One of the enduring challenges for churches engaging in social enterprise is unfamiliarity and unease with the language, concepts and practices that have their home in business and economics. Words such as competition, efficiency, demand, growth and profitability are not only unfamiliar but for many they seem to carry ideas with them that, on the surface, seem to contradict the theology and ethics of many churches.
During this short article, we want to acknowledge this reality, understand where this unease comes from and consider how churches might start to navigate this unease on a journey towards faithful economic practice.
There are compelling reasons for this unease. Firstly, and most obviously, churches look at the growing inequality in their neighborhoods, the increased use of their food pantry, the connections between economic growth and climate change, among many other examples, and perceive the flaws in the current economic system. If the economic system is broken, why would we use its tools? The second reason is less about the flaws of an economic system and more about a potential dissonance between economic and business language and the language of Christian beliefs and practices. Even if the system ‘worked’, would this dissonance remain? How might we reconcile competition and profitability with the sermon on the mount?
A very similar debate (minus the theology!) has been ongoing in the social sector, as social enterprise has become increasingly influential in a sector where income was traditionally derived from donations and grants. While there are a myriad of opinions on how to best navigate these challenges, one stream of thought perceives social enterprise to be, at its best, a re-imagining of both the social and the enterprise. Social enterprise creates new possibilities for relating to, and empowering beneficiaries (social) and new possibilities for putting into practice a new economic imagination (enterprise). As Rowena Young, the former director of the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship at the Saïd Business School, Oxford University, suggests, social enterprise is “not a current within advanced capitalism, but a challenge to it.”
Business language and concepts are not neutral. They exist within frameworks of meaning that give them content and shape. For example, the sole pursuit of maximizing profit is different from running a sustainable business that exists for a different purpose. There is a world of difference between a pay-day lender and Patagonia. Competition can look like businesses trying to put each other out of business, or it can be an essential ingredient in a healthy ecosystem, such as the craft-brewing market, full of creativity and collaboration. Consider your experiments with social enterprise not just as a way of doing good and earning income but also as a way of fleshing out a more faithful economics.
There is clearly work to do to unpack what it means for churches to engage in this work – how the framework of meaning that is Christian beliefs and practices might give shape and content to the economics of social enterprise. In order to start to navigate these waters, we suggest churches start with the following:
For those interested in exploring these ideas in more detail, Mark Sampson’s book ‘The Promise of Social Enterprise: A Theological Exploration of Faithful Economic Practice’ (Cascade Books, 2022) is coming soon.
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