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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: jobs based youth ministry

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.


Why Social Entrepreneurship #1- Socioeconomic Reconciliation

Matthew Overton


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 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'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?

"Under the Table": A Conversation on the Job

Matthew Overton

One of the reasons (there were a ton of reasons) that I began this project of seeing if it was possible to do youth ministry through the medium of work/teen jobs was that I had a sense remodeling my own house that the conversations I was getting in were better than those I had on Sunday nights at youth group.  Regular youth group still has a very important place in my book as it ministers to other needs, but it was just easier to get into more meaty conversations about life while doing work.  Further, I had also found while paying students to work on my house that it was very easy to link those conversations to issues of faith and in doing so, faith becomes more real and therefore less abstract.  I encountered this again recently while working a job with one of my Mowtown students. If you are new to this blog or this conversation Mowtown is the particular small business that I have started to put teens to work and do ministry at the same time. Essentially I created my own social entrepreneurship or missional entrepreneurship (if you want to use churchy language) as a means to do more impactful ministry. 

I have also been asked many times along the way, "Isn't providing jobs for teenagers just its own form of therapeutic deism? How are you going to link Christian faith with this? This is a valid question and one that I spend a lot of time thinking about.  The last thing I want to do is create another ministry that simply makes money for its own sake or simply lives off of the church, but rather one that really makes little significant Kingdom impact in people's actual lives.  For those with that question, here is one bread crumb vignette from along the path of "A Youth Ministry that Works".

This summer, one of my students was forced by the necessity of family need to take a construction job under the table. This particular students was engaged in our church's volunteer summer internship, but had to pull out because of this job need.  Well, as we were headed out to our job site, we started to discuss the problems with being hired by someone "under the table." I explained to "Paul" that for every hour I hire him above board, I have to pay the government additional funds that help cover part of his social security, disability, unemployment, etc.  So, for every hour that he works under the table he is robbed of part of his retirement and he is robbed of recourse if he gets injured or is out of a job.  Furthermore, he was being baldly robbed since he was being paid significantly below our state's minimum wage.  All of this was news to him, but the connection points were huge!

For starters, his mother works multiple jobs under the table.  We had a long discussion about social security and his mom when she "retires".  He had NO CLUE as to how social security worked. I think this was actually a really scary conversation for him when he started to think about what it meant for his mom's present and future.  This lead us into a discussion about the political debate surrounding immigration which matters to him as a hispanic latino student. We even discussed a bit of economics. We talked about how I am at a competitive disadvantage as a business owner in terms of making a profit because of folks that hire under the table. They make more money off of his work than I do. In other words, both he and I are being robbed by the practice.  And what all of this finally lead to was a discussion about justice and God.  We talked about God's desire to set things in the world right and we discussed how we are a part of that. We talked about integrity in life and why doing things legally and above board are signs of loving our neighbor.

The revelation in this midst of all this conversation is simply that I was equipping a kid to see the world through more of a gospel lens in the most natural way possible. Most of my discussions about justice with my teenagers tend to be abstract. We end up talking about issues that seem more dramatic because they happen in the 3rd world or on a mission trip outside of our small city or someplace that seems like "over there." If we struggle with dichotomies between our Sunday life and our weekly job lives (and we surely do), we certainly also struggle with false dichotomies between mission work and justice issues in our back yard and seeming like things that happen "over there".  Conveniently this dichotomy allows our communities of faith to avoid dealing with our own first world poverty and the messiness of the personal politics involved. That kind of avoidance is of course its own justice issue. So much of what our churches need to talk about in order to convince teenagers and young adults that faith actually matters to real life are just these sorts of issues of justice and injustice.  There is almost an entire economy of issues that operate, in their own way, as "under the table" issues in our churches. They never really are engaged and this leaves our people with the sense that faith just doesn't matter out in the real world.  We don't know how to engage these issues from behind the pulpit as that feels like a kind of power play. Many ministers feel like preaching too heavy handedly about justice to their congregation limits dialogue and further bifurcates our congregations along political lines. I agree with this to an extent. But, to not find a medium for engaging these issues at all isn't acceptable. Here is the thing though, the inbreaking of the Kingdom won't be slowed. It will happen with us or without us. The church can engage a justice filled life or be left wondering where God went? He may in fact already be absent from some of the vacuous old time sanctuaries and suburban worship centers we already occupy.

This conversation was also the most real and natural discussion about integrity I have probably ever had with a student. Most of the discussions I heard about integrity in churches (mostly during my more evangelical college years) were cheapened by the fact that they tended to be had around moralistic issues like telling lies and human sexuality etc. etc. etc. You know the kind of thing I mean, "If you don't have integrity in the small stuff...." This is all well and good, but it only tends to appeal to the most structured personalities who by sheer function of their own personal anxiety levels and desire for control tend to do EVERYTHING by the book already. For the rest of us, life is a bit messier. When you can talk with a student about how a complete lack of integrity grinds up other human beings over time....that has power. That actually points to the import that a life of faith actually has.

I am learning a lot through this process of doing business as mission about my own blindness to certain issues. I am engaging students I never would have engaged before and our ministry probably would not have been able to sustain relationships with before. I am seeing the connection between my own faith and issues that I was aware of, but really had no personal connection to or visceral experience with in any previous phase of life.  This process has been a ton of work and stress, but so far it has been good gospel work.  I continue to see its usefulness to those it serves and to my own walk along the Jesus Way.

Failure, False Facades, and Youth Ministry Innovations....

Matthew Overton

I was reading an article in the Atlantic the other day (you can read it here). It was written by a Mom who is struggling watching her child lose her love of learning.  The diagnosis is that the loss of love for learning that she was witnessing was essentially a byproduct of that child's loss of the willingness to fail and risk. The teen sensed the need to perform, achieve, and succeed to meet up with her parents' desires/fears.  I have argued that this plagues many of the students that I work with.  Many of them walk around with this notion that they "are" this or that. They "are" an artist or they "are" an A student.  These identities are not really learned as much as they are bequeathed by their parents in an effort to be encouraging.  I find myself doing this all the time with students and my own children. Ultimately these identities become this millstone around their necks.  They have to maintain this image of themselves that they have been told over and over, at all costs.

It's a bit like going to the studio sets at Universal Studios.  If you have ever been there you will know what I mean. Universal has this wonderful way of building these fake neighborhoods and cityscapes that look remarkably real. It's crazy! Especially when you are a child! What is so weird about it is how authentic it all looks. Check out the picture below of a New York City street.

The problem that is so creepy is that a closer glance quickly reveals how messed up it all really is. Things have kind of an awkward and claustrophobic feel to them. It's really real...but it isn't.  All you end up with, factually, is an empty lifeless neighborhood of facades. And this is what some of our students (particularly in the higher achieving groups) sense about their world. They know that they might NOT actually be a great artist or awesome scholar. So, they become terrified of taking any risks in order that those facades can won't come crumbling down. They want to make sure that they achieve and don't disappoint their parents.

So, as we think about innovation in youth ministry we need to keep this trend in mind. A number of people and places are talking about making room for doubt in youth ministry.  But, one of the main doubts that teenagers have is not just about who God is, or if God is, but about who THEY are and who THEY are becoming.  We need to create spaces for self-doubt and the not-yet formed teenager.  We need to make sure that we have corners of our ministry that allow students to fail.  The main problem there of course is that will mean developing ministries that allow students to engage in projects in a hands on sort of way.  They will need to be able to have ownership over things. Maybe worship, music, student leadership, or some kind of missional endeavor.  We have to allow them the joy of attempting and falling short.  The joy of "being in the arena" amidst all the grit, terror, and struggle.

Part of the reason that I think a jobs based youth ministry might work and why I think social/missional entrepreneurship is so critical to the North American Church is that it opens up just these sorts of horizons to us. Social Entrepreneurship allows for small scale missional endeavors of all kinds to take place in our world! They are just the sorts of endeavors that require hands on work!  Jobs allow teens to fail in all sorts of small and correctable ways.  They need have to learn to problem solve and risk. They have a chance to observe lots of different kinds of adults, and that is critical to them deciding who they want to become and don't want to become.  Jobs based Youth Ministry is going to need to have adult feedback loops who also help mentor them and help them process their mistakes rather than avoiding them. 

I continue to believe we need new experiments (lots!) in the area of ministering to teenagers. Whatever those experiments are, they need to allow students to problem solve and fail. My hope is that as social entrepreneurship becomes a necessity in order for the American church to maintain its Kingdom work in the world, that youth ministry will begin to be populated with more and more niche ministries that value just these sorts of virtues.

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 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.

Bootstrapping, Cheat Codes, and Missional Entrepreneurship

Matthew Overton


We are at this tricky spot as a venture where we don't quite have enough hours/funds to pay a full time employee, but we almost need one in order to keep up with business and to continue to help business expand.  I have been running this landscaping company while working a full time job with a high burnout rate for the last year.  It hasn't been easy.

So a few weeks ago I phoned and met with a couple of friends to talk about how we might fund this project further.  I had to figure out whether I needed for profit investment or non profit grant funding and how to get it.  It was urgent because I have a sense that if I have to work the current model for another 2 years let's say, I might just implode.  It is high energy. The basic answer I got back from my friends was that I need to work my model until it runs smoothly and shines.  Whether for profit or non profit, no one really wants to fund an experimental venture.  They want to come in when there is significant proof of viability.  They told me that I would have to bootstrap until my model sang.

This was a hard word to receive in some ways. Bootstrapping your venture when you are 24 is one thing. Doing it when you are 36, have two kids, and are already working a job that is 60 hours/week is another.  Most mornings I am up at about 4:15 working on writing or the business. I often finish the day with a few emails or bids for jobs to customers.  If I could eat Ramen and work on this stuff in an apartment 12 years ago it would have been a bit easier I think.  But, in a lot of ways the answer I received about funding was something I already knew.  There are no shortcuts in starting a good business.

When I was 11 my good friend J.P. got a new device for his Nintendo called the Game Genie. It was this crazy thing that allowed you to plug in cheat codes to any game that you had. You could add lives, weapons, etc. etc. etc. until Kingdom come.  It described itself as a "Video Game Enhancer". It was anything but.  What I quickly learned was that short cutting the game did two things.  First, I tired of all the games quickly. Since there was no challenge they made the video games boring in a hurry. You never had to earn anything through game play. Second, the more I cheated the worse I became at the games. I loved playing sports games on my Nintendo, but what I discovered was that after using the Game Genie I was worse at those games. My friends would beat me when we played once I had used the Genie. I had gotten sloppy and learned bad habits because I had been using shortcuts.  This lesson is true for any startup social entrepreneurship.

If I had started with a 100K grant instead of 15K of my own money, this whole venture would have been hopeless. Part of the success of what I am doing IS the fact that I have had to learn it all myself. I had to learn to use the tools, how to walk into a local business and sell my idea, learn how to fix my equipment, learn how to make jobs more efficient, learn what the life skills trainings look like and so on. And most importantly, I have had to learn exactly what the work is that my employees are doing. If I hadn't done all those reeking filthy runs to the dump with wet leaves and rotten grass myself how would I know what to pay my crews?  I also wouldn't have had the relational time with our first 5-6 students to feel out what we need to be training them on in terms of life and faith.  What are their strength points that need to be honed further? What are the weak points that need to be addressed?  The point is that every little bit of learning as you bootstrap is exactly what you need. I think the best sorts of things in life are built one bloody step at a time.  It is the recipe for all things good.

My hope is that we will either get enough business that I can bring someone on full time or that we can get some small funding in the near future.  Yet, as much as I want to move onto that second phase where I can hand chunks of this business off, I also can see why understanding my operation and working my operation without any cheat codes or short cuts really matters. I am prayerfully gauging whether it might just be critical for me to bootstrap this thing for a bit longer. For now, I had better get outside and pray while I am swapping the wheels on my Honda lawn mower. The drive system isn't engaging and I have no idea why. Did I mention that I am not REALLY mechanical?


Blessings on your innovations, risks, and adventures! May you follow the Kingdom as it unfolds before you!

Efficiency and Grace....A War of the Worlds

Matthew Overton

Clara, learning about work.

Clara, learning about work.

This past weekend I was out working on a work site with one of our high school students.  I have been working with this student on their pacing on the job and helping them think through how to make the economics of what we are doing work well enough so that we can be profitable.  Our two main goals are to do excellent job and turn a profit.  In landscaping terms this means that you not only have to work at a fast clip, but you also need to do things efficiently. You need to think several steps ahead in every action so that you are not spending a minute more on the work site than you absolutely have to. But, you can't be so efficient that the customer feels like you haven't really done a thorough job.  You balance providing excellent service that is pleasing to your customer with the need to work profitably and efficiently.  It's a hard tight rope to walk.  And it's one we have to walk in our faith lives as well.

So, when we got in the car at the end of a soaking leaf clean up and headed back, I complemented this student on how hard they worked and how I noticed that they eliminated several time consuming steps along the way.  I let them know that in the work place, one has to be both quick and efficient.  But, what I also discussed with my student is that while our work lives demand efficiency in a capital based society, we also see in our faith that Jesus seems to challenge that kind efficiency model at every turn.  Jesus recognizes that efficiency has a way of chewing up human beings 10 at a time.  While efficiency and speed may drive and economy it is also what causes us to apply one size fits all sorts of models in every corner of our world.  You know, the square peg round hole problem we have all been victimized by from time to time.  We might juxtapose that kind of efficiency based thinking with Jesus' Kingdom mathematics. He advocates that we leave the 99 in search of the 1.  Kingdom mathematics causes him to take a world changing tale of good news no further than 50 miles from it's original epicenter and gather a bunch of ragamuffins and cast-offs to comprise his squad.  It doesn't take a beautiful mind to figure out that Kingdom math simply does not work out even in the short term in a dog eat dog world.  My student offered in the midst of our conversation that if one company were to eliminate its workers with artificial intelligence, then the next company in the same industry would have to do so if it wanted to maintain competitiveness.  He was basically right.  But, the Kingdom of God would always ask us to calculate the human cost.  Not on a macro scale, but on an individual scale.  Say the size of Zacchaeus, or Bartimaeus, or the woman at the well.

So, what I tried to explain to the student is that Jesus' teachings are designed precisely to push back on the cold efficiency of our world.  They point to a Kingdom, or reality, of a different sort where there is always time for the person at the side of the road.  Where the last worker hired is blessed even more than the first. I wanted this student to understand that all of us who seek to follow the Jesus Way have to live in this tension between what is in this world (i.e.- I have to work hard, fast, and efficient to get by) and what is/what will be in this world (i.e.- A Kingdom world where time and grace are always abounding in ever more abundance).  This tension of two realities greets each follower of Christ every single day.  "Is there really more room for one more friend in my circle?  Can I really risk that dollar to help someone out?  What will this gracious but inefficient choice cost me? Or harder yet, what will it cost my children?"

But what was remarkable in this conversation was that because of doing work today with a student, I was able to talk about a spiritual concept that would have taken me all sorts of convoluted activities and mediocre object lessons to get at in other settings.  Further, I was getting covered in rain and muck just like he was.  So unlike typical church settings when I am dispensing advice for folks to live out in their own corners of life, we were discussing a problem that I was clearly neck deep in. What really drove the lesson home was that right before we left, a woman across the street was cleaning her lawn out of weeds and leaves. She had a tiny trash can, no push broom or blower, and was utterly soaked.  So, even while I had been driving home the lesson of efficiency, the student and I went over and cleaned up her piles.

The medium of work consistently provides amazing soil in which to engage just these sorts of topics.  It really is amazing stuff! I can't think of another setting in ministry where I have been able to access the core of the gospel so easily in conversation.  My hope is that the teens I work with can learn to live in such a way that they can provide for themselves in this world while also allowing themselves to be graciously interrupted by opportunities to be inefficient from time to time.  It's in those interruptions that we discover the joy of the Godward life and the in-breaking of the Kingdom.

A Year Up

Matthew Overton

A couple of years ago now I invited a friend of mine named Scott Gullick to come and speak at a retreat in Berkeley, CA. My students were down in California for their annual Work Camp doing an urban experience. We could have done it in Portland or in Seattle I suppose, but we thought it was important to get them out of their usual comfort zones.  I also happen to believe that Mark Twain was dead on when he said, "Travel is the cure for all ignorance."

Scott was asked to speak namely because I felt he was a great example of how one can combine their faith and their work/calling.  He had directed Ponderosa Lodge at Mount Hermon Christian Camps for a number of years, but I think ultimately felt like he had outgrown aspects of that setting.  Like many youth workers there comes a point when all the camp in the world can't help us shake the sense that we are killing it at doing something that simply works...okay.  He went of to Boston to get his Masters in Business with an emphasis in non-profit management.  From their he began to work for a company called "A Year Up".  A year up is a challenging program that works with urban young adults to place them in tech support for Fortune 500 companies.  You can read about them here. Essentially they want to close the opportunity gap for urban young adults.

I think Scott is a great example of what innovative youth ministry looks like and could look like.  It provides the kind of here and now salvation (rather than down the road/eternal) that the church often ignores.  It is also a rigorous program which I think is essential to youth ministry.  I happen to believe that teens/young adults crave challenge from adults who care.  The care part is essential.  There are times where I think aspects of my ministry have been much too gracious.  As a result, I think I have created environments in which some of my teenagers have been enabled to be stuck in a stage of their spirituality and daily life.

In many ways, I am actually pleased Scott is outside the boundaries of what we would usually define as "the church". In actuality I think he is doing Kingdom work every day and in that sense he is moving the true church forward.  But, my hope is that these kinds of initiatives become a significant part of the future of American Youth Ministry.  We need to stop baptizing kids only to kick them off the deck of our churches into open waters.  If we only prepare them for the next life aren't we just basically saying "go in peace, stay warm, and be well fed" (James 2:16) but doing nothing to actually help that happen?