Sneak peek: Introduction to Jesus on Mainstreet

“God loves just economies.”

That statement on its own is a perfect introduction to this book. But please allow me to expand a little at the risk of unbalancing that perfection. God’s perfect design includes just relationships within just economic systems, explaining why the Bible begins with a perfect, sustainable, rural economy and ends with a perfect, sustainable, urban economy. By taking on the mantle that Jesus took for himself when he announced freedom for the poor and oppressed (Luke 3:18), we have a role to play in helping establish just economies in the here and now.

But why does God love just economies? Because God loves people and that means God loves justice! In “Pursuing Justice”, Ken Wystma explains that justice should be central to the church because it is central to the nature of God and his good news: “Justice is rooted in the character of God, established in the creation of God, mandated by the commands of God, present in the kingdom of God, motivated by the love of God, affirmed in the teaching of Jesus, reflected in the example of Jesus, and carried on today by all who are moved and led by the Spirit.”[1]

God has raised prophets throughout the ages to call attention to injustice, much of it very explicit in its critique of economic systems and practices. For example, Ezekiel commanded the use of honest scales and weights (Ezekiel 45:10) and Malachi railed against wage theft and oppression (Malachi 3:5). Jesus preached within an oppressive Roman economic system that took advantage of poor farmers and villagers, explaining the prevalence of economic themes in so many of his parables.[2] As we’ll discuss in chapter 1, our country’s current economic system is simply not just, with cracks chiseled by the invisible hand of the market as it unsuccessfully tries to provide economic opportunity for all. This book is for you if you know this to be true and want to lead your church in following Jesus into those cracks.

In addition to being rooted in God’s justice, the church occupies a unique position in society, calling for more engagement in processes such as economic development. As followers of Jesus, we are called to live and love sacrificially, being above the fray, so to speak, of special interest groups or community constituencies. Luke Bretherton, professor of moral and political theology at Duke Divinity School, cautions against the church falling for the three related temptations of being just another interest group, acting as a collective of individuals preserving their rights, and providing a product to be consumed in the marketplace of lifestyle choices. Churches that fall to these temptations “…situate the church in a competitive and conflictual relationship with other groups in society…so that instead of seeing others as neighbors to be loved, they emerge as enemies who are to be demonized, defended from, and ultimately defeated…” [3] He goes on to describe the importance of orienting the relationship between the church and community around a desire to meet the needs of the entire community, building and maintaining a vision of the common good rather than defending its own interests.

Economic systems span many layers from global flows of capital, to national and state policies and programs, down to local economies and into our closets, garages, and refrigerators. Based on a strong history of church-based social justice that has helped overthrow evil systems such as the Atlantic slave trade and child labor, we certainly shouldn’t be afraid to take on big global systems. Indeed, there is excellent faith-based work[4] going on to challenge the current economic system of capitalism bathed in neoliberal ideology. However, in this book we’ve set our sights at the local community level. Why? Because it’s on Main Street[5] that the cracks mentioned above are most visible, intersecting with the sphere of local churches and thereby providing a tremendous opportunity for the church to be salt and light.

Focusing on the community level is even more important in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the economic fallout is still evolving, most agree that small, locally-oriented businesses and nonprofits, particularly in communities of color, are particularly hard hit. Community Economic Development (CED) can direct efforts and resources to these points of pain that are being overlooked as government stimulus efforts fail to reach small businesses and as large companies simply shed employees as they wait out the pandemic. Many local economies will be struggling for years to gain back what the pandemic has taken away, opening the door for outside investors and exploitive economic development. At the same time, churches are undergoing challenges that the pandemic has sped up, with questions about financial viability and how to best use buildings and property. Now is the perfect time for your church to rethink its relationship to its community and consider your role in bringing about a just local economy.

The field of CED is a sub-field of the better known field of Community Development which is well represented by people and organizations of faith.[6]  CED can also be considered an element of the broader field of Economic Development, or Traditional Economic Development (TED). However, as we’ll see in chapter 1, TED often contributes to the cracks rather than repairing them. As I worked on my PhD in community and economic development at Portland State University, I was struck by the CED efforts of community organizers, activists, pastors, scholars, business leaders, and ordinary people who were working diligently to bring healing and opportunity to the people and communities that were stuck in those cracks. Unfortunately, while there are plenty of books for people of faith interested in Community Development, church leaders interested in CED must slog through academic books and journal articles or piece together a strategy based on isolated case studies. This book seeks to bring the whole field of CED into view for church leaders and church planters. While most of you will not become full-time economic development professionals, this book can help direct your efforts to contribute to the overall thriving of your community, ensuring that they are as effective as possible by plugging into a broader CED strategy.

Overview of the book

In part one we get an overview of CED, with a description of how TED has failed communities and how CED can help bring healing and thriving to a community (chapter 1). This is followed by a discussion of the CED ecosystem (chapter 2), indicating the vital role of churches working in full collaboration with many other partners who share a mutual goal of community thriving. 

With part two, my hope is to expand your thinking about how churches can contribute to just, local economies. For example, how many coffee shops have been started by churches? While such ventures may provide a needed third-space in a marginalized community, their economic impact is likely fairly small. Is that really what your community needs, or are their more impactful efforts you can undertake? In this section of the book, we provide a “toolkit” of strategies that comprise CED, starting with microbusiness (chapter 3) and makerspaces (chapter 4) offering support for self-employed “micro-entrepreneurs”. We expand to slightly larger businesses with a discussion on business incubators (chapter 5) and worker cooperatives (chapter 6) to strengthen locally-rooted economies, along with workforce development (chapter 7) and commercial district revitalization (chapter 8). With chapter 9 we look at strategies to increase the supply of “good jobs” that provide adequate living wages and benefits. Next we touch on the broad area of affordable housing and community land trusts (chapter 10) as strategies to strengthen local economies, before rounding out part two with chapters on leveraging large anchor institutions (chapter 11) and organizing and advocating for accountability in large-scale development (chapter 12).

Each chapter provides a summary overview of the topic, guidance on how to get started, discussion on the special role of churches, and challenges to consider. Suggestions for further reading conclude each chapter, recognizing that if you choose to follow any of these specific strategies, you will need more in-depth and specialized information and assistance.

Part three provides guidance on the CED process, starting with a suggested CED implementation process, including an extensive assessment and decision making process complete with worksheet templates to guide you and your team (chapter 13). Next we cover special considerations for gentrifying, declining, suburban, and other unique contexts (chapter 14), concluding with funding strategies for CED (chapter 15). The appendix delves into the special topic of reimagining or repurposing church properties and buildings, with an overview of this exciting, emerging field that holds great promise for churches interested in significantly blessing their communities.

How to use this book

If after reading the foreword and introduction, you’re still not sure that churches have any business in CED, then I respectfully suggest you pause reading this book (and hopefully come back!) I recommend you get your church’s leadership team together and really grapple with the role of justice in the mission of your church. Ken Wystma’s aforementioned book is a good place to start. Another consideration is breaking down the false dichotomy of the sacred and the secular that has resulted in what Richard Stearns calls the “hole in our gospel”[7]. See chapter 13 for more recommended resources to fuel this vital first step in the CED planning process. Without a strong commitment to CED rooted in your church’s mission, vision, and values, you will not be able to sustain the investment required to see most, if not all, of these CED strategies come to fruition.

I recommend you read part one in its entirety to get a firm grasp on what CED is and isn’t, and how it may relate to some of the things your church is already doing. It will also help you identify who else you need to be working with and start you on the road to developing a collaborative coalition, something vital to all CED work.

One approach to working through part two (the “toolkit”) is to read the overview sections of each chapter to get a good sense for the landscape and how the various CED strategies support each other. From there, determine which CED strategies you want to learn more about and do a complete reading of that chapter along with the recommended readings for further exploration. These recommendations include references for more in-depth education, as well as training and implementation support. When you are ready to start planning and make decisions on where to start, read part three, especially chapter 13 on the CED process. This will help you assess your community and church assets and determine which CED strategies to start with, taking you from ideas and dreaming to actual implementation.

CED: Multiplication, not addition

Many church planters and church leaders, particularly Evangelicals, have been taught to think in terms of multiplying their church’s impact rather than being satisfied with an additive impact. [8] For example, church planters can no longer be satisfied with planting a single church, being challenged instead to think about starting a church planting movement of churches planting other churches. Likewise, discipleship and evangelism is not focused on simply discipling individuals, but rather making disciples who make disciples.

This focus on movement building and exponential growth through multiplication rather than addition can be applied to community economic development. For churches looking to bring healing to their local economies, the road must go well beyond starting a local business, and further even than helping some individuals start new businesses. While these may be valid starting points, the “exponential” pathway must include building capacity for long-term equitable economic growth, catalyzing a movement of business creation and job creation that does not leave anybody behind. This is the promise and challenge of community economic development as we follow Jesus down Main Street and explore what good news for local economies looks like!

[1] Wytsma, Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things, introduction.

[2] Horsley, “You Shall Not Bow Down and Serve Them : Economic Justice in the Bible.”

[3] Bretherton, “Religion and the Salvation of Urban Politics: Beyond Cooption, Competition and Commodification.,” 215.

[4] See for example Block, Brueggemann, and McKnight, An Other Kingdom.

[5] “Main Street” is typical short-hand for the site of local economic activity, as opposed to “Wall Street” which is emblematic of international, global economic activity and big business.

[6] See for example the Christian Community Development Association at

[7] Stearns, The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us? The Answer That Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World.

[8] See for example,

Copyright 2020 by David E. Kresta, PhD

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