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Putting Business on the Mission Map: How Churches Can Serve Businesspeople

The story that began in the Garden ends in the City, and the city is filled with many of the sights, sounds, and smells that God has brought forth from the gifted hands of ordinary men and women throughout history and purified for His kingdom.

How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and What Can Be Done About It) by John C. Knapp. Eerdmans, 2011. 192pp.

God and World: A Relational Theology of Creation by Terence Fretheim. Abingdon Press, 2005. 416pp.





A Map and Its Worldview

Growing up, Missions Sunday was an annual church event. The regular Sunday schedule was altered, the sermon series interrupted, and our non-liturgical church adopted a slightly more structured service that reflected the special emphasis of the day: news of God's work on the mission field. A world map hung on the wall and pictures of missionaries were placed next to the countries where they ministered. This was the spiritual environment in which my faith was nurtured, and its ethos still shapes my life today—I am at heart an Evangelical Christian who is passionate about evangelism. But I began to wonder as I got older, "Where do Dave the mechanic and Bill the attorney fit in this map?" I couldn't see how this outlook on missions made room for them.

I am troubled by the absence of many names and faces from that mission map. This, along with its overseas focus, reflects a limited understanding of God's work in the world. Together, these quietly reinforce an implicit hierarchy of occupations. Missionaries are, of course, at the top in the most sacred sphere, while the majority of Christians work below in everyday professions in the secular world. The primary task of those in secular realm is to make money to fund overseas missionaries and ministries of the local church. The value of secular work is found in maintaining high personal integrity, a faithful life of prayer, and evangelistic efforts on the job. But this way of seeing work forces the question: is there value in a "secular" vocation itself, or is it simply a means to support missions and ministry?

I sometimes wondered how different Missions Sunday would look if we posted pictures of an accountant, a the fashion executive, a printer, and a social worker on the missionary map. The biblical vision of God's mission offers a view of the world in which each of these Christians play an important role in God's kingdom work—and their respective vocations are not incidental, but integral to His mission, as Steven Garber so often says.


The Divided Lives of Christians

When I picked up John C. Knapp's book, How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and What Can Be Done About It), I was curious to see how this former business executive turned university professor diagnosed the lack of vocational discipleship in American Evangelicalism today. I was hopeful that he could help bridge the gap between theology and business, and help Christians struggling to find meaning in their work. And, indeed, it is this problematic divide of faith and work that Knapp seeks to address.

Knapp's book is based on interviews he and his students conducted with 230 businesspeople from a variety of occupations. The interviews focused on two questions: What are some of the major ethical challenges you have faced in your work? Was the church helpful to you in this process? The results of these interviews revealed a resounding "no!" to this latter question. While it was easy for those interviewed to identify ethical problems at work, they found that the church had done little to help them bring their faith to bear on these problems.

Knapp's thesis is that in order to address this faith-and-work chasm, three things are needed: First, a critical analysis of the forces at work in the contemporary contexts of business and the church that drive these two worlds apart; second,a theological framework for understanding money, vocational identity, and the role of work in the Christian life; and third, moral theology for Christian ethics grounded in love and based on Micah 6:8—to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before God. The structure of the book follows this three-fold outline and concludes with an overview of faith-and-work initiatives that are promising models for vocational discipleship.

In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, Knapp argues, the world of business has been shaped by a confluence of social Darwinism and secularization. This creates a business environment based upon survival of the fittest, which leads organizations to use their employees as a means to securing financial gains. Given the rise of secularization, religious values are checked at the door, not brought to bear on the dehumanizing forces impacting today's businesses. Work has no meaning beyond the bottom line, and discussion of ethics and values is purged of religious influence.

When it comes to the church, Knapp's analysis is equally bleak. Not only are pastors largely ignorant of the challenges of the workplace (leaving those in the pew with the responsibility of making connections on their own), but popular doctrinal errors also perpetuate the division between faith and work. The two most toxic are the secular-sacred divide that reinforces a hierarchy of professions, and the eternal-temporal dichotomy that sees only two things of lasting value in this world—God's Word and people. The unintended consequences of these theological blunders is that in the church, as in the business world, Christians are encouraged to draw sharp lines between their private life (the eternal and spiritual) and their public life and work.

Countering these forces that lead to the compartmentalization of life into public work-life and private Christianity, Knapp argues that the remedy must begin with an ethic of love and responsibility grounded in Micah 6:8 and Jesus's teaching about the greatest commandment to love our neighbour. There are no separate realms of sacred and secular; the Christian vocation is to proclaim the gospel by making God's love and redemption tangible in every aspect of human life, including work. This, argues Knapp, is the way to bridge the gap between private faith and public life at work.


The (Redemptive) Value of Our Work

Knapp's book is helpful to pastors seeking to learn more about the worlds of work in which their parishioners spend a majority of their time. It properly names the sacred-secular and public-private life dichotomies that have hampered Christian witness in the workplace for years. Vocational discipleship is an area that Evangelical churches desperately need to address, and Knapp's approach of inviting pastors to interview congregants about their workplace is a good place to begin.

Those looking for a robust theological framework for vocation, however, will need to supplement their reading, as this is not the aim of the author. Seeking, as Knapp does, to help Christians find redemptive value in their work is a good thing to do, but it is an insufficient basis for vocational discipleship—a fuller picture of God and His mission in this world is needed. To be effective, a theology of vocation must be grounded in a biblical vision of the person as God's image-bearer, which necessarily involves culture-making. On its own, a focus on love and redemption lacks the theological weight to ground vocation in creation and God's plans for humans in the world.

Knapp's book does succeed in placing businesspeople on the mission map, but the value ascribed to their work is only found in its connection to redemption. What help does this offer Joel the printer as he attempts to find value in his work? In the end, Knapp's moral theology of love cannot help Joel see the significance of his vocation beyond that of being a place where he is to live with personal integrity and foster loving relationships with others. On this view, the Christian faith really does not have that much to say about Joel's work, and the sacred-secular chasm remains.


The Mission of God and Human Vocations

If we are seeking a biblical understanding of the mission of God and human vocations, then we need to grasp the biblical view of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Perfecter, and of the corresponding relationship between creation and redemption. I know of no better resource on these issues than Terence Fretheim's book, God and World: A Relational Theology of Creation. It offers an understanding of the plurality of God's purposes in this world that give a biblical picture of the mission of God from which work and vocation derive their significance.

Fretheim's dynamic view of God and creation lies at the core of his argument. Creation is not simply a story about how the world began; it describes God's ongoing mission to involve humanity in the cultivation of embedded potentials He wove into creation. Eden was not a finished product for Adam and Eve to simply prune and trim, rather it was the first phase in God's global development project. Human vocation extends beyond a devotional communing with God and involves reflecting God by serving and cultivating the natural world to be what God intended it to be. Even after sin entered this creation, care and culture-making vocations were not set aside because God remains faithful to His promises and purposes. Human vocation is inextricably bound up with God's creational purposes. Beginning with Abraham in Genesis 12, God's chosen people have a special role to play in God's mission, but this mission will not let us neglect any of God's purposes. Creation and redemption are not at odds with each other because God the Redeemer was first God the Creator, and He will redeem the good work He began at creation.


Mission is Not Just for Missionaries

How does Fretheim help augment Knapp's project to place all Christians on the mission map and ascribe meaning and value to their vocations and work? First, he offers a more robust theological framework for viewing God's mission in this world and of human vocations—one that is grounded in both God's redemption and creation purposes. Some occupations, such as nurses, psychologists, and social workers, are located on the mission map where the terrain is marked by the world's brokenness and God's desire for redemption, healing, and shalom. For others, such as artists and architects, their aesthetic projects tend to be situated in the landscape of God's creation purposes of seeing vibrant cultures and a flourishing world. Both types of vocations have a role to play in God's mission. Therefore, we should not conceive of the mission of God solely in terms of redemption and evangelism. Bearing witness to the gospel of Jesus also involves bearing God's image through the various culture-making vocations, such engineering and plumbing, as well as missions and evangelism.

Second, and closely related, it provides an alternative to the hierarchy of occupations that would divide the world into spheres of sacred and secular or eternal and temporal. Instead of viewing his work as secular and tangential to God's mission, Joel the printer is invited to see his work as an act of love toward his neighbour through his work to bring beauty, creativity, and meaningful products and projects into this world. Within the mission of God, he can find his place on the map and a lasting value of his vocation.

Third, Christians in diverse professions need more than a moral theology that begins and ends with personal piety, models of servant leadership, and calls to love their neighbour. They need a bigger vision of God and of God's ongoing mission in this world to orient the totality of their lives. Spiritual and character formation must be understood as an engine that enables communion with our Triune God and faithful fellowship with him in his mission in this world. For in the end, what is the mission of God? According to Scripture, it does not involve setting aside his purposes for creation, but brings to fruition the ongoing project that God began in us and in this world in the beginning. The story that began in the Garden ends in the City, and the city is filled with many of the sights, sounds, and smells that God has brought forth from the gifted hands of ordinary men and women throughout history and purified for His kingdom (Isaiah 60; Revelation 21).


Next Steps in Vocational Discipleship

The complexity of today's global economy, technological advances, and religious and ethnic diversity demands a high level of ethical reasoning. The theological grounding needed to cultivate an imagination to navigate these changes is pushing the church to step into the largely uncharted waters of vocational discipleship. Developing a theological imagination for the workplace requires more than a theology of the mission of God, but its neglect is equally problematic. For with such neglect, we risk leaving the faces of the majority of Christians off the mission map. Christians looking to grow in this area of vocational discipleship will find help in the theological vision of Fretheim and the approach to pastor-businessperson dialogue of Knapp. This is only the first step, but it holds promise for addressing the forces at work that seek to divide our faith by compartmentalizing our lives.

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Cory Willson Cory Willson
Cory Willson is a PhD candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary researching the topic of vocational discipleship. ... read more »

Posted in Business, Religion, Vocation.

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