[This post was co-authored with Chris Horst, director of development at HOPE International. He is a This is Our City fanboy and is grateful that Christianity Today has given him freedom to write about manufacturers, mattress sellers, and solar product designers, all working for the common good in Denver, where he lives with his family. Chris blogs at Smorgasblurb, and you can connect with him on Twitter at @chrishorst. His first book, Mission Drift, will hit shelves this spring. The views expressed in this essay are his own.]
In a marvelous profile for This is Our City, Brandon Rhodes explores how a 25-member church is contributing to its neighborhood through farmer’s markets, block parties, and yarn-bombings. “They made a decision to radically localize how they practice being church with the common good and the gospel in mind,” Rhodes writes. “…They take a ‘nearby-first’ approach to living it out.”
James K.A. Smith responds at Cardus, and though he, too, celebrates the slow-and-artsy, he also emphasizes the importance of the macro-and-dirty. Decrying what he describes as “a sort of vague Anabaptism” among younger evangelicals, Smith challenges “Portlandia Christians” to consider the systemic challenges that either hinder or empower our cities. “We have scaled our expectations and our efforts as if the rejection of triumphalism means a retreat from systemic change,” he writes. “It’s like we’ve decided we should make lovely art not culture war.”
Turning his focus toward Detroit, which he describes as a “colossal disaster of municipal government,” Smith concludes that “farmer’s market’s won’t rescue the city” but “good government will.” Yet as he goes on to note, the solution is not either/or, but both/and: “It’s peach preserves and policy making. Coffee shops and court nominations. Block parties and bills in Congress.”
It is here that Smith’s “reshaping social architecture at the macro levels” gets at but one slice of the macro pie: policy making, court nominations, and bills. So as long as the door is cracked open, might we lob one more plea into the mix? Let’s not forget about business and jobs.
What of the high-tech manufacturer? What of the big-box retailer? What of the financial services behemoth? What of entrepreneurs that dabble in products and services beyond the local tap room?
Smith’s piece speaks specifically from the context of evangelicalism’s “triumphalist” past in politics, but even so, we would do well to address a similar sort of vague withdrawal from the macro side of business. Good governance is important, but it’s tricky to provide streets and safety nets without a robust tax base and employed workforce. To keep a big city like Detroit booming, you need great companies, both big and small. Entrepreneurs and businesses are the economic lifeblood of our communities, so while it’s healthy to get busy in gardening and governance, we should also be active in creating the next Hobby Lobby, Interstate Battery, Duck Commander, or Chick-Fil-A.
Smith’s “both-and” response does, of course, apply here as well. When entrepreneurs are welcomed and celebrated by their cities and states to invest, take risks, and employ people (good governance!), and when the common good is pursued in turn (through innovation and value creation), our cities thrive. Healthy businesses don’t just appear out of thin air; they spring from complex networks of strong families, life-giving churches, and intersecting institutions, and they flourish under governments that rightly relate to their citizens.
But high employment does have a striking tendency to make certain political problems go away. Take North Dakota, which has a balanced budget, well-funded schools, a robust police department, and flourishing citizens. Though its success is certainly due to wise governance and some proverbial yarn-bombing, it doesn’t hurt that they have a 3.2% unemployment rate, due in large part to a surge in oil and gas production. It’s why USA Today recently encouraged the unemployed to move to North Dakota. It’s why Bismark tops this list, instead of Detroit.
Would we be talking about Detroit’s political problems if companies like General Motors and Ford were still rapidly growing and actively recruiting other companies to invest in Michigan? Detroit’s problems have plenty to do with bad governance, even as it pertains to its businesses, but just as farmer’s markets won’t rescue a city in and by themselves, neither will seizing the macro-and-dirty of politics without cultivating the entrepreneurs to sustain it. You would be hard-pressed to find a city with low unemployment and low human flourishing. God wired people to work, and cities need employers to provide such opportunities.
John Perkins, a heroic civil rights activist, contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr., and pastor, once said, “Jobs are the world’s best social service program.” Indeed, while we’re advocating for Christians to be more active in garden-planting and policy-making alike, let’s not neglect Perkins’ challenge to create lots and lots of jobs.