Prof. Kenda Dean assists Michael Martin, blacksmith and founder/executive director of RAWtools, a nonprofit that makes garden tools out of guns.
On the surface, you see a furniture shop. A blacksmithing studio. A pub and cafe. But if you look more closely, you’ll realize that each of these is a unique Christian ministry: small “social businesses,” nonprofits, and community organizing projects intent on creatively helping their communities flourish. Understanding how these innovative groups embody the gospel was the foundation for “The Church as Social Entrepreneur,” a 10-day travel course led by Kenda Creasy Dean, Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church and Culture. “The goal was to expand students’ imaginations in terms of what ‘counts’ as ministry, and to explore some surprising ways churches are interacting with and impacting their communities,” Dean says.
The trip took seven students to 30 different social enterprises, most of which emerged from congregations, around Portland, Oregon, and Colorado Springs, Colorado. By the end of the course, after visiting ministries that looked like brew pubs, bicycle shops, tiny house villages (co-constructed with the homeless people who live there), and more, students were tasked with creating church-based social innovations of their own.
The visits served as education and inspiration. For example, Salem, Oregon’s Sparrow Furniture – a refugee-focused social business and a ministry of Salem Alliance Church – employs refugees to build custom furniture. “One of the students in our class was electrified by this idea,” Dean says. “She and her dad worked on cars from the time she was small. She is now in the early stages of emulating Sparrow Furniture, but as a mechanics shop.”
For Dean, these ah-ha moments validated the purpose of this course. “There are people in our congregations who don't realize that the gifts God has given them for their everyday jobs just might be something God can use for the common good,” says Dean. “When congregations engage in Christian social innovation, they provide a kind of witness that even people disillusioned with churches can get their arms around.”