4 Reasons Not to Engage in Missional Entrepreneurship

written by Wes Ellis
6 · 22 · 17

Photo by Redd Angelo

We are starting a summer blog series aimed at those who are either starting a missional enterprise or thinking about starting one. During this series, we will look at theological and practical concerns of missional entrepreneurs.

The first post in this series is written by Wes Ellis, Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Toms River, New Jersey and PhD candidate at the University of Aberdeen. You can find more of his work at www.whateverisgood.blogspot.com.

4 Reasons Not to Engage in Missional Entrepreneurship

The church’s energy around missional entrepreneurship and innovative approaches to ministry is encouraging. While there is no shortage of complacency and while fear still too often precludes real creativity in our churches, more and more church leaders and clergy are beginning to discover new ways of engaging in the mission of God in the world. A movement is afoot. But as you consider being a part of that movement—as you consider taking the plunge into a journey of innovative missional entrepreneurship—consider your motivations. Why innovate in the first place? It may seem like a silly question to ask (like, “why breath?”) but I would argue that it’s the most important question for this journey. There are all kinds of good reasons to engage in missional entrepreneurship, but here are four reasons NOT to engage in missional entrepreneurship:

Photo by Jimi Filipovski

We need the money. You’ve likely heard the argument that passing the offering plate in worship services isn’t “working” anymore and that we need new ways to generate revenue. This is, of course, true from a certain point of view. We are to be reminded that we haven’t always passed the plate in churches. This innovation emerged as a response to the disestablishment of the church—the separation of church and state. With no money coming directly from the government, churches had to get money somehow. That’s why we started passing the plate. It was a mistake, in the first place, to begin a practice simply because we needed the money. So before we go and make the same mistake with entrepreneurship, let’s rethink this motivation. Despite whatever originally motivated the practice of passing the plate, for the past few decades we’ve been calling it “worship.” Have we been lying? Sunday after Sunday, in my own church, I stand up in front of the congregation and tell them that our giving is an act of worship. “We don’t give out of obligation,” I tell them. “We give as a free and joyful response to God’s own generosity.” Whatever motivated the practice of passing the plate originally, what motivates us in our church now and what should motivate us in all our practices is free and joyful worship. If you are engaging in missional entrepreneurship because your church needs the money, STOP!

Photo by Jordan McQueen

We need “youthfulness.” I’m owe this point to Andrew Root and his forthcoming book, Faith Formation in a Secular Age.  So much of the literature and rhetoric about the future of the church seems to revolve around the need to engage young people or, more specifically, to keep the young in the church so that their “youthful spirit” will save us. Young people don’t like the church, the argument goes, so we need to do something new and relevant. Root has offered a really strong critique of this motivation and I see at least two problems with this approach. First of all, it sensationalizes young people’s actual experience. If it were about actually engaging in the lived experience of young people, that’d be different. But the obsession with “youthfulness” can actually obscure our ability to authentically encounter young people (or anybody, for that matter). Young people become mere objects of conquest and instruments of the church’s survival and whatever we end up doing for the sake of “youthfulness,” however relevant it may be, it’s hardly to be considered ministry.

it’s not youthfulness that’s going to save the church, it’s God.

Secondly, and perhaps more fundamentally, it’s not youthfulness that’s going to save the church, it’s God. We should engage in ministry in order to encounter God, not so that we can feel young and vibrant again. So if you’re engaging in missional entrepreneurship because you want the church to be youthful again, STOP!

Photo by Li Yang

We need to survive. This third motivation is closely related to the second one and it is a pervasive motivation when it comes to innovation in the church. It is the shadow side of the growing enthusiasm surrounding entrepreneurial and innovative ministry—the motivation of survival. A mountain of data and just basic intuition are telling us that if the church continues on its current course, it’s going to die (at least in the United States). As we watch the decline of the church, the diminishment and distortion of its voice in society, and the shrinking of its bank accounts, we are learning that our models are no longer sustainable. Naturally, we are anxious about this.

Anxiety is the opposite of joy and our God is a God of joy, not anxiety.

But if our anxiety is allowed to steer us, we’re bound to head in the wrong direction. Anxiety is the opposite of joy and our God is a God of joy, not anxiety. Anxiety will force you to value everything for its effectiveness instead of faithfulness. It will slowly shape your spirit to look in the wrong places in search of success. But ministry is not primarily about success, or productivity, or numbers, or even effectiveness. When it comes to these things, we are to count them all as loss (Phil. 3:8) and be willing to “waste” our time on real ministry. As Kenda Dean writes, “those who waste their lives for Jesus, who squander their talent on the church, who throw away their lives in ministry…will gain it. Following Jesus is a waste. The Bible tells us so” (Almost Christian, 87). As a minister, your gaze should ever be directed toward Christ and even when you look at the budget (and you’re gonna have to look there eventually) it’s Christ you’ll need to be looking for. Ministry is not about solving the problem of survival, it’s about freely and joyfully engaging in God’s own free and joyful action in the world. The enemy of ministry is not death, it’s anxiety. God is not so insecure as to be anxious about the survival of the church. Believe it or not, God doesn’t even need the church. So if you’re engaging in missional entrepreneurship because the church needs to survive, STOP!

Photo by Kendall Lane

The world needs the church. The great German theologian, Jürgen Moltmann writes, “when religion, church, and faith are considered only from the standpoint of their expediency and usefulness for society, they are bound to vanish as soon as the purposes of society can be served by other means.” (Theology of Play, 61) In other words, if the church exists to fulfill a “purpose”—to meet the needs of society, to serve food to homeless people, to make the world a better place, etc.—then once people figure out that those needs can be met through other means (and they can!), then the church and faith become unnecessary.  Atheists are discovering, all the time, that they can be perfectly good people and can meet all kinds of needs without believing in God or going to church (many of them, in leaving the church, have become better people!). Moltmann goes on to say that, “those who try to defend religion by establishing its external usefulness and necessity turn out to be its worst enemies in the long run” (62). As someone who wants to meet the needs of society through missional entrepreneurship, that may be hard to hear… and it certainly is harsh. But Moltmann’s point is not to say you should give up on doing good things, but only to realize that the true value of the church and faith are in themselves, not in what they can accomplish. The true value of the church is in the joyful, voluntary, and unnecessary reality of communion with God through Jesus Christ. The faster the church realizes that the world doesn’t need the church and that the church is valuable and important anyway, the faster we’ll be able get to the real unnecessary and beautiful work of ministry. So if you’re engaging in missional entrepreneurship because the world needs the church, STOP!

These are just a few reasons not to engage in missional entrepreneurship. And as hard as it may be to admit it, there are plenty more. Innovation is not something to take lightly in the church. The pursuit of the “newer,” “better,” and “best” can often get in the way of the kind of gentle, patient, slow, and empathetic ministry to which we’ve been called. But there are certainly plenty of good reasons we should engage in missional entrepreneurship. Our God is indeed creative and invites us to create. Our God is indeed passionate and invites us to participate in God’s passion. The best reason, the best motivation, for entrepreneurial ministry is the same as that of any ministry—the desire to joyfully and freely participate in the ministry of Christ in the world. All ministry is God’s ministry and it is a good and joyful thing that we are invited to be a part of it!

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Wes Ellis

Wes Ellis is a Member in Discernment in the United Church of Christ and the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Toms River, New Jersey. He lives in Toms River with his wife, Amanda, and their two children, Henry and Bonnie. He is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Aberdeen, under the advisement of John Swinton and Andrew Root. Email him at wellis68@gmail.com

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