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Yes, Sometimes We Can Serve Both God and Mammon
Photo courtesy of Jessica Lynch and Charlie McGlynn

Yes, Sometimes We Can Serve Both God and Mammon

My congregation's experiment in using market values to grow our mission.

I've always believed that the church exists on earth for the sake of mission—the tangible, embodied love of Christ. It's the one thing we do on earth that we won't do in heaven. More than well-done music and a well-honed sermon in a well-crafted building, the church is called to take up concrete things done with and for other people: feeding the hungry. Visiting the sick. Loving neighbors. Speaking truth. Loving enemies. Sharing the gospel.

Given this, it seems odd that many churches treat mission with nickel-and-dime efforts: a few hundred dollars a year to this agency, another check to that, a short-term trip here and there. Churches outsource much of their mission work to specialized organizations. Though both efficient and expedient, doing this has a way of teaching us to be donors instead of doers.

Arriving as the new minister at my church—a fairly affluent, Midwest, middle-aged, suburban church in the Congregational model—I became convinced that God was calling us to something we could we do together that none of us could do alone. Historically speaking, common mission boosts enthusiasm, deepens prayer, builds community, and bears fruit for the kingdom. While no single church can go to all ends of the earth (and should not aspire to), surely ours could marshal its ample resources for a bigger splash than we were making.

Unfortunately, my missions pitch sounded exhausting. Like many a mainline, our congregation has its share of gray hair. This means more wisdom and life experience than the hip churches that older congregations envy. But wisdom without energy means that mission goes undone. We needed to integrate a younger demographic into our church. Regrettably, with the so-called "rise of the nones" (the population of adults indicating no religious affiliation), integrating younger people into our church was a challenge. Pop music worship and entertaining children's programs no longer sufficed.

At the same time, the decline in religiosity among younger people is not necessarily a decline in spirituality. Many young people are certainly religious about justice and social causes. And here was the mission tie: Instead of trying to attract younger people for the purpose of mission, perhaps doing mission on purpose could attract younger people.

A Providential Windfall

As fortune came to pass, our church recently sold a piece of land for $2 million. Most of that went to retire a sizable debt and building repairs, but we knew that to spend the entire proceeds on ourselves was unfaithful. We voted to allocate 20 percent to serving outside our walls.

The sensible way to spend the 20 percent would have been to find a successful service agency and write the check. But I hated that idea. Surely we could leverage this money in a way that would let us get personally involved.

Yet how to pick? We assessed. We discussed. We hired consultants. We prayed. The heavens stayed silent.

We had the money. We had the wisdom and experience, especially in fields related to business. What we lacked was our particular calling (or the energy to follow it through). What if we challenged young adults in our church and wider community to generate an idea that could become our calling?

I proposed we take $250,000 and sponsor a social entrepreneurial competition. We could invite innovators ages 35 and younger to submit project proposals with gospel values of grace, justice, love, redemption, and reconciliation. We'd ask that applicants affirm the Apostles' Creed, because we wanted our effort to promote Christian faith. Our church would provide funding and expertise, networking, creative community, and acceleration toward successful launches. We'd use business acumen to make the projects sustainable and stress measurable outcomes.

When I pitched the idea of a business-based social entrepreneurial competition to church leaders, some presumed I'd lost my mind. This was too large an amount of cash to risk on unproven ventures. Better to give it to a proven enterprise and maximize our return on investment. To put it in biblical parlance: Be a good steward. Church and business don't mix. "You can't serve both God and Mammon," Jesus said (Luke 16:13).

When I pitched the idea of a business-based social entrepreneurial competition to church leaders, some presumed I'd lost my mind.

They had a point. So many foundational business values run counter to the gospel, be it the primacy of shareholders over service, gluttonous profits, avaricious career ambition, or accumulating too much capital. To prosper financially may not be a biblical vice, but greed, injustice, and extravagance lurk in prosperity's shadows.

On the other hand, Jesus also said, "all things are possible with God" (Matt 19:26). Mission can redeem the better aspects of the market to serve kingdom ends. Virtues of honesty and hard work, along with love and fairness, all improve the way we do business. To believe in Jesus is to value all these things. Granted, to believe in Jesus is also to embrace humiliation and loss, and loss is no way to profit—unless you buy the gospel. To take a providential windfall and risk it all on untested idealists sounded as ridiculous as changing the world through death on a cross. It takes faith for good business sense to make good mission sense.

Breaking New Ground

Being the new minister, I had relational capital to spend. The congregation tentatively went along, walking by faith rather than sight. We named the initiative Innové, a French word meaning "breaking new ground"—or perhaps better, "digging a grave," in keeping with the gospel's promise of resurrection power.

We designed an evaluation process that maximized our business-minded congregation--from technology, marketing, assessment, and coaching to advising, planning, training, budgeting, execution and evaluation. More than 150 members volunteered their talents. We worried that after marshaling this wealth of resources we would fail to attract applicants. But worry has a beautiful way of converting to prayer.

Twenty applications came in as we approached the due date—a disappointing number, frankly. We'd prayed for more. Then, as the clock approached midnight, our online application portal lit up. Apparently young entrepreneurs like to take every minute they are given (either that, or they like to procrastinate). Suddenly our modest 20 applicants bloomed to 139.

The applications ran the gamut from laundro-daycaremats for underemployed mothers in the city, to concierge services for elderly people who wanted to stay in their homes, all the way to educational projects for children orphaned by conflict in Kenya. We scored according to uniqueness, feasibility, and fit with our congregation. We wanted not only to fund and launch new mission endeavors, but to participate in the work itself.

Harrell awards one of the winners of the Innove contest.Image: Photo courtesy of Jessica Lynch and Charlie McGlynn

Harrell awards one of the winners of the Innove contest.

We also trained 24 gifted church members to be Innové "navigators." Each of them ushered through the process the semi-finalist projects. Our process entailed formulating business plans and budgets, as well as preparing a pitch for a panel of judges who determined which semi-finalists to fund.

Eventually, after much input and prayer, the semi-finalists submitted their business plans and pitched their ideas to our judges. They picked six to fund as "Protégés" (in keeping with Innové's French milieu). The Protégés included a church-school partnership program that provides weekend meals to undernourished children, a nonprofit, non-predatory payday lender, a mobile food market that sells affordable fresh fruit and vegetables in urban "food deserts," an educational initiative for men to combat sex trafficking, a college opportunity for post-secondary students with disabilities, and a for-profit printing business that directs profits toward clean water projects. To further ensure project success, the Protégés embarked with us on an incubation period that provided further consulting, financial and professional planning assistance led by church members with strong nonprofit and new business experience. Church office space was also offered as needed.

Innové brought together a vast array of gifts that comprised our church—human resources people, arts people, social services people, accountants, lawyers, managers, executives, marketers, technologists, organizational developers, and more. They all were finally getting to use what they did best for the sake of God's work in the world. It was as good as we'd prayed it would be: good for the gospel, good for our congregation, good for our young entrepreneurs and good for the world. And having done it as unto the Lord meant our work now had an eternal lifetime guarantee.

Daniel M. Harrell is Senior Minister of Colonial Church, Edina, Minnesota, where he has served for the past three years with his wife and daughter. He has written for Christianity Today about Leviticus and is author most recently of Wisdom of the Saints (And Near Saints).

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    Comments Are Closed

    Displaying 1–5 of 10 comments

    Carlos Ramirez Trevino

    October 15, 2013  9:12am

    God has obviously given D. Harrell a talent and with his congregation he has put it to good use. If this experiment served the needs of the congregation, then it also helped solidify and strengthen their sense of community, duty and service to each other. Wasn't this experiment similar to what some in the early church did when they sold what they had and gave it to the church to meet the needs of others in their congregation? When in S. Africa I visited the Krishna temple and saw the kitchens they have to feed children in schools and the destitute. Don’t we have a greater responsibility? We were called to tell the world about Jesus dying to reconcile us to God. But we were also told not to forget the widows, orphans and those in prison. These days we can add to that the hungry, unemployed, the financially strapped, students, and single mothers in our congregations. But above all, of course, is Christ. We do it not for profit or growth, but because in Christ we should provide and support each other. Our allegiance is not divided. We serve Christ and Him alone. But we must also care for each other.

    Paul Schryba

    October 12, 2013  8:59am

    Rick: We are called to not sin. The sins of Christians take away from their witness to Christ. Serving mammon, making material gain the first priority, is clearly sin. Far too many Christians are silent about the greed and money making priorities of our society, and complicit in it. For Christians to effectively bear witness, they must be 'in' the world, not 'of' the world. The aim of these individuals to create 'businesses' whose priority is service, not 'maximizing profit', does not take away from 'preaching' the gospel and the good news. It is the application of it, and not some kind of 'social engineering'. It gives Christian witness to the materialism and greed, the misplaced aims of worldly 'business' practices.

    Rick Dalbey

    October 11, 2013  11:30am

    Paul literally gave an early taste of fulfillment of this Matthew 25 scripture. He was persecuting Christians, taking away their homes and throwing them in jail. Jesus stopped him on the road to Damascus and said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting ME?” Saul echoes the very question of Matthew 25, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” Jesus’ identification with His disciples is so deep that if you mistreat a believer for their faith, you are mistreating Jesus in disguise. Saul was imprisoning the brothers and sisters of Jesus exactly because they were Christians and Jesus said, you are persecuting Me, which surprised Saul. There is nothing wrong with building non-profit Payday loan businesses, building printing shops or mobile grocery markets, or other businesses that benefit society, it is right and good, but this is not the primary mission of the church. Jesus was very clear about our mission and then we see it played out in Acts.

    Rick Dalbey

    October 11, 2013  11:11am

    Yvette, when the disciples ask at the beginning of matthew 24 “when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the END OF THE AGE?” He spends two chapters answering what the times will be like. He describes them with 3 parables ending with the judgement. The residents of earth are sent to hell for mistreating Christians who are persecuted and imprisoned for faith. He says, “to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine.” Who are His brothers? He tells us several times in Matthew. “And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.” His brothers are disciples. This is not a passage urging us to alleviate world poverty and visit all prisoners in the world or risk going to hell. Its subject is the treatment if disciples in the end times. Some mistakenly use this passage to encourage social engineering.

    yvette moore

    October 11, 2013  8:54am

    Well the title was off-putting, but it did its job: it got me to read the article, which I liked. This church's program is kind of like a U.S. version of the microcredit programs many churches and nonprofit fund in developing countries to help impoverished women earn funds to send their children to school etc. except in this case the loan wasn't micro. I always thought we needed those kinds of microcredit programs here to help poor families themselves or others who don't have money to start their business. Banks are only an option if you already have money. Microcredit loans would be especially helpful when a person has a criminal history and can't get hired. To Rick: I get your offense at the title, but using money to help people help themselves is not serving Mammon; it is mission that helps "the least of these," Christ's brothers and sisters. That's a good thing. There's plenty of Mammon worship in our society today, but this isn' it.

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