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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: The Why

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.

Jim Bridger, The Revenant, and Room to Roam

Matthew Overton

A few months ago I wrote an article for Duke's Faith and Leadership journal on "Why I Started a Social Enterprise." I think it turned out pretty well, but one of the more frustrating aspects was the fact that it was limited to about 1,000 words. The difficulty is that whenever I sit down and think about how my journey into trying to do ministry through social enterprise started, I am floored by all the little and big factors that brought this about. One of the key features of it all has been this compelling sense that I "had to do this." I have encountered it many times along the way, but it him me pretty hard a few months back.

I was on a plan back from New York and I had purchased Michael Punke's book, "The Revenant". One of the key characters in the book is the young Jim Bridger. Bridger is of course one of the early trapper, explorer, trailblazers of American history and folk lore.  But, in the book he is a young man paddling a ferry boat post to post on the Mississippi river. Part way through the book, the author seeks to describe Bridger's "call" to go west into the frontier and it struck me. It seemed to capture everything I have felt over the last few years.

"The frontier for Bridger became an aching presence that he could feel, but could not define, a magnetic force pulling him inexorably toward something that he had heard about, but never seen. A preacher on a swaybacked mule rode Bridger's ferry one day. He asked Bridger if he knew God's mission for him in life. Without pause Bridger answered, "Go to the Rockies." The preacher was elated, urging the boy to consider missionary work with the savages. Bridger had no interest in bringing Jesus to the Indians, but the conversation stuck with him. The boy had come to believe that going west was more than just a fancy for someplace new. He came to see it as a part of his soul, a missing piece that could only be made whole on some far-off mountain or plain."

Ministry has often felt like Jim Bridger's ferry ride to me. It has been something that I have enjoyed and felt called to, but there has always been something missing. I think the problem has often been that ministry has not lent itself to enough innovation and exploration for me. There has been too much that is stayed and defined about it. Part of what social enterprise has offered me is a kind of new frontier. Many people along the way have sounded to me rather like the frontier preacher. They have wanted to do things that seem outmoded, counterproductive, awkward, and even outright hurtful in order to maintain the institution of the church.  It's not that I have no interest in carrying Jesus, it's that I am not always sure that I have liked the ways and means and even the Jesus that others have articulated for me to carry forth. These kinds of experiences have often felt stifling to me. It's one of the reasons that I haven't wanted to become a head of staff at a church.  The role doesn't allow enough risk or innovation. The articulated frameworks of the church feel a bit like a ferry ride. Post to post. Over and over again along the same route. I realized pretty quickly that was going to be difficult for me over the years. I love Jesus and the church, but I need space to do something stupid.

For me, like Bridger, freedom of movement has always been a premium. Even in my outdoors experiences I have rarely enjoyed doing the same hike twice. I need frontier space. Social Enterprise has offered that in a way that I could not have imagined. I never wanted the stress of entrepreneurship. My Dad was an entrepreneur and it never seemed to fall his way. At least part of why I went into ministry was that it was stable, if I am honest with myself. But, I have never like doing the same thing the same way, twice.

Christian Social Enterprise is for me, more than a fancy. It is as clear a mission as Bridger's, "Go to the Rockies." It is not a passing fancy or something new. It feels like a westward movement and like a puzzle piece in my soul has descended into place from out of the cosmos. It's exciting, though every once in a while I do envision the bear attack from the movie the Revenant and it gives me pause.

New Article in Faith and Leadership at Duke....

Matthew Overton

This is the first in a 4 part series that I am writing for Duke Divinity's Faith and Leadership Journal about the intersection of the church and social enterprise. The first article that you can find HERE, is answering the question of, "Why did you start a Christian social enterprise?" I wrote two versions. One was a bit more detailed in terms of my thinking about why I did all of this work. The second, this one, was more about emotionally why I did it. Duke wanted the second one.

"Soft Skills", Jobs Programs, and Human Beings Fully Alive

Matthew Overton

A few weeks ago I received three calls in the same week from different folks who had read or heard about The Columbia Future Forge program and Mowtown Teen Lawn Care.  One of them had found a brochure on his desk when he took his new job. Another wasn't even sure how he knew about us, but he did....which was odd.  But, all of them were interested in us because our program was offering something that the schools are not. And it isn't vocational skills.

Our programs do offer vocational skills. The Forge, which offers trainings and mentoring, trains kids in professionalism, goal setting, personal finance, and a personality/gifts assessment. The object is to impart some useful professional and life skills. Many of our schools do little of this. I am not the Junior Mike Rowe and I don't believe that trades are necessarily the future. In fact, I worry that many of our trades will be gone in the next 50 years due to automation. But, we do need more of them in schools.  Schools are slowly starting to re-gather themselves from the college craze. They are starting to talk about bringing trade skills and professional training again which is great because many students don't want the college ideal that has been foisted on them.  But, even though I agree that there is a skills gap and too much college craze, that isn't why we created our program.

You can have all the professionalism you want. You can manage your money like Warren Buffet. You can have the greatest goals in the world. You can know exactly what jobs you might be good at and have the skills for them. And you can still be...a really crappy human being.

The people who called me were interested in this last bit.  The human being bit. The idea that you could teach human skills and job skills at the same time. The idea that students don't need another program. They need a human being to mentor them. That sounded worthwhile to them.

Even if our schools can get back to some vocational training and life skills training they will not be able to teach us how to be full human beings.  We need another human to do that. At least that is what the incarnation seems to argue for. Traditionally those "human being" skills are what we might call "soft skills". They are the hardest to teach.  I was recently reading a post by Seth Godin on this. It's superb and it's a 5 minute read. He argues that soft skills are what make most companies endure, innovate, and flourish. You can teach the other skills, but soft skills are what allow for innovation and a lack of them can destroy company culture. Soft skills, human skills, are almost never taught and are one of the most essential features of good employees, good co-workers, and good family members. They also happen to be at the heart of the gospel.

So, when a student came up to me a few weeks ago asking about our program I felt confused by some of his questions.  He was dancing around something but I couldn't tell what. He was asking questions related to college, the military, and our mentors.  It finally dawned on me that his expectation was that we were either trying to get him into college or trying to get him a job.  What I had to explain was that while we would be delighted if he went to college or into the military (his current goal), we were more interested in who he was going to be when he got there. We don't need more soldiers and we don't really need more debt saddled college grads. We have enough of those. What we need is people who have a sense of who they are and what life is about when they get to those kinds of places. We want the most fully developed human beings serving in our military and we want a fully alive compassionate and rational human being studying physics in our collegiate laboratories. Our objective is human beings flourishing AS human beings wherever God has them. Period.  

Seth Godin is right. They aren't "soft skills". They are essential skills for life in the individual and in any organization or society. Our ecclesial job is not to crank out successful people, or nice people, or even religious people. That smacks of a factory. If that is the best we can do we might as well automate everything now. Our job is to do the redemptive ditch digging of forging fully alive human beings, full bearers of the image of God. That is work worth doing. As Irenaeus was reported to have said, "The glory of God is a human being fully alive." In that case, Soli Deo Gloria.

Why Social Entrepreneurship in Youth Ministry? #4- Expanding the Bridge

Matthew Overton

I grew up near the ocean in Southern California. In fact, I grew up so close to it that you could smell it and late at night in my room I could hear the seals barking on the buoy just off the coast.  And because of that proximity I have spent a decent amount of time around ships and boats.  One of the things about being on  a boat is that it is one of those spaces where safety is paramount and when an order is given by the captain, you follow it!  On a boat there is no time to argue who is in charge. There is the captain and maybe a mate, but everyone on that boat knows there role. And generally everyone is both needed and utilized.

When you consider a traditional sailing ship you have to think about a hive of activity. There are people on the command deck of course, but there are also dozens of others who are handling sail and rigging. Others keeping an eye on the ocean itself. There might be someone sounding for depth. Below deck even more activity is going on! People are working the bilge, attending to chores, and perhaps tending food in a galley. It would have been quite a place! What is clear is that on a sailing ship (and any ship really) everyone has a critical role to play in terms of what is going on. Dilettantes are dangerous to the whole enterprise and if you don't want to have a function you are probably encouraged to stay on shore. This is strikingly different from our churches.

One of the things that doing social entrepreneurship has brought to my attention over the past 3 years is the fact that the Christian church in North America does not function this way.  Most of our ministries exist as the whole of God's mission can be piloted by just a few.  We have loads of people in our churches who have loads to offer God's mission, but have no way to properly engage that.  In our churches it would seem that the only gifts that matter at times are gifts related to speaking, teaching, music, and management.  In other words, we function as though the bridge of the ship is the only place where meaningful work can happen. If you can't fit on that crowded bridge then it can (and often does) appear that your gifts aren't really that useful to God.

Part of the problem is that the church as a kind of a vehicle has certain functions that are non-negotiables. It has to do certain things like worship.  The church as a vehicle is only ever be able to empower so many gifts.  What social entrepreneurship does for both our adults and students (and the church) is that it radically opens up the playing field in terms of where the church can go to accomplish God's mission.  While our attempts to engage our communities missionally have often ended in things like BBQ's at parks and Harvest parties, social entrepreneurship allows us entrance anywhere because it engages the main artery of American life: the marketplace. We no longer need to create semi-churchy experiences to reach out. Entrepreneurship simply allows us to wade into the world. Whether I like it or not, as a good missionary in my culture I cannot deny that the market infuses everything in America.  If I want to mobilize the all the gifts of my students and my adults then I am going to have to engage the area of our culture that can utilize every gift.

The youth ministry opportunity here is exponential.

First, we have adults who are retiring who have loads of experience. Many businesses are starting to rehire their Boomers as consultants for their younger employees so that they can pass on what they have learned about leadership over the years.  Some have called the era that we live in the era of the "silver tsunami".  It is the era when thousands of Boomers are going gray and are looking to retire and travel. But, what about when they aren't traveling? Don't they still long for something deeper to give their life to?  I think so. In fact, my suspicion is that this longing for something to passion for is even more acute at this stage of life. Is there a place for them in our ministries? Social entrepreneurs refer to this group as people looking for an "encore".  Sure traveling is great, but everyone who is about to retire and everyone who is entering the latter stages of life wonders about their legacy. What have they done? Is the world better because of them? Have I faithfully lived God's call on my life? Social entrepreneurship can offer them an opportunity for an encore that utilizes their unique gifts and gives them a chance to pass them on. And that is where our teens come in.

If we are serious about intergenerational youth ministry then we need to thoughtfully consider social entrepreneurship. It offers a ministry playing field in which adults and teens can work on the same  playing field as co-equals.  That is huge. Adults with thousands of gifts are no longer ONLY being asked to be present and clean up the Cheetos after the ice breaker. They are no longer involved in youth ministry to only guide students down the Roman Road or to some obscure theological destination that they aren't entirely sure they understand. Social Entrepreneurship offers adult leaders the chance to apply faith in real time to actual mission and to do it in a space in which the students can be fully engaged.  If adults and students are running a charitable laundromat, then every student there is going to have to have a role. It's just like the sailing ship or like building a house on a mission trip. There is no space for dilettantes on a mission trip. In social entrepreneurship, both adults and students have something to talk about and engage with and that is the best kind of organic relationship we could ask for across generations.

Third, youth need guides in discovering their gifts. If we think about the biblical story of Samuel and Eli, Samuel desperately needs Eli to help him interpret the voice of God.  Samuel has a gift, but it has not been discovered or honed. Many of our youth and our young adults (did I mention that this might even fit ministry to young adults better!?) need these kinds of guides. They need folks who can help them identify and hone the gifts that they have. But, there is only so much of that that can come up over a cup of coffee. It's real life situations that give the mentor the best opportunity to discover new facets of the person that they mentor and it's real life situations that allow the one receiving mentorship to actually discover and develop their God given gifts and talents.

The point of all this is that we need to expand the command bridge of our ships or maybe at least build some new Kingdom vessels that offer greater leadership capacity for youth, young adults, and adults than a traditional church model can provide. Social entrepreneurship can provide tens of thousands of combinations that engage the marketplace and individual followers of Christ with meaningful Kingdom work that requires all of their giftedness and passion. I can't think of a better way for us to enter into salty conversation and salty witness that engages every member and age of the Body of Christ than the open seas of the marketplace. The advent of missional theology drew us from the docks to the harbor. I think it's time we dragged all generations and gifts together out to the open ocean.


Why Social Entrepreneurship in Youth Ministry #3- Gracious Accountability and High Growth Environments

Matthew Overton

One of the things that has always been difficult for me being a minister is figuring out when to be nice, understanding, and gracious and when to be direct.  I think because the church is an institution that often represents people's highest ideals, their expectations of the institutions and the ministers that serve there are much higher.  And to a large degree this is justifiable. Scripture itself sets a pretty high bar for the leaders of God's people.

But, my experience of this on the ground is that this higher level of expectation often leads, in practice, to an environment that is often too polite and indirect. Many churches and their leaders are often shackled by having to be "nice" all the time.  There is often a sense working with church volunteers that if you aren't nice to them and indirect all the time then you aren't being gracious. Or to put it another way, the more direct you are the more unkind you seem.  I think many women deal with something similar to this on a day to day basis. Women often pay a penalty socially for being assertive and direct. This kind of dynamic is crippling to both leader and organization.

The result of this kind of unspoken code of nice is that it produces church environments that tend to be kind at all costs and are also heavily conflict avoidant. This leads to all sorts of problems that we don't need to go into here, but this culture bleeds into youth ministry.  The youth group, because it is essentially a free service put on by a church and because it tends to be numbers driven, forces youth ministers to try to attract and hold onto students.  To do so, the youth worker must make difficult decisions about how direct they can be with students. Head pastors deal with the same issues. You don't want to lose a student or their family, so many youth workers tend to be pretty cautious with feedback. Second, most youth workers are pretty kind and recognize that overly direct feedback can crush certain students.  This tends to produce an environment that is low in terms of expectation and accountability. This isn't as true in some of the other spheres that teens inhabit.

The dynamic is very different, for instance, than the way that a coach might deal with an athlete. The difference in that environment is that the student has paid for that activity, and probably has paid a premium.  So when a coach is direct with a student on the pool deck or a music teacher is direct following a botched rehearsal the student is less likely to run off and avoid further growth. Mom and Dad won't let them avoid practice for three weeks. Youth group on the other hand is often voluntary. They paid for the music program and their folks will tell them they have to stick it out.

All of this leads to youth ministry as a space that is exceedingly loving and gracious, but also to one that can produce little spiritual growth in the students that are a part of that ministry.  The environment tends to be low on challenge and low on accountability.  And while I would agree that our churches often need to be refuges from some of the awful feedback that students might be getting in their lives from parents, coaches, teachers etc., I don' think that is ALL that we can be.  And this is where social entrepreneurship comes in.

One of the advantages I have learned with students by creating an entrepreneurship is that it is an environment where direct feedback is critical.  If I am not direct with my students on the job, we don't get work done.  The jobs program I have created allows us to speak directly with students about what they need to do. It allows us to dive more quickly into conversations about character and accountability.  Students don't pay for our program, but what they do know is that if they don't show up on time or put in the requisite effort they won't get paid or won't have a job anymore.  Youth groups almost never have anything like this.  And to be honest, as much as I long for the Kingdom that is to come, that sink or swim work environment is what our world is actually like. It DOES make demands of us. It is a performance based culture. We cannot fully avoid that reality and need to lovingly prepare students for it. 

But, here is the beauty of a jobs based youth ministry. It allows your church to offer a salty kind of grace.  Social entrepreneurship creates a space in a youth ministry that allows the church to offer direct critical feedback over real time problems in a way that is an alternative to the destructive feedback that some students receive in our communities. We affirm their self worth, the indelible image of God, while telling them they need to improve in a certain area of life. Through direct feedback they become less blind to their own unique strengths and weaknesses. If we do this kind of work lovingly it is amazingly affirming work.  Compliments seem less artificial in this kind of environment. Students know they earned them. Grace seems more...well...gracious.

When you are in an environment that is always nice and you make a mistake you come to EXPECT niceness at every turn. In an accountable environment, when you screw up, you expect to get feedback and maybe even fired. When that expectation of immediate judgement is violated with a kind of "gracious feedback" it is a wonderfully disruptive experience. You expected judgement and you received honest love.  There is a fine line after all between grace and enabling.

Imagine for a moment if in the story of the Prodigal Son that the younger brother had returned home anticipating, even expecting, a feast and a fattened calf. I think many people expect just such a greeting at our churches.  The son would have been petulant to have not received it.  But, because the younger son expected judgement and accountability, it offered the father an opportunity to provide a kind of disruptive grace.  I would suggest that we needs wings of our ministries where high accountability is the expectation so that when students make mistakes and are greeted with calm, but honest and loving critical feedback, they can experience that same gracious disruption. Small scale social entrepreneurships create that kind of environment. 

In a way, social entrepreneurship can help grace be salty and powerful again. Students are empowered to work on real time problems related to the entrepreneurship (say for example, a food cart that benefits a charity) in situations that demand higher accountability. It leads to greater empowerment and fosters growth. A lot of times I think our current youth ministries are light on empowerment and therefore are environments that have low accountability. That leads to stagnation. Let's build some ministries that are both full of grace and growth. I think that would be pretty innovative.


The Church has a Role in America and it Might Look Like This...

Matthew Overton

This is a video from my friend Nate Phillips on a small entrepreneurial revival happening in his hometown. Their story is the story of 1,000 other communities.  A story of industry that sputtered out and the subsequent economic and social struggles that have resulted.  While we tend to focus on social entrepreneurship as it relates to youth ministry in this blog, this is a video worth watching for anyone in the church. You can immediately see why entrepreneurship can be Kingdom work. The web of redemptive relationships and the cascading  effect of small positive economic dominoes here is encouraging. At first, it might not seem like there is direct social entrepreneurship going on here, but there is no way to not see how this is redemption work. American culture and the American church were built for just this sort of work!

Why Social Entrepreneurship? #2- The Ship in a Bottle

Matthew Overton

This is the second post in a series on the "why" of doing youth ministry (and ministry in general) through the lens of social entrepreneurship.  These posts spawned out of a conversation about the degree to which money/economics played a role in founding the ventures I run at my local church.  They did play a role and I have posted on those functions elsewhere, but there were many reasons why we headed in this new direction. I have felt that it might be important to lay those out.

One of the big problems in American Youth Ministry is that at its core it has often been more about security and control rather than risk and trust.  The very nature of the American youth ministry project of the last 60 years or so is that it was primarily begun in order to maintain the faith of teenagers in an age of eroding cultural Christianity. At other phases of its life American youth ministry helped keep kids busy and safe from sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  It also has been designed to give them solid middle class values that direct them on the road to college and "success".  We don't need to go on at length as to why this kind of ministry is rather stunted. Just look up Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism and you can fill in the blanks.  The problems are legion.

The main issue is that what our youth ministries have effectively done, because of this aversion to risk and trust, is to create these kind of artificial environments in which a teenager in an insular church world is meant to be kept safe from an outer world that has been painted in the most rudimentary theological brush strokes as unsafe.  What this has produced are these ministries that effectively isolate our teenagers from the real life of faith that they need cultivated in order to have a vibrant trust in the living God.

The truth of the matter is that the entire world has a bit of unsafeness to it. It is often little different within the church than without. You only need to strip back the thinnest of veneers to discover that the same evil forces that tarnish creation beyond our walls (violence, racism, sexism, corruption, injustice, etc.) are sometimes tidily sanitized and hidden in our pews. But rather than preparing our students to see these realities and operate as Kingdom people within them (sheep amongst wolves, sly as foxes and innocent as doves) we have created spaces (youth groups, retreats, youth centers, etc.) that shield them from these realities.  I have come to think of most of our youth ministries as something akin to placing ships in a bottle.

Ships are quite clearly made to sail the ocean. Every bit of them is designed for active and penetrating waters that are often deeply dark and scary. Having grown up very near the ocean and been on a number of boats over the years I can tell you that sailing is beautiful and invigorating, but deeply scary at times.  You don't spend all the labor of building a ship with wood, rope, tar, and sails to place it in an environment in which it will never be used. You design it precisely for the open ocean because that is where it was meant to sail. And furthermore, you know that is exactly where it will end up. We cannot bottle and cork our teenagers. Eventually they will need to go out on the open ocean.

Our teens need to learn not to wall themselves off from the world in some sort of mid 20th century suburban monastery. But rather we need to help them wade into the suffering, pain, and nefariousness of our world with open eyes and hearts. Part of my thinking in starting a social entrepreneurship in youth ministry was that we had to prepare the students in our ministries to maintain their God given humanity while sailing the difficult oceans of our world. The problem that eventually crops up is that over time if you design ships for the open ocean and then place them in a bottle, you will eventually start making changes to the design in order to accomodate the bottle rather than the seas. The ships will eventually be nothing more than a model that has BECOME designed for the bottles in which you place them. And this is exactly what we have done over the years in many of our churches.

What social entrepreneurship does is that it engages real world projects that function in real time. Because social entrepreneurship engages the market place it has to work, at least in part, within that environment.  It has to deal with failure, risk, money, integrity, all sorts of people, and a thousand other things that reveal the goodness and power of the gospel story. The gospel is only powerful when you can see how diametrically opposed it is to so many real world values and calculations.  This requires a real time juxtapositioning. Our students must be allowed to place the gospel values next to the values of this worlds various kingdom narratives. They must do so in the marketplace and not in a kind of cloistered theological laboratory. I call this "Hull on Water" youth ministry.  Hull on water is the only way to reveal the saltieness of the gospel to any of us.  Social Entrepreneurship requires students that engage entrepreneurial ventures to think about their faith in real life situations. A student working at a charitable food cart for instance has to learn to deal graciously with customers who may not share the overall vision for what is taking place there. They will have to recognize that while their project might be virtuous, that does not exempt it from the demands of a customer who wants the best food in the world for as little money as possible because all they know are the selfish mantras of a consumeristic culture. A group of students seeking grant funding for a missional venture will need to have explored the actual problems facing the community they are seeking to help thoroughly enough to merit the grant they are seeking. Such a project would teach them all sorts of gospel truth about how to do social justice in a way that honors the recipient of the good they seek to do. It would teach them that in order to do good they will have to labor to find the best solutions for the most pressing problems. This world of sharks and waves won't fund anything else. And it shouldn't.  They might get to experience the goodness of rejection, a honing process that is a necessary function of this side of the Kingdom.  These sorts of endeavors are a much better alternative for instance than the church that simply pays for a bunch of backpacks for their local school and then simply says to their teenagers, "Here go hand these out 'over there'."  Social entrepreneurship seeks to enable students to make real world impact in an environment that has to keep pace with real world sailing. Sails and rigging must constantly be adjusted rather than being sacrilized. What does not help the ship sail needs to be considered flotsam or jetsam. Students engaged in missional ventures and social entrepreneurial ventures will need to trust and risk as they learn new skills, come to terms with their own strengths and weaknesses, and learn how to problem solve without compromising their integrity as a child of God. In short social entrepreneurship is ministry in the real world.  It prepares them for just the sorts of difficult moral tensions that they will have to face when they leave our churches in a few short years.

If you build ministries that exist in real time and in the real world, chances are they will help students function in the real world. Social Entrepreneurship forces us to design ships that are meant to sail dangerous waters because that is all they will ever do.  There is no safe harbor. You cannot dry-dock a teenager. At least not for very long. Despite the best efforts of helicopter parents and the modern world that seems to perpetually extend our collective adolescence.  They are going to have to sail. Our hope is that students that are a part of our youth ministries might enter into the real world knowing exactly how to maintain their humanity and their Christian faith in a world that is often dehumanizing.

So why did I start doing youth ministry through the lens of social/missional entrepreneurship? Because I was tired of building teenage spiritual ships that were only designed to sail within the confines of a youth room. I felt like I was running the ecclessial version of the Truman Show while wearing a ministerial collar. Too much safety. Too much control.  Let's build ministries that help students live the gospel truth on the open ocean. It's scary as hell, but the spray on your face is pretty invigorating.