Why Business Matters to God by Jeff Van Duzer. InterVarsity Press, 2010. 206pp.
Business for the Common Good by Kenman L. wong & Scott B. Rae. InterVarsity Press, 2011. 288pp.
As part of my work at Marketplace One, I recently read a few dozen books on faith and work. With each shipment of books, the perspectives multiplied. And with each turn of the page, I met a new Frankenstein’s monster. If you remember, Dr. Frankenstein created his monster with the best of intentions—assembled it with the necessary parts and jolted it alive—but to his dismay, the creature was unnatural and dangerous.
Similarly, as I read the books, I saw that many faith and business leaders neither appreciate the difficulty in building something theologically and functionally sound, nor realize the risks of letting their creation out into the wild. And these monsters, though often released with the best of intentions, cause an assortment of mischief among faith and business leaders: sphere distortion, confusion, reductionism, drowsiness, discouragement, talking in circles, headaches, distraction, nausea, and paralysis.
And so, it can be tricky for an average businessperson to figure out how he or she should do business for the glory of God and the common good. Folks who run into this problem exist in many places—I have met them over coffee, investment pitches, and at conferences. Of course, there are some very positive stories and examples out there, but those who haven’t gained a full-orbed view of the integration of faith and business are still the majority, and they come in various shapes and sizes. Here are some of the faith-work Frankenstein’s monsters I’ve met:
- Great Commission Investor—”I train entrepreneurs and invest in businesses that are strictly a means to sharing the gospel with as many people as possible.”
- Deus ex Machina—”Not sure why the business didn’t work. God spoke to me and gave us the business and the plan. He must have other plans for us.”
- Christian Pitchman—”Normally, I write a business plan, but since we are brothers in Christ I wanted to see if God has put it on your heart to invest.”
- Social Entrepreneurship Vaporware—”I am passionate about solving problems through popular media. I have a twitter account, Facebook page, and documentary. We are creating a lot of awareness.”
- Jaded Christian Entrepreneur—”I have two businesses. I connect with unbelievers all day long. Most Christians don’t get what I do. I’m actually not really going to church anymore.”
- Secret Success—”I don’t tell people at church what I am doing. I don’t go to any Christian business things. I am afraid. People at church either don’t understand my world, want to leverage my success to make the church seem successful, or target me for aggressive fundraising.”
- Become the Establishment—”Sin is in the structures, so I plan to get into the powerful elite of cultural institutions and create the right conditions on earth so we can bring in the kingdom.”
- Spirit-filled Slickster—”Be part of what God is doing moving through his people. I believe the Holy Spirit destined us to meet. We are the place where Christians invest with Christians. Sign up now for $XX.99 a month.”
- Business Hatchery—”I have a strategy to get business leaders to create businesses that exist to fund charities.”
- Muddled and Confused—”I hear my pastor talk about economics, end times, social issues, and greed. At the end of the day I am no longer sure what to do, how to feel about it, or if it even matters.”
These familiar characters all suffer from a misguided—or sometimes nonexistent—understanding of how their faith and work come together. Those who want to help them gain a balanced, well-integrated perspective of faith and work have their jobs cut out for them. And thankfully, two recent books are especially helpful contributions toward clearing up this madness: Why Business Matters to God, by Jeff Van Duzer, and Business for the Common Good, by Kenman L. Wong and Scott B. Rae. Both do four necessary things that help avoid inadvertently creating a faith-work Frankenstein’s monster. Each book discloses its theological framework for cultural engagement, upholds the intrinsic and instrumental value of business, recognizes the reality of interdependent spheres of society, and establishes the role of profit in a business.
1. Surfacing Theological Frameworks
Both of these books acknowledge that a Christian in business needs to surface and acknowledge their theological thinking, especially as it relates to cultural engagement. Van Duzer serves the reader well by focusing our attention on three questions that function as pivot points for our view on faith and work. 1) What is the nature and extent of common grace? 2) What will happen at the end of human history? 3) Where do we place the emphasis in the already/not yet paradox? How you answer these questions, he says, will dramatically shape your approach to business. In my own work with business leaders, I’ve certainly found this to be true; in fact, most business leaders live a compartmentalized and fragmented life, suffering to articulate a coherent and robust theological worldview that makes sense of their entire world.
Wong and Rae provide the reader with their own five foundational theological commitments; I loved their honesty, and I wish more Christian books would disclose their presuppositions in this way. Their five theological commitments:
- Not only is social transformation possible, but a key part of one’s calling is to act as a co-labourer with God toward this task.
- God works through people of varied (including non-religious) faith backgrounds and through religious and secular institutions and social structures.
- A broken world creates complications, sometimes without perfectly clean or clear resolution.
- Faithful Christian living is more complicated than what can be captured by rules or formulas.
- Because of its mixed (broken but graced) nature, business is as much a recipient or target as it is an agent for transformation.
Wong and Rae carefully articulate a framework that calls for real transformative work in the world, acknowledging its difficulty, cautioning against simplistic solutions, acknowledging that this is not just for Christians, and reminding us that business is as much part of the solution as it is part of the problem. Faith and business leaders would do well to identify the foundational theological commitments that contribute to how they engage in their work on earth.
2. Intrinsic and Instrumental Value of Business
Secondly, it’s important to affirm that business activity has intrinsic value in God’s world, not just instrumental value. Unfortunately, many faith leaders seem to focus on the instrumental value of business. The boss, the client, the church, and perhaps even the family often can treat the businessperson like a tool. We love to be useful to people, and our instrumentality is meaningful, but it’s not healthy to be a tool. Tools are manipulated, abused, demeaned, and wear out over time. A vision of mere instrumentality often leads to the erosion of meaning and motivation in a person’s work.
Business for the Common Good dedicates its first chapter to the instrumental and intrinsic value of business. The authors first show how the Bible clearly articulates the importance of work as providing financially for yourself, your family, those in need, and the church and its work. However, the authors do not stop with the most tangible value of work. They go on to describe the intrinsic value of work as a reflection of God, the worker, and the worker being a co-labourer with God in developing the world. Many leaders in the midst of their productive years do not realize that beneath their ambition and well-laid plans are some gnawing existential questions: “Who am I? Am I what I do? Am I what I accomplish? Am I who I work for?” When we experience sudden unemployment, disability, retirement, or some transition in life, these questions can quickly consume us. A strong belief in the intrinsic value of earthly work as a reflection of God’s essence and activity in the world has the ability to sustain us through the ever changing, deeply broken, often disappointing world in which we live.
In its first chapter, Why Business Matters to God also addresses the intrinsic value of business as a sphere of society. Van Duzer asserts that business is part of God’s creation mandate and not of human origination, and as such, business has a created role that is intrinsic to its existence. He states that business is meant, at its core, to provide a community with goods and services that will enable it to flourish and to provide workers a context in which to express their God-given creativity. Let business be what business was made to be, nothing more and nothing less.
3. Flourishing Social Spheres
Spheres in society (education, church, government, business, family, art, science, and the like) have interdependent roles to play in the flourishing of society. When they are working properly, great good comes from the diverse perspectives, callings, skills, and interests that arise from each sphere. Business is vital and good. Van Duzer writes, “Business is to be in the business of value creation or creating wealth. . . . Business generates the economic capital that sustains society. . . . All other institutions are funded . . . by the wealth first created by business.” Wong and Rae echo this sentiment, asserting that, in certain tasks, business is better suited to serve society than government and non-profit institutions. They point out that business can create and distribute goods and services in a more effective, efficient, and voluntary manner. Additionally, businesses indirectly help to maintain peace between nations by aligning economic incentives.
But we live in a broken world, where often the spheres and the leaders within them serve their own ends to the detriment and dysfunction of society. Van Duzer warns, “When a business takes advantage of another weaker institution, it may be able to advance its own parochial interests, but it will do so only at the cost of the whole. It may win its individual battle, but it will contribute to losing the war.” Church leaders must also be careful as they disciple Christians working in the marketplace, especially since it is so easy to conflate church involvement with kingdom involvement. We must all be aware of any simplistic, truncated, or institution-centred teaching that flows from some churches as it relates our callings in the world.
4. Profit Is Essential for Good Business
Why Business Matters to God and Business for the Common Good both address the most contentious issue in business: the role of profit. Underneath hotly debated issues like labour practices and the environment lies the real question of profitability. Those in business know profit is essential, but many church, government, and charitable leaders fail to realize or appreciate this reality. Leaders in the marketplace and the church must have clarity on this issue.
Van Duzer gives us his key attributes of profit, which can be summed up this way: 1) Profit is not easy to come by. 2) Profit is not a reward for right behaviour. 3) Profit is the means by which capital is attracted into the business. 4) Profit is a constraint that disciplines decision-making. 5) Profit is the key measure of success for the business. 6) The necessity of profit disciplines management to avoid waste and mediocrity.
In addition to emphasizing the legitimate, essential role of profit, Wong and Rae stress that we must not reduce business to profit:
Reducing business to profit is like reducing the human body to blood or oxygen . . . Using the human body as a metaphor for business, blood, oxygen or food are necessary for life. However, thinking about our blood, oxygen or food all day long would be quite odd, unless we are driven to do so by disease or illness.
Suggestions for Slaying the Faith-Work Frankenstein’s Monster
The theological issues around building helpful frameworks for engaging in business for the glory of God and the common good are complex and nuanced. The economic, cultural, and political issues are dynamic, presenting many ongoing challenges in applying theology to the marketplace. It is no wonder the faith-work Frankenstein’s monsters are out there. There is much work to be done. I will leave you with three suggestions for slaying the monster.
1. Marketplace Leaders Modelling a Robust Definition of Business
For things to change, we need marketplace leaders and organizations that intentionally model a theologically robust definition of business. Van Duzer gives this vision for Christian business leaders to embrace, model, and share with others:
The purpose of business is to serve. In particular, it serves by making goods and services available to the community that will enable the community to flourish. And it provides meaningful and creative jobs for its employees. Because of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, as we engage in this work we can be led and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Our work can have an additive, creation-mandate feature, but it will also be designed to participate in the restorative, redeeming, and reconciling work that was at the heart of Christ’s ministry. We do this work in the messy middle as we wait for, work for and long for the full arrival of “the new heaven and the new earth.”
2. Publishing Popular Business Books
I work with church business leaders, and few of them will likely read textbooks designed for students of business. So, as helpful as the content is for those who read Business for the Common Good and Why Business Matters to God, those who are in the midst of church and marketplace pressures most likely won’t know about or read them. We need the ideas contained in these textbooks to be embedded in future popular business books—not Christian business books, but business books permeated with a biblical worldview.
3. Church Leaders Focusing on Encouragement
Amazing clarity comes from the pressures of the marketplace. The scarcity of opportunities and resources and the competition for those same resources and opportunities keep many business leaders up at night. Doing business is hard enough on its own. The pressures of fundraising for investment, making payroll, hitting quarterly numbers, staying ahead of the competition, lead generation, cash flow, HR, and compliance never stop. In light of the sustained global economic difficulties, church leaders have an immense opportunity to encourage and support Christians in the marketplace.