Partners in Community: Why Social
Cultivating a new way of thinking about community development
By Adam Gustine | May 8, 2017
What does it mean to be the church in my neighborhood? In my work as a pastor and community developer, this question is of utmost importance.
One way to answer that is through the lens of the church as a parable of God’s kingdom. Eugene Peterson unpacks this metaphor in The Contemplative Pastor, writing that when Jesus told parables, people who might have been antagonistic to his message could hear him because the stories didn’t seem to be about God at all—they were about birds and fields and flowers. So his listeners would lower their defenses and take the story in. Later as they were walking home, Peterson says, “an abyss opened up at their very feet.” Suddenly they realized that the story had been about God the whole time—and a new world opens up in front of them.
That’s a compelling image. What if our congregations engaged our communities in ways that are unassuming and ordinary—like a parable—so that people do not encounter us with their defenses up?
In recent years, many churches have been addressing this question through intentional social enterprise strategies. A social enterprise is a business that seeks to generate self-sustaining revenue while also addressing a community concern. In other words, it’s a business venture that engages a neighborhood in a compelling and redemptive way.
That’s a kind of dictionary definition, so I would rather think about the phrase “community centered enterprise” because it helps us focus on the community to which we belong. Community centered enterprise creates the potential for increased community resiliency—a neighborhood working together to flourish in a wholistic way.
Community resiliency grows in many ways but one way we might not always think about is related to economics. When people find employment and the community has what it needs within the community, the dollars stay there. If people get jobs but they have to leave the neighborhood to shop for their basic needs, those dollars leave with them. Creating opportunities for sustained economic development is a major building block in working for transformation in a community. Meaningful enterprise may also address issues of community, vocation, leadership development, and in each of those ways it is contributing to the overall level of neighborhood resiliency.
Ultimately, we’re talking about mutuality. Neighborhood businesses can be an incredibly strategic way to live life alongside others. It’s harder to slip into a posture of paternalism—the idea that I know what’s best for you and you don’t—if my neighbors and I are building our community together. Through a community centered enterprise we can have interactions with our neighbors about ordinary things. Sometimes a neighborhood can become defensive in response to a church’s straightforward outreach efforts. But if I’m working at a laundromat on the corner, we are having day-to-day type interactions, and the defenses may come down. This is the parable in action—unassuming and ordinary, but, as the kingdom of God always is, beautiful and surprising.
Community centered enterprise creates the potential for increased community resiliency—a neighborhood working together to flourish in a wholistic way.
Our hope is that churches and nonprofits are asking, “How can we work with our neighbors to create conditions for flourishing together?” Social enterprise opens up a host of surprising opportunities. It solves more than one problem at once—putting people to work while at the same time addressing other significant community concerns. So we could address issues of employment and at the same time think creatively about how to work in a food desert, or develop community together if there is no common space to gather and have conversation.
Why should churches think about social enterprise? Here are three potential benefits.
First, social enterprise engages whole people and whole communities in whole-life flourishing.
Wholistic flourishing helps us see that at our core we are interconnected people. Wholeness—or what the Bible calls shalom—is a fully integrated life or community, where nothing is missing and nothing is broken.
Social enterprise helps us connect the dots of people’s whole lives in an increasingly comprehensive way. What distinguishes such efforts from, say, a local coffee shop is the reason the businesses exist. A social enterprise does not exist for the economic well-being of the owners alone. Rather, it embodies a vision that says, “What I want for myself, I want for everybody in my neighborhood.” So they exist explicitly for the sake of the community, which is a very “church” kind of thing. Church in its best expression exists for the sake of other people, and a healthy social enterprise does the same thing.
Second, it’s sustainable.
Anyone who does nonprofit community development work will tell you that it takes a lot of time and energy to fund the mission. What’s more, time spent doing fund development is time spent not doing the work we are passionate about. In that model every single dollar has to be raised all over again every year. It’s no wonder nonprofit management produces so much stress and burnout.
There’s got to be a better way than every nonprofit competing for slices from the same pie of philanthropic dollars. What if we had strategies that lessened our dependence on getting a bigger slice? Enterprise is a compelling alternative.
Community centered businesses are not a silver bullet for sustainability. But they are a great way to move in a different direction. Increasingly effective business strategies can free us from our dependence on donations. Furthermore, many potential partners will jump at the chance to donate to an initiative where their donation becomes an investment—their impact multiplied as it is re-invested in furthering the mission.
Third, it’s transferable.
Often when people think about social enterprise, they picture it happening in cities. Indeed, the benefits of doing this work in an urban center are straightforward (e.g., a population density that supports it). But in Love Mercy Do Justice we are working to create opportunities that make sense in urban, suburban, and rural contexts. In theory, then, one’s location wouldn’t limit the success of an enterprise, because with the right idea the market could be very broad.
Of course, nothing is foolproof. Social enterprise might not make sense for everyone and in every context. It is also not immune from problematic implementation and it does not guarantee effectiveness. But I am hopeful that focused work in this area will help us reimagine our way of life in the neighborhood.
Ultimately, enterprises can give us a renewed imagination for what it means to be the church in the place God has placed us. As we develop roots, relationships, and real passion for seeing God’s shalom enacted on the sidewalks and within the intersections we share with friends and neighbors, we will encounter bigger and more beautiful possibilities for being the church.