Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
Some weeks ago,
I raised the question of what features of the world and its various
contexts in the 21st century might constitute new areas of mission, in
the same way that features of the world 50, 100, or 150 years ago led to
areas of mission work that we now consider central: education, poverty
relief, healthcare, etc.
This week, I suggest another new area of mission work: support for entrepreneurs, especially social entrepreneurs.
This new area of mission work would bring together two threads in the church: First, the church has long engaged in various forms of economic development mission, especially in developing countries and in American cities. Second, in the United States, the church is facing the question of how to deal with unused and underutilized church buildings, as Monday's Recommended Reading indicated.
One solution to the problem of empty church buildings has been to re-purpose them. The Missional Wisdom Foundation, highlighted in the recommended article, has been engaged in this sort of work with local congregations. There are a variety of ways in which empty church buildings can be repurposed, though. They can serve as community centers, homes for non-profits, converted into housing, sites for church-run businesses, even as climbing gyms.
Certainly, any time a church building is put to use for the good of the community is a missional success and should be celebrated and replicated. Yet there are reasons why churches may want to give special consideration to one possible use for their space: as free or low-cost space for start-up businesses, especially those pursuing a model of social entrepreneurship.
To the extent that churches care about the economic well-being of their neighborhoods, supporting entrepreneurs is a promising way to boost that economic well-being. Entrepreneurs and other small businesses create many of the jobs in the US, but support for entrepreneurs and the number of new entrepreneurs has been on a thirty-year decline. Space is one of the basic needs for early-stage new businesses, and churches thus could make an economic impact by offering their space to new businesses on favorable terms.
Moreover, engaging in support for new businesses also gives the church a say in what sorts of businesses get developed. This is an opportunity for the church to exercise some moral influence on the world of capitalism, influence that has been significantly curtailed in most other ways (and probably never existed to the extent popularly imagined).
That moral influence can come in not supporting businesses which the church finds morally offensive: alcohol, gambling, weapons, etc.
But it could also come in supporting businesses with a positive moral and social dimension as well. One of the hot topics in both the business and social service worlds is "social entrepreneurship" - the practice of starting businesses that both generate profit and benefit those in the communities around them in some tangible way. There's even a special type of incorporation (B Corp) that puts this goal of social benefit into the very foundational documents of a business.
So, what if the American church sought to use its space as a resource to benefit social entrepreneurs? What if it took something it had in abundance and was able to use that for the betterment of the neighborhood and the world around it? Wouldn't this be a form of joining in what God is doing?
As with pretty much all other areas of new mission work I have suggested in this series, this sort of entrepreneurial support is not something a church can likely do successfully on its own. There are, however, a host of other organizations out there with which churches can partner, from colleges and universities to economic development agencies to business associations to government entities. The availability of other partners is not the question; the question is whether the church is willing to be one of these partners.