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Faith Leaders News & Events 9min read

Social Enterprise as a New Expression of Church

Social enterprise has long been home to innovation, and now for some, the church is once again becoming more than a place of worship due to great leadership and novel ideas. We asked Mark Elsdon, pastor and social entrepreneur, about how his church is changing. This article is the first of four on Mark Elsdon’s series on how to effectively raise money for churches and places of worship.

  1. Social Enterprise as a New Expression of Church (current)
  2. Using Church Property for Mission and Revenue Generation
  3. Aligning your Money and Mission for Greatest Impact
  4. Coming Up Soon!

Questions we are asking 

Have you or your congregation asked any of these questions in the past year? 

“How do we get young people to come to church?!?” 

“Our financial model as a congregation is changing. Traditional member giving alone isn’t going to be enough to sustain us anymore. Are there new economic models we can consider?” 

“Fewer people are attending worship on Sundays. What does ‘church’ look like outside of Sunday morning worship?”  

“The legacy of racial and economic injustice in our community is overwhelming. How can we join in efforts to address injustice and meet the needs in our community?” 

“We haven’t been holding worship in our building throughout much of the pandemic. What is our building even for?” 

These are all questions and worries I’ve heard raised over meals, in denominational meetings, at conferences, and on video conference calls in the past couple of years. You may have heard some of them yourself. You may have spoken some of them yourself. I know I have. 

Two big changes

Church leaders are facing two major changes that, while not necessarily universal, are widely shared by much of the Christian church in the United States. These two core changes lie beneath the questions many of us are asking: 

  1. Individuals and communities are longing for different expressions of lived faith that move beyond the traditional programs of churches. Traditional church programs are often no longer engaging people nor helping people engage the world. While many still believe in God, “for the first time since in the 1930s, fewer than half of Americans say they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque, according to a new report from Gallup.” COVID-19 has changed the way we worship, how we use our buildings, and how we relate to our neighbors. We are facing serious crises such as climate change, racial injustice, opioid addiction, income inequality, and more. How are we going to tackle these “wicked problems” with innovative solutions through new expressions of the church in the world?  
  2. Churches and church-related institutions (seminaries, colleges, etc.) are struggling with an economic model that is increasingly coming up short in funding mission, especially the kind of mission that addresses the “wicked” problems we want to solve. Member giving from the offering plate alone is not enough for many churches to sustain their ministry. How will we generate new, sustainable forms of revenue to support mission? 

Some creative and innovative leaders and congregations are responding to these challenges by experimenting with different ways of engaging their communities with the good news of Jesus Christ through social enterprise and redemptive entrepreneurship. Often these new forms of engagement look very different from Sunday morning worship. Social enterprise, in church. As Greg Jones correctly observes, “Most people are hungry for innovation. We are hungry for new ways of living and doing things that can chart better paths forward. We are hungry for innovation because we know we are facing challenges that are ‘complex,’ problems that are ‘wicked.’ ” 

Social Enterprise 

Congregations are serving young entrepreneurs by converting fellowship halls into coworking spaces—drawing people into community who would never attend a worship service. They are organizing co-op grocery stores to address food deserts in their neighborhoods in a sustainable way. They are putting tiny houses on underutilized church property in order to provide homes for homeless neighbors. They are creating wine-tasting venues, lawn-care services, and fair-trade stores. Or they are building housing on church property—sometimes for college students, sometimes for seniors, sometimes for lower-income neighbors who have been priced out of the market. 

For the past seventeen years I have been serving as a pastor and social entrepreneur. The campus ministry that I co-lead in Madison, Wisconsin, Pres House, built a $17 million apartment community for students on an underutilized parking lot in the heart of the UW-Madison campus. This project has transformed our ministry and our finances. Our apartment community is one of the most dynamic ways we serve the spiritual, emotional and intellectual needs of college students AND it generates more than $2 million per year in revenue. Since we launched our social enterprise our ministry has grown dramatically and our budget has increased 1500%.  

I am a pastor who loves to preach, but our Sunday worship service is not the only, nor perhaps even the primary, place that students experience the grace of Jesus Christ, are challenged to grow in their sense of purpose, and are sent out into the world around them to serve and lead. That is now happening in their living rooms, throughout all aspects of their lives, and virtually 24/7. Instead of engaging for only one hour per week on Sunday, residents of the Pres House Apartments are involved in their very homes for more than a hundred hours per week. 

Where to start? What makes it work? 

Perhaps you are interested in exploring the potential of social enterprise in your church context. Perhaps the idea of generating revenue while at the same time serving your neighborhood is exciting and compelling? How then do you go about it? How do you do it well? How do you engage in social enterprise that is faithful to your theological tradition, respectful of our communities, and effective in outcomes? There are risks and perils associated with getting involved in “business” so what can keep you grounded?  

As a pastor with an MBA and almost two decades of experience as a social entrepreneur, I’ve identified five ingredients that make church-based social enterprise work. They are: 

  1. Focus on your core mission: More than anything else, a clear focus on core mission is vital for successful, faith-based social innovation and redemptive entrepreneurship. You have to clearly articulate the transformation you are trying to achieve in people’s lives and stay focused on that effort.  
  1. Measure and manage impact outcomes: One of the ways that redemptive entrepreneurs can be sure they are staying focused on their core mission is by measuring and managing desired impact outcomes. Don’t just measure outputs (how many programs or how many people) but measure outcomes (what change is happening as a result of your efforts).  
  1. Attend to the business model: The treasures in heaven that we care about are people—not money or buildings or websites. We care about people. But if we don’t attend to the “business” of mission, our mission will not be effective. Put another way, if the business is managed and run well, then the real work of mission is much more fruitful.  
  1. Align money and mission: Mission is primary. Money is also important. Both need to be attended to for successful social enterprise to happen. The most fruitful scenario is when the two come together as one integrated whole. (I will return to this subject in a future article.) 
  1. Embrace risk and failure: We don’t serve a God who wants us to bury our talent in the ground and play it safe. We don’t serve a God who punishes risk taking or failure. We serve a God who is so much bigger than even our grandest ideas or dreams. So we have to be willing to risk, and fail, in order to have a greatest impact. 

If your congregation wants to experiment with social enterprise (using the church) I will suggest three resources that may be helpful to you: 

  1. The What Now? Tool by RootedGood. The “What Now?” tool will guide you and your leadership team through an engaging, efficient, and interactive process for making decisions about how to fulfill your mission in the current environment. Designed to help congregations pivot during COVID-19, this tool is a great launching off point for evaluating how you can best fulfill your mission as we emerge from the pandemic as well.  
  1. The Oikos Accelerator: Consider applying to participate in RootedGood’s Oikos Accelerator. The Oikos Accelerator helps congregations understand their context and draw upon their theological tradition to launch a social enterprise that will align money and mission. The Oikos Accelerator is grant funded so it is very affordable and accessible for congregations of all sizes and budgets. 
  1. You can also read more about the story of Pres House and much more detailed descriptions of the ingredients above in my book, “We Aren’t Broke: Uncovering Hidden Resources for Mission and Ministry.” It is available for pre-order at Amazon.com or any of your favorite bookstores.  

It is a challenging time to be a leader in the church. But it is also exciting! There is no better time for us to dream big and join in God’s work in the world in new ways.  

Looking for more insights for church giving? You’re in the right place.

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About the author: Mark Elsdon lives and works at the intersection of money and meaning as an entrepreneur, pastor, speaker, and author. Mark’s new book, “We Aren’t Broke: Uncovering Hidden Resources for Mission and Ministry,” explores how faith-based organizations can use investment assets and property for mission impact and financial resiliency. Mark is co-founder of RootedGood, which seeks to create more good in the world through social innovation; executive director at Pres House on the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus; and owner of Elsdon Strategic Consulting. He holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, Princeton Seminary, and the University of Wisconsin School of Business. Mark is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, USA, and lives in Madison, Wisconsin. He is an avid cyclist and considers it a good year when he rides more miles on his bike than he drives in his car. 

Mark Elsdon, M.Div, MBA – With parts adapted from We Aren’t Broke: Uncovering Hidden Resources for Mission and Ministry by Mark Elsdon ©2021 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.)  

About the Author

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Mark Elsdon