How the Church Fails Businesspeople: A Book Review

How the Church Fails BusinesspeopleMonths ago, I saw an ad for this book, which captured my attention immediately. In my own professional career, I have experienced a disconnection between the issues that have consumed the better part of my time–at least 40 hours every week–and my time spent in church. I’ve also felt frustrated by my churches’ failure to acknowledge and engage people’s professional training in the life of the church–recruiting executives, engineers, chefs, mechanics, and social workers to help in the nursery or lead small groups, but not doing much to encourage those same people to put their unique and valuable skills to work living “a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God” (Ephesians 4:1).

So when I saw this book, which promised to explore the problem of “the church’s unclear teachings about vocation, money, and business” and propose solutions, I definitely wanted to read it.

I ordered a copy, and it sat in my “to read” pile for a long time, slowly working its way up the stack. Now that I’ve finally read it, I’m reviewing it for you because I think its message is very important.

The book

How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and what can be done about it) by John C. Knapp

(Published by W. B. Eerdmans, 2012)

What this book offers

In this book, Knapp shares the results of a national study of Christians in non-church occupations (he lists these occupations in the back of the book, and they are widely varied), conducted by doctoral students at Columbia Theological Seminary. This study asked people about their experiences at work and their experiences at church, how their faith was integrated into their work life, and how their church involvement helped them live according to Christian theology and morality at work. Their responses may be disheartening to church leaders, but I suspect they really do reflect the majority experience.

The book exposes an attitude within the church, and particularly among clergy, “that betrays a distorted conception of Christian vocation and calling, one that sorts human activities into contrived categories of secular and sacred, suggesting that God is more concerned with church-sponsored work than with Christians being faithful in a thousand other daily contexts.”

Knapp points to specific problems many of us overlook. For example, “We should ask ourselves what is being communicated when a church allots time on a Sunday morning to commission a short-term mission team for ten days in Mexico, yet does nothing to commission new college graduates for their careers in business or government or education. The crippling and unambiguous message is that ten days of volunteer work are more important to the church–and, by implication, to God–than a Christian’s lifelong occupation.”

The book is not afraid to ask challenging questions about our assumptions regarding work, calling, money, and the separation between what is sacred (and therefore assumed to be superior) and what is secular (and therefore easy to compartmentalize from the implications of faith).

In one section, Knapp provides a helpful theological framework for making decisions and conducting ourselves at work, based in Micah 6:8. He also lays out five ways individuals need the church to support and equip them for living as Jesus’ disciples at work.

Another chapter describes existing efforts, led by laity, to help people express their Christian faith in their work. There is some good news here: “More believers than ever are seeking creative ways to integrate their faith lives and work lives, and they are doing it with little help from the institutional church.”

Finally, the book ends with a chapter describing four ways churches can “close the faith-work gap.”

What I liked about this book

Knapp is insightful in naming a problem that affects most working people, and ultimately hurts our workplaces and society as a whole: “The institutional church often fails working people through its indifference and its incapacity for thinking theologically about their most vexing problems with money, vocation, and moral responsibility.”

I appreciated his outline of the history of the church’s understanding and teaching on vocation, calling, the erroneous hierarchy of work, and money. And in the process, he debunks this idea of hierarchy–that some workers, such as clergy and missionaries–are more valuable in God’s kingdom, more important to God. He debunks the false dichotomy between sacred and secular that suggests teaching Sunday school is more important than teaching classes in a public school. That setting up chairs for a Sunday service is more valuable than living as a follower of Jesus while setting up chairs for a business meeting.

I also enjoyed–and learned from–his rigorous consideration of a theology of money. He acknowledges the difficult questions around this topic, and some of the problems with faulty and simplistic church teachings. He offers no easy answers here.

What I would change about this book

Knapp wrote this as a university professor (and now is a college president), and this book is written in a decidedly academic style. I find this somewhat ironic since this tone will alienate many of the people–both clergy and businesspeople–who could benefit from the book. I think this work would have broader appeal and a greater impact if written in a more conversational style.

I also wish this book would have offered more practical ideas and application. These ideas are mostly limited to the final chapter of the book, and what is included is not well-defined. I would have liked to see more pages given to doable ways the church can close the work-faith gap and consideration of how intentional efforts to do so might look in different types of churches and communities.

Who should read it

I recommend this book for any Christian who feels the work-faith tension and who wants a definition of the problem and a vision for how the church might improve in this area.

I certainly recommend it for all church leaders, who may sense their church’s inadequacy in connecting faith with people’s work lives–or who should feel that inadequacy. As churches perceive a growing societal attitude that the church is not relevant to life, they must understand that this issue is a big part of the problem and the solution. In Knapp’s words, “Closing this gap will not reverse the continuing marginalization of the church in Western society, but it will make a decisive difference for congregations wishing to remain relevant and for individuals seeking coherence and wholeness.”


© 2013 Amy Simpson.