Tim A. Dearborn is one of the keynote speakers at MEDA’s upcoming convention: Taking the Leap, to be held Oct. 31 to Nov. 3 at the Westin La Paloma in Tucson, Arizona. The excerpt below is from his book: Business as a Holy Calling: A workbook for Christians in business and their pastors.
One Sunday, our church was commissioning its youth group to go to Tijuana to build houses. Professional carpenters, an owner of a construction company, a bank manager, and an ER doctor were commissioned with them. It occurred to me, “Why were we commissioning them for this volunteer ministry, but we’ve never thought of commissioning them for their work in our own city?” Was the same work they did in their daily business now “mission” because it was an “official” church program?
As a pastor, I realized that I was more interested in people’s volunteer time and their charitable giving than in their professional lives. I focused on people’s personal lives, family life, and spirituality — and on recruiting them to volunteer in church-sponsored ministries. The financial fruit of their work interested me more than how they made that fruit. I could value business as a means to other ends: earning an income, expressing gifts and abilities, creating employment, building caring relationships, maybe doing a little Christian witness, and certainly contributing to charitable causes (like my church). But intrinsically, I wasn’t clear how business contributed to the purposes of God.
No wonder many Christians in business feel unsupported and unvalued by their churches for their actual work in business. For the past 30 years, I’ve had the privilege of working with businesspersons and students around the world to discover more fully God’s broad purposes of business. Often, business has a far deeper impact on human well-be-ing than churches or NGOs ever will. Some of the most effective measures to alleviate poverty and enhance human flourishing occur through microfinance and other enterprise solutions.
Business isn’t automatically a holy calling. There is a question mark attached to the phrase. Rather than being merely a means to other ends — providing goods and services, creating employment, making money — business can be a form of full-time Christian service.
Thus, it’s no surprise that 3,000 years ago, in the ancient Hebrew law, God outlined a complete economic system and precise guidance for how business should be conducted. The foundation of this is summarized in Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” Simply put, God owns everything. We own nothing. We are stewards, but not owners. In all our work, economic activity, and business we are stewards of someone else’s (God’s), resources. Whatever resource we employ, whether time, money, natural resources, creativity, customers, competitors, or employees, we are surrounded by resources that belong to God. Therefore, business is conducted on holy ground, for we are surrounded by the sacred. Our calling as stewards has many practical implications that shape our business practices.
Stewarding Time, People, and Creation
Beginning with Sabbath rest each week, everyone — rich and poor, human and animals — is to get a day off from work. The land, environment, and animals were protected from exploitation and destruction (Lev. 25:1-7; 26:34-35). The Old Testament is filled with almost 100 commands to keep Sabbath. Isaiah utters it as a lament, “refrain from trampling the Sabbath and pursuing your own interests” (Is. 58:13). Contrast this with our current 24/7 business life, with people having to work three part-time minimum wage jobs in order to provide for their family, and with the impact of business practices such as ships equipped to be maritime feed lots where freighters feed animals during their international voyage so that they are ready for slaughter immediately upon reaching port. In God’s eyes, we are not mere workers. All people (and all of creation) deserve a day to rest and be restored, for relationships and recreation. This culminates every seven years in a Sabbath year. During this year, all people — not just pastors and academics — would get a sabbatical. Everyone, including the land, would get its rest. We are not merely workers. We are created in God’s image for joy-filled relationships and for worship. Not to take a day off, or to permit others to do so, is rooted in distrust in God. The Sabbath protects us from the idolatry of our own effort, the reliance only upon ourselves.
God will provide enough.
We are continually tempted to worship the creation rather than the Creator, and to place our trust in the works of our own hands rather than the One who created our hands. This, in essence, is idolatry and God’s antidote is tithing. Just as most people feel like they don’t have enough time to afford a day off, most people feel like they can’t “afford” to give away 10 percent of their income. In doing exactly that, we remind ourselves not only that God is the source of what we have but also that God can be trusted to provide what we need. The Sabbath and tithing help to protect us from the idolatry of our own effort, and re-center our lives in trust of God. Furthermore, we are commanded to tithe so that “the stranger, the orphan, and the widow shall eat and be satisfied, so that the Lord your God will bless you in all the enterprises you undertake” (Deut. 14.22, 29).
We are entering into a new reformation of the church’s vision for its ministry. Rather than being the center of ministry, the church is a resource for its members’ ministry in daily life. Rather than focusing primarily on people’s personal, family, and spiritual lives — and on recruiting people to serve in church programs — churches are focusing on supporting and encouraging people for their ministry in society. It’s easy to see how our work in education, health care, social and community service relates to God’s kingdom. Jesus did all those things. But business is more complicated. To participate in God’s kingdom purposes in business requires special support, skill, and commitment. When we do business this way, we experience the joy of sharing in the fulfilment of God’s purposes for our lives.