John C. Knapp, How the Church Fails Businesspeople (And What Can Be Done About It). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011. 192 pp. $15.00.
An increasing number of cultural observers recognize the sizeable gap between our faith and our work. In How the Church Fails Businesspeople, John Knapp, professor and founding director of the Frances Marlin Mann Center for Ethics and Leadership at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, brings his insightful analysis to bear on the problem and includes some helpful reflection on making positive strides. In diagnosing the church’s theological failure, Knapp rightly points out that “the moral terrain of our work lives is mostly defined by law and economics rather than theology, leaving us with an uninspired ethical pragmatism lacking in wisdom and heart” (xiii).
Knapp’s research is based on interviews by doctoral students at Columbia Theological Seminary of 230 people regarding the integration of faith and work. The conclusion of this research revealed that an overwhelming majority of the respondents reported, “The church had done little or nothing to equip them for faithful living at work” (xii).
In the first main section of the book, Knapp devotes a good deal of thought to several factors that contribute to the large gap between the world of faith and the world of business. One factor is a business culture that often discourages personal faith from entering the workplace by nurturing a “park it at the door” attitude. For many business cultures, ethical pragmatism reigns, and faith is restricted to the private sphere. Another factor is a church culture that often employs dichotomous language of sacred and secular, falsely reinforcing a compartmentalized view of the world as well as elevating some work over other work. Knapp makes the point that much contemporary theological education is not addressing the gap between faith and business, with the result that trained clergy are ill-prepared to teach and model a robust theology of vocation. Yet Knapp either is unaware of or simply fails to mention a growing number of evangelical theological institutions beginning to address seriously a theology of vocation both in their curricula and institutional priorities.
A helpful contribution to the broader conversation on faith and vocation is Knapp’s extensive reflection on the church’s longstanding ambivalence about money itself. His helpful historical survey adds an important dimension all too often overlooked in the contemporary discussion about faith and vocation. Knapp’s summary regarding money is worth pondering: “The problem of money has troubled Christians since the earliest times. The church has never quite found a consensus on how to reconcile the biblical injunctions to give thanks to God for wealth and also to renounce any desire for it” (67).
Biblical Theology of Vocation
In the second main section of the book, Knapp encourages the reader to ponder ways forward that will minimize compartmentalization and maximize vocational coherence. His move toward greater coherence begins by laying out a biblical theology of vocation. Knapp’s theological endeavor is helpful, but I did not find it as comprehensive as I would have expected.
Particularly glaring is Knapp’s lack of reflection in the important area of a theology of economics. Rather than just pointing out the church’s particular failings, Knapp could have advocated for the church to think deeply about a theology of economics. Whether our vocational callings are in business or some other endeavor, most of our lives are played out on an economic stage. How then does the gospel speak into and shape a theology of economics? Economics must be seen not merely as supply-and-demand curves or complex formulas of demand elasticity but of value creation. Our work is first about contribution—a creation mandate of creating value for others, providing for our own needs, and furthering the common good.
Our work and the vast system of exchange we refer to as “the economy” is a moral system in which proper incentives, personal diligence, individual responsibility, financial indebtedness, justice, and familial well-being all matter a great deal. Economics in this sense is both an individual and also a communal contribution to human and societal flourishing. Knapp would have better served the church he rightly criticizes by helping pastors and church leaders make the important connection of a robust theology of work and economics. As gospel-centered people, we must not only affirm the goodness of business and economic activity, but also explain why economics matter and how the gospel makes possible a virtuous people necessary for economies to flourish. Some theologically informed economic maxims that guide discipleship and pastoral care would have been helpful. Knapp is painfully silent here.
Even so, a strong point of Knapp’s theological reflection is the emphasis on the integral nature of the Christian faith. I found instructive and illuminating the exposition of Micah 6:8 and its application of “doing justice,” “loving kindness,” and “walking humbly” as the life of true Christian discipleship lived out in a business context. Yet I found myself asking, “How is the follower of Christ empowered to live this life each and every day in the marketplace?” I wanted Knapp to help me see how, as a gospel-centered believer, I have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to do the work I am called to each day. I not only need to be aware of the Sunday to Monday gap, I also need to be pointed to the Spirit’s empowerment to close this faith/work gap. The church will fail business if it fails to teach businesspeople the transforming truth of the Spirit-filled life. The Old Testament example of Bezalel (Exodus 31) and Paul’s New Testament teaching on the Spirit-filled life in the church reminds us that walking in the Spirit involves working in the Spirit, in the home and in the workplace.
Perhaps the most insightful and helpful contribution of the entire book is the five facets of church community. According to the author, the local church as God designed it is a community of moral discernment, discourse, influence, encouragement, and example. Knapp presents a communal call of the Christian faith and thus offers a helpful corrective to the rampant individualism of “me and Jesus” Christianity. Each of the five facets is accompanied by applicable and stimulating reflective questions.
Knapp concludes his book by pointing out several organizations doing good work in the areas of faith and vocation. He also calls the local church to step up to the plate and make the changes necessary to be a more faithful presence for Christ in our world. I appreciate Knapp’s contribution to the faith and work conversation. How the Church Fails Businesspeople is worth reading and contributes to the conversation, though I don’t find the book as theologically or practically compelling—nor as gospel-shaped—as I would have hoped.
Tom Nelson is the senior pastor of Christ Community Church (EFCA) in Leawood, Kansas, and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. He is the author of Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work (Crossway, 2011).