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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: social entrepreneurship

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.

Why Christian Social Enterprise? #3: Outward Blessings

Matthew Overton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Why Christian Social Enterprise? #1- An Honest Appraisal of Human Nature

Matthew Overton

Along the way, a number of folks have asked the question as to why I think Social Enterprise in the church would be a good idea.  While many have agreed that they can see some "tent making" reasons for supporting social enterprise, a number of others have wondered if there are any theological reasons for engaging the idea of Christian Social Enterprise. I think there are. I believe the church has several unique attributes that it can offer the world of social enterprise/social entrepreneurship. In the next few posts, I am going to try and lay out what I think the Christian story offers the social enterprise conversation.

The first virtue that the church brings to social enterprise is that Christianity does not generally take a benign view of human nature. We are a damned mess and we know it.

A friend of mine who is significantly on the left side of the political aisle was down in Portland a couple of weeks ago at a post election rally. Having experienced overt racism over the years they wanted to try and take some kind of action to express their frustration over the outcome of the presidential race. They told me that while they enjoyed the rally and its speakers they felt nervous as a practicing Christian at several points. There were a number of parts of the rally that felt like gospel to them, but what they kept hearing under the surface of all the speeches and pleas was this overt faith in human beings and in our positive potential to do good.  The single biggest article of faith that they kept hearing at this secular rally was that human beings were regarded as inherently good, or at the very least benign. Their opinion was that this was folly. They felt that it was this sort of blind idealism that had led, at least in part, to the election's outcome to begin with.  I think my friend was on to something.

Christianity has always taken a low view of human beings. It is true that sometimes we have erred much too far in that lowly direction in terms of how we talk about ourselves or others, but a healthy skepticism about our better angels is a virtue of the Christian life.  We do not all approach the world from good places. Social Enterprise needs this healthy skepticism.

One of the weaknesses of the secular humanism that under-girds much of our secular (and ecclesial!) world is that because it is so optimistic about humanity it can often be too easily fatigued and deflated when human beings fail. I have long argued every time a church scandal pops up that the last people that should be shocked are followers of Christ! Shouldn't Jesus people be the ones in the crowd nodding and saying, "Welp, we saw this coming a mile away."? Humanism can become quickly fatigued when it confronts human recipients that don't really receive our social initiatives the way we expect. "Don't they know we are trying to help!? Why are they biting the hand that feeds them?!" Likewise, humanism can become quickly fatigued when those proffering solutions create initiatives that can seem remarkably self serving. Secular humanism has an optimism about it that puts all the power and control in human hands (more on that in another post) So, when it is discovered that those hands may often simply be a set of greasy palms and fingers rubbing together, it is hard pressed to know what to do. "We are better than this!" Are we really?

This truth has been ever present in third world initiatives. Many people have gone into the thirld world assuming the best (often paternalistically) about their neighbors.  The classic example of this behavior in action has been the mass distribution of mosquito nets to fight malaria across Africa.  Half a billion nets have been distributed across Africa to cover beds at night. While the nets are having an effect, there have been so many distributed that they have become their own economy. They have been grabbed up by enterprising folks to make fishing nets, soccer goals, chicken pens, rope, balls, and dozens of other things. Most of those uses, though unintended, are relatively benign and may point to third world folks asserting their own autonomy. Other problems have popped up to. For instance, the nets have contributed to over fishing. Also, because they are treated with repellents, the chemicals they are coated with enter the food chain. There is some evidence to suggest that theses chemicals are producing their own human health problems. Much of our good work is like a petri dish for the law of unintended consequences.  

Meanwhile on the giving end we have seen the selfishness of social enterprise at work too. While micro-loan investment has been seen as a good way to combat poverty, a number of its practitioners are simply in it to make a buck. Microloans have been used benevolently, but they have also been used abusively. We all have seen the example of celebrity aid projects that have turned out to be more about the SWAG bags at the concert than the actual cause. And of course there are many of us who have engaged processes of "help" to assuage guilt or to convince ourselves that we are benevolent. These  are very destructive tendencies.

The point is that the church begins social enterprise with two critical assumptions that add longevity and health to any initiative seeking to do good. First, as a giver I should not assume that I have the best in mind for my neighbor. I must assume, or at least ask, whether the good that I seek to do is really about me. Second, I must assume that any solution that I build is going to be used in unhelpful and even nefarious ways. Unintended consequences cannot always be avoided, but they ought to be rigorously anticipated.

One of the virtues that the church brings to the table is that because we sense the brokeness of our nature and story, we sense that brokeness that will accompany all the good that we do. Our beliefs, though they might be regarded as dour or outmoded, represent a sober assessment that guides us into social enterprise and keeps us going when humanity dissapoints. Imagine if Christian Social Entrepreneurs could develop a critical thinking and action process of what I will call "skeptical inquiry". Skeptical Inquiry would be a process that would speculate the unexpected responses of recipients of good and it would also provide hard hitting assessments about where the giver is perhaps caught up in self serving patterns of thought and action. This could allow much improved cost-benefit assessments of potential social enterprise projects.

I believe that the church is needed in the social enterprise experiment that is taking place at many of our university B schools. Our healthy skepticism is a good corrective.  We will certainly need to use it within our own social initiatives first, but we are needed in the larger business conversation about social enterprise. I am not convinced we will do the work any better than our secular counterparts, but we do have something to offer the conversation. If that makes me a skeptic or a pessimist, I am okay with that. It's just a part of the story that I follow every day.



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.


"We're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat"

Matthew Overton

One of the things that I keep learning as I do this ministry as social entrepreneurship thing is that it often seems like feast or famine.  Some days it seems to me like forever since new business has come through the door and other days it gets really stressful simply because there is too much business and not enough time. 1 step forward two steps back.  In my case, I work a 60 hour a week job and then have to figure out how to coordinate a separate social entrepreneurship (a landscaping company) on the side.  The difficulty is that until we either get enough business or a large enough grant I can't provide enough hours to sustain the employee that I would want.  It's a constant tension.  Yesterday was a case in point.

This past weekend we had done our first training for the non-profit wing of what we do.  We do 5 trainings a year that focus on work and life.  Students attend these trainings and are assigned a personal mentor after the 2nd training. Our aim was to have 12 students in the room. We got to 8 with another two waiting in the wings. I was frustrated a bit because I had sent out multiple communications to the local school districts in the area, but hadn't really gotten any solid bites. People forwarded the information to other people, who forwarded it to other people, who then sent it onward into electronic scholastic purgatory (it has flames, Ticonderoga pencils, and too much standardized testing). I expected that this kind of information passing would be the case. School employees are just swamped.  But, all in all the training went really well and we had a bunch of new students show up. It was pretty exciting despite not reaching our targeted goal. And the number  of students was just about right for our group of mentors.  So, in some ways it felt like bit of famine, but it was manageable and that felt pretty good.

Well, when I rolled into the office yesterday I received three emails in short succession from various school counselors and career advisers. All of them were asking for more information or for a special meeting with some of their students. Another student from our church then asked if she could join the program. She had missed all the communication I had sent out. I got off my my email and the first thing I thought was, "We're gonna need a bigger boat."

The whole dilemma in our program is how fast you can scale.  We want to strike a balance between profit and just enough grants to keep us going. We want to balance having students get work experience and having enough time for relationships and coaching.  We want a good number of students so that our program feels worth while, but we also need to balance that with the proper number of high quality mentors so that we are getting at the real work we set out to do.  It's a hard balance to strike.

So, I had started the day with contented disappointment and finished with, "I need more mentors." I had this sense that this is how the disciples must have felt when they pulled the nets in from the sea teeming with fish. Half the crew (the crazy entrepreneurial ones) thought that this was the best damn day they had ever had on the water! The other half (the details people) felt that this was not the sort of abundance anyone could handle. I have often wondered if they had a sense of the kind of harvest that Jesus was really pointing to.  Because in actual practice the harvest of people that he refers to is a bit of a mixed bag. Sure it's lots of fish, but the mass of teeming humanity is often hurting, angry, and broken. Getting them in the boat is one thing, but getting them to shore without sinking your whole operation is another.  The harvest that Jesus' actual way of living brings is just as scary as it is joyful. It points to the grunt work of helping to reshape and forge human beings and anyone with half a brain and any experience with people should find that a bit daunting.

But,  this is just how it goes in this new world that I am inhabiting. Abundance comes, but it creates new adaptive problems.  They are exciting and terrifying all at the same time.  It's tricky and I am trying to avoid being gobbled up. One of my favorite prayers used to hang on a placard in my brother's room growing up. It had an anchor and some waves and it said, "Oh Lord, the sea is so big and my boat is so small." I have this inkling (or maybe it's a sinking feeling) that the more we open our doors through missional work, the more we will discover the vast needs that are out there. It's overwhelming.  We're gonna need a bigger boat.

Diamonds and Stones: Adventures in Missional Entrepreneurship

Matthew Overton

Let me tell you what happened to me yesterday. I bet you will laugh.

First, my Thursdays begin with landscaping. This might mean I need to make a run to the dump to empty out a trailer, but it always means I have to load our equipment and hook up the trailer. It is usually a fairly smooth process. I have gotten it down at this point and over the years I have gotten really good with loading and backing trailers primarily because of all the youth ministry trips I have led. Anyway, this morning was no different. I loaded the equipment, made sure everything was secure, made sure I had our landscaping crew box and binder, and checked the chains and electrical connection. Next I pulled out onto the driveway and closed up all the gates to my side yard and then was off. It was very typical. I headed down Highway 14 and when I hit some traffic I pulled off onto the old highway. I love driving the old highway anyway. It is really bumpy, but you feel like you are stepping back in time just a bit. You get to see what old Vancouver looks like, freight trains go by, and there is an eclectic mix of housing. Anyway, I got done with the drive, pulled into the church and prepared to hand off the keys to my crew amidst the pouring rain. And this is where my day began to unfold a little differently than I had anticipated.

As I lifted the keys to my crew guy he is looking outside and says, "Well that's pretty fun." I assumed that he was referring to the weather. We have 3 major storms coming in this weekend and he had just moved here from Northern California. The gray and the consistent rain can grind on you a little bit especially when you are doing outdoor work. And so I turned my head and made some kind remark about getting used to the weather up here (which of course was really code for: "Sorry man, but you are going to have to suck it up out there today.") but when I looked at out my landscaping trailer it seemed a little off. Off was the operative word because my trailer was missing it's entire back gate. Gone. Pins still in their holes.

The trailer should have looked something like this. You'll notice that it has a properly attached gate.

Even if the trailer had looked like the one below, it would have been better by a slight margin. Because at least if it had looked like this second it would have meant that I simply had towed the trailer while dragging the gate for a few miles. Embarrassing, but intact.

But, nope. My trailer was missing the entire gate. With its license plate. I was gobsmacked. I still can't figure out exactly how THE WHOLE THING FELL OFF! So I quickly loaded my crew mate into my rig and we headed back down the old highway (now free of all forms of relaxing nostalgia) to recover my trailer tailgate. Oh and I bounced a $400 blower out the back as well. Phenomenal.

Eventually we recovered the gate and thankfully no one had driven over it or wrecked their car. But, in the 15 minutes in between my blissful ignorance and the recovery mission someone had stolen the blower off of the road. Joy.

And this was how my entrepreneurial day began.

One of the things I have learned in doing this social/missional entrepreneurship is that things just don't go the way you plan them. EVER. It can be pretty frustrating. I had to get the first problem solved, cancel an appointment for my day job, and then gather myself for my day in the office.

A key mantra that I grew up hearing my Dad say was, "Some days are diamonds and some days are stones." Usually it was said after something had gone wrong. Maybe he had a rough day at work where something just didn't work out the way he planned it.  But, that phrase has a critical truth to it when you engage social entrepreneurship or missional entrepreneurship. It is not for the faint of heart. It has a lot of ups and downs. I am learning to stay calm, keep moving forward, and trusting in God. I can never be sure, but I still feel confident that this project represents a calling in my life. A very unexpected one.

And so part of my day was a stone. I was stressed and anxious.  But an hour later I got another phone call. It was unexpected. Someone had nominated our landscaping jobs program for a Traditioned Innovation award through Duke Divinity School's Faith and Leadership publication. They called to let me know that not only had we been nominated, but that we had won! Better yet, it was a $10,000 award grant! I almost wept.

We have been fighting as an organization to build up enough capital to cover some equipment, but what we really need is margin for the right employee to be working at bids and projects for more hours. This gift represents a huge opening for us. I have been working for a gift like this for over a year now and mostly I had grown content with the fact that building this enterprise was going to take a long time. It just felt like we hadn't made a ton of progress lately.  We can use the gift for equipment, but it will allow us to channel more of our revenue toward funding our employees to expand the business. Our hope is that eventually we can get to a place where we can take on some clients who are unable to mow their lawns and afford lawn care. We hope to take care of their properties at no cost or reduced cost.  As we do those sorts of things, we can hire more students. This was one serious diamond in my day! I was so ecstatic and stressed at the same time I gave myself a massive headache.

The point is that some days doing entrepreneurial stuff it feels like my rear end just fell off somewhere back there along the way. And you always feel like you are driving the slightly bumpy back roads.  But, if you wait patiently, trust, and pray a small victory or a moment of clarity comes along. Both the diamonds and the stones teach you things. They both have value. Both can make you want to cry. It's just a matter of sifting.

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

Matthew Overton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Matthew Overton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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