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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: Theology of Enterprise

Windshield Conversations...

Matthew Overton

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I have written several posts about how one of the biggest surprises about how we have tried to do youth ministry and social enterprise at my church (other than how hard it is!) is the impact I think it is having on adults. I have felt that doing a mentoring and business based model of youth ministry has drawn out the gifts of numerous adults in my church who probably would not have had anything to do with youth ministry previously. This sense has been affirmed over the last few weeks in particular.

A few weeks back I was in a parking lot in my truck when one of my mentors called. They wanted to clarify a few things about their student and also check in on their paperwork status. While I was trying to make it into my next appointment I found myself getting the chance to do what I enjoy most: Coaching someone in how to do ministry with teenagers. But, really I was coaching them in how to do ministry with their fellow human being. We talked about listening well and about the unique personality of their particular assigned student. We talked about what to do if any particular crisis issue came up and we revisited our abuse prevention protocols. I also assured them that I was just a phone call away.

The best part about the conversation was that this adult had no business doing ministry with teenagers, and I don't mean because of relative age. I have always used older adults more than younger ones in youth ministry. Age is somewhat irrelevant. What I mean is that this particular adult, while a WONDERFUL human being, just doesn't strike you as somebody you would expect to be hanging out with a teenager. They would be one of the last sort of folks I might recruit for a number of the normal elements that make up a youth ministry. This of course is probably more of an indictment of youth ministry than it is a characterization of the individual. The fact that our models couldn't accommodate the gifts and talents of this individual is egregiously bad. When it comes to youth ministry the hand has often been saying to the foot, "I don't need you."

And then this experience with this one adult seemed to repeat itself another three times in the next week.

What had happened in part was that in the 4th year of our program we doubled in size. We now have 23 students in the program and that has meant pulling from a wider crop of adults from our church and beyond for the first time. During the first three years we mostly had adults that had a good deal of experience with teens from our ministry community. They entered the program with a certain sense of confidence and veterancy in what they were doing. But, this year is requiring more encouragement, coaching, and listening. And it's a ton of fun. In many ways, I feel like I am doing exactly what I ought to be doing most of the time.

When we built the initial landscaping company, one of the things we talked about was "windshield time". We meant that while we were driving around we wanted to take advantage of conversations that would happen along the road with students. But, as it turns out adults need windshield time too. They want to help students. They want to do ministry. But, they just need somebody as a kind of reflective backstop. It's funny at times because I am coaching people who are nearly twice my age. In a lot of ways their nervousness reminds me of my experiences of doing hospital chaplaincy in my early 20's. I remember vividly feeling like I didn't know what to say, what to do, or whether I was going to really screw somebody up through ignorance and the sugary additive of good intentions. It's not a fun feeling, but it is a necessary stage of ministry.

This is what my adult mentors are learning.

1. Most of life's problems are not solvable by human beings. They are knots that are just too hard to untangle. This is partially why relationship with God is so powerful. God does the work we cannot. And while that can make us feel futile at times as servants of our neighbors it's also kind of a relief to know that we don't have to solve problems.

2. Ministry and service to one's neighbor always involve getting involved in someone's mess. When you really engage ministry you find out how most of our forms of service are actually designed to keep us distant from the recipient. We serve at arm's length in most contexts. it's safer that way. Real face to face ministry in which you actually have to just listen and walk with somebody through their crap is often messy. You are invited into the story of a neighbor and that is inherently risky. It might cost you some sleep, some money, time, and probably part of your heart.

3. You don't know your neighbor or their experience until you know them. When you engage ministry you quickly find that you don't have clue about other people's experiences. Most of what we live on in life are assumptions about others from a safe distance. Ministry has a way of disrupting our stereotypes and assumptions about people from the outside because it invites you into the inside of their lives. You end up in conversations, homes, and at tables that teach us just how ignorant we are. It's embarrassing and awkward, but it's good work and it is never finished. You are never done learning about the folks to which you minister.

4. Good listening is the best skill you have. People often get frustrated with how church folk and others will offer all kinds of platitudes to people in crisis ("God doesn't give you more than you can handle."). Often they do this because platitudes actually kind of work...when you keep your distance from your neighbor. They make you feel that you have helped your neighbor when in fact they mostly have just reinforced your distance from them. It's only actual ministry that exposes them for what they are: manure. Actual ministry, wading into the life of my neighbor reveals that reflective listening is the best, and often the only, balm we have. Good listening and good questions are the first tool in a pretty limited actual ministry tool bag.

In any event, these conversations have been fun. It's nice to be doing what you are supposed to be doing. It's nice to invite others into the holy mess that God invited me into some years ago.

Glimpses of Glory #1

Matthew Overton

 For the record.  Our truck is not nearly as shiny as this one.

For the record.  Our truck is not nearly as shiny as this one.

What can a dump truck, snow, and bricks teach us about Christian ministry? Something maybe.

Some weeks ago I brought my girls with me to complete a large landscaping job in which we were building a stone retaining wall.  The job was finished and there were about 150 extra bricks that needed to be loaded into a large dump truck and hauled back to Home Depot. When my girls and I got to the top of the ridge in our neigborhood we found that while it had not snowed at our house, it had snowed a couple of inches up there! It was also a good deal colder. As a good Dad, I of course had not anticipated this and brought no work gloves for my girls, 5 and 8 or for me.

Over the next couple of hours I patiently helped them help me load each brick onto pallets in the truck. I stood up on the back end looking down at them as they handed up each brick covered in snow. I felt badly looking at their pink little hands, but I also knew that this was a really good character building experience for them. At one point a couple of older boys bicycled by with gloves on. My oldest could hear them complaining about how cold it was and that they needed to stop and warm up. At one point she looked up and said, "You know at school, the boys always talk about girls being 'fancy'. Sometimes I think boys can by pretty 'fancy' too." I couldn't help but laugh. While my girls were cold, they were learning the borders and testing the margins of their mental and physical toughness through work. All children need to do this. We talked about sometimes needing to focus on the task at hand when things get difficult, that when things get difficult you sometimes have to just keep moving forward until the job is done. I believe these things. But, it was their in their looking up during and after the work that I was most struck.

One of the hopes in pursuing Kingdom work (and specifically youth work) through the vehicle of social enterprise is that as we pursue it we think reflectively about the theology that does or does not undergird what we are doing. In the past I have tried to write on theological frameworks for Christian Social Enterprise and the other day I ran into one of these ideas while in church. There was a connection point between the experience with that dump truck and what I was hearing.

At least part of what we are doing in youth ministry through social enterprise is giving students glimpses of glory.

     In his lecture/sermon on "The Weight of Glory", C.S. Lewis draws an analogy to children and parent while he is trying to define glory as "fame or good report". Lewis is careful to say that glory, on the human side at least, is actually our need for the recognition of God. What we often pursue is fame or good report from our fellow human beings as some kind of substitute for this divine embrace. But, his point is that we are wired to seek recognition from God. A kind of divine approval and blessing.

     All of us long to hear from some final authority the words that we see in Matthew 25, "Well done good and faithful servant." In Matthew 3 we also find that the Son of God, after being baptized receives praise from on high. "And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." Again in Matthew 17 we see in the Transfiguration that the Father again is well pleased with the Son.  The point of all this, and its one that I think I agree with, is that as human beings we long to receive the praise of God. Shoot, apparently even God needs the praise of God! We are in some sense wired for it. But, the trick is that in order for us to believe in that God who delights in us and hope for its future day of fullness, we need to experiences glimpses of glory here and now. That is to say that it is often human beings, our neighbors and perhaps most importantly our parents, who provide that foretaste as we live this side of God's Kingdom. We need somebody, sometimes anybody to tell us, "Well done, I am proud of you!"

     Lewis says that in this way we are rather like children. Anyone that has children can verify that there is nothing they long for more than to earn (honest and genuine!) praise from their parents. They long to hear that they have worked hard and done well.  This is what I ran into with my own girls.  At several stages of the work, while they hardly complained, they did seek out my approval. They clearly wanted to know that they were doing a good job at the task at hand. This dynamic continued after the fact as well. Tucking one of them in at night I told them that I was proud that they had worked so hard and toughed it out.  They wanted to hear what every human being wants to hear from some higher authority, "Well done you hard worker! You are doing great! Keep at it! I am proud of you! I often try to offer them this praise apart from the tasks they perform, but I also want them to be able to honestly assess when they have worked hard and done well. And all of this of course is exactly what Lewis is driving at. We are all looking up in some sense. I think Lewis is exactly right about this impulse to receive glory from the one who made us and it is an important theological pillar that supports all the intergenerational ministry and youth ministry that my church is working on. We are engaged in Christian Social Enterprise through mentoring because it gives us an opportunity to add an adult, or perhaps the first adult, to the lives of local teenagers that need to catch a glimpse of glory.

    Part of what we do when we do ministry is we provide glimpses or foretastes, or inivitations to glory, for those that we work with. We have an opportunity to help people believe and hope that somebody out there is interested in them precisely where they are. One of the reasons that we have created a program around intergenerational mentoring is because we believe that our mentors have much more to offer our students than professional experience. They have much more to offer than years of wisdom. Part of what they have to offer is a glimpse of the glory of God that we all long to hear and know in fullness one day. The voice that says to us, "Well done child! I am proud of you! How did you walk that road!?" In short, what we are providing is foretastes of glory, hints of divine love and approval. We are offering human beings opportunities to be caught in the tonal warmth and magnetic light of God's voice and gaze.

At the end of the day, the world is full of people with technical skills. It is full of people with soft skills. It does not have enough people with the ability to offer these divine glimpses.

My hope is that our program can continue to offer that.

A Fish Out of Water...

Matthew Overton

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to judge a graduate level social enterprise competition at Seattle Pacific University here in the Pacific Northwest.  The contest was a group based contest in which students pitched a social enterprise to an audience of business people with the idea of getting funding to launch. Each group begins with a quick 7 minuted pitch on their idea, their team, their impact, and their needed funding.  They are then evaluated through individual conversation with the judges.  It was a phenomenal experience and it was wonderful to be invited, though I did feel out of place at times being a judge of such a contest.

Most of the people in the room were true blue business folks. Some had worked for Disney and Microsoft. The woman next to me had left a lucrative tech career to found her own social enterprise creating special L.E.D. lights for children wanting to read during the night hours so that literacy rates would go up.  When it came time to introduce myself, part of me wanted to chuckle. I was the only person in the room who was in full time ordained ministry as far as I could tell. My social enterprise felt remarkably humble and my business experience felt absent.

I own a small landscaping company that employs about 6 people in my local community. It is paired with another mentoring program that imparts life skills and faith principles to a total of 12 teens from our area. We are unique in that we are building this model not apart from a church, but largely connected to one even though we are independent in terms of our legal structures. At times I only understood about 60% of the terminology being thrown around the room as I have no formal business training. My business is run off of my awareness of human nature, my experience of my father's businesses as a child, and a passion to make an impact.

But, this is my third social enterprise gathering that I have gone to and about the 5th venue that I have been to where I have discussed the intersection of faith and business. I am learning some important things I think about this world.

1. Passion- When we went around and asked each group about their particular idea or product, one of the first questions that I asked them was, "Tell me why you are passionate about this?" Launching any venture (social enterprise or not) is going to require some suffering and a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears. What struck me was how few of them had prepared for that question. I regard passion for the idea at stake as critical.  Suffering is a central part of the Christian story and several of the students gave me remarkably corporate answers. One said, "Well I have worked in several non-profits and now I would like to start my own." There were two students in particular who had immediate connection to their idea and it was clear that they had some real drive to actually tackle the problem. Now I know that these were hypothetical projects, but I think that any church or school that is teaching entrepreneurship needs to be teaching its students some kind of spiritual formation process for discerning what it is they are willing to struggle for before they go launching something. Otherwise social enterprise will become just another career path. If the Christian story gives something to enterprise it's the notion of finding something so beloved that it is worth dying for. Christian Social Enterprise needs to connect to that story and harness that sort of passion for the good.

2. Graduate Students and Every Day Folks are Key- In several of the programs I have attneded I have been exposed to theology students, business undergrads, and everyday folks trying to launch. My experience has been that graduate students with life under their belts are best. Theology folks have tended to be very idealistic about their ideas and about human nature in the marketplace. The undergrads don't feel the sufficient fear of having to move out into the real world just yet. It's the everyday folks and the grad students seem to be most ready to launch. The everyday folks have had the time and lived experience to discern what their passions are. The grad students are at the last possible stage of education (more or less) and know they have to launch. Many of them also have had some career exposure prior to their degree. I was impressed at Seattle Pacific that their ideas seemed big, but doable. I think if we want to engage theological reflection with the business world, schools that have theology departments and graduate business departments will be key. Of course, they will need to work together and that may be quite a challenge.

3. Let's Not Forget the Ordinary- One of the things that has floored me at these kinds of competitions is that people always have these massive ideas about what to launch. Everything must massively scale! Everything must have massive impact! Everything must disrupt whole industries!  I have heard ideas for upcycling coffee grounds, recycling used diapers by the thousands of tons, solar projects for churches, etc. etc. etc. One of the things that I think gets missed in all of this desire to do good and "innovate" is just injecting the good into existing ordinary marketplaces. There is a very thin line between ME wanting to impact on a big scale and a kind narcissism and that is worth keeping in mind. We cannot underestimate our culture's love of humanistic self actualization.  The simplicity of the landscaping company that we run is that we have broken into an existing ordinary marketplace by offering customers an augmented service. All we do is excellent landscaping and make a social impact while we do it. I often hear frustration from the folks that host these events that not many of the folks that attend them actually launch! I think perhaps if we coached people on just disrupting ordinary local industries they might do so. Find something you are good at and offer it to the public with greater social value and people will prefer to buy your services over your competitor as long as the service is excellent and you can show them the impact in some way.

4. Be Patient and Consider the Good- One of my concerns for social enterprise programs is that they don't take the time to teach about the importance of time and immersion.  Too many of these programs are concerned with launching or creating a great idea!  The problem with that is that many people who innovate, tend to innovate in an area that they have immersed themselves in for some time. Either in a particular community or in a particular field of interest. Their innovation tends to be around the edges of some place that they have been embedded. To me, to focus on embedding is to live out the doctrine of the Incarnation.  When our primary goal is ideating and producing, it will tend to produce ideas that we are not fully connected to and that probably will not be as effective at serving the common good. We need to work on ideas that we know and care about in places that we know and care about. We need to fully consider the good of the idea we are working on rather than just whether it is a "good idea". I think that we can improve on this at most of our Christian social incubators and accelerators.

Why Christian Social Enterprise #5- Patient Incarnation vs. Impact

Matthew Overton

One of the theological strengths of rightly practiced Christianity is a kind of "patient incarnation". As I have been reading various books on social enterprise there is a heavy emphasis on measurable impacts.  And generally speaking this is a wonderful thing that the church could learn a great deal from. The vast majority of churches rarely get to a place where they can name their values let alone their vision. As a result they often don't know what to measure in terms of whether or not they are achieving their goals.  But, the desire to measure impact carries a certain burden with it that the church has a long history with.  The desire to make a measurable impact on anyone can lead us to turn them into a kind of commodity.  When we push too heavily toward measurable impacts we often end up seeing people, communities, and even whole countries as cogs in a plan that we (the benefactors) have developed.  That kind of agency can be tone deaf and often blind to what the object of its assistance would desire for themselves.  I would propose that Christianity offers a healthy alternative when one thinks about the life and ministry of Jesus.

In Christ, God is sent and comes into the world and there are multiple attributes of this self sending that are can redemptively temper the desire for "impact".

1. The Act of Being Sent- There is a remarkable kind of patience in the simple fact that God does not choose to do things instantaneously. Instead God chooses a methodology of social impact in which thousands of physical steps are taken, meals are eaten, breaths are taken, etc. In Jesus, impact is intimate.

2. The Act of Being Sent to a Particular Place- The fact that God's mission has a locus is worthy of attention. In coming into the world Christ does not enact change remotely on other places. He moves into a particular context and enacts his ministry relatively locally. He engages a finite language and culture.  In Jesus, impact is local.

3. God Honors Autonomy- Throughout his ministry Jesus is approached by others (Luke 9-14) and approaches others who claim they wish to engage what he offers, but then they back down. Jesus does not force his way into their lives or push them any further. In other words there is a kind of objective distance in his desire to impact the world. Jesus doesn't make sure he gets the win in every conversation. He is sovereign while maintaining the autonomy of the created creature who he loves. In Jesus, impact honors the autonomy of the other.

4. He is Sent to Individuals- A dramatic feature of Jesus' incarnational ministry is that he seems to heal people one at a time. His desire to impact the world and the lives of others is not superceded by mass impact. There is something intrinsically good about small batches of good work within the heart of God. In Jesus, impact is large, but primarily done on an individual scale.

5. He Often Listens- A hallmark of the way that God enters the world in Christ is that he asks lots of questions and listens. Many of Jesus' conversations see him asking questions of friends and enemies about what they want, their willingness to engage his way of life, and about how they understand God's teachings. These aren't exactly listening circles as Jesus clearly inhabits a prophetic role, but neither do we see Jesus only dictating to others. In Jesus, impact values the voice of the other.

6. He has an Eternal Timeline- Jesus clearly has an urgency about his mission, yet he is not obsessed with efficiency. The way that he scales things seems to take a long view of ministry even while he knows that ministry will be short lived. His concept of time seems to be more cyclical than linear. This produces a man who has an urgent mission yet goes about it rather patiently. In Jesus, impact must be patient.

One of the perplexing parts about Western culture is that it has been shaped by a religion that believes that we are eternal creatures, but it's concepts of time are remarkably finite. We are obsessed with impact as that is the pinnacle of Western self actualization. When you combine the desire for self actualization with the sense that time is scarce then you end up with a drive to maximize everything in the short term.  Time becomes a kind of measurable commodity that is therefore scarce. This way of thinking is dangerous to the heart of social enterprise because once you can commoditize time, it is a short walk down the hill to commoditizing people too.

The danger of desiring to make an impact on my neighbor is that it may cause me to diminish their own autonomy, will, and actual needs within my desire to self actualize.  Christians have a useful voice in the social enterprise world in that we have an incarnational story that pushes back on such a drive.  We also have a long black history of being participants in forcing "progress" on our neighbors. We need to keep this black history at the forefront of our colleauges' minds.  Social Enterprise needs a model that encourages us to be patient. We need to honor autonomy, listen well, and often work on an individual scale. As long as we temper our desire for impact with these virtues we should be able to serve the greater good.  

Why Christian Social Enterprise? #4- Compassion Instead of Empathy or Rationalism

Matthew Overton

Over the last few years there has been a lot of talk about the need for empathy in our world. Empathy is generally defined as an emotional understanding of the suffering of another. It's emotionally connecting with the feelings and thoughts of another person.  If you want a tutorial you can watch Brene Brown's video on empathy here. It went viral last year.

And while empathy is good, I think it also has some huge weaknesses. Empathy is all about feeling the "feels" of somebody else.  If you watch the Brown video you will see that a heavy part of the theme of empathy is actually not taking action.  To attempt to take action, in this way of thinking, is to avoid actually connecting with the emotions of the other. Attempting solutions is just as avoidant and emotionally disconnected in this view, as offering a spiritual platitude like, "Everything happens for a reason."  There is some truth here of course. Many folks in our world rush in with solutions without a clear sense of the plight of our neighbor. Often we bring little help. In many situations the better alternative would be to practice some active and empathetic listening.

But, we might contrast Brown's version of the world with Yale professor and psychologist Paul Bloom. Watch his 2 minute clip here. Bloom argues that all the feelings based emphasis of empathy is actually bad.  Bloom thinks empathy does more harm than good in that it engages our emotions too heavily.  In Bloom's view empathy often causes us to rush into impassioned action that is based on emotion rather than rationality.  Empathy might be good when you are dealing with a friend one on one, but when you attempt to approach real world problem solving (hunger or homelessness) with empathy what you end up with is a whole bunch of feelings that lead to actions that can be really destructive.  Essentially he thinks that empathy actually fuels moralism.  Bloom argues for us to stop it with the whole empathy train and instead focus on the rational side of our brains when it comes to real world problem solving.

So who is right and what the heck does this have to do with social enterprise? The truth is that they are both right and wrong. I tend to side with Brown a good deal more than with Bloom, but I distrust the fact that her model seems to be fine tuned to small scale intimate relationships. There comes a point when action is needed and is often needed on a larger scale. I suspect that Brown would acknowledge this.  What we need in social enterprise is a third way.  

We need a methodology for bring about the good that we hope to see in our world that slows us down enough that we seek first the understanding of our neighbor rather than rushing in with unhelpful actions or emotionless advice. Yet, we also need at times a proper distance emotionally from a series of problems so that we can create rational solutions that are not based solely on our emotions. At some point action will be needed. I think the concept of Christian compassion and the story it is rooted in gets us to this 3rd place. Let's look at what Christian compassion is and then turn to what it might offer social enterprise.

Compassion is the desire to not only feel the suffering of another, but to enter into that suffering in a meaningful way.  Compassion is the willful choice to actually suffer alongside one's neighbor.  It's being with rather than just feeling with.  We find this concept arrive at its fullness in the Christian story of the God who comes in Christ and enters into the muck and mire of our world.  God doesn't just emotionally feel our pain or empathetically understand the injustices of our world. He enters into them in ways that are shocking. He isn't as rationally framed as Dr. Bloom would idealize.  A focal point of this kind of intimate engagement is of course Christ's work on the cross.  It is there that Christ demonstrates the fullness of his love for the world, but also the fullness of his understanding of the suffering that this world has every day.  God doesn't just say, "I feel your suffering in my core." He suffers with us. We call this activity "Christ's Passion".  So, to have com-passion means that we enter into the suffering of others, not just emotionally, but physically. And yet, even in Jesus a kind of rational boundaried distance is maintained.

Jesus, while powerfully engaging the human experience exercises restraint. He doesn't heal everyone and he doesn't seem to get overwhelmed emotionally with the suffering of others. I wouldn't call him rationally "cool" in the way Bloom talks about it. Jesus is clearly a person of both passion and engaged emotion, but he seems boundaried. He reaches out with deep feeling to those who are hurting, but he takes action with those he can. He balances opposing the oppressor with helping the oppressed. He walks, touches, and heals but he also goes off to recharge and rest. It's a kind of emotionally engaged patient urgency.  Consider the rich young ruler. Jesus defines for the man the one thing that is barring him from entering the Jesus Way fully (the man's great wealth), but when the man cannot move forward and walks off, Jesus doesn't pursue him. Jesus understands the man's tension but doesn't get wrapped up in it.  He has boundaries. Empathy in the hands of a person without boundaries can be nearly as unhealthy as the cool rationalist who only wants to act without feeling or first seeking understanding.

Jesus also doesn't fall into the emotional trap of pretending he IS those he helps.  He doesn't seem to overly identify as one of the poor. You never hear him say that he is the blind man or the leper or the tax collector. But, he does listen to them, feast with them, and aid them with healing, pointed conversation, and meals. He identifies with the suffering of those he serves, but he also finds moments to rejoice greatly, attend feasts, and sit with children. His culminating act of compassion is of course his Passion and yet he doesn't get stuck there. He is not stuck on the cross forever.  Jesus refuses to allow us to dwell only in suffering because he is resurrected. There is a trajectory of future hope in his ministry as well. It doesn't just sit with us.  Christians are not permitted to wallow in the suffering of others or only called to empathize. They are called to enter that suffering, lovingly alleviate it where they can, but remain able to experience hope and joy. Jesus does indeed climb down emotionally into the hole of humanity, so to speak, but he is constantly pointing hopefully out of that hole.  He identifies with others in spectacular fashion but also seems to move them along in hope. There is a kind of distance here I think. If Jesus is truly human, then even He must need boundaries as all of us do.  Jesus maintains a sacred balance of emotional understanding and engagement alongside physical action and justice resolution. Social enterprise needs the voices that bear this story of this man who holds the center.

Social enterprise seeks to solve real world problems with solutions that are healthy and equitable both for those attempting to help and those who are recipients. Healthy social enterprise refuses to capitalize too heavily on its audience's emotions (think: videos of children running after aid trucks) but it also refuses to solve problems from places of such emotional distance that it fails to understand those it seeks to help. If Christians are going to engage social enterprise in a way that allows us to do it well we are going to need a way to balance empathy with cool rational action. We need endeavors that begin by actually seeking to patiently understand the experience of the other (empathy). Brown is right, there must be non-solution based resonance first. But, we also need action based experiments that seek to alleviate suffering when possible that are not driven solely by our emotions (rational action). It is in Christ that we see these things brought together in fullness. As is so often the case it is God (or the idea of God if you prefer) that allows us to hold two seemingly opposed strategies in a kind of sustainable tension. It is this sustainable tension that Christianity offers social enterprise.

 

 

 

Why Christian Social Enterprise? #3: Outward Blessings

Matthew Overton

Lately I have been writing some posts on what I think the church has to offer the world of Social Enterprise/Social Entrepreneurship.  The goal has been to do a little theological work around this topic that extends beyond the world of youth ministry.  My sense is that social enterprise needs both the impossible hope of Christianity and its honest and unflinching assessment of a broken world.  Today I want to look at the outward orientation of Christianity.

Within the Genesis story is of course the story of Abraham.   Abraham is a key figure in our faith and the promise to Abraham frames our entire purpose as human beings. Abraham is promised that he will be the father of a great nation and that through this nation all other nation's will be blessed. (Gen. 12:1-3) While Abraham is receiving a profound gift, he is immediately made to understand that he is merely afforded the privilege of touching a gift that is to remain in transit. Abraham is blessed in order that he and his descendants may serve as a blessing toward others.  He doesn't get to hold the blessing.  There are two virtues here that offer something to the world of social enterprise.

First, Abraham is a recipient. Well practiced Christianity has a central understanding that God blesses people often in spite of what they do or who they are. Sure, there are many times in Scripture that folks seem to be rewarded for doing right, but there are just as many times that God seems to choose the least likely and even the ostensibly undeserving. Even within the Abraham story there is no particularly robust set of reasons that God chooses Abraham. And the stories that follow the blessing demonstrate that Abraham is far from being blemish free.  The point is that throughout the biblical record Christianity is left to understand that blessings happen not because of what we do, but because of who God is. They come from God's inscrutable blessing. Christians are not the creators of their blessings, but the constant recipients.  When we are blessed, we are always left with an awareness of, "Why me?" Here is why this matters.

When one is constantly the recipient of blessings it places them in a position of humility. I am neither FULLY responsible for my successes or my failures. This both humbles our victories and blunts our defeats. If social enterprise is going to sustain itself over the long haul and bless our world it will need some kind of narrative that softens the primacy of our human actions. Social enterprise and its practitioners need to know that they are the beneficiary of turns of events that often operate outside of its efforts or control.

But, the idea of God as give of blessing also softens a second danger: the accidental blessing. God as author of all blessing eliminates the idea that we somehow randomly stumbled on our what we receive. Why is this helpful? If blessings come from random chance rather than the good will of something beyond us then they still belong to no one other than myself. It's as though I found them. I staggered upon them. A gold nugget I trip over produces just as much selfishness as the one I mined.  But, the Christian narrative suggests that while I may have staggered upon my blessings, they do indeed belong to a someone other than me: God. There is nothing that God did not create and therefore all things ultimately belong to God.  This takes all gifts and blessings out of my personal ownership. The result is that the faithfully practicing Christian is left to assume that nothing is truly and fully mine. It is irrelevant whether it appears to have come from the sweat of my brow or random chance. This theological backstory produces a kind of backstop that causes us to hold things loosely and opens up a mindset of sharing. We hold on to what we "have" loosely. We are stewards of our blessings and not full owners. Christianity softens both our authorship and our ownership of what we have. This leads to the second thing that the Christian story of blessing might offer the world of social enterprise.

The result of this theology of God as author and owner of all that is good leads to an outward orientation.  We are not blessed for our own sake. We do not clutch what we have because we didn't create what was given to us. Therefore, we are to bless others with the blessings we have received. The blessings we received were not primarily about us, they were the result of the choice of God. We are suddenly left in the beautiful position of being a vehicle, or a thankful relay station for the good that we receive. This is the story of Abraham. It is the call of God not to own his blessing, but to push it outward to the nations that is so central to Judeo-Christian identity. There is also the call to pass this promise downward to future generations. They too inherit this story that holds things loosely and moves outward in blessed sharing. If the story tells us we don't get to hold what we have been given, then the logical question that follows is, "Well, then what do I do with it?"

Here of course we find the center of the Christian faith itself. It is the Christ who enters our world because God is oriented outward in love at the core of God's very nature. God is propelled outward instinctively, if one can say that about God. This outward mission of God is to be mimicked by God's people. The blessings come, and we bounce outward. It's a kind of reflexive rhythm in our lives like when a doctor hits our patellar tendon with his tiny rubber hammer. The autonomous movement of the church is outward with hands full of what we did not create and we do not own.

If social enterprise is going to have the energy to sustain itself in the years to come it is going to need the strength of story that religious institutions have to offer. I am not here to say that Christianity offers something superior to secular social enterprise. But, it's stories exhort human beings to orient all blessing, accomplishment, and failure beyond themselves. Christianity is not reliant upon the generosity or altruism of the human being. Instead, it roots the call for altruism in the beneficience of God who is the initiator of all good gifts. Something outside of us propels us forward. It is my suspicion that this orientation can provide a useful voice in the overall conversation about social enterprise going on in our world.

 

 

 

 

Why Christian Social Enterprise #2- We Aren't Masters of Anything

Matthew Overton

"Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul." -William Ernest Henley 1888

     William Ernest Henley wrote this poem, now called "Invictus", in 1888.  At the time it had no title. And while it might be just the sort of thing one would expect a social entrepreneur to hang on their wall, it really is just the sort of thing that I find unhelpful when I think about social entrepreneurship.  The idea that I am the master of my fate and the captain of my soul sounds great until I am faced with forces that are truly beyond me.  Social Enterprise doesn't need more self determination.  It needs more humble reliance on something bigger than the self if it will have the longevity it needs to solve the unbelievably complex problems our world is facing.

     I have been trying to develop an internal list of reasons why I think the Christian church might have something to offer the world of social enterprise.  What I should have started this list with was simple: We trust and rely on God, a power beyond ourselves.

     I have discovered in the last three years that social enterprise can really be exciting and discouraging. It takes an immense amount of work and passion (I cannot overstate this!) to get a social enterprise off of the ground. I have never worked so hard at anything in my life. All the ups and downs can really wear you down, especially if they are combined with a heavy measure of idealism. One of the ways that I think Christianity has something to offer the largely humanistic realm of social enterprise is that it removes the burden of us being unconquerable masters of our own destiny day in and day out, and places outcomes and initiative in the hands of God.

     Christian theology has, depending on the particular theological tradition, always emphasized that our fate is not in fact our own.  It is God who is the master of our collective and individual histories and destinies.  And while our experience of that truth is frustrating when we find God to be remarkably inscrutable, it is a comfort nonetheless.  Knowing that all power to enact change rests beyond one's own efforts and ability helps a social entrepreneur in a number of ways.

1. Adaptability- When new realities present themselves, the Christian social entrepreneur doesn't have to be confounded at their lack of control. They already know they are not in control. This produces a willingness to adapt to the new shape that God is giving to things. The Christian entrepreneur can pivot, assigning any new reality to the manifestation of God's will. We can embrace the disruption that is God. Christian Social Enterprise ought to be strikingly adaptable, despite what our institutions have recently demonstrated in their intractable intransigence.

2. Trust- When the future seems unkind or opaque, which it often does in social enterprise, the Christian Social entrepreneur has the ability to move forward with courage because they are not primarily trusting their sense of ability, instincts, or influence about an unknown future. They are trusting God. As a friend of mine says, "There is no one better to trust an unknown future to, than a known God." Trust (or faith) is not about a singular belief or a belief system. Trust is about taking action when outcomes are not clear or not in our hands.  When I have failed multiple times I begin to doubt my instincts and abilities, but in the world of entrepreneurship there is no time for inaction. Often, the only way I can move forward is by identifying the most logical course of action and trusting that for good or for ill, the Lord will walk with me.

3. Hope- Christian hope is what propels us onward even when the odds are long.  If I had to hope in human nature, my own personal fortitude, or a happy turn of events, I think I would give up. As I said, social enterprise is full of defeats. I try to think of those as learning opportunities, but they are often just plain old defeats.  Christian Hope is the sense that good may yet come and it is allows us to get up and dust ourselves off quickly, even when we are out of resources and our backs are against the wall. Christians sense that even if their personal endeavor is doomed to failure, that they may be contributing to the larger tapestry of Kingdom work. We are the people of the Red Sea and the empty tomb. So, when it gets darkest in our enterprises we move forward in action, not pep talking to our selves about the success that will surely come, but humbly holding our candle in front as we proceed.

4. Revelation and Creativity- One of the hallmarks of entrepreneurs is that they tend to be creative. They are good at finding solutions to complex problems with whatever/whomever is on hand and often connect ideas and things that previously seemed unrelated. But, eventually everyone's creative prowess wears out. Artists and musicians often talk of the curse of their first great success. How did it happen? Where did that creativity come from? Will it ever come again?  The Greeks thought of the muse, Christians identify with a Creator God. The Christian entrepreneur recognizes that God has allowed us to create in ways that imitate God's creative nature. All creativity proceeds from God's revelation to humanity. It is the Spirit who empowers us to give birth to all sorts of innovation. The hidden power of this is that all creative revelations feel random. It feels as though we have staggered into them. We wonder, "How the heck did I think of that?" Or, "Why didn't I make that connection before?" Without the idea of God we might be left to imagine that such a revelatory moment was in fact an accident. It was purely the child of chance and that there is no rational reason to believe that such a moment may ever come again.  But, it is the idea of God that allows the Christian entrepreneur to assume that there is a Providential Author who supplies us. And while that doesn't give us a timetable, it does supply us with a sense of intentionality behind our creative bursts, a sense that they will come again as Christ has promised to do.

4. A Macro View- Christian theology has always acknowledged the complexity of the world in which we live. It has always felt that there will be something that is unknowable and beyond our control because our world extends from a God that is at some level unknowable and beyond our control. This view of ourselves as a kind of an ant on a rolling tire is a particular virtue when one is confronted by macro level shifts. Macro shifts in society and economy can really feel disorienting to entrepreneurs. Human beings feel like gods over their own enterprise. They organize, envision, and execute. But the nakedness of their illusory control comes to the fore when something seismic happens. The Christian is able to navigate such seasons well because they sense that there is in fact something, a someone, bigger than even the macro shift. This of course then moves them back into their other virtues of adaptability, hope, and trust.

5. Humility- One of the side effects of recognizing that we are not in fact in control of our fates or destinies is that it ought (thought sadly doesn't many times) to make us humble. Christians ought to be able to hold onto their conclusions and their successes quite loosely. In the end, they aren't really....ours.  If practiced well, Christian humility should serve as a guard against the hubris that so often ruins good things. It will allow us to see new opportunities more quickly and to spread credit for our achievements much more generously amongst those who have made good things possible. It will also allows us to better listen to those who we would wish to impact with the good that we seek to do. Perhaps they have a better idea of what they need than we do? Perhaps we were wrong in the solutions we created. The faithful Christian always assumes we are wrong at some level, that there is more to be inquired about. We do this because the truth does not rest in our idea or enterprise, so we must constantly redesign and re-examine.  We are sure that we are simultaneously right and wrong in our assessments.  But humility will also lift us as well. Humility is not in fact, thinking of ourselves as nothing, but rather making an honest assessment of who we are and are not. Really, humility is properly understanding ourselves. Once we do that we can then figure out more clearly how we can use the gifts we have to good purpose. In this way, humility keeps us both from an over-inflated view of ourselves and a demeaning view of ourselves. It is the awareness of God that allows us to hold that tension. 

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.