I have come to believe that social/missional entrepreneurship is going to sweep over the American church. Mostly it will happen by necessity, but there are some great missionally based reasons the church needs to move in this direction. As I have been thinking through why social/missional entrepreneurship matters to the American Church some ideas have emerged for me that are wonderful and also scary. One is related to the hopeful possibilities of what social entrepreneurship can mean to the church. The other has to do with what will happen for churches (and possibly theological institutions) if they don't figure out how to do ministry in this new way fast enough. The impetus for this thinking came from a conversation with a friend about 2 years ago.
As I was thinking about launching into this whole enterprise I was very nervous about whether I was having some kind of crisis and had dreamed up the worst idea ever. I knew of precisely 0 people at the time who were thinking this way and no one seemed to be speaking my language. I decided to call a friend of mine who does impact investing in the 3rd world. I began to tell him some of the books I had been reading on sustainable charity work and also on faith and economics. My sense was that the impact investing that was reshaping good work in the 3rd world and in urban areas in the U.S. was a much better model than the church was running in the 1st world on a weekly basis. I told him my idea to create a youth ministry that was more self sustaining. Here is what he had to say (paraphrased):
The two worlds of for profit and non profit are blending. The dividing walls that once separated the two are breaking down rapidly. Major companies, millennials, and small businesses are starting to ask how they can make a social impact and how they can maximize their impact as they go. Millennials are tired of working for 40 years making money doing something that they don't believe in Monday through Friday, only to attempt to give it away at the end of the month or at the end of their lives to a good cause. Why not do it along the way? They want to make maximum social impact while they work!
As I chewed on this idea while my business was beginning to get up and running a few thoughts began to emerge. First, if Jane Doe business person in my church is going to work every day and hearing about impact investing and also hearing that her company is maximizing its impact in the community with the cutting edge of social entrepreneurship practice, then how is she going to feel when she shows up on Sunday and she feels that she is simply throwing money into the church with no clear impact? Churches, I have come to believe, are often benevolent holes. We do really good work in our own way when there is responsible and educated leadership, but we aren't really focused on what kind of Kingdom impact we are trying to make. Who are we helping? How are we helping them? And is it really doing any measurable good? To be sure, part of that is because people are difficult to measure and so is the impact you make on them. But, these are the questions that Jane Doe will be asking. Her business is making all sorts of impact. Why isn't her church? When Jane Doe begins to compare the two spheres on Sunday, eventually she is going to realize that the church is way behind. It's not that she doesn't believe in the Kingdom. It's that she wants the Kingdom to break in! And eventually Jane will probably rather give her dollar to an institution that is doing charitable work in ways that are more productive. And since we are in the post-Christendom side of history in the West she will be under no cultural obligation to continue to give to the church. I can't blame her in many ways. But, its the implications of this that are terrifying for the church as institution.
My guess is that within the next 5-7 years churches are going to wake up to this trend toward impact investing and social entrepreneurship. They are going to have to begin to develop their own economic engines that are self sustaining and generate their own for profit or non profit funding if they wish to continue to do meaningful Kingdom ministry. Basically, if we are really blunt about it the church has lived off of cultural subsidies for about 1500 years and they are disappearing virtually overnight. As churches begin to create those engines that maximize charitable impact it is only going to accelerate the de-funding of those that don't. If that happens, Jane Doe business woman will show up to church and not only will her institution not seem efficient in light of her professional work, but it will also seem inefficient in light of the church down the road. But, its the tax impact and competitive impact that will be even more crushing to the church that doesn't move in this direction.
An intuitive guess is that as churches move in this social entrepreneurship direction the culture around us will react quickly. There will be lots of good done through this model of ministry, but you and I both know that scandal will hit as well. There will be corrupt churches and leaders that abuse social entrepreneurial good the same way that folks have abused micro finance over the years. Just imagine Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill with about 10-15 small businesses under their auspices. It will be a mess. As that kind of garbage unfolds, my guess is that the church will move towards losing its tax status at a much more accelerated rate (I remain convinced that will happen in my lifetime). People will begin to ask why pastors and others get special subsidies that other nonprofits don't get especially when they see examples of corrupt practice. The dollar cost and ministry cost of such a shift would be HUGE!
Furthermore, the fact that other churches are essentially entering the nonprofit world will only raise the cost of inefficiencies within the church. So, imagine how much more costly and unsustainable that pipe organ will become when the church down the road is creating its own self sustaining laundro-mat for the homeless or a brew pub that also does English tutoring during the day for immigrants and then turns into a sanctuary on Sunday. So, the churches that wait will possibly pay a huge price in terms of the religious marketplace for not moving toward social entrepreneurship.
If those two shifts happen it will mean that churches will be competing for the first time on equal economic footing with nonprofit companies that have been doing this kind of charitable work for years with greater efficiency and less tax shelter. Stepping late into that marketplace of charitable work would be akin to stepping off a train that has started to move very quickly. The precipice may be huge if latecomers try to make this leap once other churches have left the station. They will be trying to catch up with less tax protection, better churches around them, and while competing against secular nonprofits. They will do this in a marketplace that will also become increasingly saturated with social entrepreneurial ideas.
I don't think these potential shifts will happen all at once, but I do think it is going to happen. Churches are going to have to develop different engines to sustain their ministries and if they can't they will probably disappear. But, the part that is really sad is that they will miss out on the chance to do Kingdom work in a really focused and impactful way. This entrepreneurial shift is going to force churches to become hyper focused on their purpose and mission. It will be too costly not to do that. Those that don't will have missed an opportunity to do Kingdom work through some radically different mediums. Many people are already creatively doing this work beyond the walls of the church. Some of them are people of faith and some of them are not. I remain hopeful that churches will figure this out. I believe that there can be places that perform worship and maximize social impact all at once. But, I am also deeply fearful for churches that don't see this coming and for those that use social entrepreneurship to capitalize in abusive ways.