In 2009, I left my job as pastor of a community church in a Dublin suburb after nine years. After twenty-two years as a professional church planter and church leader, I set out on a road I had never travelled with no income for the journey.
There were two ideas for my next steps: work with others to develop a gospel movement in Dublin, and start a hospitality business in the city centre. Both ideas took longer and proved harder than I hoped. But ignorance of the future is great protection when you set out on an adventure.
Three things influenced my thinking and motivation:
First, I wanted to be in the city. I had invited Tim Keller into my life, so I knew that the city is where people’s ideas and values are shaped. I wanted to work in the city, not the suburbs.
Second, Dublin has a cultural suspicion of “professional religion.” People may show superficial respect for a professional religious leader, but underneath there is a strong vein of distrust and even contempt. I saw value in being given a hearing as an amateur rather than a professional in the God conversations.
Third, I was convinced of the intangible power of good hospitality. People I know who never come to church and don’t care for spiritual conversation are always ready to come to our table and spend hours at a meal. My wife Ana’s excellent cooking skills and a half-decent bottle of wine have lowered many a guard and led to all kinds of wonderful conversations. I wanted to be in the business of practising hospitality.
From those three notions grew a social business called Third Space, which now operates a café in the centre of Dublin. It is run as a profit-generating business that also provides significant social benefit. It employs 25 people and offers food, drink, and a welcoming space to hundreds of people each week. It also provides practical and financial support for community groups, social projects, and creative bodies of many kinds. It is a centre of life and hospitality in the area. Its opening became a significant catalyst in the social renewal of its neighbourhood. And it is all shaped by the gospel notion that we do good to others because God has done good to us.
Step Out Onto the Road
It takes more space than this paper affords to lay out a plan for social enterprises as an intrinsic part of a gospel movement alongside church planting, mercy ministries, and faith in work initiatives, but a few simple steps might start the journey.
List the five most important social problems facing your city.
As you walk your city and pray for it, what social problems stand out? How long have the problems been there? How pervasive are they? What solutions have been attempted?
Do some theological analysis of the problems.
All of our problems have roots in rebellion against God, but dig deeper. Does the Bible give insight into the reason and possible solutions? Do the teachings and examples of Jesus provide insight and help? As you do this work, watch out for the problem that stands out and demands your attention.
Talk to the people already working on this problem.
Don’t think that no one else has seen or worked on this problem. In every city, there are people who care for their city and want to solve its problems. Most of these people won’t share your faith or convictions. But they will still have stories worth listening to and learning from.
Talk to the business people in your church and your city.
Tell them about the concept of a social business and paint the picture of starting a business to solve a social problem. Talk to people in the business sector you want to join. If the problem is money lenders exploiting the poor, talk to bankers and other financiers. If the problem is housing, talk to builders and planners. Maintain the posture of learning.
Find Jesus-following entrepreneurs.
Dealing with the problem will require people who know how to start things. An entrepreneur is someone who sees a problem as an opportunity — their eyes light up when someone tells them something can’t be done because it sounds like an invitation. Find Jesus-following entrepreneurs and challenge them to start social businesses to solve your city’s intractable problems.
Do some dreaming.
The question that led to the beginning of Third Space was this: “Seán, if you could do anything you wanted in life and there were no restrictions, what would you do?” Ask yourself those kinds of questions.
Start writing a plan.
There are 33 versions of the Third Space start-up plan, but without Version 1, it never would have happened. After all the talking, listening, praying, exploring, and dreaming, someone needs to write down some possible next steps. That’s how businesses start — even social ones.
Social businesses on their own, even when led by Jesus-following business geniuses, will not transform a city. But my contention is that they should have a place in a healthy gospel-ecosystem alongside church plants, charities serving needs, creative initiatives, and workplace training. The particular strength of the social business model in such a system is that it provides a visible demonstration of a third option that is neither business nor charity, even before they learn that the gospel is an invitation to a third way of living with God.
This blog is part of a longer essay called “Developing Gospel- Shaped Social Businesses in the City” in the free ebook Movements of the Gospel: Experiments in Ministry in Unfamiliar Places.
Seán Mullan is the founder and director of Third Space, a café and gathering space with two venues in the centre of Dublin. Seán previously worked in the merchant navy and as a church planter in Cork and Dublin. Married to Ana for 27 years, they have three adult children.