The Three Es of Sustainable Development
Most of us trained for ministry were taught theology, the Bible, Greek and Hebrew, preaching, best practices of discipleship, leadership development, and the like. As a result we're often tossed into a world inadequately prepared for everyday "real life" struggles. We have answers for obscure theological questions and can have our quiet times with a Greek New Testament. We can preach expository sermons, gather people into small groups, and train deacons.
But what about understanding, ministering, loving, and living out the gospel in the settings we're in? That's a whole different conversation.
This isn't to belittle seminaries nor is this a diatribe against formal education, particularly Christian higher education (of which I'm actively involved). Instead, it is the painful reality that most of us have not been remotely prepared to love, serve, and minister outside the walls of a church building. However, that's where ministry takes place ...
For Intrepid our aim is to combine church planting with community / economic development. These are not separate entities but in many ways one and the same. Surprisingly many churches are already engaged in this combination whether they realize it or not. This could range from services for single moms to food pantries to financial assistance to struggling congregants and so much more.
What about doing it better? What about thinking through this is more detail and to develop a proactive plan and strategy rather than always simply reacting? In what ways can you or your church engage in the 3 Es of sustainable development? More than taking care of people within your church (which is essential!!!) what does it look like to play an active participatory role of improving the livability of your community?
These three Es reflect ways in which people in your church and setting are influenced ... either for the positive or negative: environment, economy, and equity.
Whether urban or rural the environment plays an enormous role on the life and health of local inhabitants. This could range from car exhaust pollution in global megacities to pollutants dumped in local stream beds in rural communities. Even on the small scale what can local churches do? Capture rain water in an arid climate? Better storm drain systems on church properties? Energy efficient structures? More than that, but to work for and advocate a healthy environment in the communities where the church resides.
"Economic development strategies are among the most challenging to revise from a sustainable communities perspective. Many cities and towns have traditionally sought any available form of economic growth, particularly through large, polluting employers, rapid land development, malls, big-box development, and even casinos. Although substantial municipal subsidies are often offered to such businesses, gaining them does not necessarily guarantee the community a stable and sustainable future." (Wheeler, "Sustainability in Community Development," 180)
What kind of jobs or industries do people in your church and community have access to? Is it a strong and vibrant economy? Slow and faltering? What can your church do to set up some kind of incubator to help generate new jobs, partner with the local city government to create new job opportunities, or creatively use your facilities ... co-working spaces, makerspaces, and the like.
In the lore of church growth material one of the common overlooked realities is how growth or decline in church attendance is often time to local economies. When major employers move, military bases shut down, or if you're in a hotbed of job growth where people are moving en masse it has a direct influence of church growth or decline. Maybe you're not as an amazing of a leader or bad of one as you might think. Externalities influence local churches. The local (and global) economy and your local church are intrinsically linked.
"We live in a society, both in the United States and globally, that has become more and more inequitable. Such rising inequality brings about many sustainability problems, from the degradation of ecosystems by impoverished people struggling to survive to the loss of social capital and mutual understanding essential in healthy democracies." (Wheeler, "Sustainability in Community Development," 181)
The biblical writer James admonishes us (James 2:1-13) to not show partiality. This goes beyond preferential treatment of the wealthy in our church gatherings, but it is really fleshed out on the streets and in your communities. "Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man" (James 2:5-6). Equity is not tied to a political party when it comes to how the poor or minorities are treated. Instead, it is a biblical injunction from God. How we treat others is a direct bearing of our understanding of the gospel.
The goal for this article is to challenge you to think more deeply about your role in the communities in which you minister currently or where you're soon to be headed. There are so many opportunities to serve, love, proclaim, and live out the gospel.