One of the reasons (there were a ton of reasons) that I began this project of seeing if it was possible to do youth ministry through the medium of work/teen jobs was that I had a sense remodeling my own house that the conversations I was getting in were better than those I had on Sunday nights at youth group. Regular youth group still has a very important place in my book as it ministers to other needs, but it was just easier to get into more meaty conversations about life while doing work. Further, I had also found while paying students to work on my house that it was very easy to link those conversations to issues of faith and in doing so, faith becomes more real and therefore less abstract. I encountered this again recently while working a job with one of my Mowtown students. If you are new to this blog or this conversation Mowtown is the particular small business that I have started to put teens to work and do ministry at the same time. Essentially I created my own social entrepreneurship or missional entrepreneurship (if you want to use churchy language) as a means to do more impactful ministry.
I have also been asked many times along the way, "Isn't providing jobs for teenagers just its own form of therapeutic deism? How are you going to link Christian faith with this? This is a valid question and one that I spend a lot of time thinking about. The last thing I want to do is create another ministry that simply makes money for its own sake or simply lives off of the church, but rather one that really makes little significant Kingdom impact in people's actual lives. For those with that question, here is one bread crumb vignette from along the path of "A Youth Ministry that Works".
This summer, one of my students was forced by the necessity of family need to take a construction job under the table. This particular students was engaged in our church's volunteer summer internship, but had to pull out because of this job need. Well, as we were headed out to our job site, we started to discuss the problems with being hired by someone "under the table." I explained to "Paul" that for every hour I hire him above board, I have to pay the government additional funds that help cover part of his social security, disability, unemployment, etc. So, for every hour that he works under the table he is robbed of part of his retirement and he is robbed of recourse if he gets injured or is out of a job. Furthermore, he was being baldly robbed since he was being paid significantly below our state's minimum wage. All of this was news to him, but the connection points were huge!
For starters, his mother works multiple jobs under the table. We had a long discussion about social security and his mom when she "retires". He had NO CLUE as to how social security worked. I think this was actually a really scary conversation for him when he started to think about what it meant for his mom's present and future. This lead us into a discussion about the political debate surrounding immigration which matters to him as a hispanic latino student. We even discussed a bit of economics. We talked about how I am at a competitive disadvantage as a business owner in terms of making a profit because of folks that hire under the table. They make more money off of his work than I do. In other words, both he and I are being robbed by the practice. And what all of this finally lead to was a discussion about justice and God. We talked about God's desire to set things in the world right and we discussed how we are a part of that. We talked about integrity in life and why doing things legally and above board are signs of loving our neighbor.
The revelation in this midst of all this conversation is simply that I was equipping a kid to see the world through more of a gospel lens in the most natural way possible. Most of my discussions about justice with my teenagers tend to be abstract. We end up talking about issues that seem more dramatic because they happen in the 3rd world or on a mission trip outside of our small city or someplace that seems like "over there." If we struggle with dichotomies between our Sunday life and our weekly job lives (and we surely do), we certainly also struggle with false dichotomies between mission work and justice issues in our back yard and seeming like things that happen "over there". Conveniently this dichotomy allows our communities of faith to avoid dealing with our own first world poverty and the messiness of the personal politics involved. That kind of avoidance is of course its own justice issue. So much of what our churches need to talk about in order to convince teenagers and young adults that faith actually matters to real life are just these sorts of issues of justice and injustice. There is almost an entire economy of issues that operate, in their own way, as "under the table" issues in our churches. They never really are engaged and this leaves our people with the sense that faith just doesn't matter out in the real world. We don't know how to engage these issues from behind the pulpit as that feels like a kind of power play. Many ministers feel like preaching too heavy handedly about justice to their congregation limits dialogue and further bifurcates our congregations along political lines. I agree with this to an extent. But, to not find a medium for engaging these issues at all isn't acceptable. Here is the thing though, the inbreaking of the Kingdom won't be slowed. It will happen with us or without us. The church can engage a justice filled life or be left wondering where God went? He may in fact already be absent from some of the vacuous old time sanctuaries and suburban worship centers we already occupy.
This conversation was also the most real and natural discussion about integrity I have probably ever had with a student. Most of the discussions I heard about integrity in churches (mostly during my more evangelical college years) were cheapened by the fact that they tended to be had around moralistic issues like telling lies and human sexuality etc. etc. etc. You know the kind of thing I mean, "If you don't have integrity in the small stuff...." This is all well and good, but it only tends to appeal to the most structured personalities who by sheer function of their own personal anxiety levels and desire for control tend to do EVERYTHING by the book already. For the rest of us, life is a bit messier. When you can talk with a student about how a complete lack of integrity grinds up other human beings over time....that has power. That actually points to the import that a life of faith actually has.
I am learning a lot through this process of doing business as mission about my own blindness to certain issues. I am engaging students I never would have engaged before and our ministry probably would not have been able to sustain relationships with before. I am seeing the connection between my own faith and issues that I was aware of, but really had no personal connection to or visceral experience with in any previous phase of life. This process has been a ton of work and stress, but so far it has been good gospel work. I continue to see its usefulness to those it serves and to my own walk along the Jesus Way.