A missionary stands in the front of the Kenyan church’s microfinance ministry and shares her vision: ‘I want to be able to help the Masai girls far in the interior regions . . . so that I can empower them to be just like us;’ and what would it mean to be ‘just like them?’[1]

The church’s microfinance ministry is an outstanding example of ‘integral mission.’

All the women in this meeting—including the missionary—are poor Masai, a semi-nomadic people in East Africa that often treats women like second-class citizens. In addition to being born again, the women are highly productive, accessing capital from the microfinance ministry to start businesses, to pay school fees for their children, and to cope with emergencies.

The church’s microfinance ministry is an outstanding example of ‘integral mission’, the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel that was at the heart of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 4:14-21; 7:18-23; 9:1-2; 10:9).[2] The fact that this ministry empowered the Masai women to overcome social oppression and grinding poverty is truly remarkable; but no less remarkable is the fact that this empowerment produced a kingdom-centered missionary rather than the highly individualistic, self-centered materialist that has become so prevalent in the global economy.

Expanding markets and poverty reduction

Globalization is spreading Western-style, market-based economies across the planet, resulting in a world that is converging on a fairly common set of narratives, practices, and institutions. As a result, many countries are now reaping the same benefits from economic growth that the West has enjoyed since the industrial revolution, not the least of which is a massive reduction in poverty.[3] In only two decades, the number of people living on less than 1.90 USD per day—the World Bank’s poverty line—declined by more than half,[4] and it is hoped that continued economic growth will lift the entire world above this poverty line by the year 2030.[5][6] While these massive reductions in poverty should be celebrated, there are also reasons for us to be concerned about the current nature of the global economy.

The paradox of unhappy growth

As suggested by the provocative title of Carol Graham’s book, Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires, economists are finding that well-being does not automatically increase with economic prosperity.[7] For example, while real income per capita tripled in the US between 1946 and 2014, the self-reported happiness of the average American stayed roughly the same (Figure 1).[8] Similar results have been found for a wide range of wealthy, poor, and transitional economies.[9]

Figure 1

Long-Run Trends in Average US Income and Self-Reported Happiness

Adapted from Rubén Hernández-Murillo, Christopher J. Martinek, ‘Dismal Science Tackles Happiness Data’, The Regional Economist (Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Vol. 18, Issue 1, January 2010), 15.

More objective measures tell a similar story: both mental and physical well-being are on the decline in the US. For example, from the late 1930s to the present, a period of sustained economic growth, depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems among American youth steadily increased (Figure 2).[10] It is as though our bodies and souls are crying out that something is wrong—that we are created to be more than the individualistic, selfish, materialistic creatures fostered by the global economy.

Figure 2

Long-Run Trends in Depression Among US College Students

Adapted from Jean M. Twenge, Brittany Gentile, C. Nathan DeWall, Debbie Ma, Katharine Lacefield, David R. Schurtz, ‘Birth Cohort Increases in Psychopathology among Young Americans, 1938-2007: A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of the MMPI’, Clinical Psychology Review, Vol. 30, #8 (Elsevier, Amsterdam, 2010), 151.

Human flourishing consists of our bodies and souls experiencing the four fundamental relationships in the way that God designed them to be experienced.

The nature of human flourishing

Indeed we are. While we should never downplay the importance of our bodies, the human being is far more than physical. Humans are created with bodies and souls that are designed to enjoy four fundamental relationships: relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation. We are highly integrated, body-soul-relational creatures. In this light, human flourishing consists of our bodies and souls experiencing the four fundamental relationships in the way that God designed them to be experienced.[11]

Being body-soul-relational creatures has many implications that go beyond this essay. However, it is important to highlight here that humans’ body-soul-relational design makes us perfectly suited for the task that God has given to humanity: to serve as priest-kings who extend his reign and worship from the Garden of Eden throughout the whole earth. Although the fall undermined humanity’s ability to fulfill this calling, Christians are restored as priest-kings, giving tremendous meaning to our daily work, both in this age and in the one to come (I Pet 2:9, Rev 5:10).[12]

Becoming square pegs in round holes

Unfortunately, due to the fall, there are both internal and external forces that seek to re-shape us into something other than what we were created to be. Like square pegs in round holes, we do not fit. So our body-soul-relational personhoods cry out in pain at this deforming process, which contributes to the physical and mental health issues mentioned earlier.

How does this work? Human beings are transformed into the image of whatever we worship—into the image of whatever drives our daily lives.[13] Theologians and philosophers describe the mechanism by which this transformation happens in the following way:[14]

  • The god that a community worships results in a shaping narrative, an overarching story about the nature of the good life and of how this good life can be achieved.
  • As the members of the community live into this story, they engage in formative practices that are consistent with the community’s shaping narrative.
  • Like an athlete training for a competition, an individual’s repeated exercise of these story-shaped practices changes their individual characters so that they increasingly become the type of people who are better able to help the community to achieve its goals.
  • Over time, these practices become embedded in the community’s institutions and policies, which reinforce the community’s shaping narrative, formative practices, and individual characters over time (Figure 3).[15]

We are transformed into the image of whatever we worship; so worshipping false gods is profoundly deforming.

Figure 3

The Process of Shaping Individuals and Cultures

Adapted from Brian Fikkert & Michael Rhodes, ‘Homo Economicus vs. Homo Imago Dei’, Journal of Markets & Morality, Vol. 20, #1, 106.

The current global economy reflects the idolatry at the heart of mainstream Western economics.

The god of the global economy

While economic exchange is part of the goodness of God’s creation, the current global economy reflects the idolatry at the heart of mainstream Western economics. Despite its claims to moral neutrality, the underlying worldview of Western economics promotes the worship of homo economicus, the autonomous, self-interested, materialistic creature that economists use to describe human beings in their models. Economists take it as given that human beings are actually like homo economicus and that the goal of the global economy is to make homo economicus happy by serving his or her individualistic, self-centered, materialistic goals.

Over time, the shaping narrative of serving homo economicus gets rooted in the institutions and policies of the global economy, becoming embedded in the global trade and financial systems, multinational corporations, national economic policies, and the media. As a result, the average person’s daily life is often reduced to the practices of a consume-earn-consume-earn treadmill in a never-ending quest for greater material prosperity.[16]

In the process, the priest-king is increasingly transformed into homo economicus, and his or her entire being cries out in pain at the excruciating deformation:[17]

Considerable evidence suggests that America’s dramatic economic growth during the post-World War II era has been accompanied by substantial increases in individualism and materialism, which research has found to be highly destructive, resulting in lower self-reported happiness, poorer interpersonal relationships, higher levels of anxiety and depression, greater antisocial behavior, and lower health.[18] The future looks even bleaker when we look at the emerging Millennial generation, an age cohort that researchers are finding to be far more materialistic, self-centered, and depressed than previous generations.[19]

Moreover, there is evidence that the process of globalization is spreading this deformation to the rest of the world, even as the spread of markets lifts people out of material poverty.[20]

Economic empowerment rooted in the worship of homo economicus liberates people from the bondage of material poverty only to re-enslave them in the chains of individualistic, self-centered materialism.

What the church needs is economic discipleship that equips God’s people to live faithfully into King Jesus’ economy in the midst of the globalized economy.

The need for economic discipleship and integral mission

The good news is that the kingdom of God includes an economy in which King Jesus, not homo economicus, reigns. Unfortunately, as a result of the church’s sacred-secular divide,[21] God’s people have not been shaped by the narratives, practices, and institutions of Christ’s kingdom. As a result, too often we worship God on Sunday morning but then from Monday through Saturday we default to the only story we know: the narratives, practices, and institutions of homo economicus.[22]

What the church needs is economic discipleship that equips God’s people to live faithfully into King Jesus’ economy in the midst of the globalized economy. They need to be taught to offer their work and wealth as an act of worship to God every moment of every day.[23]


The church also needs models of integral mission that empower poor people to be priest-kings rather than worshippers of homo economicus. This requires our poverty alleviation ministries consistently to narrate and put into practice the truth that it is Jesus Christ alone who is making all things new (Rev. 21:5). It is he who provides the malaria nets, the microfinance loans, and the miracles; and it is he alone who must be worshipped in every aspect of our lives.

Designing such ministries presents a tremendous challenge to many Christian organizations, whose current funding sources require Jesus’ words to be separated from his deeds. Two new resources that can help us faithfully to pursue integral mission are:

  • Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic, Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty isn’t the American Dream (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2019).
  • Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic, A Field Guide to Becoming Whole: Principles for Poverty Alleviation Ministries (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2019).

Economic empowerment can be enslaving. We all need King Jesus and his economy to set us free.

Endnotes

  1. As quoted in Brian Fikkert and Russell Mask, From Dependence to Dignity: How to Alleviate Poverty Through Church-Centered Microfinance (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 15.
  2. See Cape Town Commitment Section 1, article 10.
  3. Brian Fikkert & Michael Rhodes, ‘Homo Economicus vs. Homo Imago Dei’, Journal of Markets & Morality, Vol. 20, #1, 101.
  4. See United Nations, The Millenium Development Goals Report 2015 (New York, NY: United Nations, 2015).
  5. See United Nations, Sustainable Development Goals (New York, NY: United Nations, 2016).
  6. Editor’s Note: See article by Mats Tunehag, entitled, ‘Creating and Sharing Wealth’, in May 2019 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2019-05/creating-and-sharing-wealth.
  7. Carol Graham, Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009).
  8. Richard A. Easterlin, ‘Paradox Lost?’ IZA discussion paper series no. 9676 (January 2016), 5.
  9. Graham; See also William Tov and Evelyn W.M. Au, ‘Comparing Well-Being Across Nations: Conceptual and Empirical Issues’, chapter 35 in The Oxford Handbook of Happiness, ed. Susan A. David, Ilona Boniwell, and Amanda Conley Ayers (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013), 448-464; Bruno S. Frey, Happiness: A Revolution in Economics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010);
  10. Jean M. Twenge, Brittany Gentile, C. Nathan DeWall, Debbie Ma, Katharine Lacefield, David R. Schurtz, ‘Birth Cohort Increases in Psychopathology among Young Americans, 1938-2007: A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of the MMPI’, Clinical Psychology Review, Vol. 30, #8 (Elsevier, Amsterdam, 2010), 151.
  11. Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic, Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream (Chicago, Moody Publishers, 2019), 50.
  12. Ibid; G. K. Beale and Mitchell Kim, God Dwells Among Us: Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014). This profoundly important topic was explored further at the Lausanne Global Workplace Forum in Manila from June 25-29, 2019.
  13. Fikkert and Kapic, 52-5; James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016), 8.
  14. While the language used here makes this process sound very natural, in reality there are supernatural forces at work as well. See Fikkert and Kapic, 187-9.
  15. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 151; James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom (Cultural Liturgies): How Worship Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 51.
  16. Fikkert and Kapic, 89; Fikkert and Rhodes, 106.
  17. Fikkert and Kapic, 85.
  18. Fikkert and Rhodes, 114–5.
  19. Jean M. Twenge, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2007).
  20. See endnote 9.
  21. Capetown Commitment Part IIA.3.
  22. Editor’s Note: See article by Mats Tunehag, entitled, ‘Business as Mission’, in November 2013 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2013-11/business-as-mission-building-a-movement-that-can-bring-lasting-societal-transformation.
  23. A resource that can help in this regard is Michael Rhodes and Robby Holt, Practicing the King’s Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018).
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Dr Brian Fikkert is the founder and President of the Chalmers Center at Covenant College (www.chalmers.org), where he also serves as a Professor of Economics and Community Development. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor...and Yourself.