Acton Commentary

Where The Church Has Failed Its Business Leaders


Christian business people often find themselves between a rock and hard place, or, more specifically, between their business and their church. First, the rock. In his book The Crisis in the Churches, Robert Wuthnow describes a situation common to business people: “They experience job-related stress, suffer from periodic burnout, face ethical dilemmas, and have trouble juggling the demands of jobs, families, and personal interests. Sometimes the pressure becomes too great.” (p. 103).

The hard place is their church. Members of the clergy have typically been, at best, suspicious of the market and, at worst, antagonistic. Christian business leaders frequently express frustration that the few sermons that touch on economic themes consistently paint them as greedy, corrupt, and the cause of the lion's share of society's evil. On the other hand, when it is time to build the fellowship hall or add the worship center, their pastors are their best friends and their success no longer produces 'filthy lucre' but rather 'gifts to be shared with the community.' This produces a disconnect between the business leader and the church. In a wonderful book titled Church on Sunday, Working on Monday, authors Laura Nash and Scotty McLennan interviewed business people and pastors about their understanding of one another. The results indicated that “many business people find themselves locked in a surprising conflict with their own church's attitude toward business, or locked out of the church's approval of their role as a business leader.” (p. xviii).

When the stress of their daily life causes trouble, businessmen and women often find little balm in church. This does not mean that they do not continue the search. Pastors who spend a little time on the Internet searching the words “business” and “Spirituality” will discover that the connection is being made by people and organizations who fall far beyond the pale of orthodox Christianity. Nash and McLennan point out that “spirituality, it seems, is the new resource for business creativity, personal leadership, and social harmony. It is regularly enlisted to empower the manager to be a better person, create a better business, and contribute to a better society.” (p. xxv).

While all these ends are nice, they and the means to achieve them are hardly uniquely Christian. There is something very Post-Modern at work here. In our age, there is a new openness to discussions about spirituality that have not existed in a long time. But the conversations are mostly dominated by a New Age, individualistic spirituality. Note the goals of the spirituality described by Nash and McLennan. It is about “better” people, businesses, and societies. But this is a utilitarian approach in which spirituality becomes the latest version of the secret to a successful life and business. It does not speak to the ultimate need of human beings. It does not place God at the center of life. It does not relieve the pain of sin or show the healing power of Christ's forgiveness. It does not call people to be new creatures, even in their businesses.

In other words, it is spirituality without Christ. It might dull the pain but it does not cure the disease. It lacks a sense of ontological right and wrong and good and evil. It is highly self-absorbed, individualistic, and non-judgmental. It is an eclectic theology, if it is a theology at all. It lacks sin and it lacks salvation. Its anthropology is murky and sweet. You can be who you say you are. It lacks moorings and substance. It calls for meditation without a focus and prayer without one to hear it. It is spiritual cotton candy.

Is the problem that orthodox Christianity has nothing to say to business people? Is it that serious Christian faith cannot be integrated into business? Do these “spirituality” models simply make a better fit with modern life? Or have the church and its leaders failed to speak to the world of business?

The Christian church has much to say to business people and the economic world. It locates the ultimate purpose of human beings. It upholds the image of God in all people. Our theology reminds us that we are creative, even as God is creative. We have the ability to exercise our wills. We can buy what we need and sell what others require. We can teach hard work and charity. We know that people and economic systems are twisted with sin but, following the example of our God, are not willing to abandon either to Satan. We know what it is to demand justice and fair scales. We know what it means to respect the property of others. All these concepts are rooted in our theology.

Church leaders must do two things to right this failing. First of all, we need to apply our theology. A new theological structure is not needed. What is required is that we take seriously the goodness of Creation, the effects of the Fall, and the power of Recreation as it applies to business.

Secondly, church leaders must educate themselves about what business is and how it works. They need to spend a few days with one or two of their parishioners who are in business. They also need to learn something of the basics of economics. In their book The Judeo-Christian Vision and the Modern Corporation, Williams and Houck discovered that there is a “need for intellectual caution by religious thinkers when speaking about anything as complex as modern business. The theologizing is bound to be better if there is a comprehensive understanding of what it is businessmen and women do.” (p. 23). A good place to begin is a new book by Dr. Samuel Gregg titled Economic Thinking for the Theologically Minded , published by University Press of America.

If they want to minister effectively, church leaders must know something of the worlds of those to whom they minister. Most of the people looking back at preachers on Sundays spend Monday through Friday at their jobs. They need to be understood. They need to be encouraged in their work. They need to be taught the meaning of their vocations. They need to understand how their livelihood fits into God's great reclamation of this world.