Why do small scale ministries?
In the last post we looked at how participatory culture has created a desire for us to physically engage the ministries of which we are a part. It simply will not do to have ministries where we just ask people to "show up" as spectators. The problem with this reality is that I think it shifts the scale through which we need to engage in ministry. Ministry that is on a scale where people can be actively engaged through participation will need to be smaller by nature.
Seth Godin, in a talk on the connection economy, talks about the fact that in the world today you cannot build models that are for everyone (start watching at 1:45). What is needed are essentially smaller scale tribes that draw people together based on their passions and interests. We need to think along the lines of the local Star Wars group maybe or the cyclists that meet on-line and bike for charity. The problem is that our churches and youth ministries tend to be geared toward larger scale thinking. We tend to have one experience that is meant for everyone. If you don't like being social and you don't like learning in a hands off fashion as a teen for instance you would be hard pressed to enjoy youth group in many churches. It's just too broad. The point is that something that is geared for everyone tends to not draw together a group that is committed to much of anything.
What is cool about the social entrepreneurship model is that in order for it to be successful it needs just the sort of tribe mentality that Godin talks about. If for instance, we decided to build our own small ministry around a food cart that supported the local homeless shelter we would need 6-10 folks who were radically committed to that ministry. We would need that because you can't make a social entrepreneurship run on periodic commitment. People would need to understand the purpose of the ministry, have passion for the food that is served, and know enough about homelessness and the local shelter to share with customers about it. Second, it's that passion that breeds excellence. People want to do well. You need that excellence because to enter the world of social entrepreneurship you have to compete against others in the marketplace. This is true whether you are a for profit or non profit entity. If you don't make excellent food at that food cart and speak passionately about that local shelter and its visitors you simply will not be able to compete with the food cart down the road. The whole enterprise just won't survive. You need a passionate and committed tribe to do this kind of ministry. This way of thinking produces some tension for many of us in the church.
Isn't the gospel opposed to tribes?
We have to acknowledge that one of the reasons that churches have struggled to instill true passion in many of those that are a part of our communities is that for the better part of the last 2,000 years we were tasked with taking care of everyone in our culture. When churches became a part of the establishment framework we became the gatekeepers of culture. We had to marry and bury everyone. This tends to produce organizations and ministries that are fairly non specific and generic. The problem with this model accelerated when the culture began to modernize and de-Christianize. Suddenly we were no longer able to pinpoint "the culture" that we were trying to tend to. There wasn't one prescribed culture, but hundreds of small scale cultures. In my youth ministries we went from 3-5 shows that every teen watched on television to an amazing diversity in viewing choice over the course of about six years!
But, this leaves many of us in an awkward position. We are no longer stewards of the culture around us, but don't we have a theological obligation to every lost sheep? I suppose on a grand scale we do, but the only way that we are going to tend to anyone is to focus on someone. We We need to be able to have ministries that invite others in to a story that calls them to willingly lay their lives down for something greater than themselves. The way to do that, I think, is to create focused opportunities that people connected to and called to engage. I do worry about Seth Godin's language of "tribes". The gospel is opposed to tribalism at some level, to be sure. It eschews the vilification of Samaritan and Scythian alike. It looks askance at the religious teachers that would create walls that separate us off from "those people" over "there". Tribes and tribalism tend to do that. And yet, it is also a gospel that does include stories of dust being shaken from sandals and of sheep and wolves. I don't think one can argue that the gospel is never categorical or tribal at all. So, my view is that somehow we have to walk a nuanced line. We need to not wall off our brothers and sisters as "other" and yet we have to create ministries that are unapologetic about asking for committment and passion. And we need to not feel guilty when some folks seem unable to engage those ministries because they are committed to other things.
The point of all this is that in a disconnected world, people are longing for small communities or tribes of meaning. Meaning comes from sacrifice and sacrifice is a central part of our gospel story. In order to create tribes of deep meaning we are going to have to focus on small scale projects that call for sacrifices of time, relational bandwidth, and money. We need ministries that are focused on the one thing that we are supposed to be best at: Kingdom Mission. We can let other tribes focus on interest areas (soccer, star wars, book clubs, etc.). We need to create smaller groupings that rely upon and offer up opportunities for full engagement. These will tend to be smaller and will not appeal to the whole church or community at large. That's okay!!!
So what about youth ministry?
I think the point for youth ministry going forward is that we are going to need either smaller youth groups or clusters of ministries within a ministry that combine God given interests and gospel callings. We used to talk about contextual ministries during the emerging churches craze. The reality is that for better or for worse, the individual has become the context. We are going to need to gather individuals that are interested in the same things and be good news there. You might still have a central youth group that combines teaching, social gathering, and teenage fun. But, around that traditional ministry you might have several committed groups that are engaged with specific gospel projects. Maybe you have a leader and 6 kids who are committed to the local food bank and another group that works with Habitat for Humanity. Or, you might launch a couple small scale social entrepreneurships. You could run that food cart I mentioned or a reduced cost laundro-mat. I think it's these kinds of entities that will actually be able to teach our students why faith matters to real life and will actually be able to compete against things like soccer and robotics.
One particular advantage of these kinds of ministries is that they will offer all sorts of organic connections between adults and teenagers. In my own entrepreneurship I have a number of adults who are engaged who would never want to participate in standard youth ministry. It seems juvenile to them and doesn't remotely engage the gifts they have been developing over the course of their adult life. I have tried countless times to get adults to disciple students or engage as mentors as well. Mostly, they feel awkward. What will they talk about? How do they get to know those students? But, when they have a intensive project in common (think about that food cart!) they have an engagement point around which gospel based mentoring can occur. These sorts small batch ministries offer real time relationships with adults that share similar passions with teenagers. It is an intergenerational gold mine!
The one thing that soccer, dance, and robotics can't really offer is a larger narrative about what life is about. Why achieve? Why should I compete and excel? I think if students spend their lives working to achieve only for themselves and their own betterment, that is a pretty vapid goal. Eventually that sort of motivation will come to seem devoid of meaning. These sorts of questions of meaning are the sorts of questions that the church can answer. We have the unique ability to offer activities of real purpose and a transcendent narrative that moves beyond achievement culture. In a lot of ways what we are looking at are teenage missional small groups that satisfy a need for connection, give a place where we can be passionate for something bigger than ourselves, and are venues where we can do discipleship. My own suspicion is that social entrepreneurships are the best engines for this sort of ministry, but that is for another time. Right now we need youth ministers that are thinking small batch, high passion ministries, that produce deep connections across generations. Let's start there at least.