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Faith and Business on the Razor's Edge

I’m driving down a dirt road somewhere in Western Kenya. It has been raining heavily in recent days, so the consistency of the surface of the road is something like semi-melted butter. I’m with my friend and colleague, a pastor at a local church. His church has recently facilitated a business training program designed not only to improve the economic bottom line of the businesses within his congregation, but also the social, spiritual, and environmental impacts of the business.  

The two of us are spending the week administering a survey for some ongoing program evaluation work. On a particularly convex portion of the road our car slides to the side and finds a resting place against the muddy embankment. We are stuck. 

The businesses we have been visiting are Christian businesses; this much is clear to both my friend and myself. Specifically what makes these businesses “Christian” is, however, as clear as the mud on our tires.

Successfully operating a business in a complex world is an incredible challenge. The complexity of our modern world is often overlooked, perhaps because it simply has become so normal. Consider, for a moment, one rather simple product: a toaster.

There are over 400 components that make up a toaster. These components are all made out of a number of different materials: copper, iron, nickel, plastic, and a few others. Of course none of these materials are used in the toaster as they are found in nature. Iron, copper, and nickel all need to be smelted and plastic (usually) is made from oil. Keep in mind that a toaster, which remarkably costs only the equivalent of roughly an hour of work, is just one product. Most estimates claim that at any given time there are upwards of 10 billion products available in our economy.

Add to this complexity the distinct call of a Christian: To love God and neighbor, to care for the “least of these”, to be a steward of creation, and to preach the Gospel to the nations. The task of a Christian businessperson becomes herculean. The call to integrate faith in business is, nonetheless divine.

There is an important distinction at play here: Christian businesses on one hand and Christian businesspeople on the other. The answer to the question of what makes a business “Christian” is, quite simply, Christian businesspeople. Businesses, in and of themselves, are not individuals and should not be treated as such. A business is Christian when those who own, operate, manage, and work for the business accept the divine call of faith integration in all aspects of life and dive in headfirst, complexity and all. This distinction refocuses how the rest of the world ought to support Christian businesspeople and, by extension, Christian businesses.

Rather than make judgments based on shallow and simple indicators regarding businesses such as are they closed on Sunday? Or do they share a Bible verse on their receipts? Engage with the actual businesspeople that make the business a business. Rather than simply making principled stands for or against businesses such as Chick-fil-A, Nike, Forever 21, Monsanto, Hobby Lobby, or Victoria’s Secret we need to support, encourage, empower, challenge, and equip businesspeople in the difficult task of integrating faith into business. There is a need to welcome these businesspeople into our faith communities because their work also ought to be anointed as holy and is worthy to be called a mission for the Kingdom.

Ultimately it is of utmost importance for Christians to advocate for various values we care about. It is however, extremely important how we go about this process. Sit down with businesspeople and explain to them why this issue or that issue is important, then give them space to talk about the constraints to meeting your call. This type of mutual learning is how progress progresses. Due to the inextricable need for these conversations to be honest and humble, churches need to be central and become leaders in facilitating the space for these conversations. 

After both my friend and myself climbed out of the passenger side door of our car we assessed the situation. There was no damage to the car; however, there was no denying we were stuck. As we contemplated our options a group of spectators began to assemble. My friend jumped back into the car and all of us present started to push. Once the car was dislodged from the muddy embankment, I jumped back in. The others, however, continued to guard the car from sliding back off the road. Finally, we reached a paved road, thanked our supporters, and made our way back to town.

Applying Christian principles and speaking prophetically within the marketplace is often like driving a car on a muddy dirt road in Western Kenya. It is really difficult and ultimately takes encouragement, assistance, and support from others. The path of faith integration in business often follows a razor’s edge and the smallest of shocks can knock anyone off this path.

Church communities all around the world must recognize this challenge. Churches must create spaces where businesspeople can engage with each other, solve problems together, share and learn from each other’s failures, recharge themselves for the task ahead, and adapt a complex call to a complex world.

The question is, are you willing to engage the complexity yourself? Are you ready to get your hands and feet muddy?

[Image: Flickr user Zoe Rudisill]


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