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Tales of Adventure Blog

Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
with the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.

We ask you to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push back the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

This we ask in the name of our Captain,
Who is Jesus Christ.

 

Filtering by Category: Innovation Practices

The Matryoshka Haus: A Community of Innovation

Matthew Overton

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About a year ago I was made aware of a group of folks working on solving social problems together as a human network. The place was called Matryoshka. If you don't know what a Matryoshka is, its a Russian nesting doll. On two different legs of my trip to the U.K. I was able to meet with folks from Matryoshka to better understand who they are and what they are doing. Let's start with the basics.

Matryoshka is a community that began with the work of a woman named Shannon Hopkins. Creatively working in the U.K. she created a pub initiative that helped fight human trafficking and a creative arts project called, "Doxology". She learned she had a knack for this kind of social impact work and that she was adept at gathering others who were interested in this kind of work as well. Overt time a community began to develop of people who were skilled at collaboratively working on engaging social problems in area.

Today, Matryoshka is housed in its own space in the Canary wharf area of London. They have a co-working space that includes folks inside and outside Matryoshka's direct network. Many of these folks are engaged with Christian faith, but others are not. That characteristic is not considered a necessity to solving pressing issues. What is clear to me is that their faith does inform both the work that they do and the way that they gather in intentional community. Matryoshka uses this co-working model to sustain part of its operations, but the majority of their sustainability comes from what they produce.

Matryoshka has begun to develop tools to help non-profits create solutions to intractable social problems and to figure out how to better measure the impact of their work. They sell these tools to organizations throughout the U.K. and the U.S. as well.

There are a number of organizations that are designing tools to help faith based organizations ideate and innovate, but what makes Matryoshka unique is that the people that design their tools are people who are on the ground and have experience practicing social innovation. They are actually engaged in the work on the ground.

Many folks who are beginning to design tools in the U.S. have not themselves actually built any social change organizations or enterprises. It is far more likely that they are able to design tools because they have the time to do so (afforded by their institution) and access to larger institutional funding. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I often wish that practitioners of innovation were the ones designing tools rather than exclusively research institutions or large ministry companies. My own sense is that if practitioners were at least more heavily involved in the design process and testing process that significantly different tools and ideation processes might be developed.

My hope is that research institutions will begin to creatively partner with those that are doing the innovation work to generate ideas and gatherings that might help other individuals do similar kinds of work more effectively. Social innovators who are on the ground take a ton of risk and invest loads of blood, sweat, and tears in their work and they should have a seat at the table to share their expertise when they can. They not only have a clearer sense of what is possible, but also are the embodiement of the passion and ethos that is required to make this kind of work happen. That spirit, or elan, is not something that is reproducible and I am not sure that it is possible to do this kind of work without it. Last, its worth noting that in Matryoshka's early days it was Christian institutions that pulled funding away from their trafficking initiative because it overemphasized social justice. It is important to understand that many Christian practitioners of social innovation are seeking to avoid the church and have often been burned by it. One of the reasons that I think involving and funding practitioners matters is that generally speaking Christian companies and learning institutions are generally not very good at finding, reaching, and involving these sorts of outsiders.

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For Youth Ministry Innovators, the hope is that we can begin to utilize some of the tools that Matryoshka has designed as we work with churches and youth ministries that are seeking to impact their localized communities through the work of their churches. I also hope we can be a helpful conversation partner with Matryoshka to help them reflect theologically on the work that they are doing.

Regardless of what happens, they are doing amazing Kingdom work.  They work collaboratively on problems that each of them faces, they have common gatherings and meals together, and they have a well developed sense of their values:

-They believe that social innovation is a tangible expression of God's Kingdom.

-All people are designed to do good work.

-Hospitality is critical and their community is shaped by the radical welcome of God in Christ.

-Christian Social Innovation is a particular kind of innovation that is guided by the life and work of Jesus.

-The process of innovation involves critical discernment, imagintion, creation, and inspiring future expressions of Kingdom work in others.

Matryoshka is a fabulous organization and one of the most unique expressions of the gospel that I have ever seen. We hope to continue to partner with them in some way moving forward.

 

Accompanying Young Adults by Engaging Economics

Matthew Overton

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I have written a good bit about side effects in doing ministry through social enterprise. I think risking doing anything innovatively causes all sorts of new things to bubble to the surface of an organization or relationship. You often thing you are doing one thing, but you are really doing another.

One of the unintended side effects, or unexpected outcomes of this experiment has been what it has done amongst the young adults in my church. We wanted to help teens and we are. But, while our landscaping company employs teens and helps launch them to more permanent jobs it has actually had unexpected economic benefits for local young adults.  Let me throw out some small vignettes:

1. Employee #1- We were able to talk through a difficult season of life while they were working for us. They hadn't graduated from college for some difficult reasons. They couldn't find an job and they were dealing with a significant amount of depression. We helped initiate a conversation about these hurdles and helped them address them with their family. They are now in more permanent employment after 2 separate stints with us. They were not the best landscaper for us (and they would freely admit that), but we were willing to tolerate some inefficiency for the sake of ministry opportunity. It was the right decision.

2. Employee #2- This employee learned hard lessons with us. We housed them at our church after they worked with Mowtown Teen Lawn Care and we got them a benefited custodial job. The problem was that they just weren't ready to take on responsibility. After 3 failed attempts and coaching by multiple adults we had to let them go. It was hard. We may have been pushing them to a level of responsibility that they were not ready for that soon. But, 1.5 years later they have a full time job doing construction and wandered back through our doors to let us know during our college dinner at Christmas.

3. Employee #3- This person just needed some extra hours. They have some big dreams for themselves, but not necessarily a helpful framework on how to get there. They were dedicated to their faith and that spawned a load of windshield conversations about theology and how the Bible is put together. It was a fascinating relationship in inviting somebody into deeper thought about the Christian tradition. Eventually they moved onto another job.

4. Employee #4- This young adult was also dedicated in their faith and was thinking about going to Bible college. Most of our conversations had to do with money. It was difficult to figure out how to try to point out the financial impracticality of someone else's dream. This is especially true when you know them, but not super well. They eventually went off to Bible college but quickly realized that the education wouldn't produce the financial runway they needed to pay off their debt. They moved back, got a more permanent job, and now live in our church's young adult house. We continue to maintain ministry and conversation with them about life, theology, and money. They are taking full advantage of this experience by paying down their debt which is possibly because of the reduced rent of our young adult housing.

5. Employee #5- This employee was working for a for profit organization that was paying them illegally under the table in a field that they were interested in pursuing. They had graduated from a university, but were just stuck on what to do next and barely barely scraping by. We have employed them now in two ways in our organization. They worked for the landscaping operation as a crew boss and also in admin. support for our non-profit operation. This allowed them a host of experiences that would build their resume. We also worked heavily with them on conflict avoidance which was the main thing that allowed them to linger so long in their previous job on poverty wages in an unhealthy environment. We still coach them on the next steps in their journey and they are starting some exciting chapters trying to figure out how to fund what they love to do most! They are a fabulous mentor for our students.

Employee #6- This individual found us online and as it turned out they had been served by our church 10 years ago when we were on a mission trip. They are a single parent and are trying to find sound economic footing and build a life for themselves. They had previous landscaping experience and we may see them as the future owner operator of Mowtown which would be an an amazing opportunity to bless them. They also live in our young adult house which allows us to create community with them.

Employee #7- This former student of our youth ministry finished college and cannot get a job in their particular field: Advertising using analytics. So, I offered to allow them to build their resume by helping us build our online profile. We have a lot to learn and they can teach us while building their portfolio.  They were happy to do so. My hope is that this work provides them some initial free lance work to build their resume so that they can find the job that they are looking for. Further, I think it helps foster the sense in them that what they are working on in their career can be ministry. They can find ways to benefit God's Kingdom while doing good work.  It also provides another opportunity for feedback and coaching as they transition through their young adult years.

Even as I type all of this I am floored. I want to make it clear that this has been a messy process and many of these stories, like all of ours, are still in process. There have been a lot of road blocks here and periods where I wasn't sure we were being very helpful. But, what I see is that engaging the economics of our world has enabled us to lengthen the meaningfulness of our church's ministry to young adults. It shows them that we care about their actual lives. It also shows them that God cares about their actual lives. Here and now.

I had wondered for a number of years how, given the lengthening of adolescence, we could accompany our young adults effectively in the next chapter of their lives. As it turns out we have been doing it for the last 4 years, but we just stumbled into it by initially trying to minister to teens more effectively and prepare them for adulthood. Most of our ministry really has just been coaching and accompaniment.

I continue to be amazed at how God honors experiments. The Spirit is often the one who takes us from the place that we think we are going into places we would not or could not have tread previously. My hope is that we as ministers and youth ministers continue to risk and experiment so that we end up in those unexpected gospel places!

Why Christian Social Enterprise? #1- An Honest Appraisal of Human Nature

Matthew Overton

Along the way, a number of folks have asked the question as to why I think Social Enterprise in the church would be a good idea.  While many have agreed that they can see some "tent making" reasons for supporting social enterprise, a number of others have wondered if there are any theological reasons for engaging the idea of Christian Social Enterprise. I think there are. I believe the church has several unique attributes that it can offer the world of social enterprise/social entrepreneurship. In the next few posts, I am going to try and lay out what I think the Christian story offers the social enterprise conversation.

The first virtue that the church brings to social enterprise is that Christianity does not generally take a benign view of human nature. We are a damned mess and we know it.

A friend of mine who is significantly on the left side of the political aisle was down in Portland a couple of weeks ago at a post election rally. Having experienced overt racism over the years they wanted to try and take some kind of action to express their frustration over the outcome of the presidential race. They told me that while they enjoyed the rally and its speakers they felt nervous as a practicing Christian at several points. There were a number of parts of the rally that felt like gospel to them, but what they kept hearing under the surface of all the speeches and pleas was this overt faith in human beings and in our positive potential to do good.  The single biggest article of faith that they kept hearing at this secular rally was that human beings were regarded as inherently good, or at the very least benign. Their opinion was that this was folly. They felt that it was this sort of blind idealism that had led, at least in part, to the election's outcome to begin with.  I think my friend was on to something.

Christianity has always taken a low view of human beings. It is true that sometimes we have erred much too far in that lowly direction in terms of how we talk about ourselves or others, but a healthy skepticism about our better angels is a virtue of the Christian life.  We do not all approach the world from good places. Social Enterprise needs this healthy skepticism.

One of the weaknesses of the secular humanism that under-girds much of our secular (and ecclesial!) world is that because it is so optimistic about humanity it can often be too easily fatigued and deflated when human beings fail. I have long argued every time a church scandal pops up that the last people that should be shocked are followers of Christ! Shouldn't Jesus people be the ones in the crowd nodding and saying, "Welp, we saw this coming a mile away."? Humanism can become quickly fatigued when it confronts human recipients that don't really receive our social initiatives the way we expect. "Don't they know we are trying to help!? Why are they biting the hand that feeds them?!" Likewise, humanism can become quickly fatigued when those proffering solutions create initiatives that can seem remarkably self serving. Secular humanism has an optimism about it that puts all the power and control in human hands (more on that in another post) So, when it is discovered that those hands may often simply be a set of greasy palms and fingers rubbing together, it is hard pressed to know what to do. "We are better than this!" Are we really?

This truth has been ever present in third world initiatives. Many people have gone into the thirld world assuming the best (often paternalistically) about their neighbors.  The classic example of this behavior in action has been the mass distribution of mosquito nets to fight malaria across Africa.  Half a billion nets have been distributed across Africa to cover beds at night. While the nets are having an effect, there have been so many distributed that they have become their own economy. They have been grabbed up by enterprising folks to make fishing nets, soccer goals, chicken pens, rope, balls, and dozens of other things. Most of those uses, though unintended, are relatively benign and may point to third world folks asserting their own autonomy. Other problems have popped up to. For instance, the nets have contributed to over fishing. Also, because they are treated with repellents, the chemicals they are coated with enter the food chain. There is some evidence to suggest that theses chemicals are producing their own human health problems. Much of our good work is like a petri dish for the law of unintended consequences.  

Meanwhile on the giving end we have seen the selfishness of social enterprise at work too. While micro-loan investment has been seen as a good way to combat poverty, a number of its practitioners are simply in it to make a buck. Microloans have been used benevolently, but they have also been used abusively. We all have seen the example of celebrity aid projects that have turned out to be more about the SWAG bags at the concert than the actual cause. And of course there are many of us who have engaged processes of "help" to assuage guilt or to convince ourselves that we are benevolent. These  are very destructive tendencies.

The point is that the church begins social enterprise with two critical assumptions that add longevity and health to any initiative seeking to do good. First, as a giver I should not assume that I have the best in mind for my neighbor. I must assume, or at least ask, whether the good that I seek to do is really about me. Second, I must assume that any solution that I build is going to be used in unhelpful and even nefarious ways. Unintended consequences cannot always be avoided, but they ought to be rigorously anticipated.

One of the virtues that the church brings to the table is that because we sense the brokeness of our nature and story, we sense that brokeness that will accompany all the good that we do. Our beliefs, though they might be regarded as dour or outmoded, represent a sober assessment that guides us into social enterprise and keeps us going when humanity dissapoints. Imagine if Christian Social Entrepreneurs could develop a critical thinking and action process of what I will call "skeptical inquiry". Skeptical Inquiry would be a process that would speculate the unexpected responses of recipients of good and it would also provide hard hitting assessments about where the giver is perhaps caught up in self serving patterns of thought and action. This could allow much improved cost-benefit assessments of potential social enterprise projects.

I believe that the church is needed in the social enterprise experiment that is taking place at many of our university B schools. Our healthy skepticism is a good corrective.  We will certainly need to use it within our own social initiatives first, but we are needed in the larger business conversation about social enterprise. I am not convinced we will do the work any better than our secular counterparts, but we do have something to offer the conversation. If that makes me a skeptic or a pessimist, I am okay with that. It's just a part of the story that I follow every day.