Jesus Inc.
What does it take to serve God and Mammon?
Richard McGill Murphy

(FORTUNE Small Business) - Entrepreneurs, it's been said, are born hungry and alone. And most are quick to seek not just bread but also fellowship. Nowhere is that impulse more evident than in the growing ranks of Christian business owners, who are banding together for mutual support while they seek to express their faith through their companies. They have created at least 30 networking organizations in the U.S., about half of them launched in the past five years. While most Christian entrepreneurs hire and do business with Americans of all faiths, a more controversial trend is the rise of local Christian business directories, listing companies that wish to attract customers among fellow believers. Shepherd's Guide, the largest Christian-directory publisher, prints five million guides a year in more than 100 markets nationwide, up from 3.2 million in 2000. Meanwhile, the market for religious products (everything from hit movies and popular music to live-action figures of Christ and the apostles) is expected to top $8.6 billion in annual sales by 2008, according to Packaged Facts, a market research consultancy.

In corporate America today, with its emphasis on offending no one, the norm is to keep expressions of faith quiet and generic. Christian entrepreneurs are more likely to see their offices and factories as extensions of their beliefs. They strive to accommodate evangelism to an evolving body of workplace law based on the separation of church and state. And on a more personal level, many struggle to reconcile the often hard-edged requirements of commerce with the teachings of Christ.

Parts of the gospels are famously hostile to the pursuit of material wealth. It was Jesus who said that a camel can pass through the eye of a needle more easily than a rich man can enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:25). Elsewhere Jesus asserted that no man can serve both God and Mammon (Matthew 6:14). The rich man who keeps all the commandments must still give all his property to the poor, Jesus said, if he wants to go to heaven (Mark 10:17-23). And Jesus did not just drive the moneychangers from the temple; he also expelled "all of those who bought and sold" there (Matthew 21:2).

On the other hand, parts of God's covenant with Noah would fit nicely in a commencement speech at Harvard Business School: "And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein" (Genesis 9:7). And in the ambiguous parable of the talents, Jesus seems to use business success as a metaphor for moral virtue. A master goes away on a journey and entrusts each of his slaves with a sum of gold talents, or coins. When the master returns, he asks each servant what happened to the money. Those who increased their capital by investing it are praised, but the servant who buried his money gets branded "worthless" for wasting a valuable opportunity (Matthew 25:14-30). "For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away," says Jesus, sounding to modern ears like Gordon Gekko before his first cup of coffee.

When the gospels were written, most Christians were poor, persecuted outsiders. But after the Roman emperor Constantine's conversion, Christianity became the official religion of the empire and an avenue for worldly advancement. Since then, Christian doctrine has grown more amenable to business. In the 17th century, Calvinist merchants piled up wealth in the belief that it was a sign of God's blessing. The Pilgrims sailed to North America seeking both religious freedom and commercial opportunity. And modern evangelical business owners often measure success in souls saved as well as widgets sold.

Entrepreneurship seems to appeal to many devout Christians for the same reason that it attracts environmentalists, devoted parents, feminists, and libertarians: They want a workplace that reflects their deepest values. Some doubtless use the gospels to rationalize business as usual. But at a deeper level, sincere Christians have much in common with committed entrepreneurs. Both callings demand faith in things unseen and persistence in the face of dangers and doubts. They ask themselves: Is it right to lay off workers to boost profits, or only to save the company? How do you foster a Christian office culture without violating the rights of non-Christian employees? What if you can't get a city contract without bending the law? How fast must you run to beat a camel into paradise?

Book of Numbers

Christianity and the workplace are increasingly intertwined.

Projected U.S. sales of religious products (in billions)

Source: Packaged Facts

More than 200 Christian business directories are published in the U.S.

Sales of religious books are expected to grow 50% over the next five years, according to Book Industry Trends 2005.

At least 30 networking associations for Christian business owners are currently operating in the U.S., says Kent Humphreys of the Fellowship of Companies for Christ.

Religious discrimination complaints before the EEOC Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.