There are many forms of Christian ministries in the marketplace. Likely the most prevalent are prayers groups, Bible studies, and deliberate discipleship development. Then there is the business-as-mission movement which has been gaining steam for more than twenty years but is still largely unknown outside missions groups and academia. Fortunately there have been a significant number of business leaders that understand “feeding the five thousand” can be continued today through the intentional evangelistic outreach of business development among the poor.
When Jesus fed the five thousand, he realized that he would lose his audience if their hunger distracted them from his teaching. Rather than ask them to go, eat, and reconvene at a later hour, he sat them down and provided a meal. The poor are too often distracted by the demands of mere survival, many working seven days a week, just to stay alive. In fact, about 15,000 people die every day around the world simply because they are too poor to make it to the next morning. They haven’t time for a religious message that, in effect, is as empty as “be warm and well fed” spoken to an empty stomach.
Traditional welfare and aid programs have failed dismally. They have created dependency, robbing their recipients of the opportunity to work, a human trait designed in to being human when God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden “to till and tend it.” Without meaningful, life-sustaining work, reduced to only a caricature of being human, people languish, losing hope of being what God intended them to be. One of the most important impacts of work is in the exchange. Economies are built on the vibrancy of the intricate network of trade between market players. Trade requires a level of trust to be built into a society and democratizing influences flourish. Trade enhances cooperation and then, as the complexity of the marketplace increases, deeper and deeper collaboration, enhanced by increasing transparency. Modern global corporations have found their greatest opportunities reside in the exchanges of information. Brick and mortar, machinery, and inventories are not nearly the measure of success they once were. Now intellectual capital is often worth more than cash.
Markets prove the validity of Nash’s Equilibrium Theory that says there are points in a game where no one can advance their status without the cooperation of another player. Imagine the results of the game if all the players cooperated fully. Likely we would not see a perfect balance of beneficial outcomes but all the players would benefit more in aggregate than if they all insist on competition as the only way. They see only the possibility of winners and losers when, in fact, all could win. This requires some sacrifice of potential, at least in the short term, by those players sitting on the most chips. But the economic development of the last two hundred years demonstrates that sitting on our chips results in the “rusting of our gold” (James 5:3) without increasing the benefits of our talents (Matthew 25:14-30).
“Rich” Christians, which oddly enough encompasses most of the middle class church-goers in developed economies, at least by comparison to the global distribution of wealth, have fallen into two significant traps in economic thinking. First, there is, whether we claim otherwise or not, the idea that we are playing in zero-sum game, that the pie only provides X number of pieces and we must wrangle for and then cling to the slice we have. As mentioned, the growth of wealth of the last two centuries proves this mentality deluded. God designed the abundance of the earth to multiply and gave humankind the reasoning capabilities to make it happen. Second, we fall into thinking there is actually little we can do, as individuals or households, to make a real difference. That is true so long as our thinking remains isolated, i.e., as individuals or households. But we are the church. We are one body in Christ. As such we have incredible power, in the work of the Holy Spirit in and through us, and in the practical power of collective action.
Let’s play with a few numbers. There are about 313 million people in the United States, more than 75% of whom claim to be Christian, or about 235 million. The average size of American households is 2.6 people, representing 90.3 Christian households. What if each household committed to giving just $20.00 per month toward small business development among the poor as an evangelical outreach effort? Rounding off, 90 million households would pool $1.8 BILLION dollars every MONTH! If that money was put to work promoting business development and achieved a 2.5% annual increase, the cumulative result over ten years would be more than $245 billion, more than the annual GDP of Portugal (2012, est.). That is equivalent to the average household income ($51,914) of nearly 4.7 MILLION homes in the United States. More significantly, it equates to the average household income ($9,218) of more than 26 million households in the world. All achieved at $20 per month. The point is, collective action, even if done in very small increments creates a groundswell. If the impact can be leveraged to yield 3.5% per annum, the result is nearly $259 billion. At 6.0%, the number jumps to almost $300 billion, now approaching the annual GDP of oil-rich Venezuela. That’s impact! But further, that money, not in the form of businesses, in effect, has become innumerable money machines that will continue to produce incomes, that is, fruitful yields, without further investment, indefinitely into the future.
Remember, the thirty, sixty, and hundredfold return of Jesus’ illustration (Matthew 13:8) came from a handful of seeds. Using corn as an example, three seeds per hole in the garden floor produces one stalk with three ears, each with about 800 kernels. That is a 800:1 return. Seeds are powerful things and that is why entrepreneurs and financiers identify start up funding as seed capital. But we all know that not every stalk grows nor does every stalk produce three ears with eight hundred kernels . . . but those are the averages in modern agriculture. So to, not every business grows and not every business returns 800:1 on investment. But good gardeners, with lots of practice, get higher yields!
The church has a second opportunity to witness the glory of God by ensuring the funds invested in these small businesses produces the greatest results by matching seasoned business veterans with the start-up entrepreneurs. By coaching, mentoring, and accountability, success rates can be substantially higher.
One wonders, then, how is all this evangelism? The Greek term translated as gospel, ninety-nine times in the New Testament, is always a form of euaggelion, which means simply “good news” (which also appears seven times in the New Testament and is also always translated from a form of euaggelion). Jesus’ declarative statement in identifying himself with the arrival of the Kingdom of God on earth was “to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are downtrodden, To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord” – Luke 4:18-19. Four of the five points of his speech – the poor, the captives, the downtrodden, and the favorable year – were economic issues. While salvation in Christ is our preeminent gain in knowing Christ, the overturning of the world system of cultural, social, economic, and political elitism, all feeding greed and oppression, was intended in Christ’s Incarnation, his coming among us to preach in precise detail the failing of Israel to become the “wise and understanding people” God intended them to be as a witness of his glory to the nations surrounding them (Deuteronomy 4:6). If the failure rate among new Christian businesses was significantly less than the failure rates of all new businesses, the world would take notice. The Harvard Business Review would publish articles and the goodness of God would be ever more prominently shared.
Too often, modern evangelism has lost sight of the real world impact the Gospel was intended to have and turned too far to an escapist mentality, embracing faulty doctrines of eschatology that deny the redemption of all creation, God’s intent in his mission in the world. Too much focus has been placed on personal salvation as a singular event in the life of the believer without actually fulfilling the discipleship mandate of the Great Commission. christian discipleship means that we carry forward the work of Christ in the world, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the poor by the most effective means we can muster. We, the church in developed economies, have the opportunity to make a difference in our world by demonstrating the goodness of God, that is, witnessing to his glory, in tangible ways. That is the heart evangelism because that is good news to the poor, the good news of the Kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Are we ready and willing to lay down our lives by putting our money, our time, and our expertise where our mouths are as the acts of “no greater love” to which we have been called? – John 15:13. Who is the neighbor we are willing to love as we love ourselves? – Matthew 22:39.
I invite you to engage with me as I formally launch the Eden’s Bridge Business and Mission Institute. The ministry is knowledge-based to encourage broader and deeper collaboration within the church to reach the world, to reveal the glory of God, that by demonstrating his love, serving the poor in the name of Jesus Christ through market mechanisms for the alleviation of poverty, and empowering people to be the productive workers God intended, the kindness of God leads to repentance (Romans 2:4). It is not enough to simply share in words what God has done in our lives nor even proclaim the good news of salvation in Christ. We are, as Jesus did and we are all called to follow him, to minister in actual feeding, healing, and releasing of all God’s children, revealing the grace and mercy of God: “Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue [as nothing more than clanging cymbals], but in deed and truth [in sacrificial action]“ – 1 John 3:18.