Theology for Business (Keynote)
On June 15, 2017, I gave a keynote entitled “Theology for Business” at Denver Institute for Faith & Work’s annual business event. Since I’ve come back to this talk several times, both in my writing and speaking, I thought I’d post it here. (Here’s the video.) I hope it helps you as you consider how the gospel might inform the culture of your business.
Thanks for coming. I’m really looking forward to learning from our panelists today and from all of you.
Theology for business. What do these two worlds – church and business – have to do with each other? Christian theology doesn’t get a lot of air time at Harvard Business Review or even the Denver Business Journal. Neither does marketing, strategy or raising capital get mentioned much at church. But we find ourselves, here, today feeling like something is missing from both our church lives and our business lives.
Here’s what I mean. How would we answer, “What is the purpose of business?” It’s a good place to start, but we find ourselves with less-than-fulfilling answers. (1) Business culture: Famously, Milton Friedman has said that business only has one purpose: maximize share-holder value. That is, the purpose is merely to make profit. But this paradigm is diminishing. Profit is important, but as Max De Pree, the former CEO of Herman Miller, once said, “Profit is like breath. You need to breath to live, but you don’t live to breath.” Companies that are just living for profit don’t live very long.
Across the US today, from Fortune to Forbes, people are searching for deeper purpose for their business. Having a social mission is key to attracting millennial talent. But what is the overarching purpose for business? There are as many answers to this as there are businesses!
Each company defines their own firm’s mission, vision and values, I often find, acts like a religious community! Many companies are more mission-driven and have more rituals and strict practices that require more obedience than most churches I’ve seen! One company in town even makes new employees cross a literal bridge as an expression of loyalty to the company.
Everybody – and every company – is searching for its own purpose, and rarely asking, might there actually be a single, unifying purpose to business overall?
(2) Church: How would most people in church answer the question of purpose in business? Here’s the implicit assumption, “You’re in business, and I work at a church or nonprofit. Your job is to make as much money as you can and give it to us.” Here’s a significant pain point: so many with business-gifting end up feeling like ATM machines around church and nonprofit leaders. If this is you, let me say “I’m sorry.” We can do better.
(3) Conferences Like this often would say the purpose of business is to host a workplace Bible study, and get your co-workers to join you. Now, I’m all for workplace bible studies and evangelism. The challenge with this view is that we’re not really talking about business. It’s simply transporting church activity into a business setting. What about, though, the actual nuts and bolts of business? Supply chain, hiring practices, management. Does theology say anything about that?
Here’s the upshot: we’re here because we often feel lonely. (1) Lonely as one of the few believers in a secular company, (2) Lonely at church, often feeling misunderstood or objectified as a business leader. (3) And sometime lonely even at gatherings like this, hoping to find a vision for business in God’s redemptive story, yet leaving with only workplace bible study materials.
Add to that, we’ve never been taught to think about theology and business leadership together. But today, let me make the case that Christian theology is just as important for your business life as finance, operations or sales, customers or employees.
As we launch into our event, let me frame our discussions this morning with 5 doctrines that I believe can be transformative for our business practices.
First, the doctrine of CREATION and FALL calls us to THINK THEOLOGICALLY about the purpose of business.
The purpose of business is to provide for the needs of world by serving customers and creating meaningful work, while giving glory to God.
Let’s unpack this. In Genesis, work is a gift from God. God works for 6 days in creation, and then rests for one day. And he gives work to Adam in Genesis 2:15 the work of gardening – taking the raw materials of the world and making them suitable for human flourishing.
So, grain, for instance, by itself isn’t much good. But after work, it becomes bread. Grapes are good, but after a vintner gets ahold of them they become wine. Work bring creation from “good” to “very good.” Martin Luther saw this, and said that work is the way God provides for our needs. My friend Tim Weinhold says it even more boldly, “Business is God’s intended partner in his great work as Provider for all of humankind.”
Houses. Pipes. Sandwiches. Paper. Clothing. Business provides. When I go to King Sooper’s after getting back from the majority world, I’m still astounded at the power of business to provide. As as such, it reflects God’s character, who, in the story of Abraham and Isaac is called “The Lord Provides.” Different kinds of work reflect different aspects of God’s character: in health care, God as a Healer; in law, God as Judge and Advocate; art, God as Creative Artist; in business, God is Provider.
It provides three things:
- The goods and services we depend on every day.
For example, my friend Dan Dye is the CEO of Ardent Mills, based here in Denver. They’re the largest flour producer in the US. Get this: over 100 million Americans per day eat an Ardent Mills product. He sees his work as nourishing the world. He SERVES.
- Meaningful work.
For example, my friend Karla Nugent, the chief business development officer at Weifield Group Electrical contracting has over 300 employees. For her, providing work is an opportunity for people to express their God-given talents and skills while contributing to a better world. For many, Weifield is a transformative place of dignity and community engagement. It’s where people bear the image of God, the Creator.
- The wealth we need to afford those goods and services.
My other friend Barry Rowan, former CFO for Vonage, says this: “Business is only institution that creates wealth; all other institutions distribute it.” Wealth creation is indeed incredible. Through business, wealth can be created from nothing, allowing abundance and prosperity. We don’t live in a zero sum economy. This is why more theologians need to be talking about “responsible wealth creation”, just as we will over the lunch hour today.
Because of the power of business, many consider business as a “holy calling.” Actually, a book we’re selling today, by Tim Dearborn, goes by that title. It’s a chance to provide for our neighbor’s most basic needs.
Business has an incredible power to provide for our needs through serving customers through quality goods and services, creating meaningful work, and creating the wealth needed to purchase those goods and service. Business is an extension of God’s own CREATION.
But The FALL happened, too. After Adam ate the fruit, sin entered the world, and our work and our business practices. You can see this, epecially the Prophets. Let me give you an example example:
Micah 6:8: He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Now, we usually stop reading there. But Micah doesn’t.
This is the next verse, which speaks to Israel’s business practices at the time. “Listen! The Lord is calling to the city— … Am I still to forget your ill-gotten treasures, you wicked house, and the short ephah, which is accursed? Shall I acquit someone with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights?” God saw something: people were engaged not in value creation but value extraction.
The story is this: in the time of the Kings of Israel, its leaders forgot the covenant and the law of God. They ceased worshipping the Lord, and they began to worship false gods. The core evidence of this was that they ceased to practice Sabbath. This is why there are so many calls back to practicing Sabbath in the OT. It was a call back to worship for all of society.
When Israel never stopped from the work, the workers in their households never had a rest, they were commodified for the sake of profit, and oppression spread. Idolatry caused injustice.
In Israel’s history, this idolatry was just as common among judges or priests as it was merchants, but the point is the same: business has a good purpose, yet because of sin, it can become distorted. The hinge between provision and oppression is which God you worship.
The Bible gives us a way to see both the goodness of Creation & distortion of the Fall, which makes business neither savior of the world nor the enemy of the people, but instrument for God’s blessing in the hands of his followers. For Whose Glory, then, becomes the question in business, which can restore it to it’s good purpose.
The purpose of business is to provide for the needs of world by serving customers and creating meaningful work, while giving glory to God.
Second, the doctrine of the TRINITY calls us to EMBRACE RELATIONSHIPS.
Second, let me get to relationships and business by showing you first a graph. 70% of the American workforce is disengaged from work; 54% experience some kind of sleep interruption due to work; 83% feel stressed at work; 60% are still connected to work on their off time; 51% of you in this room are looking for a job change (I hope that’s not true of my staff!); and only 21% feel their well-managed. Ouch.
Now, take a look at this. Take a look at the top 9 factors that drive employee engagement: Basic Needs: (1) Understand expectations; (2) Have necessary tools and equipment; Individual Needs (3) Opportunity to do best work, (4) Receive recognition and praise for their work, (5) Cared for as a person, (6) Development is encouraged Teamwork Needs: (7) Opinions Count, (8) Understand link to the Mission and organization, (9) Associates committed to good work, (9) Have a friend at work.
The point: America doesn’t broadly want to be working, yet they spend 100,000 hours of their life working. And what drives engagement is heavily relational. Feeling valued.
As it is today, we often discuss employees in terms of human resources, as if they were just one of the many resources needed in a company. But in the creation narrative, people come first, work is second. This makes sense, because God is relationships. Here’s my second point, 2. God is relationship – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and healthy businesses are bound together through healthy relationships based on a foundation of trust.
Even in the digital age, today, because we are made in God’s image, we still long for face-to-face relationships. We want to know others and be known.
Also, we see that the further up we go in an organization, the more important relationships of trust become. When business problems occur, more often than not, there are issues of trust or some kind of relational fracture. When business and economies go well, there is trust is the glue that holds them together. Drew Yancey, who is moderating our panel on entrepreneurship today, has made this point to me several times.
Today we have the privilege of hearing from Steve Reinemund, former PepsiCo CEO and dean of the Babcock School of Management at Wake Forest University. He’s seen this workplace disengagement statistics. But he’s also helped lead transformational efforts to reengage employees at his company. Here’s what he says. “We need people in business that understand business is a noble profession, that makes a difference in the lives of people.”
Core to the idea of faith at work for us at DIFW is the idea of “embrace relationships” because we long for connection, reconciliation, partnership, team – relationship. And business needs people willing to practice self-giving love, like the love inside the Trinity.
THIRD, the doctrine of the RESURRECTION calls us to CREATE GOOD WORK.
Why don’t we talk more about business at church? It forms the fabric of our cities, provides the employment we need, the goods and services we use, and the wealth we spend. I have a theory: we don’t think it’s a part of the gospel, or the “good news.”
The story goes like this: the gospel is that Jesus died for our sins so that after we die we can be with him in heaven. That is, the Bible is about saving souls, not the actual world we live in. AS IS, we struggle to relate faith to work, theology to business.
Let me suggest a broader story. Jesus did die for our sins. But he also rose again on the third day. And here’s what’s interesting about the resurrection story, especially in the gospel of John. It takes place in a garden. Jesus rises not on the last day of the week, but the first day of the week – Sunday. When Christians have traditionally worshipped. John is saying: Look, the world came apart on Good Friday, but the new creation has begun with the resurrection of Christ.
Our daily work matters because God is redeeming not just individual souls but all of creation. Christians look forward to the redemption of all things, in a city of all places. God does not abandon his creation, including our work in business. In 1 Corinthians 15, an entire chapter about the resurrection and death being “swallowed up” by life, Paul concludes: “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” It’s not in vain because the resurrection means the beginning of a new, physical world – one that includes our work in his heavenly city.
The resurrection means every spreadsheet, every transaction, and every dollar and every product is part of the scope of redemption. It also invites us to be imaginative. What might my industry or company look like fully restored?
Our Fellows asked these questions with their final, year-end projects this year. Catherine, who works at a credit union, imagined a “selfless sales” model, rewarding customer satisfaction not only moving more products that often weren’t needed. Christiana, an urban planner in Denver, implemented new training for her to prevent compassion burnout for those often yelled at in city council meetings. Banks, one of our presenters today, brought people from vastly different walks of life – the evangelical community and the gay community, the black community and the white community, republicans and democrats, together for a common meal, to listen, and heal divides.
Instead of looking to purpose for our businesses as merely profit or whatever big company is featured in the latest publication, the resurrection is an enduring fuel of hope and creativity for our work.
- The doctrine of VOCATION calls us to SEEK DEEP SPIRITUAL HEALTH.
Let me tell you a story. I have four daughters. And so Saturday’s during the summer we go to swim meets. This last Saturday, I was watching these kids of all ages, race to cheers in the hot summer sun. Some of these kids are like fish – not only the teenagers, but 8, 9 10 year olds blowing through the water. Even many of the 6 year olds are impressive, making it all the way to the end of the pool.
One race of 6 year olds: the buzzer sounds, the kids belly flop off the block into the pool, and start their front crawl. All were doing great: except Reese. Reese jumps in, and immediately, he just tries to make it to the surface, in a panic. He’s gasping for air, grabbing for the buoys, wondering what he’s gotten himself into. It’s too deep. He can’t touch. He can’t go back. Parents cheer! Reese just tries to survive.
I had a revelation at this moment. This is exactly what it feels like to be an entrepreneur. Everybody is cheering, others seem to be excelling, and here you are, flapping around wildly, just trying to survive. And take one stroke, two stokes, toward the other end of the pool.
Today, we’re talking about “Caring for the Soul of Entrepreneurs” – because in the speed and exhilaration of starting and building a business, there’s often fear, chaos, uncertainty. Who are we becoming? In our souls, in the secret place.
Today, we have a panel of VCs and entrepreneurs who will both share war stories, but plunge beneath the surface to ask hard questions about character and entrepreneurship – with honesty and grace.
The doctrine of vocation is not about finding your ideal job. The word vocation comes form the latin root vox, or voice: it’s about responding to the voice of God in the day to day lives, including our business decisions. Traditionally, vocation means first responding to His call to “love the lord your god with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
As it is today, we live in a culture framed by a humanistic story, especially in tech start-up world. And the story is pretty simple. It goes like this: The humanistic story says there is no problem that human beings can’t fix. This story is especially prevalent in the tech sector today. But the reason I know this story isn’t true is that I can’t even fix myself.
We need others as we learn to respond to God’s call in our hearts and our work lives.
- The CROSS calls us to SERVE OTHERS SACRIFICIALLY.
Today more business leaders than ever want to emphasize their social impact and sit on nonprofit boards. And in many circumstances, our secular neighbors are doing good work that Christians can look to as a model and can partner with.
But here’s my question? what about when our public acts don’t pad our resumes, but actually cost us? And are difficult? And not seen by others?
Central to the gospel is that Christ gave his life for ours. He took our punishment on himself; his death brought us life. It’s one thing talk talk about customer service in our business, or even creating a company of “love.” But it’s another to talk about sacrificial love.
The biblical model for the righteous business man is Boaz, found the book of Ruth. Boaz was a land owner, and practiced “gleaning,” which is essentially an old testament law that told land owners not to harvest to the very edges of their fields, but to allow the poor to collect what was left over to provide for their families. That is, he allowed the poor to work in his fields out of obedience to the law, summoned up by “love your neighbor as yourself.” Interestingly enough, this businessman ended up marry Ruth, an immigrant, and through his righteousness, he became the great grandfather of King David, and became part of the Line of the Messiah himself.
Why do I mention this? Work has an incredible power to alleviate poverty today. One of our panel discussions is entitled, “Good Jobs: A Strategy for Profit and Poverty Alleviation.” We will have the chance to observe something truly unique: a key nonprofit leader, Jason Janz, who is providing top quality job training for men and women in poverty; Helen Hayes, CEO of Activate Workforce Solutions, who is working to place these men and women in good, career level jobs that can break the cycle of poverty, and Michael Coors and Irma Lockridge at Coors Tek, who are hiring the Ruth’s of our day, and providing jobs that complete the transformative cycle. We’ll have a chance to see what I call “the good jobs pipeline” and ask – what might it look like if hundreds of Christian managers and businesses owners saw “love your neighbor” as the motivation behind their HR practices, and did so not to make a name for themselves, but simply because at the cross, I have been so deeply, and perfectly loved?
Moreover, what if another Christian doctrine influenced the workforce development conversation in Colorado: that all people are made in God’s image? Where the hundreds of workforce development programs leave it today is that all people have self-worth and dignity. But the creation story brings a transformative idea to to the table: that human dignity is primarily expressed through work, just as God the Creator works.
THEOLOGY FOR BUSINESS? Yes.
Summary. Here’s my point: Christian theology is fundamental to our business practices. Christian faith calls us to think theologically about the purpose of business, to embrace relationships, to create work in a spirit of hope, to admit our flaw as we seek deep spiritual health, and to serve others sacrificially in our city.
My prayer is that today you might leave here for your own work and business life. And that the question For Whose Glory? Might be one you take with you today into the office tomorrow.