Entrepreneurial Youth Ministry: Making Grace Salty and Powerful Again
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.
How Social Entrepreneurship affects Youth Group Culture
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 need 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.
Matthew Overton is a full-time youth pastor and a youth ministry innovator. Check out his organization YOUTH MINISTRY INNOVATORS for more information.
This post was originally published by youthministryinnovators.com.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.