Leader of Christian CEO group looks at the state of the culture

Demonstrators holding signs demanding their church to reopen, protest during a rally to re-open California and against extending Stay-At-Home directives on May 1, 2020, in San Diego, California. | Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images

I recently shared an inspiring conversation with Greg Leith, CEO of Convene, a network for Christian business leaders. The first half of our discussion covered Convene's incredible mission and the theology of leading a business. In the second half we discussed the challenges of operating a business in our current culture and the unique position businesses are in to address the issues Christians face today. Here are a few selections from that conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:

What can businesses do in a time of cancel culture?
Greg: "Before he died Dr. Billy Graham said, 'I think one of the next moves of God could be in the marketplace.' I think he died before he got to see some of the fruits of that labor. [...] Os Guinness said that America is facing its greatest crisis since the Civil War. And so we look at our culture, we look at cancel culture, we look at all the negative things happening, riots in the streets, etc. I say yes, Os Guinness is right, America is facing a very large crisis. But nobody is canceling loving employees. Nobody is canceling respecting employees. Nobody is canceling valuing employees. Nobody is canceling paying more than the prevailing wage. Nobody is canceling paying for healthcare for employees. There're so many things we can do for employees to love and value and honor and respect them that they would not even think of doing something that was antagonistic towards their employer. But if you treat people poorly, pay them low wages, have high turnover, and have broken chairs in the lunchroom, because, after all, ‘they're just laborers,' of course you're going to be in trouble, and you're actually not acting the way Jesus would."

Jerry: "See, this is very interesting. This is a sort of a redemptive approach that you're taking as opposed to a culture war approach, which I think is really refreshing because most media wants to focus on the conflict, and I'm talking about liberal media and conservative media. So yeah, cancel culture is out there, and to some degree we're obsessed with cancel culture, but God in His providence has left us a great deal of good that we can do so that we don't have to be constantly focused on where we are blocked. We can refocus on where we're not blocked and not engage in this constant moat magnification, as though America is over and it's destroyed and it's all done. First of all, Christians have historically done fairly well under persecution. So the idea that if persecution comes it's over, historically, if persecution comes those are take-off points for the church. You're saying, 'What can we do that nobody will object to and will actually bring credit to the gospel?'"

Greg: "Right! Here's a great story for you. We can talk principles all day long, but the proof is in the shoe leather of the people who are trying to walk this out. In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, during the midst of the COVID pandemic, Aaron Fisher and David Lapp with Blessings of Hope food bank were saying, 'What do we do about so many people that need food?' I mean, who's going to argue with that? Their mission is to feed the hungry by facilitating partnerships between food suppliers and nonprofits in a way that brings God's blessing to both. They distributed 12 million pounds of food to over 1,100 ministry partners with a street value of $21 million. They serve 65,000 meals a day, they have 15,000 volunteers, and since 2011 they've distributed $200 million dollars worth of food. God smiles and is glorified just on that, but when they were part of a Convene group they thought, 'Maybe we should do even more to shine the light of Christ while we do what we do.' So they printed up a few hundred thousand pocket testaments, which are essentially the gospel of John, and they put them in every box of food. When they ran out, they talked with David Collum, the President of the Pocket Testament League, and they agreed they needed to print a million gospels of John! So what are they giving out now? 12 million pounds of food, 65,000 meals a day, that include a pocket Gospel of John. That is making a difference in the culture. I say, Aaron Fisher and David Lapp at Blessings of Hope, you guys get it!"

Jerry: "Bread and the bread of life, which is what Jesus did. That's the Jesus model."

What did Jesus think about the culture wars of His time?
Jerry: "If you look at the gospel accounts, there were all these hot button culture war issues in Jesus' time: Herod marrying his brother's wife, paying taxes to Caesar, and the fight between the Sadducees and the Pharisees about the resurrection. They had their kind of talk radio issues. You don't see Jesus raising those issues. Jesus goes out, preaches the kingdom, casts out demons, He heals, and He feeds. When someone brings him the hot button issue, he doesn't duck it and say, 'Well, I don't want to talk about LGBTQ issues, I'm afraid.' He'll say to the Samaritan woman, 'Salvation is of the Jews.' That's a position on a hot button issue. And, yes there is a resurrection, and yes you should pay taxes to Caesar, and he'll deal with all of those issues, but then what does he do? Pivots back to the main thing: Announcing the kingdom of God, casting out demons, teaching people how to live, healing the sick, and feeding the hungry. The things you're talking about are not instead of upholding biblical standards on issues, there's just an emphasis point that follows what we see Jesus doing. Jesus was dealing with felt needs and starting over again with the kingdom message, not looking for things to fight about."

Greg: "Right. To say it a different way, if I was an employer leading a secular business, I would love it if a gay person came to work in my business or someone else who is living a lifestyle that I might not agree with. I might be the only 'pastor' they see. About 70% of Americans don't go to church, so most people don't have a pastor but almost everybody has a boss. At work, I get to love and value and honor and appreciate them."

Jerry: "And you're cutting checks, right? You're blessing them not through charitable giving but through employment, which is a very dignified way to bless people. "

How are businesses a blessing to employees?
Jerry: "What are your observations as a cultural observer in America?"

Greg: "There's a scary book called The Death of Christian Britain about how Britain became a non-Christian nation in less than a generation. We are headed there in the United States. Canada is already there. The number of evangelicals per capita is low, and that means the points of light that can illuminate the culture are low. But here's the deal: Yes, the violence happening on the streets of Portland really matters, but it doesn't matter to the person who comes to work the next morning expecting a paycheck. One of our Convene members cleans buildings in downtown Portland. That service is very valuable to people who need to buy groceries that week, irrespective of the riots in Portland. Doing business Monday through Friday is doing a service to employ people, to love people, to value people, to help people. And when they do that well, they glorify God. Some of our members are doing things like starting an employee fund for emergencies. So you know how it goes. The employee says, 'I'm going to be late to work because my transmission just broke down. I don't have a ride and I have no idea where I'm going to find $1,500 to fix my transmission.' Some of our business owners have an employee fund that they can just loan the employee $1,500 to fix their transmission on a no interest loan. Do you think that employee is going to be changing jobs anytime soon? Probably not."

Jerry: "No, because in an atomized society, people need connections. For many people, their work family is their family, because families have disintegrated. The more ties there are like that, the more connected people are. And by the way, it's good for business! One of the things I've learned from my friend George Gilder is if you have employees work with you for a long time, you probably have highly-productive employees. If you can keep them long enough for them to learn a lot, they become super-productive, right? There's a learning curve functioning. So that continuity is, in financial terms, an intangible asset. It's knowledge embedded in the organization."

The cross in the center of the marketplace
Greg: "Right. There's a poem that I think embodies everything we're talking about by George McLeod, a Scottish clergyman in the 20th century, and it reads in part:

"I simply argue that the cross be raised again,
at the centre of the marketplace
Jesus was not crucified
in a cathedral between two candles
but on a cross between two thieves;
where cynics talk smut,
and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble.
And that is where Christ’s own ought to be,
And that is what church people ought to be about.

Jerry: "Oh, that's lovely, and powerful. Very moving. And that's what you're doing with Convene, and that's what I'm trying to do in my small way."

Greg: "One of the exercises we do at Convene is asking whether God is in your mission statement on the wall. By raising the cross at the center of the marketplace, we put the question of God on the table instead of it being buried in somebody's desk."

To listen to the rest of the conversation with Greg Leith on Business in the Kingdom on the Edifi podcast network, click here.

Jerry Bowyer is financial economist, president of Bowyer Research, and author of “The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics.”

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