Churches embrace social entrepreneurship and the sacred task of business

“Tentmaking” ministries that bring social entrepreneurship into congregational life are finding a growing reception among a wide range of denominations and churches, as they popularize the idea that business is a spiritual calling and signal a shift away from worship as the main function of churches, according to Thad Austin of Indiana University. Austin, who presented a paper at the late-October meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, which RW attended, said that the trend of social entrepreneurial congregations has largely gone under the radar of scholarship. To amend that situation, he studied 39 congregations and 44 church leaders throughout the U.S. engaged in tentmaking ministries (56 percent of which were mainline Protestant, 33 percent evangelical, and seven percent black church). He found that common among these churches of widely diverse theological orientations and shapes and sizes—from megachurches to small congregations attached to businesses—was the view that business was a sacred task.

Another pattern was that the business space of the congregations, whose enterprises ranged from real estate to retail, community development, restaurants or coffee houses, often overshadowed the worship space, being seen as a space where real ministry and spiritual fellowship took place. “The business transaction creates a relationship, not just the sale,” Austin said. These churches challenged the dominant business sustainability model, as they regularly lost money but managed to survive. A segment of these social entrepreneurial churches saw their business arms as a tool for evangelization in their communities, but for others it was more a matter of extending their presence into the surrounding area or building or improving community connections. Austin cited the case of Enterprise Church, a congregation in the South that is based around a building business and restaurant where the donations go to serving the community.