The Wedding of Business and Religion
Can this marriage survive?
Ahhh . . . holy matrimony. Who doesn’t love a good love story?
Vows of “till death do us part” . . . “thee I do wed” . . . “in sickness and in health.” Pronouncements that
“what God has joined together let no man put asunder.”
“It is with great pleasure that I present to you the happy couple: they were two, but now they are one—business and religion.”
Yes, you read that right.
“You have felt that business is business, religion is religion, but I tell you that these cannot be divorced. If you seek God with the whole heart, He will be found of you; but, said Christ, ‘Without me ye can do nothing.’ You are not to put asunder that which God has joined—business and religion”1
Consider also this provocative statement by Seventh-day Adventist Church cofounder Ellen White: “Religion and business are not two separate things: they are one.”2
There’s a reason that marriage language is used by Ellen White to describe the relationship between these two often antagonistic entities.
Is it possible that these two powerful forces in our culture and faith have been denied to each other for far too long? Is it time for the Seventh-day Adventist movement to bless their union, encourage their “romance,” and embrace them in our communities with open arms?
If these two, business and religion, were real flesh-and-blood characters, we could quickly complete the sketch of the prospective couple. Business is often viewed as a “cad”—inconsiderate, selfish, greedy, and shrewd, and only out to take care of himself. He gets up early, comes home late, and is nowhere to be seen most weekends. He lives unto himself.
Religion is frequently seen as admiring her image in the cultural mirror. She puts on regalia; she is preoccupied with public perception. But there’s just something essentially incomplete about her. After all, she typically appears in public only on the weekends. She is believed by many to be concerned only with her own issues and causes.
But what if there is a God-ordained connection between these two of which we have been unaware?
What’s the connection?
Imagine for a moment a world in which these two are united: a world in which the golden rule is the mission statement of every organization. A world in which faith in a better tomorrow is the anthem of both business and religion. What would that look like? What questions would be asked in those boardrooms?
Rather than posing the classic marketer’s obsession—“How do we convince customers that they need our product?”—company directors would analyze the real-life needs of potential customers. Are they sleeping well? What does their morning routine look like? Do they have kids? Are they satisfied with the rhythms of life? How does our product or service really bless and enrich the lives of customers? If we were in their shoes—living on Pleasant Street in Maple Grove—what would we want this organization to be doing for us?”
You sense how differently the world might move if these were the questions being asked in large organizations, both commercial and faith-based. And perhaps you sigh for a world that you are certain can never be. But it is already true that striking innovation and “benevolent” disruption in corporate culture today is emerging from boardrooms in which such questions are being asked—and answered—about the real lives of real people: “What are their real needs? What are the problems—as they see them—that we can solve?”
What would happen if an organization—a Fortune 500 company or a large, faith-based entity—formally adopted Jesus’ “golden rule” as its mission statement? What trickle-down effects would such a profound expression of other-centeredness have on how they chose initiatives and products to develop for their respective “markets,” how they provided services, managed employees, worked for supervisors, held each other accountable, and sought to balance work and life so as to yield in lives of joy and peace?
Truth is, unless we inhabit a solar-powered cabin in northern Montana, grow all our own food, and are completely “off the grid” and self-sustaining, each of us is integrally connected to the world of business. And this is the glory of business: it necessitates that we be dependent on each other and not isolated, self-absorbed beings. We either work within an organization as an employee or serve in it as a leader or founder, and we consume the products of a hundred other businesses. Our faith in God and our belief in Scripture doesn’t insulate us from six-days-a-week contact with the world of transactions, business interactions, and even commercial dealing. This is an honest obedience to the biblical instruction “Six days shall you labor and do all your work.”
And let it be said: this is not an 87 percent diversion from the chief purpose of our lives. The holy work of caring for and tending the “garden” is a role assigned by God to human beings even before the entrance of sin into this planet. Work—and the business that flows from work—is not incompatible with the purposes for which God designed us; for God intended that our six days’ labor flow naturally into a day in which we were reminded of His creative power and sustaining care.
Interestingly enough, a growing shelf of business-oriented publications is beginning to explore the essential interconnectedness between the worlds of work and what we can only call “spiritual values.”
While I personally compare all truth to my own “true north”—the Word of God and the inspired writings found in the Spirit of Prophecy—I also read at least a dozen business books each year. And I am noticing an unmistakable trend: In a remarkable turn from the classic corporate philosophy of amassing wealth in a competitive marketplace in which “dog eats dog,” and only the economically fittest survive, these authors (and the companies paying attention to them) are clearly seeing the void that the world needs filled. They are asking questions that require essentially spiritual solutions: “How do we establish organizations on the basis of sustainability, and even trust?” “How do we bring high-quality service to customers?” “How do we increase employee satisfaction, health, and loyalty?”
As a committed Seventh-day Adventist, trained for business and immersed in the marketplace, where business and ministry meet, I can’t help being inspired by the growing number of businesses reorganizing themselves on essentially “religious” or faith-based principles—principles that derive from Scriptural teachings—that are sustainable and even selfless at their core.
Solomon said that there are two great joys in life: enjoying your food and being satisfied in your work (Eccl. 2:24; 3:22). Sadly, however, only 44 percent of Americans report that they are completely satisfied at work.3 But If God gave us work for our good and wanted us to find great satisfaction and fulfillment in it, how can we find ways to experience a growing harmony—a “relationship” if you will—in which business and religion live happily together?
A growing shelf of business-oriented publications is exploring the interconnectedness between the worlds of work and what we can only call “spiritual values.”
Most Christians, including Seventh-day Adventists, spend an average of about three hours a week directly involved in their “religious” lives. And millions of believers invest intense time and focus on the specifics of that 1.8 percent of their week debating worship styles, musical offerings, content of sermons, even the color of the sanctuary carpet. How much more valuable would it be if we considered how to bring the principles of God’s kingdom into the world of business life, in which we typically invest between 40 and 60 hours each week?
A Celebration of Risk
A common premise of both business and religion is a willingness to take what the uninitiated call “risk.” A small business owner invests in a strategic location—before any return—where her product can be seen and appreciated by thousands of customers. A consecrated pastor moves his family into a community with no Adventist presence, believing—in faith—that building relationships and providing compassionate neighborliness will result in planting a church to the glory of God. Faith in a better tomorrow drives both religion and business to believe that taking a risk is worth the potential reward.
This essential willingness to invest in what is not yet seen saturates the teaching of the Bible. Scripture tells us, “Plant your seed in the morning and keep busy all afternoon, for you don’t know if profit will come from one activity or another—or maybe both” (Eccl. 11:6, NLT).4 Venture capitalists are willing to invest in 10 ventures on average in hopes that just one out of those 10 will be a success that will far outweigh any losses in the others.
Conversely, inspiration critiques the habit of not exercising our God-given capacity to trust that a good God wants to do good things for His people, both in worship on Sabbath morning and in their place of business throughout the week. Malachi quotes the Father as saying, “Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need” (Mal. 3:10, ESV).5
Ellen White similarly counseled, “There is a fearfulness to venture out and to run risks in this great work, fearing that the expenditure of means would not bring returns. What if means are used and yet we cannot see that souls have been saved by it? What if there is a dead loss of a portion of our means? Better work and keep at work than to do nothing. You know not which shall prosper, this or that.”6
Speaking to the inclination to bury talents God has given in the ground, she wrote, “Many become inefficient by evading responsibilities for fear of failure.”7
The genius of the gospel that Seventh-day Adventists believe—and the driving force behind the amazing growth of this movement from a tiny band of dispirited believers to a world-circling fellowship of nearly 20 million—is a commitment to respond to a risk-taking God with a life of reaching and stretching beyond the ordinary.
“Remember that Christ risked all,” Ellen White reminded us. “For our redemption, heaven itself was imperiled.”8
“Satan with his fierce temptations wrung the heart of Jesus. The Savior could not see through the portals of the tomb. Hope did not present to Him His coming forth from the grave a conqueror, or tell Him of the Father’s acceptance of the sacrifice. He feared that sin was so offensive to God that Their separation was to be eternal.”9
Yet Jesus said “Yes” to the greatest risk in the history of the universe. Hallelujah!
Can a movement worshipping such a risk-taking Saviour content itself with pulling in its stakes, investing only in safe causes, planning for only what it can reasonably fund, or trusting and engaging with only those it can put on the payroll?
Ellen White observed: “Some have no idea of running any risk or venturing anything themselves. But somebody must venture; someone must run risks in this cause.”10
Needed: A New Culture
If, as Ellen White tried to teach us more than a century ago, business and religion are synonymous, how would a movement engaged with that truth reimagine its mission in light of the climactic events now unfolding in our world? How would it place increased value on businesspersons who understood and operated their companies as ministries—helping to prepare a people to meet the Lord?
One of the most attractive characteristics an organization can possess is a culture of candor.
As a young entrepreneur for the past 10 years, I have been in the heart of the very experience I’m trying to describe. With God’s blessing, I’ve been involved in helping launch and grow a number of exciting ventures. From assisted living development to a plant-based food company, juice bars, an agricultural research project, a digital therapeutics venture, and a nonprofit dedicated to educating communities on how to live healthfully (each sustained by its own commercial success in providing services or selling a product), all of which extend the mission of this movement that I believe in with all my heart.
What’s more, I’ve discovered a large—and growing—network of similarly inclined young Adventists whose creativity and passion have brought them commercial success and who are eager to discover how they can align their organizations with the church they love. What they want— what they need—is the encouragement and embrace of a movement that can reimagine the relationship between faith and commercial sustainability, between religion and business.
The business culture roundly applauds risk-taking entrepreneurs who didn’t allow themselves to be stopped by the shape of things as they were: Steve Jobs at Apple; Bill Gates at Microsoft; Richard Branson at Virgin Airlines; Elon Musk at Tesla; Jeff Bezos at Amazon. Why do we know these names? Because each one has made a direct impact on our lives in innovative communication products, software, transportation, and consumer goods. What’s the common characteristic among these very diverse and highly independent individuals? They believed in an idea and dedicated their lives to making it become a reality. They had faith that the world would be better: communicate better, compute more quickly, travel more easily, conserve more resources, and contribute to general happiness. Though it may not have been of a religious kind, “by faith” they ventured out to make it happen.
Is our church “culture” ready to do the same?
Back to the Future
Have you heard of the secretive cell networks who so disrupted the established religious monopolies of late medieval Europe?
Their reputation and influence has for centuries reverberated around the globe. They believed in freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and free enterprise. They were humble businessmen and businesswomen with an undying passion for Jesus, even when they lost their lives because of their faith in Him. Because of their radical beliefs, they were denounced as enemies of the state, fundamentalists, traitors, even terrorists.
Historians tell us they established cell groups all over Europe. Suspicious governments were quick to inform citizens that “if you see something, say something.”
But of these “renegades” we read in The Great Controversy: “To have made known the object of their mission would have ensured its defeat; therefore they carefully concealed their real character. Every minister possessed a knowledge of some trade or profession, and the missionaries prosecuted their work under cover of a secular calling. Usually they chose that of merchant or peddler. ‘They carried silks, jewelry, and other articles, at that time not easily purchasable save at distant marts; and they were welcomed as merchants where they would have been spurned as missionaries.’—[J. A.]Wylie, [The History of Protestantism], b. 1, ch. 7.
“All the while their hearts were uplifted to God for wisdom to present a treasure more precious than gold or gems. They secretly carried about with them copies of the Bible, in whole or in part; and whenever an opportunity was presented, they called the attention of their customers to these manuscripts. Often an interest to read God’s Word was thus awakened, and some portion was gladly left with those who desired to receive it”11
Today many in the Protestant world honor these brave Waldensian Christians. In an age when almost no one dared to challenge the hegemony of Rome over faith, government, and business, they were some of the earliest of those who would later become famous as “Protestants,” including, in some quarters, a devotion to the seventh-day Sabbath of Scripture. They were exquisitely conscious of the risk, but understood intuitively that they served a risk-taking Saviour who calls each one to “take up your cross and follow Me.” Fascinatingly, they were welcomed in the business world, where they would have been rejected as missionaries, allowing them unusual access to spread the truths they were discovering in the Word of God.
Their experiences from centuries ago—and their effectiveness—have inspired leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to begin imagining and supporting new “Waldensian missionaries” in various regions of the world where spreading the gospel is difficult or officially prohibited. Most will enter regions in which they will work as businesspersons producing products, providing services, holding positions in government and industry. But each will do so knowing that there is a greater purpose for their work—for their ministry—than putting bread upon the table or building up a tidy bank account.
Waldensian Businesspeople Today
Six months ago I wrote an online column for this magazine about attending the Generation of Youth for Christ (GYC) convention in Louisville, Kentucky. I listened, transfixed, as a brave Adventist leader working in a difficult region invited any of the 6,000 attendees at the convention to consider serving as “Waldensian Adventists.” Hours later I reported that “As the leader brought his talk to a close, he made an appeal for those willing to commit themselves to the difficult and even dangerous work in his difficult and dangerous region. No music was played to pull on the heartstrings. He didn’t use emotional language, nor was his delivery unusually dynamic. It was clear, concise—and compelling. His phrasing reminded me of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s supposed advertisement declaring his bold voyage to the frozen southern wilderness of Antarctica: ‘Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.’ . . .
“Tears streamed down my face as I watched these fearless young men and women—sons and daughters—pour down the aisles to the front of the massive meeting hall. Like Christian and Hopeful near the end of their journey toward the Celestial City in John Bunyan’s beautiful allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, the speaker reminded them that, yes, the river that lies between us and the heavenly city is raging. But it’s not our duty to discern a way across. We’re simply called to step forward in faith.”12
What Would This Marriage Look Like?
I sincerely applaud the innovative efforts of church leaders who are even now imagining and building networks of support that move past our traditional divide between business and religion. But surely it will take more than the concentrated focus of a few dozen senior church executives to launch the new style of “working ministry” that sustains itself in the marketplace and contributes its profits to the spread of the gospel.
What if local congregations offered incentive seed funds—$500, $2,500, $10,000—to young Adventist entrepreneurs with well-structured multiyear business plans who contracted to return to that congregation a guaranteed percentage of profits after the start-up phase? Wouldn’t this kind of risk-taking be worth it?
What if conference and union conference headquarters carefully selected “Waldensian missionaries” who would enter “dark counties” (and cities) with sought-after goods and services, establishing the nucleus of an Adventist congregation that didn’t need continuing pastoral care or conference resources? What if the church plants resulting from such risk-taking were self-sustaining, contributing their tithes to the Lord’s storehouse and funding the local outreach of the newly established churches?
What if three—or five, or better yet, seven—major new “business ministries” in each world division were offered serious start-up funding to create the “centers of influence” that naturally attract consumers, then friends, then guests at worship, and finally baptized believers who embrace the three angels’ messages?
Creating a Culture of Candor
One of the most attractive characteristics an organization can possess is a culture of candor. Candor—sometimes better known as honesty or truth telling—is often the most hidden trait in both commercial and faith-based systems. Candor and open communication in a spirit of love are key qualities to any relationship; but especially vital to any organization that seeks to do more than build a brand or keep stockholders satisfied. Truth telling—safe, candid communication—must be part of the DNA of any ultimately successful enterprise, church, or business.
Ed Catmull, CEO of Pixar Entertainment and author of Creativity, Inc., describes the role of candor in an organization. He set up a tight- knit group of passionate, creative individuals who meet often and make up what Pixar calls “The Braintrust.”
“Candor isn’t cruel. It does not destroy. On the contrary, any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it ourselves. The need to stroke one’s own ego, to get the credit we feel we deserve—we strive to check those impulses at the door. The Braintrust is fueled by the idea that every note we give is in the service of a common goal: Supporting and helping each other.“13
We might imagine that Catmull had been reading the apostle Paul: “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:4-8, NKJV).14
Does your religion have room for candor? Are you free to be honest? Do you have individuals in your life who exhibit grace to you and make a safe place to share ideas, concerns, frustrations, joy, and sadness?
This principle more than any other could spark the new ministry and business relationships that have so much potential to reshape the Adventist future, to change it from a carefully monitored system where all funding must flow from a central source to one in which the money that fuels the movement is potentially home-grown, sustainable, and locally distributed. Surrounded by a secular culture that teaches us to fear the “other,” we have grown wary of each other, even of brothers and sisters in the faith. Too many of us fail to trust and thus to love one another. And the direct consequence of our wariness is that Spirit-inspired ideas—ministries, Waldensian businesses, commercially successful business that could sustain congregations and extend their mission reach—die on the vine.
I believe we are on the verge of a grand and heaven-ordained “disruption” in the Adventist movement. It will be a time that hundreds—thousands—of dedicated men and women will answer the call to open sustainable businesses in our large cities around the globe with the sole desire of living out and revealing the principles of our faith for all the world to witness. Our congregations are on the verge of a great revival, a revival in faith and in each other; in hope that takes risks; and in love that welcomes and embraces all honest souls.
It may not have been the match that we saw coming, nor a relationship we thought could flourish. But it may be for such a time as this that we celebrate the marriage of religion and business.
[If this article has resonated with you, I would love to hear from you - @thurmon or firstname.lastname@example.org - Also, this isn't just theory, join us as we discuss what this looks like now and in the future at our upcoming event - Fruition - in Phoenix, AZ on August 3-4. It precedes ASi, so join us for both. For more information, go to http://www.fruitionlab.org to register.]
- Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases (Silver Spring, Md.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1990-1993), vol. 19, p. 17.
- Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900), p. 349.
- Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
- Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Ellen G. White, The Publishing Ministry (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1983), p. 391.
- Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), p. 500.
- White, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 196.
- Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), p. 753.
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 3, pp. 315, 316.
- Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 71.
- Jared Thurmon, “Your Sons and Daughters Will,” www.adventistreview.org/your-sons-and-your-daughters-will.
- Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.
- Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Jared Thurmon is the marketing director/strategic partnerships liaison for Adventist Review.