A practiced curiosity about “what God is up to” has pointed EDGE to the huge creative energy welling up in the social enterprise sector in Canada. All well and good, but what does this have to do with church?

First let’s define what we mean by the term “social enterprise.” In this context, social enterprise refers to a movement of creating not-for-profit and for-profit businesses with a core vision to make a better world. This movement is engaged largely by post-Boomer generations. Typically, these enterprises focus on contributing to social good, healing the environment and making “enough” money to keep the venture going. This is called a “triple bottom line” approach. They sacrifice maximizing profit in the short term for the long term good of social and environmental impact. Examples would include ventures like Hero Work (think a “barn raising” style approach to renovating charitable infrastructure at a fraction of the cost, or an LGBT drop-in centre in Scarborough or a young entrepreneur who has found a way to turn the waste food into an alternative to plastic containers. 

In terms of providing abundant life or loving our neighbour (both mandates of Jesus) it’s not too difficult to make the connection here. The desire to improve the economic, justice, social-wellbeing, environment, educational, or political circumstances of people are expressions of neighbourly love and the move towards abundant life.

So, what’s the issue? There seem to be two stumbling blocks to exploring this territory as a way to authentic new expressions of church. First we think of business and church as totally separate categories. Second, where does the “loving God” part come into play in an enterprise?

Let’s address the first point. Truthfully, the gospel has never allowed us to totally separate our business (which is part of all our lives) from our faith. Christ engages our whole lives. When it comes to ministry, even Paul had a social enterprise of tent-making which helped fund his ministry, and if the church can love the neighbourhood through a social enterprise, then why not? I think we need to find the courage to let Christ into our business and also to use good business practice to support ministry. For example, using marketing best practices allow a ministry to have more people to know about the good work that is being done.

As for the second point, how can we identify other marks of “church” in these enterprises? How do these enterprises help us or others love God, deepen our discipleship and spiritual practice, offer worship, or share the gospel with others outside the church? Let me offer three things for consideration:

  1. Our current ways of doing church are in crisis because they are not engaging post-Boomer generations. These generations are hungering for connection, meaning, authentic community, and even spiritual grounding.
  2. A study by the Harvard School of Religion tells us that millennials are actually increasing the numbers of “religion-like communities.”
  3. In the United Kingdom, "fresh expressions of church" has become the leading growth edge of the mainline church over the past two decades. These fresh expression do not begin with “build it and they will come” mindset. Rather, they begin with listening and relationship building in the community. From there, they move to engagement and service (this is where social enterprise comes in), they intentionally seek ways to share the gospel and finally, build a potentially new form of faith community.

So let me leave you with these thoughts:

None of this is to suggest that traditional forms of church and Sunday morning worship are no longer viable. Rowan Williams, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, speaks of a mixed economy of renewed traditional ministries and fresh expressions of church. We know that whole generations are yearning for connection, authentic community, meaningful work to change the world for the better, and spiritual grounding to guide their lives through chaotic change. And we know The United Church of Canada can help address this need. So for me the question isn’t so much, “What does social enterprise have to do with church?” It’s instead: “Are we curious about what God is up to?  Are we ready to follow where Christ is leading? Are we willing to let go of old conceptions of what church looks like and how we build them (and maybe what business looks like)? Are we willing to risk engaging and partnering with new generations who are clearly being led to the work healing creation?”

Can we stop trying so hard to keep broken things going and can we start to engage these questions?

—Rob Dalgleish, Executive Director of EDGE: A Network for Ministry Development