What do Skateboarding, Making Disciples, and Crown College have in Common?
Jonny Nelson had a dream to do ministry in the action sports world — but just as it came to fruition, Jonny was forced to close the doors.
Jonny is the founder of JSAW (which stands for Jesus Snow Asphalt Water), an action sports ministry located just outside of Minneapolis. His story as a Crown graduate who started a ministry, saw it fail, then built partnerships and a long-term vision to keep it alive, is inspiring to anyone interested in a ministry career.
Getting Started in Ministry
Growing up in a dysfunctional home, Jonny picked skateboarding and snowboarding over other sports, connecting immediately to the action sports culture. In 2004 at the age of just 16, he saw an opportunity to turn his passion into ministry and created a skatepark where youth could just be themselves without judgment.
Initially, JSAW was located in a 20,000 sq. ft. warehouse that came about with help from his youth pastor and a local businessman. By the end of that first year, at least 3,000 teenagers visited the shop and indoor skatepark. JSAW ministry staff invested time in those youth through regular mentoring and weekly Bible studies.
Unfortunately for Jonny, this initial success didn’t last long. The thrill of being so young and running a ministry soon went to his head. While the number of people involved with this new venture had grown, the ministry was not being developed for long-term sustainability. Jonny had become more reliant on his own skills than the One who helped him start it all in the first place.
By the time the outreach hit the two year mark, everything was gone. JSAW ran out of money and was forced to close its doors.
However, it was a blessing in disguise.
After the doors closed to the facility, Jonny decided to focus once again on the heart of the ministry and also better prepare himself through additional training and education. The original purpose of JSAW was to make riders into disciples, but because of the stress of managing the operations, he couldn’t maintain that vision.
“In the time without the facility, we became more laser-focused on the ministry,” says Jonny. “God allowed us the time to become more business-savvy and focus on our mission and goals. We closed down all of the activities that took away from that.”
“Everything happened so quickly in the beginning,” adds Jonny. “It was just nine months from the idea to the grand opening. Although the skatepark began as a ministry, it was after we lost the shop that the ministry really began to develop deep, strong roots.”
Getting the Training He Needed
As it turns out, those roots needed a place to grow and mature.
Jonny enrolled in an early college program offered to high school students through Crown College. After completing the PSEO (Post Secondary Enrollment Option) program, Jonny decided he loved the college and wanted to finish his bachelor’s degree. In 2008, he graduated with a degree in Youth and Social Ministry and in 2014, he completed his master’s in Organizational Leadership.
“Crown’s professors really cared about me, building me into a leader — in a spiritual, professional, and personal sense,” says Jonny.
Dr. Ken Castor, Associate Professor of Youth Ministry at Crown and JSAW Board member, comments that the Youth and Social Ministry degree really prepares students to work in ‘outside-of-the-box’ ministry situations.
“Many of our Youth and Social students become involved in creative ministry endeavors that might not fit in some of the regular routines or groupings of society,” says Dr. Castor. “They work for organizations like MN Adult and Teen Challenge, Treehouse, and Young Life.”
The Importance of Partnerships
What really saved Jonny’s ministry — apart from the renewed focus on building relationships with teens who love action sports — was developing partnerships.
“Things can be done so much better together, especially in the body of Christ where we all have the same Spirit and the same Great Commission,” says Jonny.
Interestingly, many people who start ministries tend to “go it alone” and survive for a while on their own personalities and momentum — but that’s a big mistake.
“The ministry partnerships that developed after the park closed re-energized the organization in many ways,” says Jonny, “It was like opening up the curtains to a bright sunny morning and seeing that God had more planned ahead.”
One example: Every year JSAW holds a Night of Action fundraiser for anyone who is willing to partner with the ministry. It wouldn’t be possible to run an incredible ministry like JSAW off the energy and resources of their own staff. Recently, they hosted their 14th annual Night of Action at Hyland Hills Chalet in Edina. The event was a night of fellowship, dining, and hearing from their guest speaker, Tim Foreman of Switchfoot. They had 130 guests and raised over $21,000 for JSAW.
JSAW partnerships began with Christian Skaters, WakeWell, Christian Surfers and Snowboarders and Skiers for Christ. In 2014, JSAW helped form the ACTS Network, a global network of action sports ministries. “We are excited to be a part of this network,” says Jonny, “because it allows us to see JSAW’s vision of transforming action sports culture become a reality through partnerships around the world.”
Today’s Ministry Impact
Just before Jonny completed his master’s in 2013, the park was reopened in a smaller facility. Today, JSAW’s ministry is both a skate park and a boardshop called Help. In the shop, riders can buy boards, wheels, clothing, and can even have their boards repaired. The skate park is open to the community, and they currently average 50 riders visiting the park each week. That’s a similar number to those who visited when the park first opened, but now the ministry is more sustainable with more partnerships and a clearer long-term vision.
One if the biggest lessons he learned is to focus on the riders, not the facility.
“Riders are creative, driven — and they are influencers,” says Jonny. “They also have a high tolerance for risk. The riders we serve often struggle with drugs, alcohol, pornography, depression, suicide, and so much more. We want to see this change.”
“It is so cool seeing riders become doctors or even inner-city teachers,” adds Jonny, “They are passionate about Jesus Christ and make disciples wherever they go!”
One example is Sam, a seventh-grader who had an unfortunate life event and later began skateboarding at the park and attending Bible studies. He says JSAW opened his eyes to something bigger. “One night at Bible study, I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior,” he says. “I felt a glow. I realized that Jesus is the greatest and biggest thing I can go to when something like that ever happens.”
JSAW’s impact is more than local. As stated by the ministry on its website, “JSAW has shared the gospel with over 140,000 youth and built 13 action sports ministries including projects in Panama, Guatemala, Dubai, Ethiopia, India, and Egypt.”
Some of Jonny’s recent activity with JSAW includes putting together content for an action sports edition of Sports Spectrum magazine, the #1 Christian sports publication.
“It is so cool to see how God is working in and through action sports culture in places like Sri Lanka, Italy, South Africa, and more,” he says.
Jonny’s advice to anyone at Crown hoping to start a ministry? Spend more time with Jesus. “Nothing and nobody before Jesus.” Not every opportunity is a calling from God, so you need to be sure that you are listening to God. And remember it’s not about you, it’s about God’s glory.
Want to help make a difference in the lives of youth? You can donate to JSAW ministry by going here.
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