“To imagine none can teach you but those who are themselves saved from sin, is a very great and dangerous mistake. Give not place to it for a moment.” – John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection
There is sometimes an instinct within Christian leadership that downplays business thinking. After all, the church has a different purpose than a business, so why should it operate like one? A few leaders go as far as saying that “business thinking is ruining the church.”
Increasingly, though, we see Christian leaders and organizations opening up to the insights of the business world: leadership development, teamwork, productivity, people management, and more. Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit, Catalyst, and other training grounds for church leaders apply such principles with great effectiveness. Christian authors and speakers like Jon Acuff bring these principles directly into their work.
That’s what I sought to do when I was on the leadership team of a major evangelical ministry, and it’s what I seek to do in my books, including What’s Best Next. I have found it essential for Christians leaders to seek out and learn from secular business thinkers. Using a biblical framework, we become better leaders, and better Christians, when we do.
One of the best-kept secrets is that much of the strongest business thinking lines up with a biblical worldview. We see this in two of the most significant trends in business thinking: an emphasis on purpose and on service.
Putting Purpose over Profit
Business is often maligned for sacrificing people at the altar of profit. As the stereotype goes, if you want to succeed, you need to make profit your ultimate aim and be willing to step on people.
Sure, many businesses operate this way. But today’s most popular and successful business thinkers advise the opposite. In his landmark book Built to Last, business consultant Jim Collins makes the case that companies that put profit ahead of their desire to serve people and contribute to society actually make less in the long run.
Conversely, the companies that prioritize their mission, saying things like, “We are ultimately in business to make a contribution; profit matters, but it’s not the goal,” are the ones who fare better financially. How? This approach creates trust and goodwill with customers, building the company’s brand in a positive way.
Further, because their aim is to truly benefit people, not just make a sale and run, these companies create better products. They’re the ones people want to do business with and buy from, often promoting them enthusiastically through word of mouth (the best form of marketing).
On the other hand, companies that put making money ahead of their mission typically end up cutting corners and ticking off their customers.
Tim Sanders, former Yahoo executive and author of Love is the Killer App, writes that the greatest trend in business is “the downfall of the barracudas, sharks, and piranhas and the ascendency of nice, smart people.”
The best business thinkers agree with him: Loving others at work is actually good business strategy. Sanders doesn’t advocate doing so out of ulterior motives for advancing yourself. Rather, he argues that you should do it because it is the right thing to do.
I think this philosophy is an incredible thing. It shows that there is no fundamental tension between doing well and doing good. We are most effective in the business world by seeking to serve people and be generous.
In many ways, business leaders have recognized this for years. It’s the perspective behind books like How to Win Friends and Influence People, and even Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, said, “The best managers have a generosity of spirit.” More recently, Wharton School business professor Adam Grant has argued very well for this perspective in his book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.
The Internet has made this philosophy even more integral to good business. Stingy, selfish people have no place to hide. When people do business harshly and carelessly, word spreads fast. Conversely, when they’re generous and helpful to work with, we hear about that, too.
I’m excited about this trend because many people tend to think that business is an exception to Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” I want to say: no, it is not an exception at all. Jesus meant that command to apply in business as well as personal life, and it turns out to be good for business as well as the right thing to do (see Prov. 11:24-26).
Four Reasons Good Business Thinking Belongs in the Church
These trends are just the beginning of the kind of robust, people-oriented philosophies being taught by the best secular business thinkers. Far beyond superficial tactics and manipulation, their approaches rely on principles of character and service. They relate to the work we do in Christian organizations to build community, share the gospel, and minister effectively.
1. Learning from business thinking enables us to give God the glory he deserves for being the ultimate source of the truth in it.
If we ignore secular business teachings as a resource for the church, we miss out on an opportunity to recognize God’s truth within them. As Christians who believe all truth is God’s truth, we can point to God as the source and give him the glory he deserves. Engaging with business thinking gives us the opportunity to flesh out the biblical foundations behind such popular and effective messages, so that God can be honored.
2. Engaging with good business thinking can lead people to Christ.
Showing how the principles behind good business thinking have their ultimate roots in God is a form of what I would call “cultural apologetics.” By showing secular thinkers that their best thinking is in line with what the Scriptures have always taught, it can give them a further reason to consider the claims of Christ.
3. Learning from business thinking shows respect to non-Christians.
When we take interest in and consider the teachings of thinkers outside the church, it shows that we value them and their work. This is a form of loving our neighbor. It’s also a lesson in humility—acknowledging we don’t have everything all figured out. We have things to learn.
Recognizing this, in turn, has further evangelistic implications that reinforce the previous point. The world is much more likely to consider what we have to say as Christians if they know, see, and feel that we respect them.
4. Understanding business thinking leads us to become more effective in our organizations.
God has so set up the world that Christians don’t know everything simply by talking among themselves. Instead he also blesses non-Christians with important truths through common grace. We can’t know everything we need to run our organizations well if we ignore the messages taught by top business leaders. (In some cases, we have a lot to learn. Has there ever been a situation in your church where you’ve said to yourself, “There’s got to be a better way to do this?” Often, business thinking has the answer.)
Moses was “instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22). Likewise, God gave Daniel “learning and skill in all literature and wisdom,” so that he excelled beyond all the others in the king’s court (Dan. 1:17, 20). God’s best servants have always learned from and understood the best of secular thinking. It is part of how God equips us to fulfill his call on our lives.
But What About…?
For the skeptics, it’s important to clarify: Learning from business thinking does not mean churches adopt everything done in the business world. (For example, I don’t agree with the “pastor as CEO” model.) Still, there remain certain universal principles that apply, namely because in both business and the church we are dealing with people.
Those who object to business thinking in the church typically recall the kinds of businesses that see people as consumers to be used rather than people to be served. That’s not good strategy for the business world, and that’s not the approach we intend to apply to ministry, either.
But, as we’ve seen, there is another kind of business thinking—the good kind, which embraces the principles we saw above and is built on the character ethic. It’s important to see the distinction. This is what we hope to learn from.
Where to Start
For Christians and leaders wondering: Where should we start? I’d recommend four of the best business thinkers of our era—who, interestingly, are also most in line with biblical principles. You could read any title by these leaders, but here are my suggestions:
- Built to Last by Jim Collins
- The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni
- Principle-Centered Leadership by Stephen Covey
- First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham
When we read and learn from business thinkers, we should do so from within a biblical perspective. Our understanding starts with the Bible. We evaluate business thinking in light of what the Scriptures tell us is true about people, the nature of leadership, and our task in the world. The more such books we read, the more equipped we will be to understand God’s glory, see our own blind spots, and better advance the Gospel.
Matt Perman is former senior director of strategy at Desiring God and the author of What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done. He is a frequent speaker on the topics of leadership and productivity from a God-centered perspective and also consults with businesses and non-profits. He blogs at www.whatsbestnext.com.
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