I’ll never forget the November evening in 2007 when we put $1,000 cash in the hands of 200 high school students and volunteers.
Why is that a good idea?
Several years ago the Mars Hill community was in the midst of refining the language we use to describe our mission and vision in order to effectively point the energy of our community in a more precise direction. The words “joining the God of the oppressed” became part of the mission of our community, which challenged and inspired us to respond to the question, Who are the oppressed in our world and in our community?
The simplest and broadest response, of course, was humanity. We are all born into the circumstances of personal spiritual oppression and in need of Christ’s redemption. The more complicated response involved identifying whom we would actively serve as a missional community to try and bring about measurable change in oppressive circumstances.
We made a five-year commitment to Turame, a micro-enterprise bank in Burundi, Africa. At the time, Burundi was one of the poorest nations in the world and still faced the religious, political and economic effects of the genocide that took place in Rwanda and Burundi during the previous decade. Well-meaning aid agencies have at times indirectly abandoned the poor through creating a dependency on handouts, and traditional banks across the world have abandoned the poor because they’ve been unwilling to lend to them without capital.
However, micro-enterprise functions based on two revolutionary beliefs that counter these two problems. The first belief is that, given the proper resources and support, the poor can lift themselves out of poverty through their own effort, energy, creativity and entrepreneurship. In many cases, a loan of less than $100 is enough for a widow in Burundi to start her own small business (micro-enterprise), begin to provide for her own family and eventually pay off her loan. The second revolutionary belief behind micro-enterprise is that the poor can, in fact, be trusted. Whereas most banks require financial capital, micro-enterprise functions on the belief that shared humanity between the bank and the client is reason enough to extend trust.
Who Are the Oppressed?
Our faith community responded to the question of identifying the oppressed in our world through our work with Turame. But, as the high school pastor of our church, I still stumbled over how to be honest about the question, Who are the oppressed in our community?
I finally thought of the faces of my students.
Adolescents in western society are victims of systemic abandonment. The systems and institutions created to support and encourage adolescents on the path toward adulthood now exist more for an adult agenda than for the adolescents. The traditional family, educational, religious and political systems that once supported adolescents now in many cases exploit them. We’ve left our young people to try to answer life’s greatest questions alone. Today’s adolescents face a historically high level of expectations while receiving a historically low level of systemic adult support.
These systems of abandonment and oppression are alive and well in many of our churches. We’ve segregated our communities by age. In our attempts to provide age-specific and relevant programming, we’ve damned our young people to student rooms and kids’ ministry rooms on separate campuses or at opposite ends of the building from the sanctuary and have made it clear to them that the main service belongs to the adults.
We use mission and service as opportunities for adults to feel better about themselves and their church rather than opportunities to empower and trust our adolescents. In many of our communities, the only time adolescents are a focus in the main service is when some achievement can be paraded among the congregation for adult approval. But once the celebration is over, we dismiss our young people back to their separate spaces and programs.
The more time I’ve spent with the Bible, the more I’ve come to realize that throughout the narrative of Scripture we see that God is always with the oppressed and the young. Today’s teenagers fit into both of these categories. If that’s where God is, than that’s where I want to be. This is why I’m more convinced than ever that being a youth pastor must also mean being a youth advocate. Our young people need shepherds who are willing to stand with and for them as they suffer through an existence that has become unjust and unnecessarily difficult.
Joining the God of the Oppressed
Until our communities recognize the plight of our adolescents, we won’t be able to effectively pastor them with credibility toward serving others. The way we engage mission and service with our students cannot further perpetuate their own oppression. We damage the development of our students and the sustainability of justice efforts by continually jumping from one cause to another. We fail to help adolescents understand the complexity of systemic injustice, and we treat them as stereotypes, believing their attention spans to be too short to stay committed to one cause. We’re more faithful to our adolescents when we remain faithful to a cause for the long term.
I suspect American teenagers have raised thousands of dollars for a good cause only because they felt compelled to serve an adult agenda. Although this money is useful, it comes at the expense of an opportunity to empower, encourage and trust our adolescents. Using tactics of guilt and shame to compel a person toward compassion is manipulative and reprehensible. We can hold ourselves accountable to this by being aware of how we measure success. Are we only counting dollars raised or homes built? Or are we telling the stories of service? Are we emphasizing students’ journeys along the way—their successes and failures—as well as the stories of those we serve?
If we invite our students into an opportunity to serve, we have to also offer them the support they deserve in order to participate. Without support that is free of an adult agenda, the opportunity will likely become one more instance when adolescents will engage only to perform for and meet the expectations of the adults involved. Providing adequate support from adults means not shaming students who opt out of participation (they might not be lacking compassion; they likely have many other expectations to meet) and allowing adults and students who do want to participate a say in what participation really looks like.
Micro-Enterprise with Macro-Impact
At Mars Hill, joining the God of the oppressed meant building a bridge between how we answered the question, Who are the oppressed? on both a local and global level. Although the circumstances of an American adolescent and an impoverished Burundi woman couldn’t be more distinct, the oppressive circumstances of abandonment and a lack of trust bind them together.
Every November and December, our high school students are invited to take a hands-on approach to our microfinance initiative by borrowing $5 from our church to start their own small businesses. They sign loan agreements, agree to pay back a $1 a week and work hard with other students and leaders to create profits that can be donated to Turame. Students can pool their money or work alone. However, everyone holds everyone else accountable, and everyone supports everyone else’s micro-enterprise.
Together (sometimes with adult volunteers), students have started t-shirt, yard work, jewelry, ornament, greeting card and baking businesses. They’ve produced viral videos, held video game marathons and hosted art auctions. Adults and adolescents have strengthened relationships, built trust and discovered creativity, and students have embraced their distinct and creative role in our community. The stories of our students have become a prophetic catalyst to spur people of all ages toward compassion and ingenuity.
Since that memorable night in 2007, our students have taken out 634 loans from our church ($3,170). Their hard work and ingenuity have led to nearly a 100% repayment rate and almost $12,000 in profits, all of which have been donated to Turame.
Our students have proven that, given the appropriate support, they can accomplish remarkable things on behalf of others. They have proven that adolescents can be trusted with the resources and mission of our churches. They have invited our churches to understand that addressing issues of injustice and oppression can begin with youth ministry.
 Yunus, Muhammad. Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty. PublicAffairs: 1999.
 Clark, Chap. Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers. Baker Academic: 2011.