Last Friday (September 13, 2013), I presented a workshop at the annual national conference of the Christian Community Development Association entitled, “Will My Business Idea Work? – Contextual Small Business Development.” While, for me, that workshop was the focal point of my attending the conference, there were many things that transpired of greater or equal importance; mostly meeting new friends and the conversations we shared. But I walked away from the conference with one pressing line of thought.
The workshop I presented was included in the Economic Development track of the conference which included 124 workshop / seminar offerings, though a handful were core presentations offered more than once. On Friday, in the time slot I was assigned , one other Economic Workshop was taking place. I spoke with the presenters from that workshop afterward and between us, we had about 70 attendees of the roughly 3,000 conferees (if this year’s conference was consistent with attendance in recent years), or a little less than 2.5%.
There were 23 concurrent workshops in the same time slot as ours which included everything from Adult Learning and Financial Literacy to Families and Soul Care to Housing to Youth and Children. A flat distribution of attendees would have put an average of about 130 people in each room, or 260 in the two Economic Development workshops – nearly four times what we actually saw.
Lest I be misunderstood and before going further, I want to dispel any suspicion that I intend to detract from any of the other workshops’ content or importance. Community development is a complex, multifaceted undertaking and must be approached from a wide range of directions simultaneously. But I doubt that many, if any, of the workshops in a time slot more or less in the very middle of the conference saw 130 attendees in the room.
I do, however, want to speak specifically to the availability of the Economic Development workshops. The greatest practical cause (setting aside, if I may, the obvious dominance of spiritual causality) of the multitudinous issues afflicting the poor is, by definition, poverty. The fastest track out of poverty is the creation of new wealth, i.e., economic development, as has been witnessed as globalization of the last fifty years has lifted more people from poverty in a shorter time than at any other in history. I applaud the CCDA Board of Directors as the last three conferences have included Business-as-Mission or Economic Development tracks, beginning in Indianapolis in 2011. There were seven economic development workshops (about five and a half percent of all) offered during the entire conference. This is an encouraging step in the right direction but illustrates that we have a long way yet to go in addressing the single most impactful aspect of poverty, the lack of productive opportunity.
Economic development is just that . . . development. It is to help move those in poverty out of poverty, that is, by creating jobs, which in turn creates a myriad of other opportunities including access to better systems of healthcare, education, and other economic amenities like readily-available transportation, retirement planning, etc. For too long, the global Church has predominantly adopted a relief approach to serving the poor. As before, my intent is not to detract from the necessity or importance of relief. Many would suffer far more than they do without it.. But recent missiological study has shown time and again that we do not quickly enough move from a relief model of charitable work to a developmental model to put communities on their own way to long term economic health and sustainability. Haiti has proven an illustrative case study where Christian mission groups continue to displace native workers in rebuilding efforts, offering free labor where aid funds could be used to pay local workers a reasonable wage to rebuild their own communities.
There are, I believe, two primary causes for maintaining the status quo of charity models, both of which actually hinder the economic and social development of indigenous populations. The first is an adherence to the tried and true, even when the trying has shown itself to create dependencies rather than local autonomy. This adherence may be due to a couple of problems. One is the lack of creativity brought on by tunnel vision. Many missions workers (which goes for social services administrations, local “helps” ministries, etc.) are simply so busy trying to alleviate human suffering that they miss the harmful side effects (unintended consequences) until those side effects create a seemingly irreparable pattern. Another cause is, sadly, a god complex among some relief / aid workers. They find their personal value in helping others and may be, even if subconsciously, afraid of working themselves out of a job which would then leave them without usefulness and relevance as a human being. Neither of these (sub-category) causes – tunnel vision or god complex – are in any way justifiable to not continually explore new means, and embrace them, of improving the lives of those we serve.
The second great cause is a general distrust of business as a just means of alleviating poverty. My experience, and that of many, many others who profess a belief that God would use business in redemptive ways, is that poverty is enormously exacerbated by the victimization of business as a necessary evil. That portrayal, however, is a fiction perpetuated by the false dichotomy of the sacred / secular divide. In Christian worship, there is no separation between the profession of faith and vocational profession.
As a Christian entrepreneur I wrestled with the notion of being called to business as a means of salvific grace, that is, as a ministry practice toward Kingdom building in the world. It was that internal conflict that led me to attend seminary and begin my research on the role of business in mission. I did not necessarily expect to find business in the creation narrative of Genesis 1-2 but find it I did.
There has been a great deal of literature written in the last couple of decades on theologies of work and of stewardship as pre-Fall legitimacy of those callings is established in Genesis 2:15 – “Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” Notice that God does not just give Adam a job. He gives him two, both as a laborer and as a manager. What we often miss is that the next thing God gave Adam was a co-worker.
The division of labor is the foundation of a market economy and that Eve was to work with Adam implies that exchanges between them will occur. This discovery was the focal point of the marketplace theology I developed in my book, Eden’s Bridge: The Marketplace in Creation and Mission (Wipf & Stock, 2011). But further, exchange is the foundation of all sociality, whether of material goods or convenient services or what we would typically consider social goods, the building and maintenance of infrastructure by government agencies or the compassionate spiritual and social support extended to those in crisis.
Every organization, from families and households to universities, hospitals, churches and corporations, operate on the same foundational economic exchange model where income may be called donation or revenues, expenses appear to be universal, value propositions ensure sustainability, and communications result in outreach or marketing. The only differentiations are in the particular lingua franca of each institutional category and the definitions of the offerings.
There is a great more said in Eden’s Bridge about the ethics of business practice, the role of profit making, and so on, but I wanted here to only offer the very foundation – God’s intention in the division of labor – of the biblical evidence for business as a practice God created and is now working more apparently than ever to redeem as ministry to the world and for witness to His glory.
My hope here has been to challenge CCDA’ers and other missions-minded folk to dig into understanding that business, when done according to the nature, character, and will of God, is inherently good and vitally important to building the Kingdom in the here and now, toward the shalom of all people. In fact, the marketplace is a vital function in the created order of a loving God, a God on the move in the marketplace (I have identified twelve distinct marketplace ministry models) who is inviting us to get on board.
In many ways, since I am coming from a background of small business ownership and not specifically pastoral ministry or social services, I have felt like an outsider at the two CCDA conferences I have attended (Indianapolis and New Orleans). But again, I applaud the CCDA Board of Directors for their prophetic insight into the necessity of including economic development in the overarching community development conversation. I hope that I have created an opportunity for the mission-minded to move more freely toward economic development, small business incubation, and job creation as perhaps the most viable means of reaching one of their ultimate goals – the alleviation of poverty as ministry to the world for the glory of God.