"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

The Secret to Success for Social Entrepreneurs: Innovative Obedience?

Millennials want to make a difference in the world. This is not news to most people who fall into the 18-29 age bracket—or to anybody who knows representatives of this globally minded generation. While young adults in the 80s and 90s might have vetted one another’s yuppie credentials or gloried in “over it” Nirvana grunge, emerging adults today are more likely to hold one another in high esteem for giving back, especially in a clever or enterprising way. From Silicon Valley to the Mid-Atlantic metropolis that I call home, sharp social entrepreneurs are founding businesses that turn processes like ordering takeout and charitable giving into sleek, personalized experiences. Bourgeoning NGOs are setting out to do everything from equipping Burundian communities to administer proper healthcare to village children, to offering experiential arts education in China, to tutoring students in under-performing elementary schools. What is the common thread amid the growing diversity of goals and tactics at play? According to Jonathan Ng, general counsel of Ashoka, the world’s largest association of leading social entrepreneurs, the social entrepreneurship movement boils down to applying entrepreneurial principles and innovative approaches to pursue a desired social change. In an effort to learn more about the social entrepreneurship movement, and the uniquely Christian perspective on today’s “it” career path, I recently went to hear Jonathan speak to a group of Christian graduate students and young professionals in Washington, D.C. What’s faith got to do with it? Even as an outside observer, I can’t help but note that throngs of young professionals vie for space and visibility in the now-crowded social entrepreneurship world. I have repeatedly watched friends take on fierce competition, sizable opportunity cost, daunting risk and ongoing instability in order to found new ventures. What makes this seismically active ground irresistible to so many? Is it desire to make a difference? To acquire a social media following? Undoubtedly answers vary and include both selfless and self-serving motivations. Do the motivations of Christian entrepreneurs stand out from the crowd? They should, Jonathan argues, and adds that our faith can ultimately translate into more purposeful, durable, fruitful ventures. In his words:
An outworking of one’s faith necessarily leads a committed Christian to apply the principles of social entrepreneurship to engage our culture in a more thoughtful and effective way. Further, Christians are arguably better equipped to be social entrepreneurs because our gospel-centric worldview informs our motivations and establishes parameters. This, in turn, simultaneously unleashes and tempers our ambition to change the world.
With God in the picture, there is no room for the illusion that the purpose of our work is self-glorification. While adoring social media followings, Forbes write-ups and the like might come with “making it,” Christians ought to recognize that idolizing such payoffs basically amounts to hitching a ride with Icarus. A Call to Innovative Obedience – A Light Yoke? As believers, we have orders to use our talents—financial resources, social capital and imaginations—to promote flourishing in society, as we seek the Shalom of our workplaces, cities, states and nation. This instruction might sound straightforward in theory, but entrepreneurs know as well as any that the operational, strategic and manual toil involved in pursuing social good is not easy. So how are we to understand that the yoke we take on is easy, and our burden light? The answer has to come from faith framing, fueling, guiding and limiting our work. If we trust God as sustainer, strength and visionary, we can find peace amid the vicissitudes of startup life. When ultimate meaning doesn’t come from work, long hours don’t threaten to take over as a source of identity. When failures (big or small) come, we don’t have to be surprised or feel singled out by our “fiery ordeals,” which our famously failing brother Peter makes abundantly clear. We have the ultimate resources for facing hardship, generously sharing successes, persevering through uncertainty, guarding against greed and trusting that our work is not in vain when God establishes the work of our hands. Social entrepreneurship is nothing new to the church. Faith also puts our immediate efforts and “flavor of the week” causes in perspective. As Jonathan reminded the group, social entrepreneurship is nothing new for the church. In fact, Jonathan argues that “Christians have been some of the most original and effective social entrepreneurs in history.” So the modern social entrepreneurship movement provides an opportunity for the church to reinvigorate our engagement with culture by continuing the legacy of efforts that began far before the term “social entrepreneur” entered the vernacular. Christians pursuing social causes have a unique set of advantages including rootedness, freedom from the rat race of perpetual newness, a basis for unshakable confidence and the ultimate clarity of purpose. In Christ, we have one direction that sets everything else in its place: to obey and follow our leader, the servant king who turned the universe on its head by hanging on a cross. That truth at once creates and demands all of the innovation, courage and vision we need. In the end, this is not about “making a difference in the world” after all, but about the radical invitation to participate in the ultimate social venture of making all things new.