Missions in the 21st Century
Working With Social Entrepreneurs?
The challenge is this: how to catalyze an “insider movement” to Christ in a society closed to traditional mission work? For this to happen, the gospel needs to spread through pre-existing social networks, which become the “church.” People should not be drawn out of their families or communities into new social structures in order to become believers. God seems to be opening a new avenue of opportunity into closed societies through working with community agents of change – entrepreneurs working for social reform.
Historically, the most successful model for achieving lasting social change has been neither government nor business but the voluntary society (also known as the “citizen sector” or “civil society”). The idea of citizens banding together to reform society took a great step forward during the Evangelical Awakening, initiated by John Wesley in the 18th century. Out of this revival, and the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century, came hundreds of voluntary, cross-denominational associations or “societies.” Founded by visionary social entrepreneurs, each society attacked a certain issue, everything from abolishing slavery to creating special “Sunday schools” to teach reading to children who worked all week. Why not harness this successful model as a vehicle for advancing God’s purposes among today’s least-reached people groups?
Today the door is wide open in most countries to people who would catalyze grass-roots initiatives to address social problems. During the 1990s the number of international non-profit organizations jumped from 6000 to 26,000, a growth rate of over 400%. Likewise, hundreds of thousands of national NGOs (non-government organizations) have been formed in non-Western countries. Why the sudden growth? First, since the fall of the Soviet Union, many governments have been releasing control of the economy and nurturing the private sector. Second, social entrepreneurs and the civil society sector are now widely recognized for their success in solving formerly intractable problems.
Third, governments are increasingly embarrassed if they try to block non-profit initiatives, because a global value for “empathy” has been established by the rapidly-spreading evangelical movement and the incorporation of Christian values in secular education worldwide. Fourth, there is a new openness to change in general. As people in remote places have become exposed to the rest of the world through mass media, they are reconsidering their behavior patterns and traditional beliefs. People everywhere are putting their hope in education and valuing progress as never before. As a result, local communities, as well as national governments, are getting behind citizen organizations seeking to implement solutions to systemic problems.
If the goal is to produce insider movements to Christ, why work with social entrepreneurs? Christian workers can build extensive relationships with leaders and families within a community by assisting social entrepreneurs (whether they are believers or not) with their vision to attack a problem. These types of broad relational networks – proactively bringing change to the community – form an excellent basis for the spread of the gospel in a way that leads to insider movements. Through helping the civil sector, workers have a role that is understandable and beneficial both in the eyes of the local people and the government. Also, like Jesus, they can announce the Kingdom in the context of bringing healing to the community.
To those who would like to learn more about finding and assisting social entrepreneurs, I recommend David Bornstein’s fascinating book, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas (Oxford University Press, 2003).