Lately, everyone wants to change the world, even businesses. The problem is, there’s no objective benchmark for knowing whether you’re achieving it … unless Jesus is involved. My career journey has led me to a strong belief that the highest purposes of an excellent business aren’t what most people think they are.
A couple of years ago, 3,000 of the most powerful world leaders in business, academics, and social change met for the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The theme was “Stakeholders for a cohesive and sustainable world.” These thought leaders acknowledged their roles – not just as shareholders, but as stakeholders capable of facilitating significant world change and shaping the future.
Part of the discussion involved wrestling with questions about corporate virtue: What does a business owe to its community, its country, the world at large? What does it mean for a business to not just do good but be good? What would such aspiration require?
The leaders at the Forum were taking their cue from an international conversation that has grown into a full-fledged movement. Millennials and Generation Z employees see themselves as part of a purpose economy. Research tells us that this generation of workers expects the work they do to reflect something significant about who they are, and they expect the companies they work for to be about more than making money too.
This kind of moral buy-in has the potential to energize world markets and revolutionize the way we live. It can also, unfortunately, create a culture in which workers are wholly invested in the work until they can’t keep going anymore.
They burn out because there is no objective benchmark for progress. When your goal is to change the world, there’s no way to know when you’ve succeeded. Without Jesus, people spend themselves and then give up.
It’s different when Jesus gets involved.
How I learned not to separate faith and work
When I started my career in the corporate world, I was working my way through college to become a pastor. I just needed a job to pay the bills. Four years went by, and before I knew it, I had climbed several rungs of the ladder within a Fortune 50 company and changed my major to business. That was when I had my first faith-work crisis.
I was sitting at my desk one night when an email came in from the executive team congratulating me on something I’d done. This email should’ve made me happy, but instead it felt like a notice of failure. I knew there was more to life than getting corporate kudos. I knew I needed to be doing important work for God’s kingdom, and I felt like I’d been called to more than what I was doing at work.
We all yearn to hear “well done.” Busy and successful people often have an underlying fear that they aren’t successful enough, that what they’re doing doesn’t matter, or that they are accomplishing the wrong things. And it’s true that much of what people work for won’t last beyond this world: it isn’t even guaranteed to be here tomorrow. Stock markets crash, technology changes, and even the most galvanizing social movements die out.
The things that endure eternally, on the other hand, all have one thing in common: They are work that is done for Christ.
I began to realize I’d compartmentalized my life into things that were sacred and things that were secular. I was one person when I wore a shirt with my company’s logo on it and someone else when I wore a church shirt. And while I knew what church ministry and neighborhood ministry were, I had no idea what ministry in a for-profit company could look like. I’d been to good churches and read good books, but the idea that business could be ministry was uncharted territory for me.
Faith + work together
“You’re trying to figure this out, aren’t you?”
One day, as I began to wonder if it was possible for business and ministry to be combined – and what it would look like if they were – my struggle was noticed by Tony Barrett, the man who would become my first faith-and-work mentor. He was a new executive where I worked, and, with this question, he pulled me aside to talk.
With his guidance, I started down the path of understanding that my faith and my work don’t have to be kept in separate compartments. Integrating the two was essential to stewarding my work as a ministry platform and bringing all the segments of my life under the lordship of Jesus Christ.
People are hungry to see someone living an integrated, consistent life. They’re curious when they see you’re not despairing or negative when things are going lousy. They want to know why you seek to make peace when someone is treating you badly. In general, people want virtue – they just don’t usually have a source for it.
The gospel, lived out, is our source. It stimulates the kind of thinking that yields the kind of life so many are searching for. My faith became my motivation for doing really good business. Doing my work for a greater purpose gave me greater purpose.
What God values most in the workplace
My biggest hurdle to integrating my work and faith up to this point had been my own ignorance. But God has taught me so much since, especially about the role we play as business owners in stewarding our relationships with the people impacted by what we do day to day.
Christians in business are often treated as if our main value lies in creating money to fund ministries and churches, and most of us believe this about ourselves. Sure, there is undeniable merit in running a profitable company that can give generously. But is this really all there is to it?
I don’t think so. If we keep in mind what the Bible tells us God really values most, then he is less interested in what we do with money and more interested in what we do with people. People are the greatest asset in the kingdom of God, and business has access to a lot of them.
The average small business in America influences more than 5,000 people each year. Their reach extends to employees, employee families, customers, vendors, suppliers, property managers, and industry peers. And according to national statistics, most of these people probably don’t attend church. So, the business owners in America may have more access to and influence with unchurched people than even most pastors have.
Working side by side with people every day, every week, every year creates organic opportunities for ministry – opportunities that blew me away once I recognized them. These opportunities can lead those in our sphere of influence to understand Christ better, to grow and even become disciples, to flourish. And the flourishing of the people and communities in our business’ sphere of influence is our benchmark. It’s how we can know if our work is a success.
A community of full-time disciples
Like many high-responsibility executives, I thought there were legal barriers to creating a faith-driven culture in a for-profit business. I worried that even a Bible study during work hours or paid time off for employees who wished to volunteer for Christian service organizations would leave our companies vulnerable to lawsuits.
But I learned from educational resources and accountability that this was not necessarily the case. In the U.S., a business owner has every right to say that their business exists to glorify God. There are right and wrong ways to live that out, but every day presents ministry moments and possibilities that should not be overlooked.
God doesn’t call us to choose between success and significance. He does call us to declare our allegiance as disciples to Jesus, with all else secondary. And once you’re under Christ’s authority, all that you do is in and through him.
We spend 90,000 hours of our adult lives at work. Viewed through a business-as-ministry lens, that’s an incredible amount of time to spend caring for people who might not otherwise be open to hearing the gospel.
When faith and work go hand-in-hand in a gospel-shaped business model, it becomes easier to find the community we’re wired for. It breaks down the myth of a leader alone in the work of building the kingdom. Leadership can certainly be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be that way. When business leaders ask what honors God in their companies, it can help every employee see the bigger picture.
It can completely transform workplace cultures, unleash human flourishing, and foster purpose-driven engagement unlike anything else. God’s in the people business, and so is every business. This should compel us to build better businesses that have the capacity to take better care of people and make an eternal impact. This is how we measure success.