Listening In: Jason Janz

WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith. Today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with pastor and ministry leader Jason Janz.

In an era of mega churches and mega ministries, Jason Janz is something of an anomaly. He says that it is more important for him to go deep then to go big, and that’s exactly what he’s done in a diverse, low-income neighborhood in Denver, Colorado.

First, he planted a church there, Providence Bible Church, which reflects his conviction that the church should be at the center of community and cultural change. Five years ago, his church started a ministry. Not, he stresses, merely to help the poor, but to eliminate poverty in his neighborhood, by helping families exit poverty and dependency and become self-sufficient. That ministry is called Cross Purpose, and as Jason will explain, it’s an intensive six month program that includes job and life training designed to help participants leave poverty permanently. Jason Janz recently spoke at a gathering hosted by the Colson Center for Christian Worldview in Colorado Springs. That’s where we had this conversation.

Jason Janz, welcome to the program. I want to start in our conversation today with your church because you’re the pastor of a church in northeastern Denver called Providence Bible Church. Not a huge church. 250 people, more or less. You told me I think a $400,000 a year budget. First of all, let’s start with the church. How did the church come about and why did you decide to plant it in that particular neighborhood, which I understand has a lot of poverty.

JASON JANZ, GUEST: Yeah. I was in the same church from the time I was in sixth grade till the time I was 33 years old and I just felt like I needed a different way of doing church. And so my wife and I, we resigned the position we had at our previous church then moved into an urban neighborhood to start a multicultural, multilingual church that would both have, we would have a diverse socioeconomic makeup to it.

So think of like a Cadillac and a shopping cart kind of out front kind of idea because I wanted to recreate the culture and environment of the early church in Acts 4 where you had Barnabas, the landowner, and people in poverty sitting in the same pew. And I wanted to do that kind of church because I thought if you could bring people into proximity, you not only — you would solve mutual poverty, the economic poverty that we see in the poor and then this like spiritual poverty and poverty of meaning that we see in the rich. And so that was kind of the genesis behind the church that we started 10 years ago in an urban neighborhood.

SMITH: And so how’s that work? How’s that? I mean, did the theory play out in practice or were there some learning experiences along the way?

JANZ: Yes. No, I always say I have life stories, death stories, and resurrection stories. Which ones do you want? I can give you the life and resurrection stories all day long. In my small group, I had the prosecuting attorney who put a guy in prison and the guy he put in prison sitting on the same couch in my small group. That’s the Cadillac and the shopping cart kind of idea. But it’s been super hard. I mean, we are so divided by race and class in our country and in our churches that, you know, our faith is something that we hold the most dear to our hearts. And so we all have an expression that’s very cultural. So to bring that all together into one body is really hard and takes a lot of work and understanding and there’s hurt feelings and mediations, and you know, we deal with issues of race and class every week.

SMITH: Yeah. Well, part of your dealing with that has caused you to see that the poor don’t just need handouts and they don’t need white people coming in and telling them what they need. And a part of those learnings, and we could probably talk all day about what that means though, caused you and your church to form a ministry called Cross Purpose. Can you tell me about how Cross Purpose was born, both in your mind and heart, but also practically out of your church and what you do?

JANZ: So when we started, we said we wanted to reengage our faith and that would involve doing a deep walk with the poor, not something that you do to the poor. And so therefore this would be primarily our sanctification process. We needed to grow and help solve some of the poverty in our life. So, but we didn’t really know how to do it. So we do a typical, what I call Christian drive by ministries, you know, you got the bike giveaways, the turkey dinners, the Christmas giveaways, the backpacks and all that kind of stuff. But we’re really helping people in poverty. We’re not helping people get out of poverty. And we had started a refugee ministry, and ministry to ex-offenders, and a ministry to single moms. After four years, you know, we weren’t really changing the economic condition. In fact, the church by and large is just another dependency agency that you know, just runs the soup line year after year after year.

SMITH: And really, the same people show up…

JANZ: The same people show up and nothing’s changing. Meanwhile, we get all mad at the government for handouts while the churches — at least the government makes you do job interviews and life skills training to get the welfare check. The church just prays over you and that’s it. So we were guilty of the same thing. So we had an ex-offender ministry of 500 guys a year that we were helping with backpacks, hygiene kits, and bus tokens. But these guys really needed, they needed money, they needed good jobs. And so that’s when we shifted six years ago to doing — moving from a relief model, you know, populated… I mean Feickert and Corbett had written the book When Helping Hurts. They took this relief model as opposed to development model, the American poverty solution, needs a development solution, which means we actually go deep and say, let’s not help people in poverty, let’s help them get out. So that’s what we started six years ago with Cross Purpose was this holistic, Good Samaritan-esque type program where we take people from poverty and get them a livable wage job over a period of six months.

SMITH: Well, let me drill down into that just a little bit because before we talk about what the program is, let’s talk about how you get people into the program. You’ve described to me offline that there’s a rigorous vetting process, a rigorous application process that you don’t accept people merely because they have a need, but you accept people because they demonstrate a desire to change. Could you talk about that?

JANZ: Yeah. It was Father Boyle, out of Homeboy Industries in LA who said we don’t help people who need help, we help people who want help. And so you have to find some way of a process to find out who really wants help. If I walked into a room of food stamp recipients and said, Hey, who wants help? They’re all gonna raise their hand. Well, the question is not — is who wants it so bad they will work really hard, kind of night and day, to really change their condition and put in the sweat equity. And we never want to sweat more than they sweat, right? So we just go through a process of both with assessments, applications, interviews and stuff to find out who are the motivated people. We don’t screen based on, you know, do you have a bad background or not? We have people with multiple pages of rap sheets. But who has the motivation that we’re gonna invest deeply in them. So instead of me helping 500 guys for $50,000 a year, getting backpacks and hygiene kits and that, what if I went from 500 guys to three guys and I invested between 10 and $20,000 per guy to get them a middle class income. That’s kind of the shift that we made.

SMITH: Well and so let’s talk about what that actually looks like. So you’ll have how many people apply versus how many will you accept in a year?

JANZ: So we will have about 3,000 people fill out an interest form, say I’m interested in the program, and then we will accept 200 of those. So less than 10 percent we actually feel are going to actually exercise the grit necessary to in six months make a radical change in their life.

SMITH: So they fill out the interest form and then some of them get weeded out probably right away and then there’s a more elaborate process and the interviews and you get down to that 200 that are ready to get accepted into the six month program. Tell me what they do and what you do with them.

JANZ: Well, so just back to the vetting process, the first step is they have to show up to a one hour information session. That automatically cuts the amount of people from the interest form down in half, just to show up to one hour information session. Then they fill out a 14 page application. Then they go into an interview. If they show up, there’s a pretty good chance they might get into the program. But I just don’t waste all that time and energy and money on people who won’t even show up for their interview. So then once they come in, we accept them, we call them a leader because they lead their own change out of poverty. We have them then every day for six months. And the first six weeks is personal development. That’s identity development, job development, digital literacy training, soft skills, all the stuff that people get fired for. We teach them those first six weeks and it’s almost like a Marine boot camp because we have some attrition in there as well because people that say they made it through the assessment process, but then they don’t show up on time or they’re always on their phones or they get mad at another leader in the program. So that’s six weeks. Then the next period is skill development. They pick one of 32 different careers and we provide — we pay for and provide avenues for them to get the career of their choice, and then we put them into a job.

SMITH: So let’s talk about that career development. When you say you pay for, I mean what if I decide I get through the personal development piece of it and it’s time for me to choose a career and we’re not talking about necessarily a career as a barista necessarily, right? I mean, we’re talking …

JANZ: Barista is not a career.

SMITH: We’re talking about maybe a career as a welder or an electrician or something that doesn’t require a college degree, but requires real skills, but also requires real training which costs real money. And y’all pay for that?

JANZ: 100 percent. Yeah, it’s the Good Samaritan model. He slept on his credit card and paid for all the healthcare for this suffering guy that he found on the side of the road. And so I figure, you know, I wanted to eliminate every single obstacle possible that if they would put it in the sweat, we would provide the philanthropy to help them get out. And so…

SMITH: And that’s real money though. I mean that could be 10, 12, 14, $15,000.

JANZ: We invest all in—operations, admin stipend, middle skills, training—between $10,000 and $15,000 per person that walks in the door. So that’s a significant investment, right? So our donors want to know are our people then getting those jobs. So going back to the idea of the wage: in America, it’s not a jobs game. That’s not our problem. We don’t need jobs. We need good jobs and careers to get people out of poverty. So I went to industry, they say — I say, I need $15 an hour jobs, or more. And they’ll say, well, I’ll do that, but you’ve got to give me a guy with a skill. So okay, where do I do skill development as cheap and efficient as possible that’s high quality training. So we’ve just, we have three different pathways. One’s bricks and mortar, your local tech school. One’s an online solution that we use, that the majority of our people go through. And then there are work — there are big enough companies that do their own internal middle skills training. They’re like, just give me a guy who will show up on time and not cuss out their boss and do average work. They’re not looking for rock stars. Give me someone who would just show up and do 40 hours a week. That’s how desperate people are for good help these days. So we just try to go down those paths and we go to industry, we say we’re not trying to ask you to make a charity hire. We want to go toe to toe with all the talent in the community. Hire our people.

SMITH: And so they go through that skills training. And then the final piece of it, which you mentioned briefly, was the actual finding the job, helping them find a job. And that might be a good way to introduce the allies part of this as well. Because you mentioned that you call your clients, your students, whatever, you call them leaders because you want them to take the lead in their own path out of poverty. But they don’t do it alone. They do it with you, but they also have an ally that works with them. And I’m assuming that the ally is a way that they can build relational capital and social capital to help them get a job at the end of the process. Is that accurate?

JANZ: Yeah. I wanted a way to engage the church of Jesus Christ, by and large though the middle to upper class church of Jesus Christ, that wanted to help but didn’t know how to do it. And so I just want to create a pathway where it’s easy for them to on-ramp and like I had one woman in my church say, I now know what love looks like. Because yeah, an ally, allies with some leaders in our program, we form a small group, similar to small groups we’re familiar with. They meet every single Wednesday night for six months. We go on a two-day retreat together and they form social bonds and we create a network. So what I’m doing is I’m getting an engaged middle and upper class in the lives of our people so that when our people need jobs, we light that network up and they, you know, if they have a bank they use and if they got a buddy who runs the bank, I want them calling their buddy and say, hire my friend. You’re not going to be disappointed. I’ve done life with her. Please give her a shot. That’s social capital. That what’s actually fraying in America right now. We’re building that social capital, which I think the church of Jesus Christ ought to be the greatest builders of social capital in urban neighborhoods, in all neighborhoods. Putnam says the two centers of social capital in neighborhoods are churches and schools. I think churches, by and large, have lost that social capital because they’ve become so internally focused. I want to recapture that.

SMITH: Well, all that sounds really great, Jason. And you’ve mentioned a few words like Robert Putnam and his book, Bowling Alone. And you’ve mentioned When Helping Hurts, which is a book that I’ve found very instructive over the years. So you’re saying all the right words, but tell me how it’s working. I mean, how many people have gone through your program? How many folks have gotten, are still on the job, six months, nine months, a year later?

JANZ: We graduate right now about 50 percent. This last class we’ve just made a pivot and made a lot of program tweaks. This last class was like a 70 percent graduation rate, so we’re pretty happy with where the trajectory is going. We just did our first retention study and we pull data at six, 12, 24, and 36 months. Ninety-two percent of our people are still employed over $15 an hour. Our average wage right now in this current class where we’re working with right now is $17.30. So we’re pretty happy with the trajectory. It’s really hard work. There’s a lot of mess to it. Every single person is individually different, but we just wanted, we think, I think the church ought to be experts at this, like they were in the first century, and I think we should be experts today. And I think we can be. I think the, when I go to speak to churches, the people’s hearts, they want to help. They really do. And they’re ready to help in a significant way. I mean, almost all of our allies come from churches, and so I have hope for the church.

SMITH: They want to help, but they probably have been burned over the years. They kind of know in their heart of hearts that donating a turkey to the soup kitchen might make them feel better, but it’s probably not doing any real good. And so they probably need to see some evidence from you…

JANZ: Well, and they’re afraid to say it because they feel guilty because those people at the rescue mission are doing such good work and all that kind of stuff, but they know it needs a heftier solution. So I’m trying to say, hey, I’m going to take the values you believe in. What you’re assessing is correct. We’re actually glad the rescue missions there and giving them the turkey, but let’s now talk about affordable housing. Let’s talk about that next step.

SMITH: Yeah. So I’m assuming that you’re doing the, I mean this is great, you’re doing it. It’s in your church. Your church is 250 people, $400,000 a year budget. But this thing has grown far beyond the size of the church. It’s far larger than the church now, right?

JANZ: Yeah. The church budget is $400,000 a year. The nonprofit budget is $3.4 million and it has 30 employees in it. And it’s — our elder board appoints all the board members of the nonprofit. So it’s very much joined at the hip. There’s a model out there that’s made popular by the Christian Community Development Association. We follow that kind of model. I really wanted our church, our little small church to feel like they own something that they, we all did together and trusted God for together. And so for them, it’s a huge blessing of faith that God’s taken this thing and blown it up. And now our winsome witness to the world is that over five years we will get 1,000 people out of poverty in our neighborhood.

SMITH: Well, there are two things — when you say that, there are two things that come immediately to mind. One is, you don’t have to be a megachurch to do this. And number two, a thousand people in one neighborhood raised out of poverty… that makes a real difference in that neighborhood and the community.

JANZ: Yeah. If there are members or leaders of small churches listening, I would encourage you that you have a huge leg up on the megachurch because you can focus. And anybody who engages in philanthropy knows that’s the number one problem. And the mega problem is they have 28 programs they’ve got to run, and things they’ve got to keep going. Eighty people dedicated to one social area in their community can make a significant impact. I mean, I think it was Margaret Mead who said never doubt that a small group of people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

SMITH: And you said 80 people because that’s the average size of the church in America, right?

JANZ: Absolutely.

SMITH: We, you know, the mega churches get all the publicity, but the average church in America has less than a hundred people on Sunday.

JANZ: Absolutely. So, I just met a woman at the fellowship here today and she’s in a rural area of Oregon, a total community of 13,000 people. And when she goes, we don’t have a mega church, we don’t have a ton of rich people. I’m like, oh my gosh, 80 people though in your church focused on one area in an area of 13,000, will make front page news because you’re all harnessed in one direction and focused. There’s a lot of hope there.

SMITH: The other thing that I’ve learned from you, Jason, is as I’ve heard you speak and as we’ve been talking, is that you are going to stay focused. You are going to stay focused on your local community and the work that God has given you, but you’re hoping that people will see what you’re doing and go and do likewise in their communities. Has that started to happen?

JANZ: It has started to happen. I do think we’ve lost a theology of place in American culture, and it’s not just the church. But I want to stay in the same neighborhood for 30 years and just die in my neighborhood. And just love that neighborhood, and not have stars in my eyes, if there’s any greener grass, there’s no better people. And just love a neighborhood and love a place. We call that deep roots. I think it’s almost un-American now because of the mobility of American society. I would love to see other communities say we’re going to hunker down and have a place and just be part of a church with all of its warts and wounds and just be in that same church in that same community doing good work for a really long time. So I say, you know, one burden I have is to spark a neighbor-loving movement within the church of Jesus Christ where people love their neighborhoods and actually go talk to their mayor and their city councilmen and say, what are the top three things that are keeping you up at night? And I guarantee you those top three things, the Kingdom of God intersects with at least one of those where the church could come in and actually start really working on where their God-appointed government officials are worried about and stressed about and churches should be good at building community in those areas. So yeah, we have probably seven or eight cities that have come in and looked at our model. Three of them now have duplicated in their local areas and more cities are coming through. Right now I just call it a hug and a push for three days they come in and we train them and then say, Hey God go bless you, tear it up in your community. And it is encouraging whether it’s an individual or a nonprofit or a church that says, hey, we’re actually thinking about our place a little bit differently. And by the way, there’s a lot of this happening in the country. The Christian Community Development Association has, you know, 5,000 members across the country. They’ve been doing this for a really long time. So we’re just part of this wider river I think within the church.

SMITH: And just to be clear, because you’ve mentioned government and mayors and others, you guys don’t take any government funds.

JANZ: Yes. I’m not opposed to it, you know, any government funds that we would get usually would be if they knocked on our door, like Colorado Department of Human Services had me down to their office yesterday and said, please apply for this grant, you know. And we’ve never gotten a state grant or anything like that, so it’s really been the the wider church of Jesus Christ that supports the work. I want to encourage people out there, almost everybody walks up to the money thing and gets a becomes afraid and there is no shortage of money for a good idea backed up by a solid plan. And the issue is we need God’s people to go out there and roll up their sleeves and do something by faith and then watch God provide and watch their own faith grow.

SMITH: Jason, a lot of what you do has a strong, powerful Biblical basis. I’ve talked to Jeff Cook, one of your colleagues and compatriots and fellow warriors, whatever you want to call them in this process. And he talked about the story of Nehemiah. You have been using the story of the Good Samaritan and how you think that the story of the Good Samaritan is in many ways the story of the 21st century evangelical church. Can you explain why that story is so meaningful for you and for this effort?

JANZ: Yeah. When I moved downtown, I had a mentor of mine named Ted Travis who’d been working in the urban core for 30 years. And he said to me, Jason, we in the church have figured out how to love God, but we are all thumbs when it comes to loving our neighbor. And it’s true. If you walk into the average Christian bookstore, you go, where’s the love God literature, and where’s the love your neighbor literature? You’re gonna find it’s a 99 percent to 1 percent, usually, difference. I realized, yeah, we’ve got the worship stuff down, the preaching stuff down, the teaching stuff down, and the curriculum stuff down. But this idea of loving your neighbor, we just don’t know what to do, and so that’s why our thinking around the poor tends to be a little bit shallow. I think the Good Samaritan is for the evangelical church today because they are saying, the lawyer is saying, who is my neighbor? And Jesus saying, this is who it is: It is the person who you are near who is suffering. I think that’s the interpretation of the text. And he uses a story that jacks up all of our categories, right? With a Samaritan helping the Jewish man on the side of the road. So I think it’s also, there’s a whole stream in the church that says we should only help those who are in the covenant community. So the Matthew 25 passage and the James passage is my brother. So therefore, why should I care about the poor outside of the four walls? Well, the Good Samaritan breaks that down and says, no, this was not a member of the covenant community. And there’s help there that was given. So I’m not off the hook. I do believe Galatians says, help the household of faith the most, but do good to all men.

So I think the Good Samaritan then also shows us this paradigm of holistic care as opposed to this just drive by kind of thing. So this guy took him on his donkey, took him to the inn, paid for his bill, made sure he had healthcare, and said I’ll be back and developed a relationship with him. So sacrifice his schedule and all that kind of thing. So I think that busts, kind of the model of evangelical charity right now. And I think if you just studied that passage, there’s so much depth to it. Even look at the road, you know, the Jericho road, we are fine with more Bible study curriculum, but what about looking at the structural issues that have the roads in our communities and it’s easier to do a Bible study than to repair communities. So I think that passage has so much depth to where we’re at in our moment. So if you look at the current controversies, right, refugees, immigrants, all this kind of stuff, we’re really asking the question, who is my neighbor and who is suffering, right? And I think it’s really polarizing even the church.

SMITH: And that story in the example of the Good Samaritan is a part of what sort of energizes you guys to invest really deeply. I mean, whenever you were telling me that you might invest as much as $15,000 in a single person, you’re like, well yeah, because that’s what the Good Samaritan did.

JANZ: Yeah. And people would get shocked at how much it costs, but I go, well, how much did it cost to send your kid off to college? And they all kind of nod, smile and go, yeah. I said, you put $160k into a human development program for your 18-year-old son and you know as well as I do when they graduate, they may not know how to do much of anything. They know some stuff. That’s a human development program. So $15,000 to help somebody in poverty in our neighborhood should be an investment that makes sense to us. That’s how we all know it doesn’t happen with $1.50 for a turkey dinner.

SMITH: Jason, a lot of folks are going to be listening to our conversation and they’re going to hear in you what I hear in you, which is a very articulate, a very gifted guy, who was able to get folks to do what you wanted them to do in order to create this ministry and lead this church and do all the things you’re doing. They’re going to say, I don’t have those gifts. I don’t have those skills. I can’t do what Jason did. What’s your word for those people?

JANZ: Yeah. I think they’re right. Maybe not the gifted stuff or whatever. I think I’ve been given some gifts by God, but yeah, I’m doing God’s will for my life and my time in my context. And I think it can discourage people because the average person probably shouldn’t go start an organization or a nonprofit. The Good Samaritan didn’t do that. But it was this one person helping one person. And I think there’s 85 million evangelicals in the country. We have 45 million people in poverty, 2 million in incarceration, 2 million addicted, 670,000 foster kids. I think I total up all the top social ills, so to speak, in the country. If we all loved one person suffering from one of those ills, it only totals like 73 million. Like we still have 12 million evangelicals with nothing to do. So, really the best thing we can all do is just personally go and love one person and to try to overcome that fear of I don’t know what I’m doing and realizing there’s ways to figure it out. But just go engage your faith in that way and you’ll be reading your Bible, praying, asking for counsel, and I think it will revive this part of our faith and the sanctifying process. I think working with our neighbor is part of Christian discipleship and you’ll see your faith then really click and start making sense in the full circuit.

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