In January 2020, 3,000 of the most powerful world leaders in business, academics, and social change met for the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The theme was “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World.” These thought leaders acknowledged their roles, not just as shareholders but as stakeholders capable of facilitating significant change and shaping the future. Together, these global world-changers wrestled with questions of corporate virtue: What does a business owe to its community, its country, and the world at large? What does it mean for a business to not just do good but be good? What would such aspiration require?
The leaders at the Forum are taking their cue from an international conversation that has grown into a full-fledged movement. Millennials and Generation Z employees see themselves as part of a purpose economy. This generation of workers expects the work they do to reflect something significant about who they are, and, further, they expect the companies they work for to be about more than making money.
This kind of moral buy-in has the potential to energize world markets and revolutionize the way we live. It can also, unfortunately, create a culture where workers are wholly invested in the work until they can’t keep going anymore. They burn out. There is no objective benchmark for progress when your goal is to change the world. So people spend themselves, and then they give up.
That is, unless Jesus gets involved.
When I started my career in the corporate world, I was working my way through college. I was initially studying to be a pastor, and I just needed a job to pay the bills. Four years went by, and before I knew it, I had climbed several rungs of the ladder within a Fortune 50 company and changed my major to business. That was when I had my first faith-work crisis.
I was sitting at my desk one night when an email came in from the executive team congratulating me on something I had done. This email should’ve made me happy, but instead it felt like a notice of failure. I knew there was more to life than getting corporate kudos for making widgets. I felt like I needed to be doing “significant things” for God’s kingdom—it felt like God had called me for so much more.
We all yearn to hear “well done.” All busy and successful people have an underlying fear that they aren’t successful enough, that what they’re doing doesn’t matter, that they are accomplishing the wrong things. Stock markets crash, technology changes, and even the most galvanizing social movements die out. The things that endure eternally all have one thing in common: They are being done for Christ.
I started to realize that I had compartmentalized my life into things that were sacred and things that were secular. I was one person when I wore a shirt with my company’s logo on it and someone else when I wore a church shirt. And while I knew what church ministry and neighborhood ministry were, I had no idea what ministry in a for-profit company could be. I’d been to good churches and read good books, but this was uncharted territory for me.
What would business as a ministry look like? I didn’t know how to begin to answer that question. The following Monday, our company hired a new executive who ended up becoming my first faith and work mentor, Tony Barrett. He pulled me aside one day and said, “You’re trying to figure this out, aren’t you?” With his guidance, I started down the path of understanding that my faith and my work did not have to be at odds. Integrating the two was essential to becoming a kingdom-effective employee who stewarded my work as a ministry platform.
People are hungry to see an integrated, consistent life. They are interested in knowing why you’re not despairing or negative when things are going lousy. They want to know why you seek to make peace when someone is trying to punish you. In general, people want virtue—they just don’t usually have a source for it. The gospel is that source, stimulating the kind of thinking that yields the life so many are searching for. My faith became my motivation for doing really good business—for a greater purpose.
Christians in business are often treated as though our main value lies in creating money to fund significant ventures. There is undeniable merit in running a company that is profitable, one that gives generously and funds ministries. But I believe God is less interested in what we do with money and more interested in what we do with people. People are the greatest asset in the kingdom of God, and business has access to a lot of people.
The average small business in America influences over 5,000 people each year. Their reach extends to employees and employee families, of course, but also to customers, vendors, suppliers, property managers, and industry peers. According to national statistics, most of these people likely do not attend church. The average business owner in America, therefore, may have more access to unchurched people in any given year than even some megachurch pastors. Working side by side with people every day, every week, every year creates organic opportunities for ministry—opportunities that blew me away once I recognized them.
My biggest hurdle to integrating my work and my faith up to that point had been my own ignorance. Like many high-responsibility executives, I thought there were legal barriers to creating a faith-driven culture in a for-profit business. We worried that even operating a Bible study during work hours or allocating paid time off to employees who wished to volunteer for Christian service organizations would leave our companies vulnerable to discrimination lawsuits. Educational resources, accountability, and mentorship showed me that was not necessarily the case. In the US, a business owner has every right to say that their business exists to glorify God. There are right and wrong ways to live that out, but every day presents ministry moments and possibilities that should not be forsaken.
There’s a stigma in our culture that a person is either called to ministry or they aren’t. If you’re not one of those people chosen for a vocation of ministry, the implication is that you just get a job to support those who are. This is a false dichotomy. God doesn’t call us to choose between success and significance. He does call us to declare our allegiance as disciples to Jesus, with all else secondary. And once you’re under Christ, all that you do is in and through him. Jesus never called part-time disciples.
The idea that business can’t be a ministry sets business leaders up to fail, and it can also be incredibly isolating. We don’t tend to talk much about faith at work, so many are not even aware there are other Christians around them.
I remember the loneliness I felt increasing as I was given more and more responsibility within my company. That isolation came from feeling like I was the only one trying to combine faith and work. In 1 Kings 19, Elijah is on the run from the murderous King Ahab. He cries out to God, thinking he’s the only one who won’t bend his knee to Baal, but God lets him know that he’s not alone—there are 7,000 others. Similarly, there are more than 100,000 business owners in America who attended a local church this past weekend, yet many feel lonely like I once did.
We spend 90,000 hours of our adult lives at work. That’s a lot of time to spend not abiding with Christ, hoping just to not mess up. On the flip side, that’s an incredible amount of time to spend in ministry with people who might not otherwise be open to hearing the gospel.
When faith and work go hand-in-hand in a gospel-shaped business model, it becomes easier to find the community we’re wired for. It breaks down the myth of being alone in the work of building the kingdom. Leadership can certainly be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be that way. When business leaders ask what honors God in their companies, it can help every employee see the bigger picture. It can completely transform workplace cultures, unleash human flourishing, and foster purpose-driven engagement unlike anything else. God’s in the people business, and so is every business. This should compel us to build better businesses that have the capacity to take better care of people and make an eternal impact.
Mike Sharrow is the CEO of the C12 Group, a global platform of peer advisory groups serving more than 2,500 Christian CEOs, business owners, and key players. He grew up in Alaska, graduated from Trinity International University (Deerfield, Illinois), and after a career spanning Fortune 50 companies and start-ups, joined C12 as a member in 2010. Mike and his wife, Jacqui, married in 2002 while living in Chicago and now reside in San Antonio with their two daughters.