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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: missional youth ministry

Utmost and Teen Athletics: Leveraging Impact

Matthew Overton

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This last Spring, a friend of mine for about 8 years had a unique window of opportunity open up in their life. They no longer wanted to teach at a school that they were working at due to the unhealthy leadership culture that they had experienced and needed to move on. For 20 years they had been dreaming of an alternative kind of sports league where low income students were no longer priced out of sport, where teens were taught character and ethics rather than individual aggrandizement, and where student could be engaged with healthy Christian witness and the gospel itself.

The problem at the time was that I was scheduled to go on sabbatical in just six weeks. We had a few conversations (probably too few!) and I met with my board. In just 4 weeks we raised 40K in funds (eventually 55k) and built a class-A weight and strength training facility in the back of one of our church buildings. We chose to do weights because although we wanted to work with sports teams, there was no way to build a sustainable sports model without hundreds of thousands in investment or donors. I also needed to be able to replace my friends teaching salary in a very short period of time.

We are 10 weeks into the program starting and we have 62 students participating. We have also replaced our program directors former salary in that time.

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Every time I tell this story, I get lots of questions so let me just do this in bullets.

  1. Who is your coach/how did you find this person?- Our director/head coach at Utmost Athletics is a former D-1 softball coach. He is seminary trained but decided that full time ministry was not for him…and yet that is what he is now doing just through different means. He was tired on the unhealth of D-1 sports and so he stepped away from that. He is well versed in strength training and has connections to the D-1 strength training community.

  2. How does this connect with your overall Forge program/youth ministry?- Well, both models require adult student mentorship and engage life skills coaching. Instead of working for our landscape company or another job in the community, these students pay a fee to participate in a healthy sliding scale strength program. They are allowed to get it at low cost in exchange for participation in life development.

  3. What donor/church/grant support is required to make this run?- Basically none. We needed capital to get started, but it is already self sustaining. We may need donors or grants to expand to other chapters a few years down the line, but right now the revenue that the program generates makes it self-sustaining. The unspoken beauty of this is that all students pay something.

  4. What sets this apart from other weight or fitness programs?- Several things. The first is coaching ratio. All the high schoolers have a 1-4 or 1-5 coaching ratio which is much better than they would get in a normal high school gym. The program is also different because of its atmosphere. It is HIGHLY encouraging and functions as a team. People greet one another (required), they ask a life question, they cheer each other on, and develop community over occasional meals. It also is the opposite of other weight programs in the sense that it’s emphasis is on slow and healthy development of strength rather than machismo. While there are “max days” and lots of cheering, the atmosphere is not about “more, more, more”. You might consider it the opposite of the mental image cross fit. Technique is HEAVILY emphasized. Last, they talk alot about character development. Each session coaches more than the body. It is designed to coach the heart and soul as well.

  5. Who are the students?- They are from all kinds of backgrounds. We wanted a program with mixed socio economics because at the Forge (the umbrella organization) we feel that students need to cross pollinate more frequently across economic zones. We also know that to have programs that are sustainable you need programs that tap into the broad spectrum of economics. We have a significant number of college age young adults as well as high school students. We also have a small but growing crop of middle schoolers who focus on other exercises.

  6. What is your role in this program?- My role is to provide theological reflection on the program and development support. The Forge takes care of all grant writing tasks, donor communication, strategic planning, and book keeping. This way, our program director is free to focus on what he is good at and we have massively increased the startup efficiencies of a new ministry.

  7. Is it all honey and gravy or have their been challenges?- There are massive challenges! The main one has been alignment. Although the program director and I knew each other fairly well, we did not have a lot of time to make sure we were talking about the same things when we agreed to partner. Basic questions about the gospel and mentoring are still getting sorted out. We are having to spend loads of time in a room with others to make sure that we have programmatic alignment. We are also working through decisions about whether all weight students MUST participate in the overall program or whether a certain percentage can just be “customers” who might enter the ministry side at a later time. Second, we are struggling to figure out how to properly train the coaches as both mentors and as coaches. It’s a lot to ask given that they are in the gym 3 times a week for 1.25 hours. That is a BIG volunteer time commitment.

  8. Why Did you Do This?- Over the last year or so I have been reading a lot about the concept of leveraged impact in the social enterprise world. Stanford has been leading the way in this kind of work. Read some of their stuff here. My sense was that I could spend years growing the core ministry of the Forge, or I could leverage our way to greater impact by partnering creatively with other like minded non-profits. Utmost Athletics was one of those non-profits. We made the leap this fall from about 25 students to 75 students. While I am not remotely all about numbers I do want to leverage greater ministry impact and increase the efficient startup of redemptive enterprises. I also did this because I was acutely aware of the need/potential of youth sports. It is both a huge outreach area as well as a massive economic engine. It’s also pretty much an idol. Don’t believe me? Read this.

Graduation Day...Awesome!

Matthew Overton

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Every year as I do ministry there are certain days that I look forward to and certain days that are stressful, but well worth every ounce of effort. Last Sunday was a bit of both. The student job skills/life skills ministry that I created had it's annual meal and certification. It's a day when our mentors and students (Blacksmiths and Apprentices as we call them) come together to feast, share, and celebrate all the fruit that we have seen in our program. We started with 23 students and finished with 20.  It was an amazing process as usual. Let me share a few of the highlights.

-One student shared that their mentor, who has been one of our best youth leaders at our church, is an amazing human being. They shared openly that they have never had healthy adults in their lives and that they were really grateful for their mentor. This student will be coming on our youth service trip at our church this year for the first time.

-Another shared that their mentor seemed like a mirror 20 years into the future and that they were grateful that they could learn from their mistakes in career and money.

-A student with difficulty in social interaction shared that they have done a lot of technology programs before, but that in our drone program they realized that they have never treated their instructors as people. They have treated them as things that were there to give them something.  I was floored.

-An adult shared how they blew it this year. They admitted that when they started as a Blacksmith in our program they treated like a program rather than an opportunity for human relationship. They think they drove their student off. I don't agree, but it was amazing to see a grown adult in our world own a mistake for a change in front of teenagers.

-A student, who came into our program making sure we knew they were an atheist, was deeply thankful that their mentor challenged them to look at their HIGHLY materialistic goals and ask the question, "Why?" over and over again. They are starting to see that self-actualization and achievement that does not take one's neighbor into account can be pretty empty.

-One student shared that they have never realized that they could accomplish goals before. She described her mentor/blacksmith as someone who is an excellent listener. She talked about engaging her first drama performance at school because of their relationship and how she has taken the first step to cosmetology school. She has discovered that she has agency. A year ago she was massively depressed.

-Another student spoke out loud. This would have been impossible two years ago. They are reading the gospels for the first time.

-One student, who used to be very shy, spoke with great confidence and relayed how they have learned to navigate conflict for the first time and that they are a respected member of their staff at a local fast food chain. They are about to join the Army. It was a hard decision, but we made sure not to get in the way of that choice and cheered for them as we sat around the table.

-Many adults shared as well. They discovered things about teens and their experience that they hadn't known. They talked about the progress they made on their own personal goals because they were accountable to the students as well. Some of them talked about the deep respect they have for what some of their students carry day in and day out. Some talked about realizing that the context that they grew up in was vastly different than that of their students. I have felt all along that this ministry was just as much about the adults as the teens involved.

All I can say is that I felt that we were sitting around a Passover table despite the Hawaiian pizza and video game sounds coming from the mini arcade in the next room. What I saw and heard was the sound of glory. Not our glory, but God's glory. Irenaeus once said, "The glory of God is a human being fully alive." I saw the glory of people coming alive. I think Jesus was delighted with what was happening in that room on Sunday.  It has been worth every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears. It has been worth every bit of risk.

Let's create some new ways of doing youth ministry...and ministry in general.

How do I Fund My Philanthropic/Social Enterprise Idea?

Matthew Overton

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Fairly frequently these days, people from different places will reach out to me as they are trying to launch their local social enterprise or missional idea. Some people want to make profit as a for profit. Some people are simply launching a charity. Others want to generate net profit, but run as a non profit simply by directing their profits back into the mission of the overall organization. What many of them struggle with is trying to raise the initial funds to get started.

When I began my landscaping company and my non profit I had no idea where the money would come from. I didn't even know how much money I would need. What I did know was that our mission was worth doing and that I was called to do this work. I have learned a lot in the last few years on how to get up and running. Over the past 3 years I have raised about 125k in funding for my organization and I have done that while working a full time job and doing my enterprise on the side.Here is how you might get started.

1.) Your Personal Funds- I know you don't have any, but bear with me. When I started my own enterprise I had to put up about 5k of my own funds. Later I invested much more than that. Your funds matter because unless you are willing to risk for this enterprise you are starting you may not have an idea that is worth pursuing in earnest. Second, when you risk, others believe that their risk might be worth while. You cannot expect others to sacrifice what they have earned if you are not willing to do so yourself. Watch it here though! You do not want to be the only one risking for your idea and if you have means you do not want to fund your idea to the point that it becomes to reliant upon you or your funding stream. That kind of dependency can lead your organization and mission to fold if you step out of the frame or if your personal funding picture should change in some significant way.

2.) Friend Funds- No matter what you do, you are probably going to need to raise funds from those around you. They might be friends or they might be folks that come out of the woodwork as they hear about your ideas. They might also be folks on your board or team that you have assembled. I have been struck at how often folks have emerged with dollars when they have heard about what we are doing. I have also had to learn to make a pitch and ask. This has been a difficult task for me as I don't love talking about money and cannot stand asking for it, but if the mission is good, I will do what I have to in order to forward it. Again, this is a great test for the quality of your idea. If folks aren't interested in funding it then it might not have what it takes to move forward.

3. Grants- You will definitely have to mine local foundation and granting agencies. Just do some Google research and talk, talk, talk to folks about what you are up to. There are loads of sources of funding that your network of folks knows about that you don't. For profits can sometimes get loans from foundations or important advice from them about funding. They can also connect you with people who know the industry that you are about to launch into. Don't underestimate the value of such advice and connection points!!!! Just don't expect those foundations to perpetually fund your dream. They often want to see if you have a plan and have what it takes to hang around for a few years on your own. Their funding will only last a couple of years, so they want to know that you can sustain yourself without their perpetual help.

4. Awards-  Along the way I have won three awards for our work with Mowtown and the Forge. Periodically you just come across these things. Some of the awards are small (1-3k), but some might be larger (5-20k). I also won these awards as a for profit.  I had to pay taxes on those awards, but it was still very much worth it.  They are a nice boost to your bottom line and another sign that you might be headed in the right direction.

5. Denominational SourcesI work in the church world, so I have some connections through institutional networks. I found funding though my local region as well as through a national source that is seeking to launch new ministries around the nation. Sometimes these gifts will require various forms of reporting and accountability that might seem bureaucratic, but there is no source of revenue that has no accountability or strings attached to it.

6. Private Investment- Admittedly, this is the area that I know the least about. My enterprise was built with my own money and a few awards. I was able to do this because my particular industry (lawn care and landscaping) has a fairly low barrier to entry. But, if your idea is larger or more expensive to get off the ground you might need to take out a loan or seek out investors who are going to want return on their cash investment. It's possible that they may take a lower rate of return than is normal based on the fact that your project is socially engaged.

All I can say is that this is going to be a lot of work.  Don't expect anyone to make this thing happen for you. It's going to take some sweat to make this work! I mean that in terms of sweat of your brow as well as anxious sweating it out as you figure out how to fund the next turn in the road. Blessings as you dream and launch!

Jim Bridger, The Revenant, and Room to Roam

Matthew Overton

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Goodness of Equal Exchange...

Matthew Overton

One of the blessings of doing ministry through social enterprise is that an ethically performed exchange of goods and services places the "giver" and the recipient on equal footing. I received this note from a customer a few weeks ago and was elated to receive it. We had provided a high quality and prompt service. In this case the customer was overjoyed to have snow removed from their driveway after a solid snow storm and ice storm. I was able to spend several hours working with my students which was relational time well spent. We talked about life, a bit about faith, and a good amount about hard work. I get to do ministry, the customer has a service provided that also impacts their local community, the student grows and develops in faith and life. It is an equal exchange.

This way of doing things seems so much more preferable to the unequal exchanges in many of our charitable works in our community. In many of those systems, Group A has all the power, dollars, and say-so and often does something "good" that the recipient doesn't even want or necessarily need. The recipient is often further incentivized to keep their mouth shut because they don't want to appear rude to the giver and they may be able to make use of SOME part of what the giver is peddling. But, the exchange is always unequal. One party controls the whole situation. I think many of us know this is how we do charity work and it makes the giver feel wonderful, but often steals dignity from the recipient. It is unhealthy and the same unequal exchange can be seen in other areas of the church's life as well.

In our church ministries, youth and adult, we often disempower those we serve unintentionally. One group has all the cards. They are the minister, or the discipler, or something else. There is very little mutuality. The recipient is often supposed to sit and receive what is being taught.  This, not surprisingly, can create environments where people don't feel motivated to pursue their faith for themselves. They become dependent on the model or the individual providing the spiritual good and services (for lack of a better term). We can do better.

My point is that we need to find ways to even our exchanges a bit more. We need ministries and spaces where giver and recipient are on more equal footing.  Our social enterprise (The Columbia Future Forge and Mowtown Teen Lawn Care) empowers students who are involved, robs little dignity from the person buying the services, and brings adults (as mentors or crew bosses) and students together as co-workers rather than as givers and receivers. It's pretty cool.

Last, one of the best things about engaging economics and faith is that I am discovering that to provide a good or service that is high quality and prompt is a kind of service. It blesses the customer when they pull in their driveway.  That is important ministry and one that the church needs to validate more frequently. Ministry and Business need not be two seperate categories all the time.

Innovators Guest Post #8- "Go Fish" and Rev. Matt McNelly

Matthew Overton

About a year ago, I received a call from Matt McNelly who pastors at 1st Presbyterian Church in Pullman, Wa. Matt called to let me know that he had been reading about some of the ministry I was doing through my online postings here and some other articles that had come out. He was considering launching his own social enterprise based ministry and also considering going to the Hatchathon at Princeton.  I have been asking Matt to work up a post on his ministry that is built around fishing and the Rule of St. Benedict for some time. In the end I shot him some interview questions to give us a flavor of how he is doing youth work.  This is a really cool ministry and one that is both risky and innovative. Very cool!

Name: Rev. Matthew McNelly

Church: Pullman Presbyterian Church

Position at Church: Senior Pastor and Captain of the F/V Suzy Q

Number of Years at the Church: 11

Name of Social Enterprise: "Go Fish"

1. What do you call this new ministry and how did it get started?

Our new ministry here at Pullman Presbyterian Church is called “Go Fish!” The basic idea of the ministry is that we use a program sponsored by the State of Washington called the Northern Pikeminnow Sport Reward Program as a vehicle for doing youth ministry. This program, which runs from May 1 through August 31, pays anglers from $5 to $8 a fish to catch and remove approximately 10%-20% of the Pikeminnow population each summer.

The Northern Pikeminnow is a native fish of the Columbia and Snake River systems that aggressively feeds on juvenile salmon and steelhead. When the dams were installed on these rivers it created the perfect environment for the Pikeminnow populations (previously known as the Squawfish) to explode in numbers. State biologists report the Northern Pikeminnow consumes millions of salmon smolts a year, significantly reducing returning salmon populations. So essentially the youth involved in our program become piscine bounty hunters.

Go Fish! equips kids between the ages of 10-15 years old with everything necessary to participate in this fishery. Through a combination of grants and generosity from church families we were able to purchase fishing rods and reels, tackle, lifejackets, boating electronics, and most importantly; a 24ft pontoon boat we dubbed the “Suzy Q” (named after one of our supporters). Twice a week during the summer months myself and other mature Christian adult volunteers from the congregation take kids out on the “Suzy Q” for day-long fishing trips on the Snake River in search of Northern Pikeminnow. Whatever regulation size Pikeminnows the students catch they turn in to the check station and receive the monetary reward.

 

2. What made you or your church decide to do this?

My wife and I both serve on staff as pastors of our church and it became apparent that the leadership of the church needed to reduce personnel costs. Because we are located in a college town, all of our programming for the year happens when Washington State University is in session. Taking into consideration that our summers are so low-key I volunteered to move from full-time to ¾ time, only working one day a week at the church when school was out of session in the summer. With my schedule suddenly opened up and needing to earn a little extra cash I had decided to try this bounty-fishing program myself.

Then it hit me. I could take kids from the church fishing WITH me on this crazy adventure! The idea of Go Fish! Ministries took off. Instead of structured, time-limited weekly programming with our youth, we are inviting them to do faith and life out on the river in the pursuit of fish.

The “theme” verse for this endeavor comes from Matthew 4:19, “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” What if in following Jesus to fish for people we are being invited to get back in the boat and fish…for fish?

 

3. What is the overall goal of what you are doing and do you feel you are accomplishing that so far?

The goal of our program simply put is to get kids “hooked on Jesus.” We want youth captured by Christ’s love and become His disciples; and then become fishers of people themselves. We accomplish that through a multi-faceted approach. We don’t simply want to tell kids about the grace and love of Jesus, we want them to receive and experience it through relationship mature Christian adults. The fishing activity is simply a framework for the hours of conversation and incarnational witness as adults and youth do life together. As followers of Jesus how do we deal with disappointment? Success? Conflict? Adversity? If you have ever spent time fishing, you know that there are countless opportunities to navigate all these scenarios!

To help guide our communal life we actually look to the Rule of St. Benedict. There are so many parallels between living in a monastic community and being part of the crew of a boat. In both situations order is necessary for the safety and well-being of the members of the community. Particularly on a boat, safety is paramount. And like a monastic community there is a hierarchy in place to keep order and the members all on task. A boat is not a democracy; the captain is in charge. Period. The role of the Father or Mother of an intentional faith community operates in much the same way. We seek to have two adults on the boat at a time for the maximum of 5 kids per day. Throughout the day we have times of prayer and scripture reading, a simplified form of praying “The Hours.”

This summer of 2016 was a pilot season for the program. We took out kids 3 separate days and the initial results are very promising. The kids who went on our fishing trips had an overwhelming positive response. We caught a lot of fish (only 3 keeper money fish) and the kids were engaged. There is great anticipation for this coming summer when we will offer fishing trips twice a week for 8 weeks.

4. Risk is a part of gospel faithfulness and a necessary part of doing anything missional. Where have you seen God’s faithfulness in this journey and where have you had to radically trust God?

When we started this journey we had no money, no boat, no fishing experience, and no model to draw from in launching this ministry. The entire venture has been one of risk without the possibility of reward. And there were many days when I was fishing out on the river by myself trying to get the hang of it and simply failing. And failing hard. As in, spending the whole day on the river, costing gas, time away from family, bait, and catching one $5 fish. My wife at times was starting to get very anxious because I was supposed to be making all this money catching fish and we were losing money.

But there were a number of instances when it became apparent that God and the people of our church were heavily invested. The congregation paid for me to attend the Hatch-A-Thon put on by the Princeton Institute of Youth Ministry. I was able to learn so much about how to get started with entrepreneurial ministry endeavors. I came away from that experience with a boatload of ideas (pun intended). Our Presbytery gave us a grant of $5,000 to purchase equipment for this missional initiative! A couple families from our church donated the money to purchase a used pontoon boat for $4,000. This pontoon boat has a great story behind it. The boat was used the previous season by a local fisherman in our community who made $21,000 with this boat the summer of 2015. Meeting this fisherman was also very much a “God thing.” He showed me the ropes of fishing and saved me hundreds of hours of frustration (beyond what I was already experiencing).

 

5. What kind of folks are accompanying you on this journey? Who have you had in the room helping you plan and envision where this is all headed?

We are so blessed to have a number of people supporting this endeavor. First we have men in the congregation who have volunteered their time to be on the boat ministering to the kids. Guys are taking days off of work to join kids on the river. We have the families that have donated the money towards the purchase of the boat. We have a farmer in our congregation who has donated space on his property for us to store the boat during the winter months to save money on moorage costs. We are so fortunate to have folks in marketing and advertising that are helping us put together a website, logo, and branding so we can get the word out on the ministry. And of course all the parents and congregants who have supported this ministry through their prayers.

 

6. What would you say to others who are trying to envision different ways to do youth ministry? How can they begin a process of trying something different?

Start by asking yourself what you are passionate about. What do you love to do? How might you invite youth into some endeavor you have been itching to try personally. What are the needs of your community? We have a number of kids whose parents both work but cannot afford the day camps available during the summer. Most of these kids end up wandering the local streets and or spending all day in the library on the computer. We are able to provide an opportunity to get out into creation, make some money, and encounter God’s love.

 

7.) What are some things you are learning through all of this project and what about it is life giving?

I am learning that you cannot be afraid to fail. A lot. I don’t think it was an accident that Jesus chose a group of fishermen as his first disciples. Fishing is full of disappointment and failure. And to make money at it you have to really be able to navigate the failure and continue to pursue the prize even when it is really hard. Discipleship is an exercise of the will, a decision to follow Jesus even when you don’t feel a deep connection or emotional/spiritual high.

I am an aspiring mystic and simply cannot get enough of witnessing the wonders of God’s creation. Fishing on a daily basis gets you to marvel at the genius of God’s created order. Having the chance to introduce others to this way of seeing the world is a gift. I love to fish and I love a challenge. I love to build things and this endeavor has fed all those elements of my person. Most importantly, I love Jesus and was blessed during my adolescence with significant adult mentors and spiritual fathers who left a lasting impression. I want to pass on that to the youth of our community; starting with my own four kids.

 

 

Social Enterprise: The Most Faithful Vehicle for Evangelism I Have Ever Encountered

Matthew Overton

 A little over a month ago I was invited to present The Columbia Future Forge's jobs and training program to students at one of our local high schools.  It was one of the coolest things I have ever had the chance to do and in an hour and a half I learned a ton about myself, my community, and about the American church and what social enterprise might be able to bring to that church.

It's not that I hadn't been on a high school campus before. I have been on lots of high school and middle school campuses to meet with teachers or principals, to take lunch to a single student or multiple students, to attend an event, or even to speak at a local Christian club.  I have done all these things many times. The problem is that I have always had this nagging sense of, "What am I here for?"  It's awkward to come on campus with the gospel. I always feel a bit deceptive based on how I understand the rules of the church v. state game and I value my personal integrity. It's often been shocking to me over the years how many evangelicals will do all sorts of deceptive things to share the gospel, but are willing to pretend that they aren't deceptions. It's weird. My mom was a school teacher for many many years, my sister is, and so is my wife.  I was always taught that our faith was something that we did not jettison at the door of the school, but I was also taught that it wasn't something that we tried to shove awkwardly into a space in which it is not entirely welcome. I still feel that way. My faith is the most sacred thing I have in my life. I love the chance to share about it and yet it is something intimate. I tend to be careful about bringing intimate things out in the open too quickly. I think most boundaried people do too.  My faith is so sacred to me that there when I have been asked or required to share it awkwardly I have felt that its goodness and sacredness have been diminished. It took me a while to learn that I didn't need to do that because a campus leader or minister told me that I did.

So, when I stepped on campus a few weeks ago in the midst of a flurry of snow I anticipated that similar feeling. "Am I here to share the gospel? Am I here just for a certain kind of student? Am I welcome here?" But, in the hour in which I presented our program to students I was greeted by a different feeling. Because our social enterprise offers something of obvious value to the students on campus, they showed up in a room willingly to hear what we had to say. I was offering something that they would perceive as worthwhile.  They could feel free to reject me because I am a minister or to reject the gospel on its own merit, but when it comes to the perceived value of developing them for a full adult life we were on equal terms. I told them who I was from the get go (a minister), but they didn't care because what I was talking about actually mattered to their day to day lives and to their future.

When we finished our presentation I was floored. I had 5 of the best student conversations I have ever had when walking on a campus. I think that was because it was obvious to the students and to me that there was a perfectly valid reason that I was there. I happen to believe that being on campus just as a minister is a perfectly valid reason, but I am not sure that students always think that way.  One student had been looking for a church for a while, another was having trouble assimilating culturally and needed a job, and another wanted to go into the trades and felt confined by school.  One student came up and quietly sort of confessed that he wanted to go into the military, but that his folks didn't want him to. He asked us if when we paired him with a mentor in our program, what sort of college would they want him to go to and what kind of college stuff he would do. It took me a second to realize what he was asking and what was going on.  He was so used to his public school lifting up college as an ideal that he just assumed that was our ideal goal as well. I told him that his mentor would be interested in him developing as a human being. Period. If he wanted to talk about the military or buying his first car then that is what his mentor would talk to him about. But, the conversation didn't end with the students.

I met two career student counselors while I was there. I have no idea (and to a degree don't care) if they were people of faith. They were interested in what we were doing. We talked about college pressures and the performance culture of the modern 21st century high school. It was great. No one was guessing why I was there. My fellow team member was excited because we were presenting at his former high school. He has spent years in Tech sales and helping with youth ministry at our church and I think he was just excited to have the chance to engage youth ministry and his local community in a very different way.  Each time I am on campus or talking with teachers, superintendents, or admins, I am learning something about how our schools work and don't work. I am learning how they connect with larger district entities and with the local community. But, I am also learning where the "gospel gaps" are. I am learning where the schools need help. I am learning the pressure points at which the scope of the responsibility is way beyond their means. They feel a massive burden to meet every educational, societal, and moral need.  We have a lot to offer that problem if we can figure out how to do it.  I left that school that day over the moon and I cannot wait to be back at multiple schools next Fall with various members of our team to find the right students for our program.

My point is that doing missional entrepreneurship or social enterprise (or whatever you want to call it) has opened up a massive door for evangelism for me. I think it could for many churches. But, doing evangelism is as much about listening as it is about speaking. You can't figure out how to bring healing, hope, joy, and reconciliation if you don't know where the aches, wounds, and needs are. Social enterprise gives me a vehicle for the sustained relationships, sustained listening, eventual speaking, and intentional planned action that I have never encountered in any other model of sharing my faith. It gives us a legitimate and non-awkward reason to be on any campus. We didn't figure out how to get on campus. We didn't weasel our way to a Christian club starting. We didn't wedge ourselves into a coaching position for a sport we know nothing about so that we could share the gospel. We built a jobs and life skills program to bless students for the rest of their lives and we were INVITED on campus. That's good news for everyone and I am still floored by it.