“Profits are a means to an end, but not the end.” – Jeff Van Duzer
According to an article in Forbes, eighty percent of 13-25 year olds want to work for a company that is concerned about how its actions impact and contribute to society, with half saying they would refuse to work for an irresponsible organization. However, according to a survey by Deloitte, barely half of millennials believe businesses are behaving ethically, or even committed to helping improve society. And even more worrying, Jeff Van Duzer writes that only twenty percent of employees see the link between their work and their organization’s goals. Clearly, there is a noticeable gap between what people believe a responsible business should be doing and what business is actually doing.
The quote above, from the dean of the business school at Seattle Pacific University (SPU), begs the question: What should the “end” for business be if it’s not profit? And, just as importantly, what should the purpose, aim, or end be for Christ-followers who seek to glorify God while engaging in the complex field of business? In a constantly changing, ever-increasing connected, and globalized world, that in many locations is dominated by the business sector, these questions deserve serious consideration. The Fermanian School of Business at PLNU grapples with this question and takes it seriously, evidenced in part by its motto: “More than the bottom line, business education to change the world.” I would like to explore some of the ideas that resonate and motivate our own teaching at PLNU as well as some of what other, God-honoring creative and emerging organizations are doing in this space. Scripture provides an effective foundation by which to understand how God’s people should be at work in the world, even through business.
There is an important but often overlooked passage regarding the early church and its influence on business in the sixteenth chapter of the book of Acts. Paul has a vision from God to visit and proclaim the good news in Macedonia with Silas and Timothy. Upon arrival in Philippi, the economic hub of Macedonia, Scripture narrates two back to back stories of the apostles sharing God’s love with two women involved in very different businesses.
The first business mentioned is led by Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, the clothes used by royalty. Lydia, already a devout follower of God, responds positively to the message of salvation, gets baptized, and offers up her home for use by the church leaders. The second business is not as well regarded, involving the horrific practice of human bondage. Enslaved by businessmen, a girl uses her gift of divination to bring in a “great deal of money.” After several days of this girl proclaiming that Paul and his group were sharing the message of salvation, Paul casts out the spirit residing in the girl. The business owners quickly realize that the enslaved girl is no longer the cash generator she once was and they blame Paul for their loss of income. These angry businessmen drag Paul and his friends into the marketplace and accuse them of disrupting their cultural practices. Paul and his companions are put in jail, where they sing, praise God, and eventually convert and baptize the jailer and his family. It is interesting how these two stories of the early church and businesses are shared in the middle of the book of Acts, a book describing how the church should respond and function in various cultures throughout the known world. Clearly, business can be used to glorify God or be so far from God’s desire for humanity that Christians must challenge its destructive influence on society.
Jeff Van Duzer, J.D., now Provost at SPU, in his book Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to Be Fixed) and talk summarizing the book, provides a framework for Christians through which to consider the fundamental purpose of business and how business can serve the common good. Van Duzer spent several years leading discussions between the business faculty and the theology faculty at SPU to get at a Biblical/theological understanding of business. Their work builds on the Biblical account of Creation (where work is encouraged and honored even in the garden), the Fall (when work becomes drudgery), Redemption (Christ renews), and Reconciliation (all things are made new). At its core, a theology of business has at its foundation God’s desire to redeem creation and restore God’s relationship with all people.
Clearly, business can be used to glorify God or be so far from God’s desire for humanity that Christians must challenge its destructive influence on society.
Van Duzer further argues that the Garden, as originally designed, was not God’s intended endpoint but rather a starting point for God and humanity to partner together to steward God’s creation. In Revelation it is revealed that in the end times we will not be called back into the Garden, but rather, into the New Jerusalem — into the diversity, complexity, and messiness of a city, a place of business. It will be through human beings pooling their resources (or capital) to design, build, and market products and services that people and societies will flourish. However, both in Scripture and in our own society today, we recognize that a city is often a place where people assert their independence from God. As Christians, we know that ultimately it is God’s desire to redeem for good those things that have often times been used for evil. It is all part of God’s redeeming love story for humanity.
With that scriptural context as background, Van Duzer advances that the two primary God-ordained purposes for business are to provide the community with goods and services that enable the community to flourish and to offer opportunities for meaningful work that allow employees to express their God-given creativity. In sum, Van Duzer states, “the Christian in business is in the business of rendering service that will enable humanity to flourish.” The function of profit, which is an important and critical piece for making a business sustainable, is the means by which this community service can be fulfilled. Van Duzer likens profit to blood pumping through one’s body — no one gets up in the morning with the intent or joy of just pumping blood through one’s veins, and yet each one would be dead without this vital function taking place in our bodies.
Related Article: When protecting the sacredness of creation becomes a calling.
The Scriptural/theological foundation for doing business is important and nice for academic discourse, but what about the real world? Can these principles and ideas be lived out in the workplace? Fortunately, there are several examples of people and organizations trying to engage these principles where the rubber meets the road. A second forthcoming article by Susan Brownlee, MBA, PLNU professor of accounting, will provide even more substance and examples to consider.
In the investment realm, two organizations are worth highlighting. Sovereign’s Capital focuses on investments within the U.S. and the South Asia regions into companies that are led by excellent, values-driven management teams motivated by visions that go beyond outsized financial returns. Eventide invests in companies whose products and practices help make the world better. These investment firms were founded by Christians who want their resources and investments to serve the common good. One of the founders of Sovereign’s Capital, Henry Kaestner, recently launched a beta website to encourage the faith-driven entrepreneur.
Praxis Labs is a mentoring and networking organization that targets the advancement of redemptive entrepreneurship in both the for-profit and nonprofit arenas. Praxis Labs also serves college-age students who are exploring starting their own venture or have a creative idea to address a social problem through their annual Praxis Academy events. Several PLNU business students (both undergraduates and MBA students) have participated in these events. A journal article, Roles of the Redemptive Entrepreneur: Anthropologist, Custodian, Prophet, exemplifies the ways the Praxis community embraces Van Duzer’s notion of God’s purpose for business. In the article, Josh Kwan outlines the intent of Praxis to help Christians find the intersection between culture, theology, and entrepreneurship.
Christian universities and seminaries are also finding ways to highlight the practical application of Van Duzer’s principles. Seattle Pacific University has created a 13-video series (and an online class) called Faith & Co. that features businesses across the country and around the world that are seeking to enable their communities to flourish and provide meaningful and dignified work for their employees. And Nazarene Theological Seminary, in association with the Kauffman Foundation’s Fast Trac, has created an online ministerial entrepreneurship video series and online class highlighting businesses started by church planters who want to use their businesses as vehicles for outreach and community benefit.
Locally, San Diego churches and PLNU alums are involved in interesting ventures that are promoting dignified jobs and products and services that enhance the community. Nate Cadieux (08) and Moniker General is one example. Several churches have joined forces to create Flourish San Diego and their co-working space called The Greenhouse. These churches are changing the narrative in churches about vocation and the sacredness of all God-honoring work. Further north from campus, in San Francisco, PLNU alums, Nazarene pastor Jeffrey Purganan (BA 03, MA 16) leads the Possibility Project, where Brandon Napoli (07) founded and runs Sacred Space, a co-working space for entrepreneurs that seek to integrate meaningful space, intentional community, and positive impact.
Related Article: Inside the Possibility Project with Jared and Sophie Callahan.
Christians have a strong theological and Biblical case to challenge the dominant secular view that businesses only exist to maximize short-term profits and shareholder wealth. While profits are a critical component and are necessary to secure the capital needed to serve the community, profits are not the reward — they are the means. To that end, whether in leadership of an organization or not, the Christ-follower must treat business and its various stakeholders with a long-term, holistic, and servant-minded perspective. Too often churches diminish the role that people in business can have in furthering God’s Kingdom. Those of us in business must continue to work toward a redemptive and service-oriented view of business that seeks, ultimately, to provide goods and services that enable communities to flourish and give employees the opportunity to participate in purposeful and meaningful work.
Robert Gailey, Ph.D., is a professor of business at PLNU and the director of the Center for International Development (CID). Susan Brownlee, MBA (83), is an adjunct professor at PLNU’s Fermanian School of Business.