use their gifts AND hang out with students. For probably 10 Saturdays over that year and a half I had adults hanging out with students for 4-6 hours at a time. Some of these adults were not regular worship attenders and somehow I had them at my house for 6-7 Saturdays! Talk about commitment! They brought their own tools. The brought their expertise. Heck they even brought lumber sometimes! Pretty soon not only was the house remodeled, but I was building my garage! It was crazy! And I started to ask myself why they were there? They wouldn't probably volunteer for youth group on a Sunday Night. Some of them didn't serve on any teams at the church. But, here they were. The answer was that I had provided them an outlet to use their natural gifts and talents for a greater social good. This is social entrepreneurship in a nutshell.
One of the many many lessons that I have learned along the way in this project is that the church has a rough time using gifts. If you don't love serving on a team, can't speak publicly about God stuff, aren't a musician, and don't like very specific settings for children and teenagers you can be in real trouble in the church. I think many adults feel as though there just isn't a place for their particular gifts and passions in our churches. And of course this is true of our youth ministries as well. One of the reasons that we lose our students to so many other activities is that many times at church they don't feel like there is any real way for them to participate. This is way beyond experiential worship type stuff that engages our senses. They need places where they can join God in doing Kingdom work while doing what brings them LIFE!
All of this was driven home when I began to assemble a team of folks to work on this weird idea I had to put teenagers to work and disciple them at the same time. Here is what I saw:
-One person was elated that after 10 years they had figured out how God might be able to use their computer programming skills for something good. They were nearly in tears they were so overwhelmed.
-Another had done sales and business consulting and all of a sudden the church had a place for those gifts as well. They had been a phenomenal mentor to our students, but we had under utilized these other gifts that they had.
-Two others had helped run small businesses for years! They were now using those gifts to forward the lives of teens in our county.
-Yet another had been frustrated that her church never seemed to be able to offer a specific way to mentor students. Her gifts were best used in that setting, but our mentoring always seemed accidental. All of a sudden we had a tangible way forward!
-Another person has just stepped in with years of H.R. experience to help us write an employee handbook.
-One guy had a lift in his garage for cars. He got to use that to put a tow package on my car so that we could haul a trailer.
-Another commented along the way, "If I could stop what I am doing right now or retire and do what you are talking about doing in this program on a full time basis, I would do it in a heartbeat."
This is part of my great hope for social entrepreneurship and the church. My hope is that through small social ventures that are missionally oriented we can forward the Kingdom while engaging a whole host of gifts. So far it has been particularly meaningful with folks engaged in for-profit kinds of business who often have had trouble linking their work to their church. My hope is that when people look at these kinds of social ventures they can see how their gifts might be applied. That they might look at these sorts of ministries and be blown away by the wideness of the intersection where their gifts meet God's work. Because right now I think the church offers a very limited bandwidth for gift usage. My daring hope is that God might get us to a place where it is no longer easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for an ordinary person to use their gifts in service of Christ's Kingdom.