I arrived in Phoenix today for the annual Kern Oikonomia retreat. It is hard to take time out of a busy schedule to spend three days in the tepid 70’s in Phoenix (particularly with the arctic air in Kansas City) but I somehow found the time. Rode the light rail down to the hotel in time to catch the opening session with Greg Forster director of the Oikonomia Network. The network includes approximately twenty seminaries around the country dedicated to exploring the multiple themes of faith, work, and economics. Greg opened the session by reminding us that our primary focus will be economics (something Kern is dedicated to providing resources around) but also in conversation with pastors who have already begun to implement this vision of engaging economics and faith in the congregational context.
Tonight’s first speaker, Christopher Brooks, Senior Pastor of Evangel Ministries in Detroit and currently the campus Dean of Moody Bible Institute in Detroit. Brooks presented a pastoral perspective on the possibilities of economic flourishing using the city of Detroit (his home) as a case study; though Brooks acknowledged the city’s problems could happen anywhere. Brooks insists that pastors have to have an optimistic vision where God
plants the minister. He acknowledged the city has tremendous human capital with an entrepreneurial people whose vision has been deadened through years of public policy that provided well -meaning care but tended to strip away personal agency in light of multi-generational dependency. Brooks also acknowledged his ministry has had both failures and successes but feels the overall approach, anchored in commerce as a form of social justice, provides a different approach to ministry.
Brooks noted that unfortunately, people in his city tend to equate “compassion” with the word “free,” stressing provider services that created systemic dependency. He quoted statistics from the current Detroit comptroller, Kevin Orr, that demonstrated the depths of dependency in a city that is 54% unemployed, with 35% of the families subsidized by food stamps, 15% working in the public sector, and 75% of the homes headed by single family mothers. While not disparaging those women, Brooks offered a psychological perspective that indicated that often public services replace fatherhood in homes, since men often cannot find employment to support families. Brooks argues that the systemic system of public care creates unintended consequences (like the public housing movement) that local ministries are trying to break by concretely addressing three issues: education, employment, and entrepreneurship to break the cycle of multi-generational dependency.
Brooks, who was an investment analyst prior to ministry, stresses that his ministry has to transform people from dependency to self-sufficiency. He regularly focuses on three themes:
- wealth creation (through job fairs, small business loans, employment counseling)
- wealth management (through savings and particularly through multi-generational strategies like wills, trusts, and insurance)
- wealth distribution (through investment projects and through giving to global efforts by agencies with proven track records).
Brooks regularly teaches these principles, giving all three themes attention for four to six weeks per theme each year. He notes that the concept of “wealth” reflects a broad term, one that includes abilities and passion as well as money. Teaching does include sermons but Brooks also provides a “financial intelligence team” that helps people seeking to create businesses with legal, accounting, business solutions, marketing and technical support. For Books, wealth creation means providing freedom and protection for people attempting to flourish by turning good ideas into goods and services. Brooks’ presentation included an encouragement for a continued active conversation between seminaries and churches around economics. However, Brooks also included the challenge that seminaries take economics seriously. He insisted that seminaries need to do more than just teach “biblical exegesis and marriage counseling” but focus on the material challenges of ministry since “pastors are dropped into an economic world.” When it comes to compassionate ministry, Brooks argued that pastors and congregations need to move beyond sentimentality and poverty management to embrace human flourishing. He claimed we cannot disciple a person who cannot feed his or her family, we need to holistically transform others through discipleship. To drive his point home
Brooks asked “since 2008, has there been any larger issue than the economic tensions we face in our cities?” Brooks’ message reflects one of the core themes of the Oikonomia network, the use of economics positively as a framework for understanding ministry. Brooks noted that this effort has brought an unprecendented unity in churches toward community improvement in Detroit.
Tomorrow we will engage in a number of presentations around these themes of economics, ministry, and transformation. If tonight is an example, we should have a good retreat.