A Review of
We Aren’t Broke: Uncovering Hidden Resources for Mission and Ministry
Reviewed by C. Christopher Smith
Here at Englewood Christian Church on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis, one of our favorite stories from the Gospels is the so-called “feeding of the 5000,” a story that reminds us of God’s superabundant provision for the life of humankind, and indeed all creation. The superabundance of the economy of creation stands in sharp contrast to the scarcity that drives modern capitalism, into which we as North Americans have been formed. The German theologian Gerhard Lohfink describes the superabundant economy of creation:
“Excess, wealth, and profligate luxury are … signs of the time of salvation – not economy, meagerness, wretchedness, and neediness. Why is that so? – because God is overflowing Life itself, and because God’s whole desire is to share that life. God’s love is beyond all measure, and God’s gifts to human beings are not measured by their good behavior or deservingness.” (Does God Need the Church, 149)
Although our Englewood church community is in the midst of a neighborhood marked by many typical signs of urban poverty, and although we ourselves have been afflicted at times with the pestilent germs of scarcity, we are learning to live into a new sort of gospel economy, one whose hallmark is God’s superabundant provision for all creation.
Mark Elsdon’s new book We Aren’t Broke: Uncovering Hidden Resources for Mission and Ministry, is a poignant and immensely practical exploration of the superabundant economy of creation. As I read through its pages, the stories that Elsdon offers resonated with our own experience at Englewood over the last thirty years.
We Aren’t Broke is built upon a rich narrative base, particularly stories from Eldon’s work as Executive Director of Pres House, a campus ministry at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Elsdon and his wife were hired by Pres House, straight out of seminary to lead the organization, which was in quite a dire situation at that point. When Elsdon started, Pres House had zero students involved in their campus ministry, the church building that they owned was about to fall apart, and the annual budget didn’t even have enough money in it to fund their salaries. The primary asset that Pres House owned was the church building and the land that it sat upon, including a parking lot. The campus ministry’s board had a long-held vision of creating student housing on the piece of real estate that they owned. In the Elsdons’ first year as directors of Pres House, they began planning to bring this dream of a seven-story, 250-unit apartment building to fruition, and three years later, it was completed and opened. The investment in this building, over the past decade and a half, has given a jolt of new life to Pres House, revitalizing the programs of the campus ministry, but also has sparked innovative endeavors like a student wellness program and a recovery program that “helps heroin addicts stay in school and rebuild their lives” (5).
Interwoven with stories from Elsdon’s experience and that of other churches and nonprofit ministries, are engagements with stories from Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels, particularly the story of the rich fool (Luke 12). The fool in this story told by Jesus, mistook God’s abundant provision for him as his own wealth, he stored up treasures for himself and not the redemptive work of God in creation. Jesus’s story ends with the fool losing everything, all of his wealth and even his life.
In this Gospel story, Elsdon, highlights two crucial convictions that will transform our economics of our churches and ministries. First, everything we have is on loan from God. “Shifting our mind-set from a view that our resources and capital are ours and ours alone,” writes Elsdon,
“to an understanding that all we have is on loan from God opens up many new opportunities and possibilities for how to use our capital. If the property of the church is God’s, what would God want us to do with it? … Perhaps instead of building larger and larger barns to hold more of ‘our’ assets, we could open up those barns and put God’s resources to work in the world” (45).
Elsdon’s second conviction is that we should learn to control money, and not let money control us. This conviction, he argues, helps us to resist the all-too-prevalent temptations to fear and greed.
In the second half of the book, Elsdon explores the practical dynamics of how to embody new, and kingdom-oriented, economies of superabundance. Essential to these economies as Elsdon describes them are the intertwined practices of impact investing (finding investors who will take a lower-than-market-rate return on their investment because they are investing in projects that have a social impact) and social entrepreneurship (business endeavors that have a social impact has well as a financial one). Both of these practices challenge us to cultivate the sort of economic imagination that sees resources as God’s to be used for God’s transformative work in the world.
We Aren’t Broke is a challenging and invigorating book that will give a jolt of new life to congregations who read it and strive to follow its wisdom. Although Elsdon alludes at times to the human resources that God has provided in and around our congregations, he focuses primarily on monetary and real-estate resources. I wish there would have been a deeper exploration of the ways the superabundant resources of God are poured out to us in the people of our communities, and how organizing and leveraging these gifts of God in imaginative ways can be a catalyst of social enterprises. It seems that accentuating the provision of God in our human resources might make the book more accessible to a broader swath of congregations that have neither an endowment nor valuable land resources to use in leveraging investment. Regardless, Elsdon’s book will stir the economic imaginations of our churches, and is a helpful guide for opening our eyes to the superabundance of God’s provision.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com