In our Flourishing Series, we have covered the first two domains in Amy L. Sherman’s Agents of Flourishing: the Good and the True. As we continue this series, we come to the third domain of community flourishing—the Prosperous. In Agents of Flourishing, Sherman defines this domain as including “such aspects of society as commerce, finance, investment, work, philanthropy, production, and consumption. It involves innovation, savings and debt, poverty, wealth, and economic opportunity.” For some, the domain of the Prosperous might conjure up images of corporate greed and a form of capitalism that lines the pockets of the rich and takes from the poor. Others might be quick to associate the Prosperous with the Prosperity Gospel and a belief that the Christian life is all about health and wealth.
THE PROSPEROUS IN GOD’S DESIGN
The Bible is filled with scriptures that relate to the domain of the Prosperous and the economy and work. Sherman offers several examples for us:
Major portions of the Old Testament law seek to order Israel’s economic life. We find, for example, rules about property management and how to treat employees, about liability, farming practices, and principles for commercial exchange. The Wisdom literature offers all sorts of insight for economic life: about hard work and saving for a rainy day, shrewdness in business transactions, and how generosity often begets generosity. In the Gospels, Jesus insists on just economic exchange and warns of the dangers of reducing life to only economic concerns. The authors of the Epistles address issues of work and bearing one another’s economic burdens.
It is clear that God is concerned about the domain of the Prosperous and the role it plays in flourishing. Communities do not flourish where there is economic destitution and a lack of resources and opportunities for work. We were made to flourish in life and in work. Eden was a fruitful garden of abundance; there was no scarcity of resources, and Adam and Eve lacked nothing. There, God entrusted our first parents with the responsibility of being stewards and trustees of his creation and to use God’s resources and the opportunities given to them to fulfill the mandate to be fruitful and multiply. They were called to tend the garden and, according to Sherman, “cultivate its possibilities; to make something of it.”
In the realm of the Prosperous, God is all about productivity and multiplication. He wants to see growth and fruit in us, his image bearers. “In God’s world, multiplication is possible. Created in God’s image, human beings are ingenious creators who can cooperatively bring out, develop, and multiply the world of possibilities that God made.” Ultimately, God’s desire is for humans to flourish, regardless of where they are on the economic ladder, with “the opportunity to meaningfully participate in their communities.”
EFFECTS OF THE FALL
In the biblical story, something went wrong in the garden. Sin entered the world, and we have been living the consequences of it ever since. Sherman highlights three malformations that came into the world because of the Fall: 1) “scarcity that arose because of the curse laid upon the earth,” 2) “exclusion of some human beings from that full participation (e.g., slavery),” and 3) distortions of business life (“The production of goods that serve human needs is one expression of neighbor love. But now humans believe that they are the owners of the businesses they operate rather than acknowledging God as the owner and themselves as trustees. Additionally, greed plagues every economic system, including the free market. Businesspeople, like all people, engage in all sorts of personal sins—fraud, exploitation, dishonesty. And these harm customers, vendors, and employees.”).
FOUR THEMES TO LIVE BY
The paradox of the world we live in is that it is both tainted by sin and teeming with possibility. We continue to experience the effects of the Fall, but we still bear God’s image and “are still granted intelligence, creativity, entrepreneurial abilities, and strength” to fulfill God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. Work is not a curse. It is a blessing from God that we can use to fulfill his mandate and help individuals and entire communities flourish.
What does it look like for Christ-followers to live “in this world marked by a strange mixture of scarcity and possibility” and use their work, resources, and opportunities to bless and enrich the lives of others? Sherman offers four themes to guide us in answering this question.
- Living in alignment with proverbial wisdom. “We must continue to live into the cultural mandate to work, steward, and produce—but with attentiveness to our new conditions postfall and to God’s instructions. God’s wise law, which he gives to us that we might find a measure of shalom east of Eden, provides counsel at both the personal and interpersonal levels.”
- Economic practices to empower and include the poor and oppressed. “Because of the realities of human sinfulness and human frailty (given the fall, some community members are now weak, disabled, or infirm), humans must implement practices that prevent the vulnerable from becoming a permanent underclass.”
- Redeeming business. “Because of common grace, believers and nonbelievers seeking to operate in alignment with the original purposes for business can do much good. A productive economy can help lift people out of poverty; indeed, the capacity for a for-profit business to do this is greater than that of nonprofit organizations or philanthropy.”
- Living in the King’s economy. “We can push back against the idol of homo economicus by remembering and practicing our true identities as persons made in God’s image. This will require confronting the ways (subtle and not) we have been ‘conformed to the world.’ As Rhodes and Holt remind us, Jesus teaches Econ 101 differently. We must eschew the norms, values, and practices that are not in line with those of Jesus’ kingdom economy.”
EXAMPLES IN CHURCH HISTORY
Is it possible to live out Sherman’s themes in our world today? Two thousand years of church history show us how “Christ-followers, congregations, and denominations have taught and written about wealth and poverty, modeled specific economic practices in alignment with kingdom values, and engaged in efforts to bring about economic reforms opening up greater opportunities for the disadvantaged or exploited.”
- “Members of the first-century church not only shared their money and possessions with believers in their local fellowship, but they also gave generously and sacrificially to geographically distant brothers and sisters.”
- “…early Christians were willing to show compassion to those outside their biological and spiritual kin. Romans, by contrast, limited their giving to citizens and ignored the needs of the many poor who were not Roman citizens.”
- Church father Gregory of Nyssa “preached that Christians must see Jesus himself in the face of the poor. Meanwhile, Saint Ambrose enjoined Christ-followers to see the materially poor not as ‘others’ but as ‘brothers.’”
- “The Didache, a second-century collection of Christian writings, instructed believers: ‘Do not turn your back on the needy, but share everything with your brother and call nothing your own. For if you have what is eternal in common, how much more should you have what is transient!’”
- “During the Reformation, in multiple cities in Germany, Luther’s followers put into practice his ‘common chest’ policy for meeting the needs of the poor.”
- “Leland Ryken, author of Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were, argues that ‘the key to everything they said on [money] was their conviction that money is a social good, not a private possession. Its main purpose is the welfare of everyone in society, not the personal pleasure of the person who happens to have control over it.’”
- “In eighteenth-century England, John Wesley’s Methodists engaged in a variety of social welfare activities [that] offered medical care and schooling and provided housing for poor and elderly widows and their children.”
- According to historian Herbert Schlossberg, Christians in nineteenth-century England advanced countless social reforms that, as Sherman writes, “accomplished nothing less than a fundamental shift in people’s attitudes toward the poor.”
- “In nineteenth-century England, Evangelicals championed political reforms to improve working and living conditions, established schools, and implemented new forms of economic development for the poor.”
- “Leading scholars such as C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya have long identified the Black church as the cultural, social, economic, and political anchor of the Black community. In the wake of slavery, Black churches were continually involved in both the spiritual and material uplift of their members.”
- “One of the most important sources of the good that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Evangelicals cultivated economically was their conviction that the gospel had implications for every area of life. They eschewed a sacred-secular dichotomy. […] These groups used finance and business operations as a means for social good.”
What would it look like for a church to make a “meaningful, sustainable contribution to the economic lives of neighbors” in their community? Sherman gives three necessary shifts for this:
- “The first is a movement from relief to longer-term, relational, and holistic investment in the lives of those struggling economically. For too long churches have put most or even all their benevolence resources toward relief.”
- “The second is a shift from a needs-based approach to ministry to an asset-based one. We must start seeing not only the needs of the poor but also their assets. […] Made in God’s image, every person has gifts, talents, and creativity. […] The shift to an assets mentality also involves expanding our imagination about the assets God has placed in our congregations. What he has given to us—from musical instruments to multipurpose rooms—is not meant solely for us. We are blessed to be a blessing. Living into that requires creative, generous, risk-taking stewardship of the physical and financial assets of the church.”
- “The third shift is one from focusing solely on supplementing people’s income to helping them build assets. Churches can help people increase their human capital through training programs of many sorts that increase their marketable skills.”
Are these shifts easy to make? No, they are not. As Sherman notes, they require “intentionality, humility, sacrifice, risk, and creativity.” They require pastors and church leaders to take inventory of their current assets (including business and community leaders and mentors in their congregations) and opportunities that can be leveraged to be a blessing to those struggling economically in their community. Doing that won’t be easy, but it will be worth it to help others enjoy the flourishing life and work that they were made for.
Together we can build a flourishing community.
Chris Loux – Communications Director, CityChurch Network