At Work & Economics 101 & Theology 101

Business As Cultural Engagement?

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Editor’s note: Today we introduce Dr. Vincent Bacote, a new contributor to the blog. He is an Associate Professor of Theology and Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College. He will post periodically about business as cultural engagement and developing a theology encompassing work and economics. 

In recent decades evangelical Christians have given significant attention to questions of engagement in culture. Yet business as a means of cultural engagement receives little notice. Why?

A Brief History of Christian Cultural Engagement

If you take a glance at Christian engagement in the public realm after the Scopes trial and the end of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, what you will find is that Bible-believing Christians largely withdrew from the culture at the end of the 1920’s.

Their “re-entry” process began to slowly take place in the 1940’s. Most observers would point to the 1970’s as the beginning of the re-entry, but in a sense it began when those now labeled “evangelical” began to distinguish themselves from Christians who had withdrawn from cultural engagement.

This re-entry into culture was met with considerable ambivalence. Many Christians were nervous that a commitment to social and political engagement might obscure the priorities of evangelism and discipleship.

By the late 1990’s, however, this ambivalence seems to have largely abated. One indicator is the large number of books about faith and culture written in the last two decades.

However, this embrace of cultural engagement has largely excluded the realm of business and work.

Why Business Is Avoided

Try this sometime: initiate a conversation about engaging culture and wait to see how long it takes before someone raises the business world as a domain of cultural engagement.

You would be waiting a very long time before business was introduced. While there is certainly a genre of books on faith and work, as well as various websites dedicated to the topic, business remains peripheral to the main conversation about cultural engagement.

Cultural engagement is often associated with politics, art, film, and even education, but rarely with business. Perhaps this is because business has a public relations problem. Some of the greatest temptations for humans are easily displayed (greed, envy, selfishness, and others).

It is also the case that some Christians consider participation in business as more of a necessary evil than as an expression of the Cultural Mandate in Genesis 1:26-28. I once heard Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary, say that he had a conversation with a committed Christian in business who said, “I wish I could do something that really matters to God.”

How many business people in our churches share the same sentiment? The sacred/secular dichotomy remains prominent.

Business As Cultural Engagement

What we call “business” is actually one of the most natural expressions of the cultural mandate.

Andy Crouch in Culture Making defines “culture” as “what we make of the world.” The world of business exists because of the creation, production, and exchange of things made from the world God has given us. Even if one’s business offers a service instead of a material object or product, such services exist to help others make something of the world.

There are great temptations in business. However, the mere existence of such temptations is not reason for Christians to fail to recognize the business world as a central area of cultural engagement.

The fact that some businesses are obsessed with large profits at any cost and the construction of monuments made in their image does not negate the myriad ways that business exemplifies human flourishing. In business there is the ongoing possibility for the production of cultural goods that can bring God glory in the excellence of their production, design, sales, and marketing.

How many Christians in business are in churches that constantly tell them, “your faith and your business go together much better than you can possibly imagine?”

What message comes from your church?

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