Why should you and your church pay attention to local economic justice with everything else going on in your community and in the world at large? After all, there is certainly no shortage of issues in which Christians may engage, including racist policies, justice/prison reform, multiple refugee crises, extreme political and cultural polarization, abortion, declining church attendance, and so forth. I cannot make the case for the relative importance of CED compared to any of these, nor do I think that is the right framing. A similar line of thinking questions why a church should focus on CED when the real need is for “spiritual work” such as evangelism and discipleship. Again, I will not be drawn into navigating this false dichotomy. Instead, let’s consider a word picture that has been challenging me for the last several years as I’ve grappled with my own personal calling. Imagine God as the Great Conductor. He is creating music, so to speak, bringing together a variety of instruments and voices with wonderful and joyous harmonies along with discordant and painful melodies. Guided by this view of God, instead of taking a me-centered approach, let’s consider a God-centered approach. A me-centered approach focuses on which instrument I’m supposed to play, how I can get better at that instrument, and how I sound alongside my neighboring musicians. Of course, I want to be the best instrumentalist for God, but in a me-centered approach, it is still about how I can be the best to fulfill my role. A God-centered approach, on the other hand, puts the focus on the song and the orchestra he is creating, realizing that even the best instrumentalist can wreak a performance by ignoring the conductor. A God-centered approach listens for the music, joins in,rejoices in the wholeness of the production, and entrusts the performance to God the Great Conductor.
As the body of Christ here on earth, I believe God is calling his church into more engagement with our communities, and rather than detracting from the “true mission” of the church, such engagement helps to fulfil it. Arguing against CED because other issues are deemed more important is like arguing against clarinets because violins are more important. God’s song incorporates all the parts to bring healing and renewal to all of creation. Of course, in making this argument, I am not naïvely calling for all churches and Christians to get involved in every topic and issue of the day. God recruits both clarinets and violins, not just generic instrumentalists. The answer, however, is not an equally naïve single-issue engagement with our world. Such an approach does not recognize the holistic nature of God, man, and society. Engaging with your community on economic development will create robust, holistic connections incorporating many other community organizations, people, and issues. A final brief case study will bring this holistic approach into view.
Holistic Community Engagement: Church of the Messiah
Church of the Messiah, located in the Islandview neighborhood on Detroit’s east side, has taken holistic CED principles to heart, spawning a number of initiatives including affordable housing, workforce development, job placement for those returning from prison, a food pantry, community organizing, youth mentoring and leadership development, business incubation, and more. The church takes seriously a major theme of this book, namely, the necessity of a community ecosystem to drive long-term and sustainable community change. For example, Pastor Barry Randolph is on the board of many local organizations including the Center for Community-based Enterprise (C2BE), a cooperative incubator. He is also a founding member of The Master’s Plan, focused on ecosystem development in communities across Detroit and across the world. Their vision serves well to paint a picture of holistic community engagement and ecosystem development that refuses to accept a single-issue mindset and the binary of spiritual versus secular:
NOTE: Please check out a special GoFundMe opportunity to help Church of the Messiah recover from devastating flooding and expand into new opportunities.
Words of Encouragement and Caution
For those who have journeyed this far in the book, you may feel excited,
overwhelmed, or some combination of the two. First, some words of
- It can be done! This book has provided numerous case studies, some
small and limited in scope, others broad and complex. Take heart that
while each community is unique, all of the paths laid out in this book
have been trod.
- It’s not just you and your church! As highlighted throughout this book,
CED requires an ecosystem approach. In fact, your church must decenter
itself, ready to play small as well as large roles in activating a
CED ecosystem in your community.
- It’s God’s song! We started this book by highlighting God’s love for just
economies, rooted in his love for people and justice. Now we finish
with a picture of God as the Great Conductor who desires above all to
bring healing and renewal through the music he is creating. Your CED efforts can be an important part of that song in your community, but remember, it is still God’s song.
Now some words of caution as we ask: What can CED realistically hope to accomplish in the face of global economic forces, widespread institutionalized racism, and a volatile political environment? Can churches really change a local economy, and even if they do, can local economies make a dent in these seemingly intractable issues?
- Isolated CED programs are a start but will ultimately be insufficient. Throughout this book we’ve tried to be realistic about the challenges and limitations of specific CED programs, along with the importance of linking CED programs together for more impact. For example, a makerspace (chapter 4) will have limited impact without the support of services from a business incubator (chapter 5) to turn a love of craft into revenue and jobs. Similarly, partnerships with an anchor institution (chapter 11) will require the development of a strong, locally rooted economy (chapter 6) in order to have significant impacts. The need for synergistic programs such as these will require hard decisions as to where to focus first and also call for the development of strategic partnerships to leverage the work of other organizations.
- CED must be local but not isolated. As discussed in chapter 1, the very definition of CED entails place-based program delivery. However, chapter 2 also highlighted the need for community organizing and policy/planning intervention to create lasting change. Taking on these roles or connecting to such organizations within your broader CED ecosystem recognizes the importance of engagement with the broader political economy. Also, our CED toolkit has been explicitly broad, including several tools that require engagement with forces outside of the neighborhood. For example, accountable development interventions (chapter 12) will bring CED face-to-face with economic development at the regional level. A good jobs focus (chapter 9) and workforce development (chapter 7) may entail engagement with state government and large corporations headquartered outside of your community. Finally, in many chapters we have included links to national organizations that provide training and support for specific CED programs. These connections not only serve to minimize the time required to start your local program, they will link your CED efforts to similar efforts across the country, magnifying your voice to a national audience.
Congratulations, you’ve taken the first step on the pathway to realizing God’s dream for justice and thriving within your community! Here we offer some specific next steps as you consider what CED looks like in your neighborhood and in your church context.
Pray, Listen, and Scheme with Others
We suggest that you connect with other church leaders, members of your
own church, and other community actors interested in exploring church initiated
CED efforts. Pray together, listen to each other’s dreams for economic
justice, and start scheming about what some of the CED programs
highlighted in this book could look like in your community.
Mission and Vision Work
Dig into step 1 from chapter 13 to establish your church’s mission, vision,
and values around justice and a holistic definition of the gospel. If you and
your church members can’t honestly say that a workforce development program,
a makerspace, or working with a local anchor institution is central to
the mission of your church and necessary to be a faithful community presence,
I humbly submit that you still have some more work to do in this area.
Do the Assessment!
Step 2 from chapter 13 provides a very thorough assessment process to
understand your community and your church. Don’t skimp and speed your
way through this, even, or especially, if you already think you know what
CED path you should pursue. Following the process may not only surprise
you with new insights and open up new possibilities for engagement, it will
also jumpstart your efforts to fill out a robust CED ecosystem, something
that is absolutely critical for successful CED efforts.
I can think of no better way to end this book than to focus on the Great Conductor. While the song that he is arranging may be mysterious to us now, with many sorrows and injustices as yet unresolved, we know that its great crescendo will mean healing and renewal for all things. May God give you ears to hear the music in your neighborhood as you contribute a beautiful CED melody to his song!