One of the theological strengths of rightly practiced Christianity is a kind of "patient incarnation". As I have been reading various books on social enterprise there is a heavy emphasis on measurable impacts. And generally speaking this is a wonderful thing that the church could learn a great deal from. The vast majority of churches rarely get to a place where they can name their values let alone their vision. As a result they often don't know what to measure in terms of whether or not they are achieving their goals. But, the desire to measure impact carries a certain burden with it that the church has a long history with. The desire to make a measurable impact on anyone can lead us to turn them into a kind of commodity. When we push too heavily toward measurable impacts we often end up seeing people, communities, and even whole countries as cogs in a plan that we (the benefactors) have developed. That kind of agency can be tone deaf and often blind to what the object of its assistance would desire for themselves. I would propose that Christianity offers a healthy alternative when one thinks about the life and ministry of Jesus.
In Christ, God is sent and comes into the world and there are multiple attributes of this self sending that are can redemptively temper the desire for "impact".
1. The Act of Being Sent- There is a remarkable kind of patience in the simple fact that God does not choose to do things instantaneously. Instead God chooses a methodology of social impact in which thousands of physical steps are taken, meals are eaten, breaths are taken, etc. In Jesus, impact is intimate.
2. The Act of Being Sent to a Particular Place- The fact that God's mission has a locus is worthy of attention. In coming into the world Christ does not enact change remotely on other places. He moves into a particular context and enacts his ministry relatively locally. He engages a finite language and culture. In Jesus, impact is local.
3. God Honors Autonomy- Throughout his ministry Jesus is approached by others (Luke 9-14) and approaches others who claim they wish to engage what he offers, but then they back down. Jesus does not force his way into their lives or push them any further. In other words there is a kind of objective distance in his desire to impact the world. Jesus doesn't make sure he gets the win in every conversation. He is sovereign while maintaining the autonomy of the created creature who he loves. In Jesus, impact honors the autonomy of the other.
4. He is Sent to Individuals- A dramatic feature of Jesus' incarnational ministry is that he seems to heal people one at a time. His desire to impact the world and the lives of others is not superceded by mass impact. There is something intrinsically good about small batches of good work within the heart of God. In Jesus, impact is large, but primarily done on an individual scale.
5. He Often Listens- A hallmark of the way that God enters the world in Christ is that he asks lots of questions and listens. Many of Jesus' conversations see him asking questions of friends and enemies about what they want, their willingness to engage his way of life, and about how they understand God's teachings. These aren't exactly listening circles as Jesus clearly inhabits a prophetic role, but neither do we see Jesus only dictating to others. In Jesus, impact values the voice of the other.
6. He has an Eternal Timeline- Jesus clearly has an urgency about his mission, yet he is not obsessed with efficiency. The way that he scales things seems to take a long view of ministry even while he knows that ministry will be short lived. His concept of time seems to be more cyclical than linear. This produces a man who has an urgent mission yet goes about it rather patiently. In Jesus, impact must be patient.
One of the perplexing parts about Western culture is that it has been shaped by a religion that believes that we are eternal creatures, but it's concepts of time are remarkably finite. We are obsessed with impact as that is the pinnacle of Western self actualization. When you combine the desire for self actualization with the sense that time is scarce then you end up with a drive to maximize everything in the short term. Time becomes a kind of measurable commodity that is therefore scarce. This way of thinking is dangerous to the heart of social enterprise because once you can commoditize time, it is a short walk down the hill to commoditizing people too.
The danger of desiring to make an impact on my neighbor is that it may cause me to diminish their own autonomy, will, and actual needs within my desire to self actualize. Christians have a useful voice in the social enterprise world in that we have an incarnational story that pushes back on such a drive. We also have a long black history of being participants in forcing "progress" on our neighbors. We need to keep this black history at the forefront of our colleauges' minds. Social Enterprise needs a model that encourages us to be patient. We need to honor autonomy, listen well, and often work on an individual scale. As long as we temper our desire for impact with these virtues we should be able to serve the greater good.