At Work & Public Square

Are We Really Out of Big Ideas?

The Secret Sauce of Entrepreneurship and Economic Growth
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We’re all aware that we’re hip deep in the “Tech Age.” In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Greg Ip observes:

By all appearances, we’re in a golden age of innovation. Every month sees new advances in artificial intelligence, gene therapy, robotics and software apps. Research and development as a share of gross domestic product is near an all-time high. There are more scientists and engineers in the U.S. than ever before.

But Ip goes on to say that innovation has led to only “incremental” improvements in our quality of life, not “revolutionary” improvements. This helps explain the title of the article: “The Economy’s Hidden Problem: We’re Out of Big Ideas.”

Innovation Is Innovation, Right?

The author suggests that the reason the standard of living in the United States has stagnated since the late ‘90s is because of an “innovation slump.” Society today, with its increased regulations and low tolerance for financial risk, pushes against the typical trial-and-error approach that results in commercially viable innovation—the kind that propels the economy forward.

The introduction of Jim Clifton’s new book Entrepreneurial StrengthsFinder strikes a similar chord. Clifton proposes that U.S. leadership (both corporate and government) has made a fundamental assumption that is flawed—that innovation powers business creation, which drives job creation and economic growth.

Instead, Clifton argues, “Entrepreneurs create customers and customers, in turn, create jobs and economic growth.” He then makes a strong argument that only entrepreneurs can save America and the world.

Clifton is right. It is people who harness good ideas and turn them into businesses that bring flourishing to society. This is what we were made to do. But are all of us called to be entrepreneurs?

While I believe that God has called us all to be entrepreneurial, only some of us are called to be Entrepreneurs (capital E) as Clifton defines them.

You can liken this to the idea that, as believers, we are all to evangelize (1 Peter 3:15), but only some of us have the “gift of evangelism” (Ephesians 4:11-12).

It’s the Motivation for Innovation that Counts

So how do we think about this problem? First, we need to go back to the biblical understanding of our work. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, offers one of my favorite definitions of work:

Rearranging the raw materials of a particular domain to draw out its potential for the flourishing of everyone.

For example, an architect takes steel, wood, concrete, and glass and rearranges them for the flourishing of mankind. A musician rearranges the raw material of sound to produce music. This is what Adam was called to do in the garden, and that is what we are still called to do in our work today: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2-15).

Innovation Alone Is Not Enough

The bottom line is that it is work, not simply ideas, that allows us to create something new, something that brings flourishing to others and, in turn, to ourselves (Jer. 29:7). And it is through this work that we impact the culture around us.

The church has forgotten this. For the last 100 years, Christians have been known for what they are against—but it wasn’t always that way. Over 70 years ago, Dorothy Sayers, a friend of C.S. Lewis, saw the beginning of this trend and clearly identified the problem in an essay entitled Creed or Chaos:

Christians must revive a centuries-old view of humankind as made in the image of God, the eternal Craftsman, and of work as a source of fulfillment and blessing not as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfill itself to the glory of God. That it should, in fact, be thought of as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; and that man, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.

She understood that Christians were losing the understanding of the true purpose of work and how that purpose was to be realized. Unfortunately, it has only gotten worse.

As Christians, we believe that the gospel changes everything. If that is true, how do we begin to rethink the idea of entrepreneurship as a tool to positively impact the world around us?

Innovation + Entrepreneurship (Work) + Right Motives = Flourishing

One of the best lectures I ever heard on creativity and entrepreneurship was by Tim Keller at the 2010 Entrepreneurship Initiative Forum (you can hear a 5-minute clip of it here).

Over the last 20 years, no one has done better thinking on this subject than Tim Keller and his staff at the Center for Faith and Work. In his lecture on creativity and entrepreneurship, he explains that your worldview impacts the motivations behind your entrepreneurship. And the gospel should transform our worldview in such a way that it makes a difference in our own hearts and minds and work.

As Katherine Leary Alsdorf, the founding director of the Center for Faith and Work, writes:

The gospel changes us because the hope we have in God, the work of Christ on the cross, and the coming restoration of all things enables us to sacrifice for the sake of others. The gospel becomes our motivation, our vision, and our power to seek the welfare of the city.

God was an entrepreneur. We see him in the opening pages of Genesis creating. We, who are made in his image, are to do likewise.

We are not really out of big ideas. We just need the right motivation to turn those great ideas into something. Thinking about how our Christian worldview impacts our motives for creation and entrepreneurship is one way we can always keep sight of the ultimate goal of our work—to glorify God and bring flourishing to our communities.

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