Whether churchgoing or not, a clear majority of Americans appreciate pastoral leadership and healthy churches for their leavening function in our cultural life—especially at a time when political campaigns have become so rancorous and divisive. The Made to Flourish pastors network—which includes the leaders of more than 950 evangelical congregations—is cultivating a community of pastors who specifically affirm human dignity and the value of work, arguing that because free enterprise improves human life, it is therefore a moral, not merely material, good.

Churches need this argument precisely because they are—or should be—the deepest institutional wellsprings for fostering empathy toward our fellow man, for connecting discipleship and daily work and for extending lasting hope to the poor.

Economic Freedom & Poverty

In the sweep of human history, we live in a time of unparalleled global prosperity—and yet many U.S. Christians are unfamiliar with this fact.

Consider, for example, a 2011 study from Yale University and The Brookings Institution that showed that, in 1981, 52 percent of the world’s population could not provide for its basic needs, including housing and food, meaning those men and women lived below the extreme poverty line. Just 30 years later, that percentage plummeted to 15 percent. Why? To cite the Yale-Brookings study: “the rise of globalization, the spread of capitalism, and the improving quality of economic governance.”

In 2014 Bill Gates made a similar point in his foundation’s annual letter: “By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been. People are living longer, healthier lives. Many nations that were aid recipients are now self-sufficient. You might think that such striking progress would be widely celebrated, but in fact, Melinda and I are struck by how many people think the world is getting worse.”

Today, more than 70 million people are moving out of destitution each year. What underlies this massive shift? One economist says five dynamics are essential for alleviating extreme poverty: free trade, property rights, the rule of law, globalization and entrepreneurship. These conditions provide the foundation for economic progress—in part because they operate when we are sleeping, like an engine humming steadily along. As U2’s Bono recently said at Georgetown University, “Aid is just a stopgap. Commerce and entrepreneurial capitalism take more people out of poverty than aid—we know that.”

So as parishioners and pastors, how should we understand these economic principles, and, in a country still widely characterized by religiosity, how does faith relate to how we go about our work.

Back to Basics

From a biblical perspective, connecting faith, work and economics stems directly from what we know about human identity. In the first chapter of Genesis, God connects the essential meaning of humanness—that is, bearing the Lord’s unique image—to our stewardship task of subduing the earth and exercising dominion (Gen. 1:27-29). His creativity provides the basis for our creativity, undergirding our charge to work. Perhaps this is one reason Christ himself shouldered “the vocation of small business: a creative vocation, a vocation of humble service helping his family earn its own way”; perhaps this is why he spent six times as many years working as a carpenter-builder than he did in his public ministry.

When we recognize that work is a pre-fall task that comes from God—that it is, in this sense, fundamentally human — we can understand that people everywhere, including the poor, are assets to be developed, not liabilities to be managed.

Moreover, as we grow into maturity, it is the workplace—much like the institutions of family, church or school—that helps to form us, rebuke us and give us clarity and new direction. Participating in the exchange economy is a gift from God.

In its first year as an organization, 1,100 pastors joined Made to Flourish, embracing these foundational ideas, sharing best practices and forming relationships with like-minded practitioners. These pastors are equipping their congregations through sermons, public prayers and commissionings, and celebrating vocational faithfulness, workplace visits, classes, small group curricula, entrepreneurial initiatives and job training programs.

In fresh ways and through faithful presence, congregations across the country are reconnecting deeply held Christian convictions with the place where most of us consistently spend a majority of our lives: at work. As a “priesthood of believers,” to use the biblical expression, the scattered church worships God through daily work, defined as value creation (whether paid or unpaid). And perhaps, more than anything else, it is through work that a post-Christian, pluralistic society encounters the light and hope of Christ.