What one youth pastor learned about youth ministry by hiring a bunch of teenagers to help renovate his house.

It might be odd to give thanks for “The Great Recession,” but sometimes I do. About three years ago my wife and I managed to purchase our second home after we lost our first during the recession. When the downturn happened we were running a youth ministry at a mid-sized Presbyterian church in one of the hardest-hit housing areas in California. When we took a new call at a church in Vancouver, WA, we were eventually able to 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’ve been running a new wing of youth ministry at my church. It’s an experimental, jobs-based innovation called “Columbia Teen Enterprises.” Currently, this program consists of a small but growing landscaping company for teens. A growing part of my position as Associate Pastor of Youth and Family Ministry 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: professionalism and the basics of our company, personal goal-setting, and a gifts/strengths personality assessment that we hope will guide them in vocational discernment. The students work with adult landscape crew bosses. We equip the crew bosses with what we call “windshield questions.” These are questions that relate to faith, life, and the training the students received. 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.

I noticed I was getting into better conversations with the students there than I ever did at youth group.

The idea for all of this emerged as I began to work on my new run down house about 3 years ago. 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. We worked on the house for about six months. During that time I noticed 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. Other adults from the church joined us when I began to build the garage for the house. One of them, who at the time owned a hardware store, brought his own tools each time. Sometimes he would even bring extra lumber. This guy participated in many of our work service camps but was more sporadic when it came to worship at the church—but there he was at my house for about six Saturdays. And then he started to bring others with him. (And the best part? They were building me a garage! I felt like the Reverend Tom Sawyer watching his friends whitewash his fence! I feel slightly guilty about that.)

Youth Ministry and Adult Ministry?

What dawned on me was that we were really just doing youth ministry in a different way. It was like an extended mission trip. What was great 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 wouldn’t have in a typical “sit and receive” service 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 then able to use some of their unique gifts to engage in ministry. This was a particular revelation to me. 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? So, last fall I began to put together what would become Columbia Teen Enterprises.

The New Landscape

This experiment clearly revealed some of our students’ struggles. It’s also 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 much of a problem they posed to helping teens discover life and faith. I could create endless lists of what we’re learning, but I’ll just highlight three.

First, our churches and youth ministries have vastly underestimated the gifts of both our students and our adults. We mostly 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 in many cases may not be discovered at all. This is paralleled in many of our adult leaders. As I engaged adults with this project, several who never would have been able or willing to engage with typical youth group programming have leaped at the opportunity to participate where their gifts are of obvious use.

Second, the American church often designs its youth programs around upper middle-class assumptions. As we continue to move into what appears to be a two-tiered economic system, my youth groups increasingly become two-tiered. Some students speak endlessly about class rank and A.P. scores while others are trying to deal with abusive relationships, incarceration, and a lack of basic needs being met. These two tiers 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 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.

That’s right. We want them to fail repeatedly as they try to fix equipment, resolve customer conflict, and get a job done.

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. 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, paralysis is the likely outcome  when faced with a problem that requires adaptation and improvisation. Students won’t proceed to independently solve problems because they’re afraid of failing. This experiment in youth ministry offers 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 the cycle of fear, risk, attempt, and failure, we offer grace-filled correction. We try to show them that everyone is indelibly made in the image of God, and that no mistake can diminish that truth. Knowing this allows us to take risks 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 often talk about these sorts of things in our church, the students are getting to experience this sort of grace as disciples. We are finding that grace is salty again when it is put into practice.

Adapted from a post that originally appeared on Princeton Theological Seminary’s The Institute for Youth Ministry.