Matt Overton: Why I started a social enterprise at my church

The Columbia Future Forge, which trains and mentors students in faith, life and work, is one of the social enterprises created by the author. Photo courtesy of The Columbia Future Forge

Social enterprises might be a risky and unusual form of ministry, but a youth pastor argues that they can bring new life to the church.

Editor’s note: Mowtown Teen Lawn Care and Youth Ministry Innovators in Vancouver, Washington, are among the organizations recently honored with the Traditioned Innovation Award from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. The following is the fourth in an occasional series of articles about the award winners.

Many people who learn about the social enterprises at our church ask me why I started them.

The simple answer: I was tired.

Mostly, I was tired of doing ministry in the same old ways. I was tired of pretending that our programs were accomplishing what they claimed to when so many of them seemed hollow. (Any youth pastor who has ever come crashing down from the post-mission-trip high can attest to this.)

I was tired of reading books by experts that framed the problem but offered no solutions beyond theological generalities, slight adjustments to existing techniques or ideas feasible only for wealthy congregations.

I saw that social enterprise -- essentially, a business with a social good in mind -- represented a new kind of experiment that offered a truly new way forward in ministry. The church needs more of those.

Mowtown Teen Lawn Care among 2016 winners

Leadership Education at Duke Divinity recognizes institutions that act creatively in the face of challenges while remaining faithful to their mission and convictions. Winners receive $10,000 to continue their work.

My experiments focused on jobs training with enterprises called Mowtown Teen Lawn Care and The Columbia Future Forge, as well as Youth Ministry Innovators, a website and blog designed for writing about the church as a vehicle for social enterprise.

But a church could try any number of business models.

There’s more to it, of course.

When I arrived at my church seven years ago, I knew that the gospel was about risk. I knew that if the American church was ever going to be born again in the 21st century, it would need people willing to risk everything for kingdom ideas that were worth their very blood, sweat and tears. The church needed to start swinging for the fences.

So I started a social enterprise, first, because I wanted to attempt something great -- something risky -- for God.

The gospel is, at its core, a risky proposition by God in behalf of human beings. It promises no security, despite our best attempts to deify security and regularity in our worshipping communities.

I wanted to find a way to give myself more fully to the gospel and justice of Jesus Christ -- something more than doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. I wanted something bolder than the staid mainline missions efforts I had grown up with.

Second, I started a social enterprise because I was tired of perpetuating disengaged faith. I wanted to help my congregation -- both youth and adults -- figure out what their Sunday faith has to do with their Monday life.

Social enterprise allows participants to engage a myriad of life gifts and professional gifts every time they show up. To be a part of a social enterprise-based ministry, participants must be fully engaged in whatever the enterprise is. They are essential to the success or failure of the mission.

Too often, our churches make people passive recipients of ministry and even of faith itself. When they don’t get a call from anyone at church when they haven’t been there in four months, they think the show simply goes on without them. They feel excluded or ancillary to the mission of God. They think their presence, passion, talents and dollars aren’t really needed. I wanted my congregation to discover the value of each member’s engagement.

Third, I started a social enterprise because I was tired of our acts of charity and mission taking away people’s dignity. So many of our charitable works place us in positions of power and influence over those we serve.

I had been offering the typical camperships and canned-food drives to the low-income youth in my group so they could be part of our middle-class model -- only to see those students drift away, weary or embarrassed of being the focus of our love and charity. I wanted them to be a part of a ministry where they were full, vital participants.

People hear the Jesus story and want to be involved. They don’t want simply to be helped.

We need ministries that actually enable people to move forward with their lives. Social enterprise allows us to do that in creative ways.

At our church, we offer job skills, training and experience. We talk about faith and about people coming fully alive (John 10:10), but we don’t give our participants much of anything. Their dignity remains intact, and they are given a chance to move forward.

Finally, I started a social enterprise because I was tired of losing our middle- and upper-class youth and families to outside activities.

I didn’t blame them. In the current culture, parents are afraid for their children’s economic future and feel pressured to enroll them in activities they believe will enhance that future.

It’s hard for a low-accountability and low-participation youth ministry model to compete with a state robotics tournament or a soccer club in which a family has invested thousands of dollars and hours.

But I was convinced that the church could compete. What we needed was something that the kids wanted to be a part of. Something that would engage their passions and invigorate their faith.

I figured that if we used employment as our model, kids from a variety of backgrounds might actually show up. I was right.

In addition, this model required heavy adult commitment and involvement. Social enterprise gave my adults an essential role in our youth ministry. They weren’t consuming church. Kingdom work began to consume them. It was enlivening dry bones and scratching itches they didn’t know they had.

We have adults investing unbelievable amounts of time and energy and their personal gifts. We think it might be the zephyr of God, and I am gobsmacked with emotion every time I think about what I am seeing.

Social enterprises have to compete in the agora at marketplace speed. They demand risk taking, commitment, empowerment and passion. People want something to lay down their lives for. If we want to compete for people’s precious time, we are going to need to give them that.

That’s why I started a social enterprise.