I’ve visited sub-Saharan Africa a few times and have started to get a handle on the grassroots economic theory that dominates the local villages: zero-sum economics. In brief, traditional African culture understands that there is a fixed amount of wealth available at all times, so if one villager becomes wealthy, he necessarily does so at the expense of others, who conversely become poor. In such a model, a man who works hard, earns money, and starts socking that money away in a bank account is immoral, because by “hoarding” this money, he is denying his neighbors the opportunity to prosper or even to survive.
The effects of this economic theory are manifold. Some of these are not entirely bad—the Africans I met tended to be relational, communitarian, less penurious than the average American, and even quite generous (of course they expected the same from me, so this wasn’t pure altruism, but there is a certain civility in African society that is rather pleasant). Still, the problems with this theory were glaring. People still hoarded, but deceitfully and hypocritically; envy often outpaced magnanimity. But the most obvious problem of zero-sum economics was that, absent the idea of wealth creation, almost all incentive for steady work, planning, investment, and advancement disappear. After all, if I may keep only my little sliver of pie, what reason do I have to earn more?
As Americans (and especially those of us of the Republican persuasion), we tend to have the opposite problem. We tend to see all wealth as created, and suppress the uncomfortable thought that my wealth might possibly contribute to the hardship of someone else…except when it comes to church planting. Here, zero-sum economics often flourishes. If a new church plant appears near the perimeter of an established church’s “turf,” worry sets in—worry that the new church will lure away members from the existing church and prosper at its expense. After all, there are only so many Christians to go around, so a new church means fewer Christians for all of the existing churches. And while no one would ever actually say this, a mindset begins to emerge that it’s actually better to eliminate churches than it is to plant them; after all, when a church dies, this means more ‘wealth’ to distribute among the surviving churches.
But here’s the problem. It denies the possibility of the creation of ‘wealth’—in this case the creation of new believers—and removes all incentive to work hard at evangelism, invest in discipleship, and advance the cause of Christ. Sure, the surviving churches often have a wonderful sense of community and belonging, but without ‘wealth’ creation, the community will never truly prosper.
I grant, of course, that some new church planters hold to a zero-sum economic theory too—they plant churches fully intending to populate them with stolen sheep rather than with new sheep, suppressing and eliminating competition as their primary means of church growth. This is a problem that I recognize to be fully as serious as the previous. But in both situations, the solution is not to stop planting churches; instead, the solution is for all parties to recognize that the primary means to the establishment and growth of churches is by the creation and cultivation of new believers through the hard work of evangelism.