Last week I had the pleasure of having dinner with a group from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Whilst you might not think of Texas as a place of social innovation, there are some very exciting things afoot. As part of that there is a new center for Social Innovation Collaboration being birthed. Over dinner the host turned to me and asked “so, what’s keeping you up at night?”
The question seemed a little bit out of left-field. Put on the spot, I came up with something that spoke to what was striking to me about the current culture and the rampant nature of competition that has become pervasive in the church in America. But as I drove from Waco to Dallas that evening, I thought the more interesting question is, “What is driving me in continuing to do this work at such high personal cost?”
Over the last 20 years I have been experimenting at the crossroads of business, church and culture. The term people use to describe me is either a social entrepreneur or missional entrepreneur.
I believe that entrepreneurship is about applying innovation to bring ideas to life, or as Jonny Baker, CMS director of mission education, has said, “entrepreneurship is about innovating in the gap.” For as long as I can remember I have been seeing gaps and thinking about how to do something to make a difference.
When we see a gap - between what is and what could be - there is a moment where we can choose action or apathy, boldness or blame. The key that unlocks the move to action instead of reverting to apathy is imagination, the ability to see and perceive a different future.
In 1998 I could see that church was not engaging my peers in spiritual conversations, yet I believed that everyone I knew wanted a meaningful life and they wanted to know if faith mattered. That led me to gather a team to start a church to reach young adults in the late 1990s called the Soul Cafe.
And later, when I moved to London I could see how young adults were leading in the creative industry and shaping culture. It was clear these young adults were the ones that could address the injustices that drive human trafficking and the normalization of paid sexual services. I believed that something else was possible and that we could actually reduce the demand of paid sexual services and that would radically transform the issue. So we created a campaign called The Truth Isn’t Sexy.
The Truth Isn’t Sexy was a campaign to address the demand side of human trafficking. It was about addressing an injustice in a creative way.
N.T. Wright in Simply Christian writes, “God is the one who satisfies the passion for justice, the longing for spirituality, the hunger for relationship, the yearning for beauty…”. God is the one who satisfies our passion for justice, but he invites us to join him in this work. What we were doing with The Truth Isn’t Sexy is to invite people into God’s work wherever they were in their belief and journey.
We learned through our work on trafficking was that once women were rescued in the UK they technically became homeless in order that they could access housing benefit. When we began looking at all of the women on housing benefit we found so much pain and brokenness. We had to act and in order to be effective we were going to have to be creative.
In Sweet Notions - a social enterprise working with women that were affected by homelessness - we collaborated with The Marylebone Project to teach women to repurpose jewelry and accessories, creating something beautiful out of what would likely be discarded.
When we take seriously the scripture that “God created us all to do good work” (Eph 2:10) then we will find our part to play and act boldly. I personally have been frustrated that the church tends to follow culture, often watering it down. I believe that as people of faith we should be seeking to do incredible and innovative work - not mediocre.
I now lead an organisation called Matryoshka Haus. The word Matryoshka is the word for Russian stacking dolls, which symbolise that one thing leads to another and all of our work has multiple layers. Matryoshka Haus has allowed me to explore what my faith looks like in the public arena and has allowed me to explore what I would call a ‘communal theology’. In creating a culture of experimentation we have been able to both build community and be creative.
In different ways, we are trying to embody what N.T. Wright expresses: “It is central to Christian living that we should celebrate the goodness of creation, ponder its present brokenness, and, insofar as we can, celebrate in advance the healing of the world, the new creation itself. Art, music, literature, dance, theater, and many other expressions of human delight and wisdom, can all be explored in new ways.”
Creativity and experimentation are not just for the sake of creativity, but rather for the transformation of the world. Our innovation has the goal of Impact. That is why measurement has become so central to our work. Some people looked at our early work and said things to us such as “you are no longer doing mission” or “you are just delivering a social gospel”. Those comments among others allowed me to recognize that in the church we have a measurement problem. So for the last eight years we have been working on The Transformational Index, where we have created tools, products and service to measure impact and change the conversation around what good looks like.
I also believe that the things that we are learning should be shared. The metaphor is pioneering, emulating the pioneers in America who carved paths into new land and made it easier for people to come behind them. So when Jonny Baker asked me about designing a week-long residential course that combined mission and entrepreneurship, I said yes! For the design of the course we pursued the question of how can we design a process that takes people from initial idea to being ready to launch in one week? How do we ignite ideas?
We have called this course ‘Make Good’, and in designing it, we went back to what we have learned along the way about what is essential in the process of trying to launch a social venture. I went back to what has driven me all of these years, and articulated the principles that act as an answer to that provocative question of “what keeps me up at night?”
- An imagination that another world is possible (big idea)
- A belief that God works through us for His redemptive purposes and our human flourishing (building from passion)
- That the Church is an agency for change in our context (collaboration)
- That we need to learn and change as we go (re-iterative process/community)
- That the impact we are seeking to achieve is tangible (measurement)
- That new economic models are essential and possible (resources)
At the root of missional entrepreneurship is the belief that another world is possible. In the Lord’s prayer, when Jesus prays “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” (Matthew 6:10) Jesus is not referencing the afterlife but is offering a vision of the transformation of the earth.
I am not really that concerned with the institutional structure of the church. I think the economic model is flawed and it tends to be more concerned with survival than transformation, elevating the leadership over the laity. However, I am a big believer in the church as a rag-tag group of believers that have experienced the transformational power of the gospel and, because of that, are moved to action.
In Acts, the early church “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). I believe when the church gets a vision for the transformation of the world we will find an antidote to competition because we will realise we all have a part to play. For me, I am still surprised and in awe of the work that I have been invited to do as a co-laborer with God in Christ.
 N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, (London: Harper One, 2010), 138-9.