A New Evolution of Youth Ministry: Social Entrepreneurship

Youth Specialties
August 10th, 2016

Matthew’s post below is an example of what some youth workers are doing to help youth ministry evolve with the needs of their community. This year’s National Youth Workers Convention is all about how we rise to new challenges and imagine new ways to lead students to find and follow Jesus. Join us this fall in Cincinnati, OH to connect with and learn from the full family of youth workers.

On a Sunday evening a few years ago I was driving a student and some friends home from our weekly youth group. I had just baptized this student a few weeks previously. It was an amazing story and something that our congregation was still kind of celebrating. This group of students had randomly connected with our ministry and a number of them came from situations that were pretty tough. While it had felt wonderful to baptize them, I couldn’t help fight a sinking feeling while I was turning down the one students’ gravel road. We had baptized this kid, he was coming to youth group, and I was about to drop him off at a trailer with no running water, and piles of garbage in front and in back. The question began to pop up in my mind, “Great, you baptized this kid. What is he going to do to feed and clothe himself in two years?” I realized was that my model of youth ministry offered very little to help the real life situation of this kid. We had tended to his eternal life well, but my model of youth ministry had very little to say to his life holistically.

I have been doing youth ministry for 17 years and a ton has changed.

We used to know what we were doing, then somebody did some research and we found out our models weren’t doing what we thought they were. We used to work with kids who had lots of time for fun and games. Now they come from homes where the scent of fear is in the air. “Will my child be able to get a job?” I used to work with kids who thought church camp was amazing! Now I work with students who like camp, but have attended 15 other camps related to band, wrestling, robotics, etc. My growing sense is that the American Church needs a new way to do ministry amongst teens and young adults. And while many youth companies, youth ministry authors, seminaries and bible colleges are good at talking about innovation in youth ministry—and leveling critiques at the church—they are not actually doing much that is new and innovative. Check out the #uthmin Twitter feed. It’s just the same old techniques.

A couple of years ago I got fed up and decided to do something different.

A few years back I had lost my first home in the economic downturn in California. It was a painful experience. After re-locating to Washington State I eventually managed to buy a home that was a total junker. While trying to reach out to my students, I began hiring students from around the fringes of my ministry to help me remodel the shack that I had purchased. I noticed that we were getting in better conversations about life and Jesus as we did work, and I began to think, “Why couldn’t we do youth ministry this way?” I had more adults showing up at my house to hang out with students and help with my remodel than I ever had before. Eventually, I created a team at our church and we decided to try a ministry experiment in which we did youth ministry while providing teenagers with jobs. We started a new kind of youth ministry that does faith, life, and work all at the same time. Currently we do it through a landscaping company that I call, “Mowtown”. We did that only because landscaping was something that our teen labor laws in Washington State allowed us to do. Essentially, we started a business that fuels our ministry.

My sense is that in the next 20-30 years (and much sooner for some churches!) youth ministry as we know it will disappear.

Church demographics and giving patterns tell us that the church is increasingly fighting for people’s time and dollars. As youth workers, we are competing against camps and competitions that many parents pay thousands of dollars for! When youth group is basically free, it makes many parents think it isn’t worth much. Increasingly, there will be less and less money to fund Kingdom work in our churches, and my cynical suspicion is that the first thing to get squeezed will be the youth program at most churches.

So, if we are going to do Kingdom work with teens in the United States and if teens and their parents are going to actually engage with our ministries…

[bctt tweet=”We need ministries that meet the inherent and practical needs of our teens’ actual lives.” username=”ys_scoop”]

And we will need ministries and youth workers who are financially self-sustaining. We need a different model! I think that social entrepreneurship might be the way to do all of this.

Social entrepreneurship is simply doing business with a social good in mind.

It is revolutionizing both the for-profit and non-profit worlds we live in. One might start a coffee cart that gives 10% of its proceeds back to the community for instance. I believe that one way we can pay our youth workers a living wage AND do Kingdom ministry going forward is to build small scale social entrepreneurships into our churches. Who better to combine doing good and business than the church?! These entrepreneurships have many benefits. They allow for natural mentoring relationships, they allow our adults to use more of their professional gifts in service of the church, and they allow teenagers a full participatory roll in their ministry. Let’s face it, most of our youth ministries attempt to fill rooms with relatively compliant kids who are supposed to sit and listen.

My sense is that this growing edge of the business world and the dull edge of youth ministry might give us a way forward.

We need to stop trying to tweak what we are doing in youth ministry. We are facing massive adaptive challenges as our world changes rapidly. What we don’t need is more techniques to do the same things. We need new ways forward. I think what my church has begun to do might just be one of those ways. The question then becomes whether or not we are willing to risk failing at something new for the sake of the Kingdom. Are you ready to innovate for Christ?

Matthmatthew overtonew Overton is a full-time youth pastor and a youth ministry innovator. Check out his organization Youth Ministry Innovators for more information.


Youth Specialties

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