A little over a month ago I was invited to present The Columbia Future Forge's jobs and training program to students at one of our local high schools. It was one of the coolest things I have ever had the chance to do and in an hour and a half I learned a ton about myself, my community, and about the American church and what social enterprise might be able to bring to that church.
It's not that I hadn't been on a high school campus before. I have been on lots of high school and middle school campuses to meet with teachers or principals, to take lunch to a single student or multiple students, to attend an event, or even to speak at a local Christian club. I have done all these things many times. The problem is that I have always had this nagging sense of, "What am I here for?" It's awkward to come on campus with the gospel. I always feel a bit deceptive based on how I understand the rules of the church v. state game and I value my personal integrity. It's often been shocking to me over the years how many evangelicals will do all sorts of deceptive things to share the gospel, but are willing to pretend that they aren't deceptions. It's weird. My mom was a school teacher for many many years, my sister is, and so is my wife. I was always taught that our faith was something that we did not jettison at the door of the school, but I was also taught that it wasn't something that we tried to shove awkwardly into a space in which it is not entirely welcome. I still feel that way. My faith is the most sacred thing I have in my life. I love the chance to share about it and yet it is something intimate. I tend to be careful about bringing intimate things out in the open too quickly. I think most boundaried people do too. My faith is so sacred to me that there when I have been asked or required to share it awkwardly I have felt that its goodness and sacredness have been diminished. It took me a while to learn that I didn't need to do that because a campus leader or minister told me that I did.
So, when I stepped on campus a few weeks ago in the midst of a flurry of snow I anticipated that similar feeling. "Am I here to share the gospel? Am I here just for a certain kind of student? Am I welcome here?" But, in the hour in which I presented our program to students I was greeted by a different feeling. Because our social enterprise offers something of obvious value to the students on campus, they showed up in a room willingly to hear what we had to say. I was offering something that they would perceive as worthwhile. They could feel free to reject me because I am a minister or to reject the gospel on its own merit, but when it comes to the perceived value of developing them for a full adult life we were on equal terms. I told them who I was from the get go (a minister), but they didn't care because what I was talking about actually mattered to their day to day lives and to their future.
When we finished our presentation I was floored. I had 5 of the best student conversations I have ever had when walking on a campus. I think that was because it was obvious to the students and to me that there was a perfectly valid reason that I was there. I happen to believe that being on campus just as a minister is a perfectly valid reason, but I am not sure that students always think that way. One student had been looking for a church for a while, another was having trouble assimilating culturally and needed a job, and another wanted to go into the trades and felt confined by school. One student came up and quietly sort of confessed that he wanted to go into the military, but that his folks didn't want him to. He asked us if when we paired him with a mentor in our program, what sort of college would they want him to go to and what kind of college stuff he would do. It took me a second to realize what he was asking and what was going on. He was so used to his public school lifting up college as an ideal that he just assumed that was our ideal goal as well. I told him that his mentor would be interested in him developing as a human being. Period. If he wanted to talk about the military or buying his first car then that is what his mentor would talk to him about. But, the conversation didn't end with the students.
I met two career student counselors while I was there. I have no idea (and to a degree don't care) if they were people of faith. They were interested in what we were doing. We talked about college pressures and the performance culture of the modern 21st century high school. It was great. No one was guessing why I was there. My fellow team member was excited because we were presenting at his former high school. He has spent years in Tech sales and helping with youth ministry at our church and I think he was just excited to have the chance to engage youth ministry and his local community in a very different way. Each time I am on campus or talking with teachers, superintendents, or admins, I am learning something about how our schools work and don't work. I am learning how they connect with larger district entities and with the local community. But, I am also learning where the "gospel gaps" are. I am learning where the schools need help. I am learning the pressure points at which the scope of the responsibility is way beyond their means. They feel a massive burden to meet every educational, societal, and moral need. We have a lot to offer that problem if we can figure out how to do it. I left that school that day over the moon and I cannot wait to be back at multiple schools next Fall with various members of our team to find the right students for our program.
My point is that doing missional entrepreneurship or social enterprise (or whatever you want to call it) has opened up a massive door for evangelism for me. I think it could for many churches. But, doing evangelism is as much about listening as it is about speaking. You can't figure out how to bring healing, hope, joy, and reconciliation if you don't know where the aches, wounds, and needs are. Social enterprise gives me a vehicle for the sustained relationships, sustained listening, eventual speaking, and intentional planned action that I have never encountered in any other model of sharing my faith. It gives us a legitimate and non-awkward reason to be on any campus. We didn't figure out how to get on campus. We didn't weasel our way to a Christian club starting. We didn't wedge ourselves into a coaching position for a sport we know nothing about so that we could share the gospel. We built a jobs and life skills program to bless students for the rest of their lives and we were INVITED on campus. That's good news for everyone and I am still floored by it.