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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 Tag: Youth Ministry Innovators

Transformation, Transmogrification, or Transfiguration?

Matthew Overton

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One of the things that has happened over the 5 years we have been running our Forge program is that we have gradually gathered around some values that matter to us. Values are often something people tend to confuse with ideals. Many people in the churches that I have worked in have tended to think of values as something along the lines of aspirations. They think about their church or organization and think about what they would like it to be one day. Values aren’t that.

Values are ideas and ethics that already exist within your organization. They are reflexive tendencies that shape the way you shape your programs and relationships within your community/organization. Along with your mission and vision, when clear, values tend to shape what you and your fellow supporters see as inside and outside the scope of who you are. They aren’t so much who you are or what you do, as they are the way you do what you do together. And I don’t think you can just sit down and write them down one day. They tend to emerge from the life of an organization/ministry over time. They emerge from actually doing what you do. I tend to find that we have tripped over a value when we make statements like, “That isn’t who we want to be.” Or, “That feels more like the way we want to go about doing this work.”

Well, it feels like in the last 1.5 years some clear values have started to emerge for our Forge ministry. We have lived enough life together to begin to name some of those values. Perhaps the most key value for us is that we believe that all human transformation happens at the pace of human relationships.

Our ministry has realized over time that our community has plenty of programs. We have lots and lots of places that kids can get services for different kinds of things. We have lots of places in our community where people can get better at things (sports, music, tech, etc.) And while programs do a lot of good, students are often left with the sense that they are a commodity in someone else’s self actualization. What I mean is that each coach, teacher, and minister wants to know that what they do each day as they get out of bed matters. I want to know that my youth ministry matters. The unfortunate side effect of this desire for me to feel like I have meaning is that it creates a temptation to want to make an impact on things and people. This can often reduce teenagers to cogs in our own personal quest for meaning. This is why a music teacher is offended when a kid in my church chooses in my chooses a humanitarian aid trip over music camp and questions her commitment to music. This is why a swim coach lets an athlete know, the moment they get out of the pool (after swimming a record time) that it wasn’t nearly their best. Christians are not (ideally) in the program business or even in the get to heaven business. At our core, we are in the rescue and transformation business.

When I think of why God exists in human relationship with people it is all about a giant, eons long, painstaking, and long suffering RESCUE OPERATION. The whole project of God on our behalf is an effort on the part of God to rescue and restore us. It is not about getting us to somewhere and apparently it isn’t about getting us right or perfect. If that were the case, none of us would be welcome in this project. So, what is it about? It’s about a God who wants to rescue us from ourselves.

So, the question then becomes how are humans rescued? How is it that we come to be changed and shaped? And what does it look like for us to imitate the shape and form of that rescue operation in our own ministries?

Well, I think Christian ministries can take 3 forms.

  1. Transmogrification Ministries

  2. Transformation Ministries

  3. Transfiguration Ministries

The first form of ministry that often happens in many places in our world, not least of which is the church, is transmogrification. My oldest child reads Calvin and Hobbes on a regular basis and one of my favorite cartoons is when Calvin makes a “Transmogrifier” out of a cardboard box. I had always thought it was a made up kid word until I looked it up. It turns out to be transmogrified means to be transformed, but in a kind of humorous, ridiculous, or bizarre way.

Many of our ministries, because they desire to make an impact, can turn people into odd Christian caricatures. They function as bizarre transmogrifiers. You have seen folks like this. People whose ministries or programs so desperately want to demonstrate transformation that they almost force it on people. The people become walking televangelists for this or that. They become so awkward that you begin to wonder if they believe their own story of transformation, or whether is it simply a kind of incantational mantra meant to hypnotize. Transmogrification is the sort of ministry where a quality ministry ideal goes into the machine and something along the lines of a Chinese knockoff product comes out. See below. It looks like what you wanted, but it really isn’t.

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Many Christian ministries produce people like this. Partially this happens because their ministry ideals are so desperately high. Partially this happens because they believe that their ministries exist to “produce” people at all…sometimes even on a mass scale. These are not the ministries we want to create.

A second healthier version of Christian ministry is working for positive human transformation. This is the kind of work that takes hours and hours of relational time. It is the sort of ministry that is patient, loving, and long suffering. It does not exist to make me feel better or more charitable. It does not exist to give one a sense of accomplishment or meaning. It exists to benefit the other person. It does not treat them as an object to be transformed. It honors their agency and autonomy. I don’t believe these relationships are truly co-equal, but they should be highly mutual. In good transformational ministry both parties are transformed!

This sort of transformation requires another human being to engage. To push this back into the realm of the obviously theological, this is why God enters into the world. Human transformation cannot be accomplished, apparently, without flesh on flesh. Sacrifices must be made in order for transformation to happen. Somebody somewhere is going to have to give something up and lay something (probably themselves) down for the sake of the other. Blood. Sweat. Tears. They are going to have to enter into our suffering rather than simply offering empathy and sympathy.

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The simple truth (and it’s become one of our Forge values) is that human transformation requires human relationship. It’s not a program or a machine. This is why God must break into the world. We cannot expect human beings to pray a prayer or take a class and see transformation. We cannot expect to see a neighborhood or community transformed only because a rec center was built. Until human beings are willing to invest in human beings true transformation will never happen. It is long, slow, grinding work that is NEVER finished. No human being ever reaches a finish line because we are never completed creations of God.

But, the true jazz of human work and the gospel is transfiguration work. Transfiguration implies a kind of exalting or lifting up. One might say that transformational work leads to transfiguration. Transfigurational ministry happens when the countenance and spirit of a person to is lifted to a new summit. It’s byproducts are hope and joy. Utimately, gospel work is about transfiguration. It’s about painstaking transformations, slow positive human erosions and constructions supported by the scaffolding and spires of dozens of caring human beings, that eventually elevate another person to LIFE. Irenaeus was once purported to have said that “the glory of God was a human being fully alive.” Transfiguration is when we see someone come to life and the radiance and resonance of that moment is profound. So, how do we go about transfigurational ministry?

We don’t.

My experience in ministry tells me that transfiguration happens through God alone. Heck, I am not even sure I am really capable of transformation! I know we can’t produce transfiguration. But, the divine moment when you look at a student or human and recognize that something is completely transformed, is beyond our creative capacities. It is the exclusive product of divine action. It is wonderfully beyond our control and measurement. It emerges from unexpected places and unexpected moments and shocks us. It violates our sense of what we once thought was possible. Transformation is uncommon because it takes so much work, time, and energy. Transfiguration is miraculous because it is impossible until it happens.

In the ministries I run, we value doing the right ministry, the right way, at the right pace. We think that transformation is often something that happens over years and perhaps even over generations. It is work that is difficult and requires mutual relationship. It is not possible without the Spirit. It does not produce a Christian caricature, but the real McCoy that only God can see and draw out of each one of us. Every once in a while we see a true transfiguration and we give thanks and plod on.

It’s a wonderful calling.



Accompanying Young Adults by Engaging Economics

Matthew Overton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ecto 1"- The Most Humbling Joyous Help I Have Ever Received.

Matthew Overton

This is what I like to refer to as "Ecto 1". It reminds me of the Ghostbusters rig in the movie except rather than keeping the spirit containment unit in the basement of the building, we just mounted it on our truck.  It's also my SECOND pickup truck. I don't know how this happened. I grew up two blocks from the Pacific Ocean in surfing country. And while I was born in Virginia, I was not born in pickup country. Some people have called it "Dorothy" from the movie Twister. Others say it looks like a Portland food cart version of a Breaking Bad episode.  To me, Ecto 1 is a sign of everything that is awesome about social enterprise and the church. It is a symbol of friendship, fellowship, and shared passions.

Ecto 1 is simply a watering truck on a converted F-250 pickup truck.

About 9 months ago our Downtown Business Association recruited Mowtown to water their downtown flower baskets.  They hang them every year in the downtown area in order to beautify the local business district. They had a truck, with a built in watering apparatus, and all we needed to do was supply the workers and a bid.  They had also worked with teens and young adults to water the baskets previously.  So, we leapt at the opportunity. But, that's when things got a bit more complicated.

For various reasons, our local city didn't want Mowtown to rent the truck. They also didn't want to sell us their old 1970's Dodge Pickup. And this is where things got awesome.

Several of my team members stepped in.  First, they went out and looked for pickup trucks. They went to local auctions and online. Eventually they found  a truck they liked and when they told the owner what we were up to he knocked the price down substantially. But, that is where the real work began.

This is Dave. Dave is a retired airline pilot/Rube Goldberg truck mechanic. Dave is awesome. Be like Dave.

This is Dave. Dave is a retired airline pilot/Rube Goldberg truck mechanic. Dave is awesome. Be like Dave.

These guys spent hours thinking about the best designs. They purchased a tank and mounted on an aluminum reinforced palate so that when the watering season is over we can pull the tank right out of the truck. I consulted with friends who are engineers about pickup size, and water shifting, and baffles. Next they put in a pump, mounted a light on top, consulted with the city about stripping the old truck for watering tools. They fixed up the actual truck which needed some significant work. It had holes in the pickup bed and needed a new bumper.

All along I had to proceed in faith in this because I know nothing about cars. I can change oil, tires, spark plugs, batteries, and filters, but I don't. Ever. I loathe working on cars. I know how to do some things, but I don't really "get" cars.  But, because these guys on my team care about students and about this idea that we all have been working on they laid out for this idea in terms of money, time, and passion.

A few weeks ago I went over to one of their houses to borrow their dump truck (yes they have one at home) and there was Ecto-1. I couldn't believe it. I honestly felt like crying the next day in worship because I was so thankful for friends like these. I know they enjoyed doing it, but I don't like when people help me out usually. I am pretty independent. It was humbling to say the least.

My point in all of this is simply to say the social enterprise requires a bunch of risk and trust. It also requires community. As much as I have wanted to test a model that proves to someone else that they could do this on their own too, I have had to realize that this is a group process. It takes way more than just my passion to get something like this off the ground. It takes the gifts of others too. I continue to learn that lesson in spades.

But, this is why the church matters. The church is a bucket of ages, stages of life, gifts, talents, treasures, and passion like no other that I know. It has a built in ethic to lay one's life down for the sake of the world. As I continue to argue and believe, it is one of the best vehicles I know to engage social enterprise.

This morning at 4 a.m. an 18 year old student and a hard working American who emigrated from Central America are out watering baskets in our downtown. We are helping them economically, they are forging unusual community together, our downtown is being beautified, we are making some profit, and my church community is more engaged than it was a year ago. It's the best missional idea I have ever had.

If Christian Social Enterprise is wrong, I don't want to be right.

Innovators Guest Post #7- Starting an Innovative Youth Ministry from Scratch

Matthew Overton

As a youth leader, have you ever thought or dreamed about starting up a youth ministry from scratch?  Maybe that represents a personal nightmare scenario, but for some youth workers it is a an experience that they have always wanted to try on for size.  Chris Cummings, who is our guest poster today is doing just that through a church plant in Tennessee.  Chris has been reading the posts on Youth Ministry Innovators for some time and gave me a call a couple of weeks ago.  Chris is in his most preliminary missionary stages of entering a new gospel environment. He is just beginning to discern what God might be calling him to do or not do in his new context.  Here is what he has to say.

"Hi, I’m Chris and I’m a Youth Pastor. 

I wanted to share about the new adventure that I am on, that I am not sure of the destination or even the journey to get there.  

Five weeks ago, I started at a new church plant in south Nashville, www.thevillagenashville.com.  The church launched in Jan, but I was just hired mid August to start the youth ministry from scratch.

I have been in youth ministry for over 10 years now, but I have never started one from scratch.  As I started to pray and dream about what God wanted this to look like, I knew that it couldn’t and shouldn’t look like just another youth ministry.  The mission of the church is to connect people who have left the church or have never connected to the church to make disciples who make disciples. 

If you are going to target people who have either left the church or have never been connected to one, it is pretty obvious that just doing the same ol’ thing isn’t going to cut it.

And here is where I find myself, in an amazingly missional and active church, without a building; planted in the middle of a fast growing area, hoping to reach as many teens and families as possible for the sake of the Kingdom.

As I have been working through what this is going to look like, I have come down to a couple things that I think God always uses to help guide us, which Frederick Buechner said so well: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.”

1. DEEP HUNGER - What are the needs of the community?

In order to know this, we need to be go where people are and become great listeners.  We need to listen to the spoken needs and also the unspoken ones they might not know to express.  Asking questions like “What needs to be set right again?”  “Where is there brokenness?”  “What are the places that need a Band-Aid while also figuring out what system is causing the wounds?”

We hope to spend this fall and into the winter as listeners.

2.  DEEP GLADNESS - What are the gifts of our church?

We hope to spend the next few months gathering our group of teens and leaders, helping them discover their gifts, and then practicing them and looking at how they might meet the needs of our community.

What if we, the church, are gifted in each of our contexts to specifically meet needs in our community?  What if it is exactly as this intersection of deep hunger and deep gladness that we find our vision, purpose, and direction?

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor 12:7)

So this is where I am, we are, on a new adventure of seeking where God is at work and joining in for the redemption of our community and world.

BUT...

I can’t seem to shake everything that I have always known as youth ministry.  Youth Group, small groups, mission trips, fun nights, etc.  And I know that none of these are inherently bad, but I don’t want them to be the goal or even focus.

How do I lean into the intersection of deep hunger and deep gladness, while also creating a space for teens to grow as disciples that make disciples?

This is the question I am asking myself all the time, and it is the one guiding our choices.  What would you do?"

Why Social Entrepreneurship #1- Socioeconomic Reconciliation

Matthew Overton

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The other day, I was on the phone with a buddy of mine who is doing youth ministry in inner city Baltimore.  One of the reasons that I have always loved this guy is that he never shies away from uncomfortable questions. He had read a few of the articles and blog posts about this youth ministry plus jobs stuff that we have been doing and had some questions. The conversation was great and got me thinking about posting more about why we are doing what we are doing at my church. So, I plan in the coming weeks and months to do about 10-15 posts on the "why" of what we are doing so that folks can get a broader sense of why youth ministry through the vehicle of social entrepreneurship matters.

Today will be on how we might be able to accomplish socioeconomic reconciliation through social entrepreneurship.

About 4 years ago now I was on a youth trip driving down the highway in a human death trap known as a 15 passenger van. As always, I was doing my best to eavesdrop on the conversations happening on the bench seats to my rear. This is always a tricky exercise since the music is usually blasting at about a billion decibels through partially blown speakers. What I overheard struck me at the time and is part of what influenced me to do what I am doing.

On my first bench seat were several students that you might call solid achievers. They come from relatively stable homes and have a clear college trajectory.  As I listened to their conversation it was filled with anxiety  and loads of talk about their class rankings, potential colleges, and A.P. test scores. Most of the conversation was a sort of flimsy teenage facade of confidence.

On the second bench seat were three young men from a working class town about 10 miles north of our church. These students were mostly digesting Vines and making jokes despite the requests that students not use them in the vans. To say working class is a bit unfair because in several cases, their families struggled to work at all. One lived in a trailer with no running water. The other lived with a grandma. Mom and Dad had never been in the picture and after winning a small sum in the lottery (20k) granddad had taken off with his girlfriend. Grandma was left with a mortgage, her physically taxing work the disabled, and her own physical health struggles.  The third kid's home life vacillated between volatile and stable with people in and out of work.

What hit me right between the ears was that for all intents and purposes I had two youth groups.  One was doing quite well for itself and the other was in a wrestling match with the world.  Like other youth workers I knew, I was asking, "How do I bring these two groups from radically different worlds together?"

There is no question in my mind that we are dealing with a major socio-economic gap in our country.  I can accept the fact that people may argue for dramatically different political solutions to the problem, but no one can deny the gap. I can see it in my students, in the "working class" neighborhood I live in, and in the neighborhoods around our church community. They once thrived...now they struggle to get by.

The truth is that most of what constitutes American Youth Ministry was designed for upper middle class kids who had loads of time on their hands.  When you don't fit that category its tough to see why youth group or faith even speak to your world. My sense was that we needed something different to bring these two groups together. I was searching for a practical need that both groups had in common. My answer was work.

     The "successful" kids on my bench seat needed jobs. Many of them have no idea how to work. Please don't read this as a "lazy millennials" rant either. It isn't. Many of these students are hard workers, but they lack certain work skills that I think used to be learned along the way. They go off and get a 4 year degree at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars (probably in debt) and then attempt to leap into the world having never worked around other adults in a professional capacity. Many of them are simply too busy to get jobs anymore. They have loads of activities that are designed to prepare them for the next 4 years of life rather than the next 40. Lots of them are conflict avoidant. They struggle to receive any direct critiques from an adult about what they do. They struggle to problem solve and often don't know how to adapt when given an open ended question or task to complete. But when your list of activities have precluded any form of personal autonomy, you struggle to know how to improvise creative solutions to problems. They also are terrified of making mistakes. They have often grown up with a sense that one mistake will derail the whole college success train. You could state this the opposite way by saying they are risk averse. Jobs tend to be the place that a lot of this is learned. They need environments where they can learn adults skills around adults instead of learning extracurricular skills around other teenagers.

Meanwhile, my second bench of students have much more wherewithal when it comes to the world. They still have bikes that they ride around their neighborhoods. They got in fights as kids and made some mischief. A couple of years ago, one of my students got really mad at his family. He was so pissed that he skateboarded across the I-205 bridge into Portland and managed to navigate multiple bus lines to get down to his Aunt's in MckMinville. There is no chance that my high performing students could have done that! It's over 45 miles away! My first bench students would have needed to form a collaborative team project for a grade to have the chutzpah to pull that off! And in all likelihood their parents would have called the school to shut the experience down! I digress.

The point is that the second bench students have a ton of skills that my wealthier kids need. What they don't have is some of the interpersonal skills, the connections, and the consistency. My second bench kids are likely to show up to an interview with a death metal t-shirt on. Or they might have the best looking shirt they can muster, but be sporting a three day man-child "moustache" or enough eye makeup to shock a clown.  They might not know not to talk back to a supervisor. In their world, you better be able to dish back out what you just got verbally served.  They are used to the rhythm of walking out rather than solving problems. Often they don't even get an interview with a local job because they are pegged the moment they walk through the door.  They also often don't know how to maintain consistency. Nothing in their life has been. They struggle with transportation. They struggle with their phone being on and then off because of finances. How do you communicate consistently with a supervisor when your phone is always down. These are just a few of the issues.

The one experience that I saw that seemed to bring them together (though I am not naive about the gulf between the classes) was our summer work service camps.  My sense was that a common purpose that was for a higher good and that put them on a relatively level playing field seemed to help them converse and interact. At least they could talk about what they had to accomplish together. They don't even get to do that at school anymore! Most of them are on completely separate academic tracks! They need, for different reasons, coaching on professionalism, conflict management, personal goal setting, discovering what they actually enjoy and are good at, and managing their money.  All of this comes up in connection with the work place.  And this is where my faith comes in with gusto.

In my mind, there is no more important ministry that we are engaged in than the ministry of reconciliation. We are invited to do this healing work around issues of economics, race, gender, and social relationships. The very identity of the church community is centered around the story of a God who wanted nothing more than to draw humanity back to himself. One of my great goals in this ministry is simply to help kids see themselves as inextricably connected to one another. I want them to sense that they need to learn from each other. My high end and low end kids have so much to offer each other! One groups is tough and adaptable. They don't get upset when things don't work out...it's the norm. The other group assumes as a birthright that they can accomplish what they set out to do. That the world is theirs to move and dream and achieve in. I need my low end kids to imbibe a little of that hope filled Kool-Aid of possibility. Each of these groups has the chance to redeem part of the image of God in the other. They have a chance to expose and heal certain gaps of humanity in the perspective of the other. Maybe work can bring them together for long enough for those lessons to be learned.

My sense is simply that work MIGHT be an important vehicle to bridge our growing class gap.  The standard model of youth group won't do it and we have too many programs in our communities that are geared toward only one socioeconomic class of student. Our kids are stratified in terms of neighborhoods, academics, and sports. What if we could bring them together through social entrepreneurships that do business and serve the good of our communities? My sense is that there are a multitude of life giving gospel conversations in those interactions around justice, money, politics, and privilege that would spring up.

Am I on crazy pills?

Rejection, Conflict, Social Entrepreneurship and You....

Matthew Overton

One of the main things that I am learning as I engage social entrepreneurship is how to deal with rejection on a regular basis.  For the last 10 years in particular I have worked in an institution ( the church) that is relatively static.  Most churches, at least the ones I have worked in, are fairly stable affairs.  There might be staff conflict or a budget crisis every so often, but generally WHAT the church does stays pretty stable.  Don't get me wrong, if you have a domineering head of staff who shoots down all your ideas, you can certainly experience rejection in the church.  Most frequently I have experienced it through the pain of folks that I care about within the life of a church choosing to go elsewhere. And of course there are many ministers/pastors that have subtly and not so subtly simply been asked to move on.  But, rejections come much more frequently, I think, doing entrepreneurial work.

As I have been building my lawn business I have learned to thicken my skin a bit.    Here are some ways that comes up.

1. Dealing with Conflict-You often have to have uncomfortable conversations with your customers.  This can be really tricky when you customer also attends your church.  As I have thought about the church and social entrepreneurship I have realized that for most ministers/youth workers to engage this way of doing ministry will require them to be pretty adept at resolving conflict.  Sometimes this can be hard. Especially if your congregant isn't good with conflict.

2.  Dealing with Rejection- As pastor, my call is at least in part, to ALL the sheep. You are supposed to remain at peace with people. If someone leaves your church it feels like a big loss.  In business it happens every day.  Sometimes people are picky. Sometimes you make mistakes that they just won't put up with. Sometimes the customer thinks they can get a great deal elsewhere. Sometimes they are sure they know what they are talking about and are sure you don't.  You really don't have that much control.  I have had to learn to just accept the rejections as they come.

3.  What Am I Worth?- One of the new features of rejection that I am learning in the marketplace is that not all rejection is bad. In fact, some of it is quite good!  I have had to learn the lesson that I need to set a price point that causes people to reject me. If I set my prices too low, I can't make my program for teenagers run.  So, I have to be prepared to charge what I think is right even if it is beyond what some people can pay. Again this is difficult if you are working with some of your church members. It's hard because they want to support your program, but they have NO CLUE about what you need to cover the basic costs of your business. The principle is pretty simple. If you are winning every bid that you put out there, you are probably bidding too low.

4. "It's Just Business"- The other part you have to get used to is that some folks just won't get the vision of what you are doing.  Sometimes it will be people in the church. My church has been great about this whole program! But, I think it might be a hard fight in other places.  I have often found that I have to tell customers that just because we are a landscaping company that works with teens and young adults doesn't mean they are going to get a basement deal.  If I played that game we would be broke and it would be a lose lose.  I can guarantee that the customer would expect great work even at a low price and when they didn't get it, they probably would just never call again. We try to do excellent work at a fair price. But, at the end of the day I have had to learn that for many customers, regardless of the nobility of our mission, this is "just business".

5.  Avoidance- I have learned in ministry that most people don't like conflict and that some will do anything to avoid conflict.  I have learned (and am learning) to deal with it head on.  Business/social entrepreneurship runs at a pace where avoidance simply will not work. If someone is frustrated or dissatisfied, you have to make the phone call...NOW!  If you don't your business and your reputation will suffer very quickly. The axiom in business is that the best time to take advantage of an opportunity is yesterday or now. I have begun to see conflict as an opportunity.

6. It's Not Me, It's You- One of my friends in ministry told me early in my career that as a pastor you have to remember that 80% of what people bring to you as your problem (or the church's problem) is really just their problem or hang up getting projected onto you or the institution.  This has been a hugely helpful principle in the church and beyond. It allows you to not take things personally and not to become a victim to unreasonable expectations by others.

The main thing that I am learning is just to silence that pastor voice inside me that says rejection is bad or that I messed something up. It is just part of engaging ministry in the realm of business. As my Dad would say, "It just goes with the territory."

True Grit: Why Jobs Based Youth Ministry Matters

Matthew Overton

This morning I read an article by Angela Duckworth (here). She is a psychologist who has done some research on why millennials struggle in the work place.  I have read bits and pieces of her work before and for full disclosure I have not read her full book.  Essentially Duckworth finds that students who have more "grit" seem to go much further in life than those who do not. They accomplish more of what they set out to.  Her research seems to indicate that the older a person gets the more grit they acquire. What it doesn't seem to be able to confirm or deny is whether millennials are any less gritty than their forebearers were at the same age...at least on the grit scale she developed. There are other studies she alludes to that seem to say that millennials aren't any less gritty though she can't test it on her scale.  Her main point is that they lack grit because they simply have not had enough life experience to develop passion and perseverance.

I agree with Duckworth in a couple of different areas.  One, I agree that none of this is the "fault" of millennials.  I get really sick of people defining the struggles that some millennials face in moralistic terms. Whatever millennials are and are not was never in their control when the shaping of their personalities happened.  If boomers want to blame millennials for anything they probably need to look squarely in the mirror.  Teens and young adults, whether millennials or gen Z, are simply the reflection of the adult world around them.  Second, I also agree that age does in fact increase our grittieness. This makes sense and her research backs it up. But, I think her study misses some other key research.  Namely that it isn't just a lack of gritty experiences that causes millennials to crumple.  It's aslo what they have been forced to focus on. Achievement.

In January 2010 there was a small article in Psychology Today looking at why it is that anxiety and depression rates have increased so significantly. It's end conclusion is that millennials and kids today don't get to play freely enough as children.  I think this is very true.  But llater in that article it describes a pivotal dynamic in that many students have been led to focus on externalities. They have been taught and have digested the narrative that the primary goal of their life is to find success.  The problem is that in order to be successful, you have to control things external to yourself.  You might have to achieve at school, work, or sports, etc.  The reality is that those external spheres only give us so much control. Luck/Chance is a major factor in how you do in those venues, though we are loathe to admit this as bootstrapping Americans. We like to think that we achieved everything on our own merit. This is why we struggle with understanding things like systemic racism, economic inequality, and unmerited grace.  Sometimes things just don't work out and it isn't always our fault. Sometimes things do work out and it wasn't all because of us.  Read the Psamls. People don't always get what they deserve. You can't control it. And that is scary.

Since we have so little control over the external it increases our anxiety when things go wrong. Setbacks are more depressing.  The more we try to achieve externally, the more we sense our lack of real control and our anxiety and depression go up.  The argument based on the research is that previous generations had more of a sense that their primary task in life was to shape (at least in part) their inner self.  The task of young adult was to become a well rounded human being. When my students hear "well rounded" they think about their menu of external achievements rather than about who they are as a person.  The difficulty is that we have a lot more control over this internal world than we do over the external one. We have much more power and say over who we are as human beings than what we do as human doings.  Therefore, we have less anxiety when we perceive that our main task in life is to figure out, "Who do I want to be as a human being?" rather than, "What do I want to achieve as a human being?"  I think we have pushed millennials to focus too much on their external world rather than their internal one.

So, as I look at Duckworth and the research by Twenge in the Psychology Today article, I tend to think that teens and young adults need two things. First, they need to work on developing their whole person.  In my case this has come primarily through my Christian faith life and certain practices of self awareness (think: Meyers Briggs and ancient prayer practices). Second, they need risky real world experiences that help them to develop grit. All of this relates exactly to the program that we have created in my local community and church.

Our jobs based program is designed to help provide experiences that involve accountability and an openness to failure. We believe that letting our students fail at things is a good thing.  We want to teach our students problem solving and a willingness to risk.  I think one of the key grit producing experiences that many of our millennials regularly miss out on is a job.  A teen job is just the sort of place where we learn the kinds of lessons that seem to be lacking for SOME millennials. Let me recount some of my experiences on the jobs I had in elementary school, high school, and college.

- While babysitting I experienced the rage of a less than sober Dad who came home from the USC vs. Notre Dame football game early. He chewed me out and fired me because the house wasn't as clean as he had hoped. Mostly he was mad his team lost. His wife later called and apologized. (Age 12)

- I learned about risk when my brother was driving too recklessly in our van while delivering newspapers and hit a bicyclist. It was partially the biker's fault and he was okay, but I learned about the power one had in a vehicle. (Age 10)

- I had doors slammed in my face by customers who didn't want to pay their newspaper subscription fees. (Age 10)

- I had to quit a warehouse job as a college student that I desperately needed because I couldn't load boxes on a conveyor belt fast enough. I just couldn't read the serial numbers quickly. I am bad with numbers. I couldn't believe I couldn't do it. I knew they would probably fire me and so I had to quit. The place was filled with odd ducks and cast offs who could do the work and I couldn't! I was smart!? (Age 20)

- I was chewed out by an L.A. county judge because I had not set up her classroom properly at our church. She later came back and apologized in one of the most genuine ways I have ever seen. She asked my forgiveness. It was a powerfully good lesson in Christian humility. (Age 15)

-I listened to Ramon the groundskeeper at my local tennis club tell me in Spanish about his descent into alcoholism after his son was shot in the face during a drive by shooting. After the loss of their son, his wife slipped into a massive depression and he drank a six pack before bed every night for 4 years just so that he could sleep. He later came to faith and he and his wife found hope again. I had to deal with anger as I watched people from my community treat him like dirt around our tennis club. Meanwhile tennis pros that supervised my sister and I were acting like children and ruining marriages for sport. (Age 19)

-I had to settle an open dispute between adults twice my age after they were yelling and shouting in front of a group of teens on a mission trip. I had to call out their behavior as childish and unnaceptable. It was one of the scariest moments of my life trying to be firm with an older adult. One of them had been a helicopter machine gunner in Vietnam. He later apologized for his behavior. (Age 20)

These probably represent about 1/10th of the experiences that I learned on the job.  These moments, and a hundred others, are crystal clear for me.  I cannot begin to account for how powerful it was for me to learn so many lessons.  What made it so doubly impactful was to combine those lessons with the stories of faith that I heard each Sunday about hope, injustice, suffering, joy, etc.  The medium of my Christian faith provided a kind of narrative for reflection that helped give meaning to the lived work experience.  Faith was the central cord that knit the tapestry of work experiences together.  Faith helped me answer the internal questions and the work experiences helped me to ask and answer the external questions of what I wanted to do. They also helped my answer the internal questions of who I did and DID NOT want to be as a human being.

Many of our students do not have jobs anymore and they miss out on the chance to observe adults.  We talk often in our churches about the importance of allowing students and adults to co-mingle inter-generationally. Too often we relegate our teens to silos where they are surrounded only by those their own age.  Many of us in the church have started to try and figure out how to provide inter-generational interactions to combat this siloing effect in our culture.  However, I have come to believe that allowing our teens experiences with excellent adult mentors isn't all that they need! They need negative examples too!  

Work is an important medium because teens need to observe some of the adult train wrecks that inhabit their world too! In fact how will they know how to savor and internalize the ways and habits of healthy adults if they haven't had the chance to juxtapose those good example with unhealthy ones?! One of the reasons that I came to appreciate my best mentors in life was because I also knew a host of not so great adults.  I think this is critically important.  My own jobs based ministry program is trying to emphasize mentoring. But, what we often miss is that our students don't just need GOOD examples of adults to observe.  They need terrible examples as well.  Our kids need a spectrum of adult observation that extends beyond parent, teachers, coaches, and pastors. I am not going to go find terrible adults for my program, but I hope my students go get jobs that expose them to lots of different sorts of people.  Too much of teen mentoring is steeped in adult fear. We want to keep our kids safe so we only allow them into spaces with adults who have it together (or appear to).  We need to risk allowing them the freedom to see more examples.

And this is where we can link back to the Psychology Today article.  The main argument of the author Peter Gray is that lack of play as children is a key factor in the spiking rates of anxiety and depression in young adults. Well, what makes free play so healthy is that it allows things like risk, autonomy, and problem solving. In other words it gives a childlike version of adult work! Work provides all of these things.  It may sound weird, but play is the work of children and work is the play of adults! Free play is actually practice for adulthood in many ways.

So, in the end, students do need more experiences to build grit.  I happen to believe that they can get those through work. But, they are not just lacking in gritty experiences. We need to combine grit producing experiences with processes that help them engage in internal self development and reflection. That development (and not just grittyness) will help them not to buckle as they enter adulthood.  I continue to believe that combining faith and jobs is a powerful way to go about shaping our students.  It is a superb medium for development of life and faith. I wonder if others of you experienced something similar in your life. If you did, I would love to hear about it.

The Princeton Youth Forum and G.K. Chesterton

Matthew Overton

This past week I headed back to Princeton, New Jersey for the Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry.  Mostly I went because the forums are always a good thing to be a part of, but this year I was also invited to come and share about my experiences with social entrepreneurship and the church.  The forums definitely had a flavor of trying new things in ministry.  This was great because there are so many conferences that specialize in techniques that they often fall short of helping folks innovate and adapt to the "new" realities that seem to have planted themselves like a dagger in the heart of American youth ministry as we have known it.  We need more spaces where people can think about innovation and risky experiments!

One of the quotes that has inspired me as I have been working on my Mowtown/Columbia Teen Enterprises project is something that G.K. Chesterton wrote.  He said, "Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly."  What Chesterton meant was that many experiments and failures precede the final product in any endeavor.  The point is not to shoot for the final product from the get go.  The goal is to set a destination that is worthwhile or that serves the good and then fail repeztedly until you get there. Do some poor versions of what you are trying to do first. They aren't failures. They are first steps.  If you don't believe me go back and read this post about my first day out mowing. Disaster.  But the key to good failure is first finding the worthwhile destination you want to get to. This is where the forums needed to emphasize just a bit more that missional entrepreneurship needs to take its time.

I plan to write more on this later, but coming up with a missional innovation is a lot like doing quality mission work or community development.  You can't just think of an idea that YOU think people really need and you certainly shouldn't be thinking of an idea that you think is going to make you lots of money.  I have no problem with profit, but it has to be built on foundational thinking, prayer, and reflection on how to bless the world.  A good missionary moves into a locale and the first thing they do is listen and watch.  Only over time might a missionary or a community developer begin to even have an inkling about what their particular vocation might be in that community.  The community developer, if they are worth their salt, doesn't just swoop into a neighborhood in an urban area and fire up their latest redemptive project. Generally they inhabit (or incarnate) a neighborhood for quite some time.  So, while I want people to go out and start doing things poorly, my hope is that they don't just start doing random things.  My hope is that we can spend a ton of time teaching people how to discern their call to an intentional purpose in a place that they have been rooted in for a while.  I think one of the challenges of social entrepreneurship and youth ministry is that to be done well, it will need to confront the horrific attrition rates of youth ministers.  If you can't stay in a church long enough to actually learn about a context, then the kind of innovations you might experiment with are likely to be pretty destructive.

So, I encourage you to risk and fail repeatedly. Set yourself up for some pretty poor experiments. And fail quickly. Don't wait until all your ducks are in a row or until you know it will work. The church and God's Kingdom need your failures desperately so that we might adapt to the changes happening all around us. However, make sure the course trajectory you set is guided properly first.  Is what you are doing what the community needs? Have you listened well to the other or are they just an object of your mission?  That part might take some time. But anything that is worthwhile does. Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, but we have to take the time to discern whether it is worth doing, first.  Once you suspect your course is true, the sting of failure doesn't hurt so bad anyway.