Interviews: Practicing the King’s Economy – Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give

Early in Practicing the King’s Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Givewritten by Michael Rhodes and Robby Holt with help from Brian Fikkert, the authors talk about a method often used by the church to respond to needs in their communities:

So often, the metaphor for our compassion becomes the soup kitchen. We line up on one side of the serving line an scoop heaping hot resources into the bowls of hungry people standing on the other side. We might ladle out soup or shelter or education or counseling or spiritual nourishment. We can ladle anything we want so long as we have it, they don’t, and they are willing to take it from us….

New Prospect Missionary Baptist Church, a large congregation serving a predominantly African American population in Cincinnati, operated a soup kitchen for homeless people for many years. After a while, though, ministry leaders realized they weren’t building relationships with those they served. So they began asking people who came to the soup kitchen about their skills and abilities, their dreams and desires.

The results were shocking: the congregants found ‘carpenters, plumbers, artists, musicians, teachers, and caregivers, all coming to the soup kitchen at New Prospect.’ But most astonishing of all was the fact that over 50 percent of these men and women being served food prepared by church leaders listed cooking as one of their talents.

So, if the church shouldn’t respond to community needs this way, how should it respond?

But what if in God’s economy our goal isn’t a soup kitchen? What if it’s a potluck? A soup kitchen divides us up into haves and have-nots. At a potluck, every single person both gives and receives. Food comes from everyone and goes to everyone. Everyone gets fed and everyone brings a place.

Stop and think a moment about your church or organization’s outreach. What kinds of programs and services do you offer? What impact are they having in the community? How much ‘skin’ do the recipients have in what they’re receiving? How much does it cost them?

At this point, I would like to mention some good work done by Dr. John McKnight, founder, and co-director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute. The Institute has sought to help educate the church and society on the importance of surveying and understanding the assets in one’s community so they can be organized, mobilized, and deployed. I invite you to their website and in particular the book, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Identifying and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets which Dr. McKnight wrote with his colleague Jody Kretzmann. (Here is a link to the introduction.)

Recently, I caught up with my friend, Amanda Bridle, who co-leads a clothing ministry called Tabitha’s Closet which is a part of Tabernacle Community Church in Grand Rapids. My family and I attended this church when we lived in Grand Rapids and were involved in this ministry. The purpose of Tabitha’s Closet is to provide clothing to families in the community who otherwise could not afford it.

Tabitha’s Closet has evolved over the last few years from a ‘soup kitchen’ model where people could take as much as they wanted to a model where there is a modest cost to purchase clothing from the store. Additionally, customers are invited and empowered to become participants in running the ministry. Tabitha’s Closet is now a place where new relationships between neighbors are formed.

I asked Amanda to describe her experience with these changes.

I will admit this has been uncomfortable at times – hanging out with your regular church friends is different from welcoming neighbors you don’t know, teaching them the work, and starting conversations to build new relationships. Differing life experiences and even languages can make communication hard. But working side by side to support the same clothing ministry puts us all on the same team. No longer are we the “haves” and the “have-nots” or the “church people” and the “poor people.” We are not even the “sale people” and the “customers.” Instead, we are all neighbors working together to love and provide for other neighbors. I like to think that’s the way Jesus would do it.

I also had the opportunity to interview Michael Rhodes regarding Practicing the King’s Economy.

Chris Robertson: What was your original purpose or goal for Practicing the King’s Economy? Was there something awakened from When Helping Hurts that resulted in the writing of this book?

Michael Rhodes: I studied community development at Covenant College with Brian Fikkert, so I got the concepts from When Helping Hurts there. After college, I used many of those principles and other Chalmers Center tools working in community development in Kenya for 2 years and then back in my hometown of Memphis.

Also, I employed these ideas for 5 years at Advance Memphis, a non-profit leading faith-based initiatives for adults in a low-income community – including job training and financial literacy courses designed by Chalmers (Work Life, Faith & Finances), and an entrepreneurship program led by LAUNCH Chattanooga.

During that time, I was also going out to churches to talk about why they should partner with Advance Memphis on these initiatives, and I started noticing something. In the church, when it comes to generosity or poverty, we typically just say “Make as much as you can and give it all away.”

But while radical generosity in giving is important and something we talk about in the book, at Advance, we didn’t have a model if Christians weren’t also finding ways to love their neighbors in the way they managed their business or workplaces or spent and invested their money. In other words, if we didn’t have a business that was willing to hire a person with a violent felony on their record, a household willing to give an aspiring entrepreneur their first shot, a group of investors willing to invest in a new business, we didn’t have a model.

So we weren’t going to be able to help our neighbors if all the church was doing was “make as much money as you can and give it away.” Even if churches and non-profits embodied the sorts of relational programming and efforts so powerfully presented in When Helping Hurts, if we didn’t invite God’s people to live differently in the way we work, earn, save, invest, and spend, then we weren’t going to get very far.

During this time, I was also working on an MA in Biblical Studies, and I started to realize that “make as much as you can and give it away” wasn’t the only biblical teaching either! Economic justice and righteousness didn’t start with money you had left over after the real business of your financial life. It started with how you managed your field and welcomed people to work in it, how you lent money, how you treated employees, how you shared with neighbors, and more.

And so, for me at least, Practicing the King’s Economy is about holistic economic discipleship that’s oriented towards the good news for the poor that Jesus talked about in Luke 4. And in that sense, it is a perfect complement to When Helping Hurts.

CR: I hope the church-at-large can more normatively understand the short-sighted view of the soup kitchen and the long-term value of potluck thinking. What are some ways you have presented this to pastors and churches? What pushback have you received?

MR: I’ve talked about soup kitchen vs. potluck now at some churches and conferences that gather church folk. I think the metaphor gives people a powerful way to conceptualize the difference between serving the economically “other” versus welcoming and being welcomed by the economically “other.” It also gives good framing to our work at economic development: we’re not simply helping people be “independent,” we’re empowering folks to participate in the interdependent community that God calls us to.

Regarding pushback, I think there are a couple things to say. First, some folks can see the potluck as an excuse not to do the kind of significant relief or charity work embodied in the soup kitchen. People have made a similar mistake at times when they read When Helping Hurts (by the way, the follow-up book, Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence, does a phenomenal job of exploring mercy ministry in the church).

But the truth is sometimes charity is necessary, one way giving is necessary. Even soup kitchens have their place. The question is whether the long-term goal is actually the inclusive potluck where everybody brings a plate. In other words, we need to ask how our soup kitchen efforts can actually help people get on the road to participating more fully in the potluck.

Other pushback might come from those who think what we’re describing is a wholesale rejection of capitalism. But frankly, that’s not really the question we’re even addressing in this book, and we wrote this book with Brian Fikkert, a Yale-trained economist! We’re talking about how Christians can bend their economic lives, including lives lived in a capitalist economy, towards welcoming and empowering others. Again, too often in the church I think economic discipleship disintegrates into “be generous” and “work with excellence.” These are both critical biblical ideas! But they’re nowhere near as comprehensive as God’s heart for his people to live in his kingdom economy as we encounter that economy in Scripture.

CR: I also enjoyed your presentation on the importance of lament as integral to “any economy aimed at the community.” I agree with you, but don’t see this written about very much. 

MR: While the concept of lament has been neglected in contemporary evangelicalism, I’d say it’s making a major come back. Soong-Chan Rah has written an outstanding commentary on Lamentations, and I’ve been really challenged by the concept of lament in Reconciling All Things by Emmanuel Katangole and Chris Rice and Kelly Kapic’s recent Embodied Hope.

That said, I think most Christians don’t see lament as a central part of their spirituality, and I think most churches neglect lament entirely. In fact, we may think of it as inappropriate to give voice to grief, pain, injustice, etc. I think at least some of this unwillingness to lament is actually bound up in our idolatry to money and power, because when we try to worship Jesus and money, we end up with a spirituality that is unwilling to embrace suffering, pain, sadness, injustice, disappointment, etc.

Lament becomes particularly important when we’re drawn into worship with those who are unlike us, from the other side of various racial, ethnic, or economic lines, because, for instance, my black brothers and sisters or my poor brothers and sisters have experienced pain and injustice that I haven’t.

Christian lament creates space for our brothers and sisters to name and decry injustice, but it also creates space for those of us who have not experienced that injustice firsthand to mourn with those who mourn. It even creates space for folks like me to recognize our own complicity with the oppression that my neighbors suffer under. Here again, though, there’s an enormous temptation to sweep lament under the rug, precisely because of what it costs us by taking a hard look at our own complicity and shortcoming and in being willing to enter another’s pain.

CR: Are there any stories of individuals or churches who have thought and acted incorrectly in their outreach whose thinking has changed that you would like to spotlight?

MR: One of my favorite stories is of Wes Gardner, a serial entrepreneur in Colorado. Wes had learned to give generously but was stunned by a Gallup poll that suggested that what everyone in the world wants is a good job. He decided to use his business to create opportunities for good jobs for those who wouldn’t otherwise have them. Wes did this by partnering with non-profits to hire teen moms living in a halfway house or people coming out of addiction recovery. His faithfulness in giving led him to ask how he could bend his business towards the underemployed.

CR: Is there anything you would like The Green Room audience to understand about honoring King Jesus with our resources in particular?

MR: I think it’s vital for the church to challenge God’s people to get creative in imagining how we can bend our economic lives towards the marginalized. Businesses, churches, and families can find ways to create job opportunities for refugees, people with criminal records, or high school youth as well as invest in social enterprises and minority entrepreneurs. Businesses, churches, and families can also find ways to structure their lives together around Sabbath rest.

And the list goes on. If we truly listen to all of Scripture speak to all of our economic lives, we believe we’ll hear Jesus inviting us to practice his economy for his glory and our good. We just have to stop limiting our message to generosity in giving and excellence at work. We pray this book helps God’s people begin to become people who live as faithful citizens of God’s kingdom, not least in our economic lives.

I am thankful for the good work done by Michael Rhodes, Robby Holt, and Brian Fikkert to think through these important ideas and bring them to a broad audience by writing this book. I heartily endorse this book for your reading and sharing it with others.

My thanks also to my Green Room colleague, Spence Spencer, for his excellent review of this book.

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