Business as Service
An excerpt from The Missional Entrepreneur by Mark Russell
Jesus said He “did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). This act of serving is one of the greatest virtues of the Christian faith and is expressed in numerous parables, teachings, and commandments. Paul encouraged his readers to “serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13). In the context of work, he told employees to “serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord and not men” (Ephesians 6:7). Peter said we should use our gifts “to serve others” (1 Peter 4:10). He encouraged church leaders to be “not greedy for money, but eager to serve” (1 Peter 5:2). John reminded us that our ultimate purpose is to “serve God” (Revelation 1:6; 5:10).
Serving people is a foundational Christian teaching. Jesus taught what has been called the Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). Serving people, by treating them the way we desire to be treated, tends to produce reciprocal action. If you treat people right then they will tend to treat you right. Furthermore, there is an internal liberation that occurs when we serve others that strengthens us and makes us better equipped to deal with the challenges of life.
As previously defined, a business is an organization that creates and/or distributes goods and/or services and relies on financial profit for survival, success, and expansion capability. Although profit is a controversial aspect of business, it is also an indication that business is effectively distributing its goods and services. If society does not want or need these goods and services, then this is reflected in the related loss of profits to the business. This causes the business to respond and adapt, either serving its people in a meaningful way or closing shop. Business cannot survive much less thrive if it is not serving people. Service is a way to imitate the Creator. As C. William Pollard, former CEO of ServiceMaster, writes in Serving Two Masters? Reflections on God and Profit, “We seek to honor God as an end goal and recognize that growing profitably is a means goal.”1
Though society needs many different activities, including many that are not profit-oriented, the profit mechanism ensures that businesses are at least serving some people. Profit should not be the guiding rule of thumb for all organizations, but it is an effective tool in many cases for business. One of the weaknesses of many nonprofit and faith-based organizations is that they do not have internal feedback mechanisms to properly evaluate if they are truly serving their constituents. I have consulted with several nonprofit organizations and churches that had no idea if they were effectively serving their people. They had no built-in system to determine that. Many even rejected the idea that they should develop such a system, preferring to “trust God.” But if we really want to serve people and serve them well, we need to have a means of determining whether or not we are achieving this goal.
However, it should be noted that just because a business is making a profit does not mean that it is truly serving people. It could be manipulating them, exploiting them, or providing them with a destructive product, like drugs, pornography, and the like. There is also the issue of the production of perceived needs through advertising. Unfortunately, many businesses attempt to make consumers believe they need a product that they really do not. This has been a criticism of many pharmaceutical companies. As one medical doctor told me, “The medicine with the most life-saving potential for people over 50 is aspirin. Look through all your news mags and pore through all the full-page ads for expensive drugs, but you will see none for aspirin. If pharmaceutical companies were interested in people’s heath, they would put out big ads for aspirin, but since aspirin is cheaper than dirt, they don’t try to sell it.”
Obviously, businesses need money to survive but to fulfill their spiritual mission businesses should seek to serve the most people as effectively as possible. This means that when inexpensive means exist they should not falsely create the perception that a more expensive and less effective item is needed. This is a disservice to society.
However, for a legitimate business to make a profit, it must serve people. This is beneficial to society and can be an authentic spiritual act. Serving people aligns us once again with the way the Creator designed us to be. Functioning in accordance with our created design not only has personal benefits, but also benefits society and increases the effectiveness of human activity. Service is an inherently spiritual part of business. The benefits of a service orientation for business are widely acknowledged.
Of course, a pastor or theologian may be tempted to critique business in this regard saying that the acts of service are diminished because they are done in pursuit of profit. Clearly the heart’s intent of a person’s actions does have spiritual consequences. If a person habitually engages in seemingly righteous behavior for personal monetary gain, then that person needs to be corrected in order to live an authentic spiritual life. However, serving people to increase effectiveness and the productivity of a business should not be perceived as wrong. Rather it is authentically spiritual because it is a natural way that business aligns human activity with our original created design.