What a huge difference six years can make! Six years ago, I was just beginning an experiment in innovative youth ministry at my church in Vancouver, WA, an experiment that has–despite the challenges and chaos of the past few years–flourished. I wrote an article about it for Christ & Cascadia, explaining how we were using Christian social enterprise as a way to employ students while teaching them life skills, job skills, and, hopefully, the faith. You can read more about our early work in my first Christ & Cascadia article. At the time, I knew of very few others who were even talking about this kind of social enterprise ministry—and I was not sure whether the model would survive or how long my church would put up with it. So, when I was invited by Christ & Cascadia to provide this “post-pandemic” update, I jumped at the chance.

Six years ago, we had a single landscaping company (Mowtown Teen Lawn Care) that employed about a dozen students. Today, we are the Columbia Future Forge—a 501c3 with three initiatives that employ closer to 160 students. Aside from the landscaping company, we have developed a drone piloting program and a gym that offers affordable athletic strength training. There are around 25-30 adults directly mentoring students through our programs. We have reached into public high schools and the local junior college and are engaged with students at an alternative high school doing life skills and character development. We’re the single most diverse program in our church and we added about 30% to our church’s mission budget in the process. We did all this with almost no direct local church funding.

This growth hasn’t come easily. Covid nearly crushed us. We lost employees and revenue and had to shut our gym program down for three months due to Covid restrictions. As a result, we had to rebuild the entire operation outdoors. It was nuts. But in the process, we discovered new capacities and creative ways of “doing Kingdom” to bless our community and were reminded of God’s deep grace and faithfulness. Through the ups and downs, we have learned a lot. The following are five of the most important takeaways from the past six years. I hope they will be helpful to anyone else considering Christian social enterprises like ours.

Prioritize transformation: We’ve learned to prioritize transformation over teaching. While our earlier ministry initiatives focused almost solely on providing jobs and life skills, we have come to see that the best gospel work is always done in connected relationships. We still do life skills training and care about vocation, but now we do so within a larger ecosystem of one-on-one mentoring, webs of long-term relationships, shared meals, and intentional conversation.

Emphasize theological reflection: One of our core values is that we constantly look to see what the way we structure and execute our ministry actually reveals about the God we say we believe in. What this means is we try to make sure that we are reflecting on every aspect of the businesses and ministry through a theological lens. In short: “Does this corner of the ministry/business adequately reflect the ethics of the Kingdom of God?”

Integrate with the church: We have worked to integrate this ministry deeply into the life of our local church. Initially, we were a ministry that I created on the side of the church. While I didn’t necessarily want it to be a para-church ministry, I wasn’t sure that our church would be able to take on the risk of our entrepreneurial approaches and allow the work to get much past the conceptual/experimental phase. As we have grown in confidence, though, we’ve learned to share about the ministries in clear and compelling ways in our local church community. We’ve also learned to have patience and grace as we help congregants to understand how our entrepreneurial initiatives might change the way they think about such things as the church’s role in a local community, the best use of a mission budget, how to engage issues of socioeconomic and racial diversity, and what youth ministry has the potential to be. This integration and congregational imagination work is still in progress.

The Church is ready for innovation…maybe: One of the side effects of Covid that I have noticed in the larger American Church ecosystem is that it has caused some innovation and creativity to emerge—even if much of the change was focused on technological survival strategies. As youth and adult ministries emerge from Covid, we will need to attempt truly new things that again involve in-person, more physically incarnational forms of Kingdom work. And likely, given the economy and the financial struggles of so many ministries post-Covid, we will need to create new economic engines to power those ministries. I am beginning to sense that this might finally be the season when the importance of Christian social enterprise begins to emerge as a key strategy for enacting justice and generating new, positively-disruptive forms of church ministry.

We have a model worth sharing: We have been able to teach others, even as we are learning. Over the last few years, more and more people have found out about the entrepreneurial ministries that we do and have reached out to us from around the globe. Four years ago, our early attempts to share this new approach began at Seattle Pacific University with a conference on the church and social enterprise. Since then, a large part of the work of the Columbia Future Forge has become exploring new ministry frontiers for the larger church and coaching institutions and individuals on how to engage ministry and the marketplace. We welcome church leaders and Christian thought leaders to spend time learning about and observing our work in Vancouver. We have hosted a seminary J-term course and shared with students and youth leaders at places like Luther Seminary, Yale, the Center for Youth Ministry Training, Princeton Theological Seminary, and The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. Our hope and prayer is that God will continue to use our experiments in contextualized, sustainable service to inspire others to imagine new forms of ministry that are particularly suited to the unique needs and aspirations of their own communities.

When I think back on these past six years of ministry in the Pacific Northwest, I am humbled and maybe a little surprised that we are still standing and still doing Kingdom work that is economically sustainable. That’s because I am aware of the many businesses, non-profits, and ministries that have closed their doors over the past few years, with little hope that they will be able to re-open or re-engage their mission. I’ve come to learn, though, that what ultimately helped us to survive—and thrive, even—was our very entrepreneurial belief that crisis can be turned to opportunity in God’s Kingdom.

As scary as it was at times to push out into new ministry innovations—even while Covid constraints were recommending retreat—our church has discovered powerful new ways to love our neighbors. And I believe that we are not alone in our way of making sense of these trying times; it has been beautiful to see how this strange and tragic Covid space we’ve been in seems to have jump-started the conversation in other Pacific Northwest churches about the need for innovation. Cascadia has always been the sort of place where creative, entrepreneurial thinking thrives—and that includes thinking about new ways of being church. Even as I look back at our journey the last six years, I’m grateful. I can’t wait to see what creative conversations and innovative experimentation the coming years will bring. All in God’s timing.

Cover photo credit: Ludomil Sawicki

 

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    The Rev. Matt Overton is an associate pastor at Columbia Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, WA, and the Executive Director of the Columbia Future Forge. He is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary with over 20 years of youth ministry experience. Matt writes about innovation and social enterprise as they relate to working with teenagers in the 21st century, and his innovative model for student ministry has been featured in several publications.