Business & Economy

Is There Any Such Thing As A Distinctive Christian Enterprise?


Michael Hodson

When the predecessor of the Mondragon workers co-operative (now employing over 83,000 people) was founded in the Basque area in 1956, its rules and structure were influenced by the ideas of Fr. Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta and Roman Catholic social teaching (see this Guardian article for more details.) Among other features, the wage of the highest worker was no greater than 6.5 times that of the lowest. This no doubt was counter-cultural, but not unique; industrial worker co-operatives had been around in Europe since the nineteenth century. Communist regimes had limited wages. Since Fr. Jose Maria’s day, others have founded enterprises on explicitly Christian principles. But are these enterprises distinctively Christian?

Christian enterprises often share attributes in common with secular enterprises. Moreover any good, unpatented invention can be copied; if a secular owner likes a product, service, or process devised by a Christian entrepreneur, they can copy it. Indeed, many Christian entrepreneurs probably wish they would. Then again, there are Christian entrepreneurs who start up enterprises with no intention of being different from their secular competitors.

So, again, is there any such thing as a distinctive Christian enterprise? I think there is. Moreover, I think there are many types.

Let me explain why this should be true in a non-trivial sense. It is an obvious point, but there are probably as many different shapes of enterprise as there are enterprises. Every enterprise is unique. This is true of a publicly quoted, secular, profit-maximising firm, a Jewish family firm, or a Christian enterprise, among many other types. Yet there will be some features which particular types of enterprise have in common.

Enterprises are like planets in a solar system. In the centre is a sun that has spun off the planets in orbit “around” it, each with their own characteristics. While the orbits will not be identical, they will have the same shape, and together they will make a distinctive pattern. In a similar way, different enterprises orbit around different suns. Many firms will centre on the “bottom line.” The seasons of the corporate year will revolve around the dates when they publish their quarterly earning. In some private companies, office life will focus around what suits the owner best: his or her social as well as business commitments and aspirations. Whatever or whoever drives and motivates the enterprise will show itself in many different ways, which nevertheless have cohesion and focus on the aim of the enterprise. So it should be expected in a “Christian” enterprise.

Of course, a caveat is required. It may be the case that a “Christian” enterprise is Christian in name only. The values, aspirations, and practices of its owner may be no different from those of a secular owner. The owner may, indeed, be a believer whose private life is shaped by their Christian faith, but who does not understand that they can apply their faith to the way they design and run their public business. Then again, the enterprise may have been started by a practicing Christian who incorporated his or her faith into the form of their enterprise, but with their death, the Christian essence of the enterprise may have disappeared. In all these ways, the enterprise may be seen as “Christian,” and yet not be what I mean by a Christian enterprise.

What I have in mind is an enterprise which is designed by practicing Christian believers who consciously set out to design their enterprise in a Christian way that is in accordance with their perception of the will of God. I have in mind a Christian entrepreneur who relies on more than his or her Christian virtues and character to shape the enterprise in a free-flowing way.

How might we compare the design of a Christian enterprise with one of another type? Since we are concerned with design—the ways designers think—so called “design thinking” (see this article for more details) may provide a good set of categories to make comparisons. These include chiefly vision or “requirements,” analysis, and the generation of design forms.

Purpose and Vision

Academics who study design have become aware of the general traits of successful designers. Central to their process of design is some concept of purpose, vision, or “requirements” to which the design is directed. Such a starting point is thoroughly appropriate for an entrepreneur in the Judeo-Christian tradition—for the Jewish scriptures reveal a God who has given the human race a purpose of caring for God’s world—His temple-palace (Gen. 1.28; 2.15)—and given to a people, a mission to be a blessing to “all the nations of the earth” (Gen. 18.18). The New Testament reveals a God who sent His Son to get the human race “back on mission.” Christians believe they are commissioned and sent, heading, loved and forgiven, toward a new garden city. The bible is the story of God’s mission to fulfill God’s purpose.

It makes sense, therefore, for the Christian entrepreneur to design their enterprise with a purpose—God’s purpose—in mind. By doing so, the entrepreneur is functioning in a way that is consistent with the way God functions. By doing so, the entrepreneur fulfills their purpose of being the representative image of God. The Christian entrepreneur may be likened to someone who is born again with a different set of genes. Instead of a “selfish gene,” they have a gene that leads them toward pleasing God rather than themselves.

Because the purpose is different and distinctive, the means of achieving that purpose and the relationships formed to do so should also be distinctive. Looking “God-ward” will incline the Christian entrepreneur to reject particular design options and to develop others. Arguably tautologically, this means that profit will not be the ultimate objective or purpose of the enterprise by definition. Profits may be necessary to sustain the business, but they will not be an end in their own right.

Deriving the vision for the enterprise to match God’s purposes will have other consequences in virtually every area of the enterprise. This is not to say, however, that every entrepreneur who seeks to do this will formulate the same vision. Using different traditions, placing a different emphasis on Scripture, tradition, and reason, as well as differences in hermeneutics and exegesis will lead to differences in vision. But this is to be expected: different perspective, different vision. Nevertheless, I believe that there is sufficient commonality among traditions to venture that there will be a common vision if the entrepreneur develops a “mind of Christ” and is not “conformed to the pattern of this world” (Rom. 12.2). Scenes in this vision may include:

  • attention to the quality of relationships, transforming the way in which the entrepreneur views people in other enterprises;
  • partnering with investors who share the purpose of the enterprise and who are not seeking a return above that justified by the risks they are taking;
  • securing finance in a form that matches costs and benefits, arguably excluding interest-paying debt;
  • using materials that enable people to care for the Earth, God’s temple-palace; yet in a way which doesn’t deify “Nature”;
  • recognising that work provides a unique opportunity for personal developments, designing work tasks and span of control to allow those working in the enterprise to flourish as human beings—images of God;
  • not designing products and services primarily for the customer, but rather to fulfill God’s purposes, which, for example, may exclude “positional” goods and services designed to enhance perceived social status;
  • not seeing other firms as rivals, but potentially (at least) as those supplying needed goods and also fulfilling God’s purposes;
  • not seeking to evade taxes, but seeing government as established by God to curb evil and reward good (Rom. 13.3).

Naturally, there will be secular enterprises that adopt some of these objectives, and their outward appearance may be no different from the Christian enterprise. There may be differences in degree, of course. CSR may lead the secular firm to devote some profit to helping the community, but not as much as an enterprise whose purpose is not to make profits. However, secular social enterprises may contribute more to social causes than a Christian enterprise that is not focused on rectifying social problems. Yet as vision is translated into specific structures, practices, and relationships, the differences may become more noticeable, similarities in the solar system more apparent.

Those differences will be more apparent as they are the product of a different analysis of the influences at work and the different models, examples, and metaphors that inspire the design process. For example, the Scriptures present a different understanding of what it means to be human than does the neo-classical economic model on which shareholder value is based.  Human beings are seen as whole people, not schizophrenic with separate worker, consumer, physical, and relational persona. People do not function as machines or computers at work and developing people after work.  It follows that the way in which work is structured must enable the development and integrity of the whole person.

The Scriptures also provide a unique set of examples and analogies to inspire business design: the apostle Paul’s image of the church as a body, for example, may suggest ways in which roles and responsibilities may be spread across an enterprise; Jesus’ leadership of the disciples may suggest a way of exercising authority; and the economy of the Last Supper may suggest a different business model.  The possibilities are endless. Thus, the exciting nature of design and the way we are designed to be.

Source: Marketplace Institute

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