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What is the Informal Economy, and What Does it Have to do With Starting Churches?

For at least three decades now, the church starting world has embraced high-level business start-up principles. We value particular successful franchising models, good branding and marketing principles, excellent customer service, strong management teams, scalable ways of acquiring customers, measurable results, and a work ethic that reminds us that good enough is never really good enough.
These and other principles have resulted in numerous success stories, including mega-church and multi-campus models. They have also resulted in some devastating failures, but isn’t failure also a hallmark of entrepreneurial culture?
Business Principles and Kingdom Avenues
While it isn’t my intent here to analyze, approve or reprove any of these approaches, either in the business or the church world, I must acknowledge more than occasional frustration when at times, a business approach supplants kingdom avenues to evangelism and church planting.
Business principles suggest that it is better to spend time on that which is effective, grows quickly, and becomes self-supporting and self-propagating in a predictable and fairly short amount of time. This means spending less time and less money in resistant places, and investing in what is sometimes referred to as “low hanging fruit.” Less time is available for seed sowing among least reached and most resistant people groups, despite the fact that we have greater global proximity to these groups than ever before.
When any business model is utilized for kingdom ministry, let us simply acknowledge that these tensions are present.
When any business model is utilized for kingdom ministry, tensions are present.
The Formal Versus Informal Economy
The formal economy, which covers much of the business model mentality mentioned above, is worth at least 1.5 million dollars a year. However, around the world, there is a different kind of economy of business rising up. It is where two thirds of the world’s work force is employed, and has a projected GDP of over 10 trillion dollars.
I am referring to the informal, “do it yourself (DIY) or “shadow” economy. Author and investigative journalist Robert Neuwirth, who has researched and written extensively on this topic, defines this economy as “businesses that exist solely on their own effort with no help from the government.” It is neither taxed, nor monitored by any government. To remove the stigma from the word, he refers to it as “System D,” coined by the French from the word débrouille meaning to make do, or manage in especially difficult situations, or an economic system that thrives on entrepreneurial self reliance and ingenuity. It is a concept valid around the world. For example, it is similar to the term jugaad in Urdu, Hindi, and Punjabi.
System D work includes all kinds of informal work: gardening on the side, selling merchandise at swap meets, operating unlicensed mobile kitchens, unlicensed child care, street vendor and unregistered kiosk work, or hiring family members and paying them under the table. Clandestine operations are also part of the informal economy, including drug trafficking, smuggling, and reproducing fake name brand goods. The informal economy has been a staple all over the world and throughout human history.
After the economic collapse of 2008 that threatened not just U.S. but global markets, may people had a difficult time finding and keeping work. Ingenious entrepreneurs invented all kinds of ways to make a living, and the formal economy began taking notice.
The Church and the Informal Economy
Historically, the church has also operated in the context of an informal economy. The economic system of the days when Jesus walked on earth, and the days of the early church was more of an informal economy than one that was tightly regulated. Most of the twelve worked in informal economies before they decided to follow Christ; for example, some were fisherman. Neither Jesus nor Paul survived based on regulated, governed work systems. In more modern history, itinerant preachers, evangelists and church starters both instigated and were responsive to revivals.
Consider early Baptist and Methodist evangelistic work in the United States and Europe, and consider the thousands and thousands of itinerant, mobile, evangelistic men and women engaged in real church planting movements in China, India, and around the world.
Historically, the church has also operated in the context of an informal economy.
Five Lessons from the Informal Economy
Can you see where we are going with this? Decades ago, we adopted the successful business model approaches of the formal economy, and made those work well for church starting. As the informal economy burgeons around the world, what can we learn from it that will not only help us work with people who relate to this economy, but also understand principles that are more compatible with movement mentality?
Here are just a five thoughts.

  1. One of the necessary for movements is commitment to decentralization. No movement is sustainable when it is centralized, licensed or regulated, and if it can be counted, it is probably not a movement.
  2. Part time and temporary workers are normative in informal economies. This mentality makes it easier church planters to move around as often as needed and to function in their apostolic and evangelistic gift mixes. It also makes outside organizational funding less necessary, so there is increased freedom from centralized control and less dependence on outside monies.
  3. Work in the informal economy requires, and even prefers, a small scale low level of organization, as do church planting movements.
  4. The informal economy is characterized by easy entry. In church planting movements, the goal that disciples make disciples who make disciples, necessitates easy entry requirements, such as no seminary training and no lengthy assessment or ordination processes.
  5. The informal economy thrives where there is marginalization and some kind of immediate need, depending instead on deep relationships and natural oikos. It is sometimes referred to as a simple form of cooperation, even among strangers. (Consider the hospitality of Lydia, the first European convert, who invites Paul and his companions to stay at her home.)

What Can We Do?

  1. We must acknowledge the reality and the growing importance of the informal economy and facilitate change in our cultural perception of this reality.
  2. We must be willing to release centralized control while at the same time, investing in relational discipleship principles.
  3. We must learn to be comfortable with that which is not readily documented.
  4. We must posture ourselves as learners. When the church decided it would emulate the ideas and principles of the formal economy, it stepped back to learn and understand. As that business world continues to change, the church has kept pace admirably. What can we learn now from the informal economy, and how will we sanctify those principles and utilize them for kingdom purposes?

* note: This blog is taken from an upcoming book on urban church planting Linda is co-authoring.