If there was ever a time to mobilize Christians in business to engage the culture courageously and meaningfully, the time is now. Although business has been an engine of economic prosperity, there is no denying that it has stumbled in recent years.
In just the past decade, the collateral damage has been devastating. Consider the dot.com bubble and burst, the high-profile scandals of Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, and others, and most recently the housing bubble and subsequent sub-prime meltdown that has brought the world economy to its knees. We need systemic change, and we need it quickly, lest we repeat the same mistakes as we try to rebuild our economies.
Lausanne World Pulse has acknowledged and documented the positive advances of the Business as Mission (BAM) movement and its influence on world evangelization and spiritual renewal (e.g., click here or here). Additionally, the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization has recognized the importance of BAM and marketplace ministry movements by forming working committees to draft collaborative Occasional Papers (e.g., click here) on these important topics.
These efforts should be applauded; however, as important as BAM and marketplace ministry movements are, we need more. Not only do we need to equip all Christians in all places at all times to embrace God’s vision of redemptive work, we need to empower Christians to work toward systemic, industry-wide change within the fields in which they serve. We need a revolution of vocation, and the Church worldwide can help lead this effort.
Seeing the Calling to Business as Sacred
We desperately need to recover the sacredness of a calling to business. The Church must continue to renounce the sacred/secular divide that has beleaguered Christian communities for too long. As A.W. Tozer rightly notes in The Pursuit of God, far too many Christians get snared in this trap: “They cannot get a satisfactory adjustment between the claims of the two worlds…. Their strength is reduced, their outlook confused and their joy taken from them.”1 And I might add that their impact in the world is severely constrained.
Christ followers serving in business, law, healthcare, the arts, media, government, and every other profession need to experience in tangible ways the Church’s blessing of their Christ-honoring work in companies, law firms, clinics, studios, press rooms, and congressional chambers.
We must continue to dismantle artificial dichotomies, even as progress in both the marketplace ministry and business-as-mission movements continues. One would have been hard pressed to find much contemporary writing on these important topics twenty years ago. Today, there is a proliferation of resources and organizations assisting Christians to live out commitments to Christ while on the job.
Equipping Christians to Pursue Redemptive Change for the Common Good
But affirmation is only part of the solution. We must also seek ways to challenge and equip Christians within the professions to pursue thoughtful, redemptive change not only for their own spiritual benefit but for the common good of their departments, organizations, industries, and wider communities. As important a first step as mobilizing Christians for ministry in daily life is, we also need to ignite the passion of marketplace Christians to think structurally and systemically about transformation within their broader professional guilds.
We don’t just need “good” workers; we need “good” companies, too. This is true for law, engineering, education, public policy, healthcare, and countless other disciplines. And it is certainly true for business.
What does this kind of equipping look like? Let me offer three foundational observations, which create a context for how the Church might get involved.
- In a global economy that is interconnected in ways we might never have imagined, business may be the most dominant, mediating institution in society. Whether capitalistic or socialistic, no economic framework is perfect, as has been demonstrated in recent years. As Christians, we need to be able to critique the underlying systems that guide our professions, naming both strengths and weaknesses, and evaluating them against principles of truth and justice we see in the scriptures.
In my view (a view shared by many of the faculty at the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University), the prevailing model in business education and in business practice—that business exists to maximize shareholder wealth (à la Milton Friedman)—is fundamentally flawed. Profit proves essential to any legitimate business; however, it is not the ultimate reason the business exists. There must be a higher purpose, an outwardly-focused purpose. The business must exist to serve others. A singular focus on profit is destructive and diminishes the value of other important stakeholders—employees, suppliers, customers, local communities, etc. When pursuing only the bottom line, it is impossible to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”
- To move forward with hope and courage we must present a clearer and more compelling vision of business’ role in society. Beyond an engine for economic gain, business has a necessary role to play in God’s creation. A vision of business that aligns itself to God’s redemptive agenda, while still recognizing the importance of fair returns to shareholders, becomes a tool to transform culture. As a force for good, business captures the imagination of individual participants, who see more clearly the impact of their own work for good in the world.
- This isn’t easily accomplished. Worthy business and profitable business are both hard won. Doing both at once proves more challenging still. Creating a business culture that enables human flourishing, while pursuing the necessary disciplines to achieve long-term profitability, will require sweat, smarts, and stamina. Those engaged in this endeavor will need, and deserve, our ongoing support, encouragement, and prayer. Truly, they serve on the frontlines of God’s kingdom-building work.
These thoughts grow in part out of my own perspective as a businessperson and business educator. Thoughtful Christians in other disciplines or professions should grapple with the assumptions implicit in their own vocation and see what redemptive or transformative work might be needed. But how can the church partner in this work?
Bridging the Gap between Church and Marketplace
Achieving lasting, redemptive change within our organizations and professional guilds requires our best and most creative efforts and hinges on close collaboration between leaders in both marketplace and church settings. The role of the church and lay leaders collaborating in this work, therefore, is twofold:
- to paint an accurate, yet expansive and imaginative picture of God’s forward-moving and reconciling work in the world, which certainly includes the professions; and
- to gather Christians in relevant and life-affirming ways that encourage collaboration and partnership for how they might work together for God’s purposes within their particular professional communities.
To assist Christians in business (and other professions) to think systematically and creatively about their work is, in part, to help them find their particular place in God’s unfolding story. The end game for creation is not static or regressive; rather, it is moving toward a new order, a garden city, as described by the prophets and John in Revelation.
As participants in God’s transformative work, we have opportunities to create culture and steward creation. The Garden of Eden was perfectly resourced, but it was not intended as our final resting place. Scripture tells a different story. In the new heavens and new earth, “the wealth on the seas” and “riches of the nations” will be brought to God, a “herd of camels” will cover the land, and the kings of the nations will be “led in triumphal procession” (cf. Isaiah 60).
The Church must become increasingly effective in its role of telling and retelling the story of God at work in the world. Business is a profoundly important means for participating in God’s ongoing work of redemption. We in the Church cannot afford to be silent on this issue, nor muzzle communities that have a crucial role to play.
Rather, we must work to gather Christians within particular professions to explore what faithful living and practice might look like within their disciplines. Systemic change will only come as Christians think and work together, offering both good theory and sound praxis for important ideas that are not always held by communities outside our faith tradition.
Only as we faithfully gather, listen, and engage will our ideas best reflect scripture and have a shot of being accepted by a broader audience. Three North American-based churches/organizations that have gathered well around this task are:
- Redeemer Church in New York City, especially their Center for Faith & Work,
- Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, with its focus on the entertainment industry, and
- Cardus, a Christian-oriented think-tank focusing on economic, educational, urban, and organizational problems.
Take a look at their websites to see how they’ve invited marketplace Christians within unique industry groups to engage in conversation with one another for both personal and systemic transformation.
A Sacramental View of Work
While teaching in the Central African Republic (CAR) on topics of microenterprise development, ethics, and ministry-in-daily life concepts, I learned an important Sango word: kwa (Sango is the primary trade language of the CAR). When said in a low tone, kwa means work. The same word, kwa, spoken in a high tone, means corpse, cadaver, or carcass.
The impact of the etymology has profound implications for us. If we fail to empower marketplace Christians to see their work as significant for the kingdom, and we forfeit opportunities to equip and participate with Christian professionals to begin to imagine what holistic change might look like across the professions, then the kwa of our lives doesn’t bear full fruit, turning to death and decay. Conversely, when we help each other understand that our daily work in industry is a precious opportunity to serve God and serve others, the kingdom advances, and the kwa of our lives blooms fully. Our work becomes worship, a holy sacrament offered to God. And if ever there was a time when we needed a sacramental view of work, it is now.
1. Taken from chapter 10, “The Sacrament of Living.”