For good reason, we tend not to picture Jesus as a redemptive entrepreneur or a venture philanthropist. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so averse to thinking this way.
He did, after all, multiply loaves and fishes in a way that would impress VC firms like Sequoia Capital. He one-upped Silicon Valley happiness theorists by turning water into wine at a wedding. More visionary than Steve Jobs in a black turtleneck, Jesus told the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30), challenging his followers to see resources as tools for good, not just gold.
It’s this portrait of Jesus, as redemptive entrepreneur, that pastor and financial consultant Mark Elsdon presents in We Aren’t Broke: Uncovering Hidden Resources for Mission and Ministry. Elsdon’s thesis is that the church shouldn’t wallow in self-pity over its declining membership figures and shrinking pool of financial resources. Rather, he proposes creative ways to use property, endowment coffers, and other assets as vehicles for multiplying impact.
Elsdon critiques the church’s historic “two-pocket” approach, which involves receiving money in one pocket via business, investing, tithes, and other sources and then giving money away from a second pocket in the form of philanthropy, donations, or almsgiving. “The real question we should be considering in the church,” he writes, “is this: What is the purpose of our capital? What is the purpose of the money and property that the church owns? Is it to make more money? Is it something else?”
Elsdon is motivated by a mixture of MBA studies in social enterprise, theological education at Princeton Theological Seminary, and his work for the University of Wisconsin campus ministry run by his denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA). In this latter role, he pioneered a $17 million project to rescue and expand Pres House, a hybrid student apartment building and worship center located on the massive state university campus. He makes a case that the church should practice this kind of entrepreneurship more often.
“Where some saw an aging building with a leaky roof,” writes Elsdon, “the inspired folks who resisted the sale of Pres House saw a beautiful building that had been a spiritual and physical home to tens of thousands of college students for more than ninety years. Where some saw an underutilized parking lot behind the old chapel that could easily be sold, others saw property located in the very heart of a world-class university that could become something much more than a patch of asphalt and parking meters.”
Elsdon turns to the Pres House example repeatedly (perhaps too often) to illustrate why more Christians should practice redemptive entrepreneurship. He riffs on iterations of that idea, such as socially responsible investing (SRI), and environmental, social, and governance standards (ESG), touting these as better approaches for Christian believers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his mainline Protestant background, Elsdon shows great enthusiasm for the way younger generations have pushed major corporations and society at large toward certain progressive causes, such as promoting local and organic food, investing in renewable energy, and taking action to forestall climate change. He also cheers efforts to divest resources from the manufacture of cigarettes, alcohol, weapons, fossil fuels, and pornography.
Some of Elsdon’s other stances seem likely to alienate conservative evangelicals, even as they appeal to progressive mainliners. He wonders aloud if churches should reconsider hosting Bible studies. He proposes that Christians take a more activist role on topics like LGBT inclusion, income inequality, and racial injustice (at one point he calls for Christian institutions to invest in reparations programs).
All this points to a persistent tension at the heart of Elsdon’s project. Those who are more receptive to faith seem less aligned with his political and social values. Meanwhile, those who share his political and social values seem less receptive to faith. Look no further than the precarious position of the “seven sisters” of mainline Protestantism. These denominations are facing steep declines in membership and resources, with many considering what to do with empty buildings.
Meanwhile, today’s evangelical churches and institutions often possess an entrepreneurial, risk-taking mindset. Evangelicalism is one of the few sectors of American religious life that continues to grow, with vibrant churches popping up in warehouses, shopping malls, and local YMCA branches. Many evangelical churches have pursued socially redemptive entrepreneurship for decades. And they tend to focus on kingdom impact rather than building an endowment or a property portfolio for its own sake.
In sum, Elsdon seems to be arguing for mainline churches, with their decades (centuries, really) of property and investment wealth, to emulate evangelicals in their approach to business, finance, and risk-taking—just without the socially conservative morals or the gospel-spreading zeal that make some mainliners uneasy. This means that even if evangelicals can consult this book for some thought-provoking insights and examples, it’s doubtful they’ll consider it the definitive work on stewarding the institutional “talents” God has provided.
Paul Glader is executive editor of Religion Unplugged, a professor of journalism at The King’s College in New York City, and a former reporter at The Wall Street Journal.
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