Monday, April 28, 2014

“Right Use” of a Business in Church: Incorporating Corporate Social Responsibility

The ends–justifying-the-means rationale is a tricky business, justifying historically a myriad of offensive practices including torture. On the other hand, “good use” has been deemed a legitimate rationale for acquiring wealth under Christian auspices—the obstacle of the proverbial camel squeezing through the eye of the needle being assuaged by good intentions. Generally speaking, the “right use” rationale gained currency through the centuries of Christianity, leading to the Prosperity Gospel , which maintains that right belief rather than right use is all a believer needs to justify  acquiring and amassing wealth without being thereby excluded from the Kingdom of God. That Gospel, by the way, comes out of the Hebrew Bible, or “Old Testament.”  In this essay, I analyze the “good use” rationale in the context of incorporating businesses inside a church—a trend well-underway in the evangelical  Christian mega-churches as of 2014. Can the rationale survive the baleful implications of the proverbial camel Biblical passage? Further, what of Jesus’s over-turning of the sellers’s tables in the Temple?

Particularly vulnerable to the business v. Jesus dichotomy, many mega-churches own and manage (or franchise) coffee shops, pouring the profits into the general operating budget. Although increasing fellowship is often cited as the end served by the means here, the “right use” is so broad (including the use of the profits) that the ends-justifying-the-means rationale may be tenuous. That is to say, the actual motive in setting up and maintaining the business could very easily become gain itself, which has consistently counted as greed in the history of Christian thought.

Would it be ethical in either business or religious terms for a church coffee shop to expand its hours and use its cost advantage to undercut Starbucks? Would it make a difference how the profits are being used? (Image Source:

Less vulnerable is the strategy of opening a business that is dedicated to a particular religious purpose, such as missions. Less vulnerable still, some churches have tied a non-religious social responsible use to a particular religious use. An “input/output” distinction is useful here. Organizations such as Zoe Internatioal, FashionABLE, Sak Saum, and Fight For Them Jewelry provide businesses with products made by people vulnerable to or rehabilitating from the human sex trade. At least one, Sak Saum, fuses its social responsibility mission with ministry by following a model of “self-sustaining ministry.” As for the mega-churches that create businesses that sell the wares from these networks, the corporate social responsibility aim goes back to the suppliers, who get a cut of the revenue. The distinctly religious use lies with the use of the profits. For example, a church might use its profits from the business to fund missions work. In this way, corporate social responsibility and Christianity can both be in the mix without necessarily sacrificing the integrity of either vantage point.

In conclusion, I have laid out a spectrum of religio-business models to suggest that the “right use” justification is not monolithic, and can thus have more or less sway in assuaging any theological discomfort from having businesses literally within a church—even just steps away from a sanctuary. To be sure, the justification can easily become a slippery slope, particularly as the “right use” gets increasingly generalized or vague. Also, if the end being served is itself a sort of gain, even if in terms of souls or membership, greed may run through the means-end continuum itself, thereby compromising the entire “good use” rationale. It is perhaps human, all too human, to get caught up in our enterprises and miss the whisper passing by the mountain. Even the fellowship in a coffee shop carries with it the opportunity cost in terms of missed worship in the sanctuary across the hall. In short, the “good use” justification is treacherous, given the human proclivity to love gain and that which it brings, whether spiritual or material.