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01 May 2008

None of Gods business?

Reading the headlines at the moment, it's clear that corporations are controlling much of the world today. From wars and economics to public services and just causes, company interests rule. Christian involvement in the business world is one of the focus areas of the Alliance's Forum for Change. Mark Greene sets the scene...

Every age has a dominant institution, the one that drives all the others. In the Middle Ages it was the Church. In the 19th century it was government. And in the 21st century it's business.

"It is more important than ever before for business to assume a moral leadership in society"
Anita Roddick

As Body Shop founder, the late Anita Roddick, put it, "I don't think that anyone would argue that business now dominates the world's centre stage. It is faster, more creative, adaptable, efficient and wealthier than many governments.... So in terms of power and influence, you can forget the Church and forget politics too. There is no more powerful institution in society than business. It is more important than ever before for business to assume a moral leadership in society."

Roddick may overstate her case, but in the West business interests have a huge impact on every aspect of society and determine to a large extent the direction of much scientific research, the shape of our education, our immigration policy, our transport policy and much of the content of our media, since increasingly most media exist primarily to deliver audiences to advertisers.

Even so, business - particularly big business - has a bad image in the Church and indeed in mainstream society. Profit is often seen as an inherent evil and capitalism as a malicious force that exploits the poor, ravages the environment, destroys the relational dynamics of our society, corrodes our characters and hollows our souls.

So it's not a bad place to be salt, light and leaven.

In reality, business matters hugely to people's well-being. It certainly matters if you want to see people fed, housed and educated, because it is business that generates the wealth and expertise to meet such basic goals. It certainly matters if you want to see a better world. And it matters hugely if we take God's injunction through Jeremiah to pray for the prosperity of the city, to want the best for people: "Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which 1 have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper" (Jeremiah 29.7).

God's instrument

Work is given to provide for people's needs and growth in mind, body, soul and spirit; to care for the resources of the earth; and to release and develop its potential for the benefit of people (Genesis 2.15) and to the glory of God. Business, like work, is one of the instruments God uses to create a context for human flourishing.

Look at the context God creates for Adam and Eve in Genesis 1: a world in which life can be celebrated in contentment, peace, relational generosity and material sufficiency. As such, business exists to provide goods and services that should enhance human life in a way that is consistent with God's plans for all. In many instances business has done a wonderful job.

There is, after all, no poverty alleviation without wealth generation

There is, after all, no poverty alleviation without wealth generation. The poor do not primarily need handouts; they need better jobs. Globally, NGOs and churches and state aid have made some contribution to the reduction of poverty, but the most effective poverty alleviation has been effected by business. More people have been lifted out of dollar-a-day poverty in China in the last 20 years by the growth of business than by all the aid sent into Africa over the last 50.

While big business is certainly not immune from criticism of the exploitation in sub-Saharan Africa, the primary causes of poverty in Africa have not been exploitation by multi-nationals but the failure to create conditions in which business can flourish. After all, war, government corruption and an Aids epidemic are arid soil for the kind of large-scale investment that creates jobs. Indeed, the private sector is increasingly seen by world leaders as the key to solving issues of under-development.

Obviously, not all business is good business. Increasingly, however, research demonstrates the relevance of Christian values to profitability and employee satisfaction - honesty to build trust, higher purpose to maintain motivation, forgiveness to build morale and reduce stress, love to create generous relationships and the fair distribution of wealth. Business can help make God's world better. And the Gospel can make business better for God's world.

So what is the role of Christians in this kind of world?

Jerry Marshall reflects on the challenges before us...

HagarAs I slipped into the back of the class I felt deeply moved. Even as I write this I feel tears welling up. Ten girls, aged perhaps 11 to 13, sat barefooted on the cool marble floor, relaxed and responding to a smiling and encouraging teacher. An older woman sat to one side, holding a baby. What moved me was that all these Cambodian girls had been sold or tricked into the sex industry. The baby belonged to one of them; the older women was a "mother" in one of the make-shift families created to care for small groups of these girls. The organisation behind this, Hagar, takes abused girls who can be as young as 4 years old.

Hagar is an impressive and effective Christian social enterprise focused on the recovery and restoration of exploited and destitute women and children. Fourteen sites across Phnom Penh in Cambodia provide care, professional counselling, positive and supportive education, vocational training and support into employment. Several Hagar businesses help support the social aspect of the project and provide employment for the women: a contract catering company, a restaurant, a clothing and accessories manufacturer, and a soy milk manufacturer that produces 12,000 litres a day. In total there are 600 employees.

The Church has a responsibility to envision and engage the business community

Currently Hagar is moving into a factory donated by Nestle, setting up a micro-franchise operation to enable soy milk to be sold from hand carts on the streets. And there are plans to replicate the operations into several other countries.

Hagar is not a new type of business; it's an old model that was largely lost in the 20th century but is being rediscovered. Jesse Boot's concern for the poor extended to selling "honest medicines" at cut prices that could be afforded by those that needed them, a concept he called "philanthropic retailing". Joseph Rowntree worked to improve quality of life through the provision of affordable, decent housing, recreational facilities, adult literacy and other opportunities for self-improvement. George Cadbury followed a similar path. For these and many others it was natural that business would have a transformational element.

However, in the last century businesses became increasingly one-dimensional, focussing on profit maximisation rather than reflecting multi-dimensional human nature. Managers are hostages to shareholder value and long for greater fulfilment in their work lives. Corporate social responsibility programmes are often little more than window dressing, subservient to the drive for value and measured purely in money.

Hagar is one of more than 60 projects linked with Transformational Business Network (TBN), itself part of a movement that seeks to encourage businesses with a multi-dimensional bottom line: social, spiritual, financial and environmental. In particular, TBN aims to use business to tackle extreme poverty.

Business is not merely a venue for evangelism and a source of funds. It has more potential to bring social reform, model justice and equality, and reduce poverty, than either aid or ministry. The Church, therefore, has a responsibility to envision and engage the business community.

That means spreading the message that business is an anointed ministry just as much as any other. It means including business leaders in strategy development in just the same way as we might include, say, youth leaders. It means encouraging entrepreneurial activity with support and training, whether this is commercial, social or apostolic "fresh expressions" entrepreneurship. We need to re-envision and re-engage the business community to bring Kingdom light into areas of darkness.

  • Transformational Business Network is holding a conference in central London on 16 May 2008 to inspire and engage business and professional people. For information, visit: www.tbnetwork.org
  • Mark Greene's DVD set Christian Life and Work is available for a limited time to idea readers at half price, £12.50. Mention "idea" when ordering at: 020 7399 9555
  • Mark Greene is executive director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity and author of Thank God It's Monday, Pocket Prayers for Work, How to Support the Workers and Christian Life and Work.
  • Jerry Marshall divides his time between developing TBN and co-founding an company in Palestine that aims to generate robust jobs and service exports. He is a member of Westwood Church, Coventry.

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