A couple of days ago I was talking with a friend in ministry about the difficulty of getting kids to come to youth group these days. Unless they are from the most dedicated families it is a real challenge especially if they are in a socio-economic bracket that allows them to participate in all sorts of school activities. I said to him, "I mean, when it comes to Sunday nights and youth group and I am up against the state tournament in robotics, it's a really hard choice for the kids and families to decide which is most important." His response was, "There isn't even a question! Getting to compete against others in robotics is way cooler than youth group." It's true.
I will argue it until I am blue in the face. Youth ministry that does not have obvious and pragmatic value to the day to day lives of students and their parents will fail. This isn't about application anymore. This is about actual tangible value that students can try on for size. The simple truth is that in the era in which we live we are inundated with participatory culture. People don't want to live vicariously or learn third hand. They don't want to watch from the outside. They want to interact with what they are involved with, to actively enter the stage of their activities and to play a part in the development of reality.
You can actually see this very clearly in the sports industry. The sports industry seems like the unlikliest of places to be participatory given that it involves you watching other people play a game. But, even spectator sports are awash with this participatory flood. People want to enhance their sense of involvement in what they watch through online poles, engagement with Twitter, sports betting, and fantasy sports. I might even argue that that psycho sports parents you see on the sideline of your Saturday game are at least partially affected by this trend. They don't just want to watch their kid play, they want to augment every aspect of their kid playing so that they can feel engaged within themselves. The point is that technology has rapidly changed our sense of interactivity with the world around us and youth ministry has not caught up. And this is part of why I think social entrepreneurship/missional entrepreneurship matter to the church in general and to youth ministry in specific.
Social Entrepreneurship matters because it functions at a scale that allows the maximum level of investment and participation (I will write more on scale in my next post.) If I were to go out and start a fishing ministry in which adults and students get paid to pull invasive species out of rivers (yes, it's being done in Eastern Washington State) I would have created a ministry that involves maximum participation. Adults and students in a small water craft, fishing for profit together, and talking about life and faith. In this model you are going to need folks to get equipment, mentor, tie knots, coach on safety in the water, back up a trailer, get food, and mentor. In every one of those activities their are real time opportunities to teach students all sorts of things that allow them to be actively engaged. Furthermore, they have a real stake in the effectiveness of the whole operation! This is a stark contrast to a Sunday night youth group.
On Sunday nights when my students arrive there pretty much is only one thing that is required of them: attendance. For all intents and purposes other than community, if my kids didn't show up there would be nothing different. In theory we could actually do youth group WITHOUT them even there! It would still happen! The adults could eat snacks, sing songs, give a talk, and maybe even play the games without them. That is astounding to think about at one level. It should not be shocking that they seem befuddled when we ask them to participate in some way during the night. I think at some level they are aware of this reality. They have an unconscious sense that unless they are relationaly connected to others in the room or have some familial sense/cultural obligation to be in attendance, that it wouldn't matter if they weren't there at all. What we need is to build ministries that actually give teenagers a stake in rescuing the world. Let them gamble with the fate of the whole operation by driving the boat or deciding how much of the budget to spend on gear for the next month! In other words, give them a chance to make mistakes, have success, and be involved.
What we are really talking about here is the incarnation. In some ways we are engineering the incarnation in reverse. If we exist in a world that has always had the thumb print of the God-man on it, I think we might wonder whether part of the image of God within us is a kind of partial reflect that hypostatic union. There is no one after all that is more participatory in the experience of the other/the beloved than the Triune God. It is that God who willingly enters not only our world, but our very experience of that world in the most visceral sense possible. So is it a stretch to imagine that part of us might actually be wired to crave the same engaged sort of experience? Might there be some kind of primordial longing for us to abandon ourselves into that with which we most desire to be engaged? I think there might be. I think we might be made to participate fully in our ministries. We need to help our youth proactively incarnate the Kingdom work we are calling them to engage. Take missionary work as a sign of the necessity of this kind of incarnation.
The worst sorts of missions have been done when they have involved giving from afar. We might consider these sorts of missions Deistic Missions. They tend to be the kind where we lob money and well wishes from the safety of our own enclaves. We never wade into the story of the other we are trying to serve. It's cold and distant. As we mail in our love we become something of a Prime Mover who only wishes to set good things in motion, but does not care enough to get any closer to the whole endeavor. Quality missionary work on the other hand has always been much more intimate and raw. It has always involved empathy and the giving away of ones own priorities and life for the sake of the other. It has involved entering their spaces of life and embedding in their context for the longer term. In short, the best missionary work is incarnational and therefore participatory from its very nature. You can't do it remotely.
I think what we need to start building are ministries that aren't just geared towards incarnating the lives of our students, but ministries that allow them to fully incarnate their passionate callings. I have a hunch that they are hard wired for that kind of engagement and that social entrepreneurship might be a key vehicle in helping that to happen. Social entrepreneurship requires full participation and investment because the enterprise simply won't work without it. If we went back to our fishing ministry example, you wouldn't be able to work with folks who were only willing to just show up. There is no space in a fishing boat for someone who is only partially engaged. And you certainly couldn't justify the whole enterprise without others in the boat. It would just be a fishing club. Yet, we seem to be able to justify that sort of level of disengagement in our church ministries and youth groups. One might argue that we have sacralized and reified that model of dis-incanation. In my own case (landscaping and job placement) I can't work with students that don't really want to engage our program because the work won't get done and we will sink financially. Even if we were running on grants instead of profit margin this would be true. Social entrepreneurship doesn't have the time or bandwidth to handle disengagement. This can seem cold in it's own way. After all, aren't we supposed to seek out the lost sheep? Indeed we are, but there are also plenty of gospel stories about offering opportunities to engage the Kingdom and moving on swiftly when folks aren't interested in that story and it's life changing implications. If we wish to engage teenagers with some kind of Kingdom based ministry, we are going to need to do it in a way that allows them full participation in what they are doing. They may have been created for just that kind of embodied engagement.