It’s an odd thing to give thanks for “The Great Recession,” but sometimes I do. About three years ago my wife and I managed to find a way to purchase our second home after we lost our first during the recession. When the downturn hit we were running a youth ministry at a mid-sized Presbyterian church in one of the hardest hit housing areas in California. It was a very difficult time in many ways. When we took a new call to Washington State we were able to eventually start over and buy a fixer-upper that needed a ton of work. What I didn’t know at the time was that the painful loss of one home and the exhausting remodel of another would be the genesis of a new experiment in youth ministry.
Columbia Teen Enterprises
For the last year and a half I have been running a new wing of youth ministry at my church. It is an experimental jobs-based innovation that is called, “Columbia Teen Enterprises.” Currently this program consists of a small but growing landscaping company for teens. Most of the week my job looks the same as it always has been. I run youth groups and various teams that help coordinate ministries at our church and in our local communities. However, a growing part of my time is helping to run the jobs program for teenagers. The program seeks to combine faith, life, and work all at the same time. So far, we do three main trainings during the year. They cover professionalism and the basics of our company, personal goal setting, and a gifts/strengths personality assessment that we hope will guide the teens in our program in vocational discernment. We plan to add components related to a life of service and stewardship of resources later. Within the next year we also plan to open a computer programming track as well. Along the way as the students work with adult landscape crew bosses we are trying to equip those crew bosses with what we call “windshield questions.” These are questions that relate to faith and life and to the trainings the students have already engaged in. If students request a specific mentor, we challenge them to meet with that mentor once a month to check in on life and their goals and possibly engage in conversations about faith.
As we worked on the house for about 6 months, I noticed that I was getting into better conversations with the students there than I ever did at youth group… What began to dawn on me was that we were really just doing youth ministry in a different way.
The idea for all of this emerged as I began to work on my new and run down house about 3 years ago. As I started the remodel project I hired some of the students from the peripheries of my ministry to come and help on the house. It didn’t occur to me at the time that this was a) illegal and b) a big liability risk. As we worked on the house for about 6 months, I noticed that I was getting into better conversations with the students there than I ever did at youth group. In a lot of ways it mimicked a work service or mission trip except it was happening in my backyard. When I then began to build the garage for the house I was joined by some other adults from our church. One of them, who at the time owned his own hardware store, brought his own tools each time we gathered. Sometimes he would bring extra lumber as well. This particular adult has come on many of our work service camps, but is more sporadic when it comes to worship at the church. But, here he was at my house for about 6 Saturdays during that season. And then he started to bring others with him. And the best part was, they were building me a garage! I felt like the Reverend Tom Sawyer watching his friends whitewash his fence! (Okay, I feel slightly guilty about that.)
Youth Ministry and Adult Ministry?
What began to dawn on me was that we were really just doing youth ministry in a different way. It was like an extended mission trip. And what was great about it was that the work itself offered all sorts of learning opportunities for the students. Adults had a chance to notice the particular strengths and weaknesses of each student in ways they would not have in a typical “sit and receive” model on Sunday nights. The students were learning how to problem-solve, how to own their mistakes, and how to interact with older adults. Those same adults were also then able to use some of their unique gifts to engage in ministry. This was a particular revelation to me as I thought, “How many adults out there in our church feel like their gifts are never tapped into because they cannot speak publicly, sing in key, play an instrument, and don’t feel called to serve on a team/committee?” It also felt like we were preparing kids for their current life which is relevant to them and ought to be a concern of the church. At least it ought to be a concern if we believe that God’s mission of salvation is not something that is solely concerned with the next life. So last fall I got started in earnest with what would become Columbia Teen Enterprises.
Initially I formed a team of folks that began meeting once a month. It was comprised of youth group adults, small business owners, and folks that I thought could offer relevant input. My church really had no idea this was going on (though, wisely, I kept my head of staff in the loop). I thought that we would create a small business that did light home remodeling or built garage-type sheds for folks. But, after about two months of researching teens and employment law I figured out that lawn care was really one of the few options that I had. We worked on creating a vision for the program and I built a business plan. When we decided on our trajectory and that the idea was viable we started to secure equipment and customers. It felt like a huge risk (I invested about $7,000-$10,000 of my own money in the project), but it was also very exciting. At this point in the journey we have 8 students that are official employees of the landscaping company. Most of them work sporadic Saturdays during the school year while two are college age and work during the week.
The New Landscape
This experiment has clearly revealed some of the struggles that our students have and also has exposed some of the holes in the way we do youth ministry. I was aware of these struggles and holes, but until we experimented with youth ministry in a different way, it was difficult to see just how problematic they were to helping teens discover life and faith. I could create endless lists of what we are learning, but I think we can highlight three.
One of the biggest assets we offer in experimenting with this form of youth ministry is that we are offering students the chance to fail. That’s right. We want them to fail repeatedly as they try to fix equipment, resolve customer conflict, and get a job done.
First, our churches and youth ministries have vastly underestimated the giftedness of both our students and our adults. There are probably volumes of work that have been done on the non-participatory nature of American youth ministry. Mostly we encourage kids to sit and listen. This tends to produce passive environments in which students neither learn to live their faith nor speak about it for themselves. Their God given gifts are never fully explored and honed and in many cases may not be discovered at all. However, this is paralleled in many of our adult leaders too. As I have engaged adults with this project, several adults who never would have been able or willing to engage with typical youth group programming have leapt at the opportunity to participate in our program where their gifts are of obvious use. The simple truth is that traditional youth ministry and church only accesses a limited bandwidth of gifts in youth and adults alike. The local church is a very narrow medium both in terms of worship and general structure. But, it doesn’t have to be and I think this experiment has revealed that more clearly and offered a way forward.
Second, the American church has often designed its youth programs around upper middle class assumptions. As we continue to move into what appears to be a more two tiered economic system, my youth groups have increasingly also become two tiered. Some of my students speak endlessly about class rank and A.P. scores while others are trying to deal with abusive relationships, incarceration, and lack of basic needs. These two tiers of students no longer speak the same language or even feel as though they live in the same world. This makes planning for youth ministry exceedingly difficult. The jobs-based program that we run allows them to work together for a common purpose and places them on a more equal footing. It allows us not to have to create churches and youth groups that mimic the economic segregation of our larger society—at least, that is the hope. We think that part of what we are creating is an avenue for consistent socioeconomic reconciliation.
Last, this whole project has become a platform for practicing grace rather than simply teaching about it as an abstract concept. We have learned very quickly that the two biggest problems our teens and young adults face are 1) they are terrified of making mistakes and 2) they struggle with problem solving. The main reasons for this are fairly obvious to me. They exist in a performance-based world in which the overt and covert message is that one mistake means their life is over. They also live in a world that is so over-programmed and scheduled that they don’t have many environments that allow for play and truly independent problem solving. So, if one mistake means life is over, the result is that when faced with a problem that requires adaptation and improvisation, the likely outcome is paralysis. Students won’t proceed to independently solve problems because they are afraid of failing. One of the biggest assets we offer in experimenting with this form of youth ministry is that we are offering students the chance to fail. That’s right. We want them to fail repeatedly as they try to fix equipment, resolve customer conflict, and get a job done. As they enter this cycle of fear, risk, attempt, and failure we offer grace-filled correction. We ask questions like, “What did you learn from this?” The central teaching truth that we work on is that when we know we are indelibly made in the image of God, no mistake can diminish that truth. This brings grace to us, but it also allows us to take risks in life that help us explore just what we were made to do. We have the capacity for risk because nothing can diminish the love of Christ. While we have talked about these sorts of things ad nauseum in our church, they are getting to experience them as disciples in this new way of doing ministry. We are freeing grace from binders, Bibles, and books into a kind of frontier expanse of actual experience. We are finding that grace is salty again when it is put into practice.
As I wrote, there are a ton of other “holes” in our ministry model that this new experiment is bringing starkly into relief for my team of adults and me. My hope is that the little bit that I have shared here is setting off light bulbs for you as it has for us. May God bless you in your radical experiments, innovations, risks, and failures with the unending grace of our Lord Jesus Christ who is the author of all good endeavors.
Do you have a game-changing, potentially crazy idea you think might help your youth group like Columbia Teen Enterprises did for Matt? Come to the Hatch-a-Thon in Princeton from March 2–4, 2016, where you’ll be able to think through your idea with some of the most creative minds in the business, putting together a concrete action plan for bringing your idea to life!
Matt Overton is the Associate Pastor for Youth and Family Ministry at Columbia Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, Washington. He has been doing youth ministry in various forms for the past 16 years, and is also the proud owner of Mowtown Teen Lawn Care and Columbia Teen Enterprises. He loves new ideas and exploring innovative possibilities for just about anything! To learn more about the innovative work Matt is doing, please visit: www.youthministryinnovators.com.