Singapore at night

How the Sacred-Secular Divide Influences Attitudes to Business in Asia and Australia

We asked people engaged with BAM around the world to share how they see the sacred-secular divide affecting thinking in the Church in their country – and how this influences engagement of Christians the business sphere.

Perspectives from Asia and Australia

Rod St.Hill – Australia

The sacred-secular divide is alive and well in Australia. A common complaint from Christians business people is, ‘My pastor does not understand me’. Pastors rarely visit their business people at their place of work. There is anecdotal evidence that perhaps 40% of Christians in business are not engaged in their local church because they don’t see church as being relevant to them. Christians in business often feel that the church has a somewhat cynical attitude toward them – ‘You make the profit and hand it over to the church’ as if that will somehow sanctify it. There are also Christians who show hardly any evidence of Christian belief in their business practices.

Yet all is not doom and gloom. There is growing interest in ministries such as Kingdom Investors, founded by businessman Dave Hodgson, who is encouraging business owners to be connected with, and supportive of, their local church and to infuse their businesses with Kingdom principles. Last February, the Global Marketplace Exchange, pioneered by Pastor Sean Morris and Peter Kentley was launched with a consultative meeting near Melbourne. Some 170 leaders from ten ‘domains’, including church and business, gathered to begin working together to transform our nation. In addition there are now at least four Christian university-level institutions that offer degrees that integrate faith and business. There is much to be done to break down the sacred-secular divide, but there are positive signs that God’s people are moving as they are in other nations.

Tun Cheng Ong – Singapore

There is a view of life that separates the business and work domain from the family and personal domain to the extent that promotes and even justifies a schizophrenic existence of dual persona, values and behaviors. The morals and affairs of business and commerce lies in world outside, and those that pertain to the family and the individual are internal, distinct and apart from the outside, separated perhaps by the threshold of the front gate. This ying/yang worldview is so deep seated within many of the ethnic Chinese believers that it casts a long shadow into their Christian walk. I have observed believers who profusely profess faith and passion for evangelism and outreach and yet their lives and conduct at the workplace is so incongruous and incompatible even with the message of the gospel.

Another perspective is perhaps that the “real work” is ministry, and that supersedes all else in the workplace. The work that we do at our workplace is thus of a lesser quality and importance as compared with those that we do in “ministry”.

Perhaps another common manifestation of the sacred/secular divide is the perspective we hold regarding investment, in that we can only see the stewardship of financial investments in monetary terms.  The return of investment is expressed in percentage and denominated in currencies. Using financial investment as a tool to serve the purposes of God is confined only to the giving and support of missionaries and ministries.  We fail to see what good or transformational impact could be achieved through our financial investments. We tend to think that financial investments only impact the secular world – we have yet to connect financial investment with spiritual impact. This is evident when we see how easily and how willing Christians are to invest in the latest financial products, high growth tech stocks, and so on, as compared to the passivity and reluctance to invest in kingdom businesses.

Evan McCall – Thailand

Missionaries have been working for a long time to bring the gospel to Thailand. Unfortunately, sacred-secular thinking has been imported here along with the good news of redemption. Often times the only other Christians that new believers know are missionaries. This creates a mindset where activities like Bible studies, prayer, and going to Church on Sunday are more spiritually significant than work on Monday. A local pastor described business as a necessary activity to be able to fund “God’s work” even deeming marketing as “evil.”

In contrast the Buddhist market vendor believes all areas of life hold a spiritual connection – karma. After the first sale of the day, a Buddhist retailer will pray, touching the money on his merchandise, while the customer stands by. From the way he buys, sells, and runs his business to his personal life, the connection is real. As believers we must work to point people to Christ without destroying their awareness and sensitivity to the spiritual world.

Daniel Devadatta – India

The dichotomy between the sacred and the secular has long plagued the Christian community in India. The great divide between the spiritual, and material or physical realms is rooted in an alien philosophy, and yet it permeates much of our thinking and strategies. With the unquestioned and even operational emphasis of the soul over against the body, the eternal as compared to the temporal, and the sacred versus the secular, business persons can find it difficult to see genuine value in terms of their own vocation in light of the purposes of God.

I have met many a business person, who has concluded that these two worlds need to be distinct from each other. They echo this sentiment; Business is business, my spiritual life is what I do in my church and Christian ministry happens outside of my business life – my business is secular and my spiritual activities are sacred.  Some would also go on to say what that really counts for God are spiritual activities and my day-to-day work as a business person has no intrinsic or lasting value.

Given the nature of how Christian ministry has evolved within our Indian context, a largely one-sided relationship has developed between the Christian business professional and the myriad of gospel-focused institutions.  Many, if not most of our institutions exist because of the generosity of others. Though not exclusive, business persons play a crucial role is this system of support. In my conversations with business persons I have found that this model can develop a diminished sense of dignity. Many of them feel alienated. The work that they do as business persons is merely seen, whether consciously or unconsciously, as means to a higher and nobler end. Many, if the truth be told, therefore suffer from serious feelings of guilt about being in business.

What if business people were to completely embrace the greatest commandment and the great commission in their realm of influence in business? What would it be, if business persons saw their world of business as their primary field of Christian presence, activity and influence. When Christian business persons begin to sense their calling, when they embrace this and begin to envision their enterprise from this perspective, they will begin to see the significant role they play in the public square.

With thanks to Rod, Tun, Evan and Daniel.

Also read:

How the Sacred-Secular Divide Influences Attitudes to Business in Europe and Africa

How the Sacred-Secular Divide Influences Attitudes to Business in the Americas

What Does the Sacred-Secular Divide Look Like Around the World?