Dave Scott offers helpful insights about preaching that will connect with the business leaders in your congregation.
“We shall be a city on a hill.” One of the most quoted sermons was not preached by a pastor. The CEO of the Puritans’ Massachusetts Bay Company, John Winthrop, had a Christian vision of business and he preached it. Most pastors today do not see business as a kingdom venture and that is why they do not preach on it.
The main point of Winthrop’s sermon was to warn of a potential “shipwreck” if Christians do not go about their business in a distinctly Christian way. The rocks of that catastrophe loom before us. According to Barna Research, 84 percent of 19- to 29-year-olds with a Christian background cannot explain what the Bible has to do with their career. This is an indictment of our preaching.
The church is in the marketplace business
The largest area of people’s waking lives is their life in the world of business. It is where Christians spend the most time, handle the most money, and know the most people. If we do not preach a biblical vision of business, it means that the largest segment of their lives is going without intentional discipleship.
American Christianity accepted as normal the separation of faith and profession and left the formation of business to market forces. The result has been economic and spiritual dislocation. Business has little moral footing and is cannibalizing those who built it, leaving the next generation an uncertain future of chaos with no faith formation to help them face it.
Tim Keller argues this must change. For the church to be missionally effective in post-Christian 21st-century America, one of its core characteristics must be to “theologically train lay people for public life and vocation.” Missional impact requires—among other things—a business preaching strategy.
He explains that formerly “In ‘Christendom’ you can afford to train people just in prayer, Bible study, evangelism—private world skills—because they are not facing radically non–Christian values in their public life . . .” But to prepare people to live amid the anti-Christian culture of today, “the laity needs theological education to ‘think Christianly’ about everything and work with Christian distinctiveness.” Our preaching has been great at explaining private devotional faith but has too often overlooked the life of faith doing business in an unbelieving public world.
The preacher is key to Christian business because the pulpit is the church’s GPS
Unfortunately, the world of business is not on the maps of many pastors. The main view from the pulpit today is often not the marketplace but the church.
The office of pastor often creates blinders to one’s field of vision. Most of us pastors were raised in American evangelicalism’s implicit dualistic value system where church ministry matters above all else. We usually went from college to seminary directly to the local church and most of us never experienced the realities of the unbelieving workplace. Seminary often reinforces this tunnel vision by teaching only the pulpit’s point of view. Once in ministry, the church became our caged world. By default, we preach its main concerns.
Preaching business is all about vision
It is a re-imagination challenge. Preaching’s prophetic role is abdicated when we do not challenge the mental status quo. No where is this needed more today than in the world of business. Our preaching must constantly call people to God’s vision for their lives. One of preaching’s core tasks is repeatedly casting the vision of God’s view of life.
The late Bob Briner captured this vision in the title of his book, Roaring Lambs. He wrote, “If our ambition is merely spiritual (build bigger and more attractive churches), we will surely fail. Instead, our ambition is to become roaring lambs, to more completely serve and obey our Lord who has asked us to be salt and light.”
Briner, an Emmy-winning leader in sports media, went on to say, “The number-one way, then, for Christians to be the salt Christ commands them to be is to teach His relevance, to demonstrate His relevance, to live His relevance, in every area of life.”
Andy Stanley says that vision is a bucket with holes in it that you must constantly refill. While most pastors understand the need to cast vision for the organization, it is easy to miss that an even more fundamental task is casting the Christ-enthralled vision of the panorama of the daily Christian life. If my people fail to see and fulfill their Monday-to-Friday mission, then I have failed in my mission in the pulpit. Their mission is my mission. Somehow we have gotten that backwards.
All week our people’s “vision buckets” for their lives are getting holes shot in them by the hard realities of life. Our sermons need to re-remind them of God’s Ephesians 2:10 calling on their life. He made them and saved them for a divine errand. As Paul preaches in Ephesians 6, even the lowest job, when done as worship, is eternally significant to God. As John Piper says, “You do not waste your life by what you do, but by how and why you do it.”
For your sermons to go to the workplace, you have to as well
Nothing will improve your ability to cast a godly vision of business in your preaching more than investing time regularly in the marketplace alongside your people. When unemployment between churches forced me to experience, firsthand, work environments I never would have entered otherwise, my preaching was never the same again.
An “Undercover Boss” type of day spent in the work force will open your eyes. Workplace visitation is for pastors what short-term mission trips are for our people: trips to the mission field that get us outside our church world and challenge our categories by exposing us to a culture foreign to our church world. When you meet people on their turf it changes your perspective.
There are other practical things you can change in your approach to your sermon prep that will help increase the business horsepower of your preaching as well:
Deepen your theology of business. As Howard Hendricks used to say, “You cannot impart what you do not possess.” In my experience as a church consultant, the pastor’s mindscape defines the scope of the church’s marketplace influence. His vision will either be a catalyst launching the church into the workplace, or his “four walls” mentality will be the leash keeping the church’s focus tethered to the church building. Keep books with a faith perspective on work, business and economics on your reading pile. The “Made to Flourish” faith and work network for pastors is a great place to find others farther down the road on these issues who can point the way.
Go beyond the obvious evangelical tropes of preaching just on godly integrity and being a witness. In his sermon Winthrop speaks directly to issues of lending, debt, saving versus giving, and the church’s role in seasons of economic crisis. How would you teach a theology of risk? Profit? Unemployment? Firing? Tensions between fiduciary responsibility and Christian duty? Love and management? An ungodly boss? How should a Christian in authority respond to increasingly anti-Christian regulation? Preach where the rubber hits the road.
Audit your sermon archive. How many sermons have you preached on business? For someone feeding on your preaching, how comprehensive of a Christian view of business would they have gotten in the last 12 months? Where are gaps you have not addressed? A commitment to preach business is more than an idea for a once-a-year series. It is a commitment to infusing all my sermons with a vision for the workplace, realizing every Sunday is about Monday. Your sermons need to pastor the church scattered just as much, if not more so, than the church gathered.
Survey your illustrations. To what degree do they resonate with people’s work lives? The Office was such a raging success because it told stories that rang true with what people experience on the job. Do your sermons have that real-world feel to your listeners? Collect business and work related creative material. Do you read your city’s local business journal? Read the business section of your paper.
Focus group your sermon planning. Recruit a sampling of real-world people to be part of your Sunday creative and sermon-planning sessions. Have them help you brainstorm topics, issues and real-world questions for future sermons. Include weekly feedback from them on what connected from the previous week and what did not. You need the help of outside eyes and ears.
Make regular business and workplace applications. How often have you given your audience practical how-to’s on living their faith out on the job? If your sermons do not take truth to the office, chances are your people will not either.
Contextualize Scripture for the world of business. Haddon Robison says you have to say things at least three different ways in a sermon to make it stick. The same is true for the text. After expositing from a more literal translation, retell Scripture in workplace terms. When preaching Psalm 139:7–8, I described its application to work by saying, “Is there anywhere on the job that I can go where you are not already present? Anything I do that you don’t care about and watch over? If I work on the top floor of our corporate skyscraper, you’re there! If I am a janitor in the basement, you’re there! If I am a salesperson flying cross-country on a business trip, you are with me.”
Bring your audience into your study. Place several pictures of your congregation taken in their places of business in front of you where you do sermon prep. Keeping your audience literally in front of you will help train your mind to see your sermon through their eyes.
Watch your vocabulary and style. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek, the lingua franca, the language of trade. Do your sermons speak the language of business? Match your use of words to your church’s workplace demographics. A heavily white collar congregation hears with different ears than an audience that goes to work in blue jeans.
Score the reading level of your sermons. Use an online tool to test the grade level of your sermon manuscripts. Unless your church is in a university town, chances are you need to dial it down. Watch the complexity of your sentence structure. Aim more for the Donald than the paragraph-length sentences of Paul. In spoken syntax, less is more. Simplicity brings clarity.
In conclusion, John Winthrop could preach a sermon on business because he was discipled in a church whose pastors preached business. His faith as a follower of Jesus Christ defined not only how he saw his business, but also his vision for how that business could be a light and platform for advancing the gospel.
The question for us as pastors today is: are we going to continue business as usual? Will the pulpit see the marketplace as “its business”? If not, then as Winthrop warned, the truncated message of the church will be “a story and a byword” to our unbelieving culture that will “open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God.” Or, when we enter the pulpit will our preaching help disciple our businesspersons to be “a city upon a hill”?
Adapted by permission from the book Preaching Business by Dave Scott.
Dave Scott is a pastor, speaker and writer, and co-author of Monday Morning Atheism: Why We Switch Off God at Work (Worklife Press, 2012). He is also a published historian of the Puritan business theology called technologia. For more resources to help your church in its marketplace mission, visit DaveScottOnline.org.