What Makes Work Redemptive?

Jul 14, 2020

What makes work redemptive? It’s a question I’ve asked and been asked thousands of times. On some level, I’ve made it my life’s work. I think it’s a phenomenal question, a valuable and soul-searching assignment.

People ask the question in different ways—What is a Christian business? How do I bring my faith into my work? What place does the gospel have on Monday morning?—but at the end of the day, it’s the same question.

I’m encouraged that so many are asking these questions. My friends at Praxis Labs, for example, have a network of hundreds of companies and non-profits that are involved in redemptive entrepreneurship around the world. They are literally changing the world.

I like to think about this topic as building a gospel hermeneutic. Hermes was the Greek messenger god who translated all the activity of other gods to people. Accordingly, a gospel hermeneutic is a way to translate, that is to interpret, to sort, to understand and steer life and work. How does the gospel shape and inform my work? For that matter, what makes any work redemptive?

  1. Is it the quality of the leader, the owner, or the CEO? If a leader’s heart is turned toward God and is open to the Holy Spirit, does that make the work redemptive? Does it come down to the good heart and pure motives of the leader? John Maxwell wrote, “People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.” If that’s true, the heart of the owner will trickle down everywhere and to everyone.
  2. Is it the kind of product or service you are producing and offering? I had a client, a man of genuine faith, who owned a large-scale construction business operating in 25 states from Colorado to Florida. Is that kind of work redemptive? Does it matter if he builds churches or apartment complexes, or does construction even pass the test? What about my clients that publish Bibles? Or the venture capitalist who has funded everything from eggs to private label premium alcohol products? Or the pediatric surgeon?
  3. Is it the structure? Are non-profits more redemptive than for-profits? Partnerships over sole proprietorships? B-Corps over LLCs?
  4. Is it what you do with your profits? This Louisville man doesn’t give to charity, but gives really large tips to people (lots of people) instead. Is that more redemptive or less redemptive than the executive who sets up a philanthropy arm of his company? I have clients who give 10% of profits to causes their people pick. I have had clients who give 50% of their multi-million dollar profits to causes and needs both locally and around the world.
  5. Is it that your company follows certain principles and values? Interstate Batteries has a company mission that starts with “glorify God and enrich lives as we deliver the most trustworthy source of power to the world.” 
    But whether or not you mention God on the website, is it the culture and values (and whether you live up to them) that bring the redemptive edge to your business? Is it the way you treat your people, grow them, and help position them to do life that distinguishes redemptive work?
  6. Is it the fact that God is present? The Dutch renaissance reformer Erasmus of Rotterdam coined the phrase “Bidden or not bidden God is present.” When my kids were young, I got each of them a bronze plaque with this inscription. That’s true of course, but what about the simple acknowledgment from top to bottom that God is invited and acknowledged in your organization? There’s a humble posture that is struck when you do that.
  7. Is it the integrity and genius of the org strategy? Be careful on this one. I have seen some really goofy, dysfunctional companies appear to be right on the redemptive edge in their community or sector. On the other hand, I have seen some overtly labeled companies who modeled excellence but were only an empty business promise.
  8. Is it the quality of the work done? Dorothy Sayers wrote, “The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables. …The only Christian work is work well done.”

Last year I was speaking at a conference in St. Louis, and I asked the crowd to vote on the above list.

So where is the redemptive edge? It could be in any of the items. The answer is not any particular quality to the exclusion of the other seven. The answer, however, is also not going through all eight of these as a checklist. Each company and organization is different. The person, the product, the framework/container, the values, etc.—all are different. If you’re seeking to have the gospel influence your work, it’s going to be really hard to only choose one of these. You’ll probably start with one and then, over time, flesh out the other seven one at a time.

For 30 years I have tried to sharpen my Gospel Hermeneutic—how to hold a Bible in one hand and let that interpret the way I utilize the Harvard Business Review in the other. If you want to take a deeper dive on my thoughts on the matter, check out my book, The Gospel Goes to Work.

What about you? How can the gospel bring a redemptive edge to your business is a great question to ask.

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