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

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 North and South America

João Mordomo – Brazil

My day-to-day experience in both mission and business, as well as my academic research concerning business as mission, have convinced me that the sacred-secular divide is one of the greatest challenges facing not only Latin American missions, but the Latin American Church at large.

Latin America can be divided broadly into two major regions, based on language. Portuguese-speaking Brazil comprises roughly half of South America’s landmass and population. The other half, as well as most of Central America, is Spanish-speaking. While there are significant historical, cultural, linguistic, economic and religious differences, for the purpose of these brief observations concerning the sacred-secular divide, we will consider Latin America as a whole.

For over 500 years, the Roman Catholic Church has held powerful sway in Latin America, extending influence into nearly every arena of life and society, including business. The RCC’s paradigmatic teaching on sacred and secular – and clergy and laity – is thus deeply rooted and pervasive in many dimensions of life and culture, and this false paradigm has found its way into the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches as well. The misguided focus on the “supremacy of the sacred” and relegation of the laity as “second class citizens” stifles and restrains. This way of thinking marginalizes and demoralizes the laity, relegating them to “mere secular” work and teaching them that their dignity is based on their ability to give tithes and offerings and teach Sunday school classes.

Most Latin American Christian business professionals do not realize – and, research indicates, are not taught – that the “you” in 1 Pet. 2:9 (“you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation”) includes them! They do not see the sacred and missionary value in their business activities, nor do most of them ever consider that their businesses in and of themselves could and should be missionary instruments.

There is a slightly perceptible and slowly growing movement among some Latin American Evangelicals toward an understanding of whole-life stewardship and discipleship. Some preachers, teachers, business professionals and mission leaders have begun to confront the false dichotomy and return to New Testament teaching which engages (to borrow from the Lausanne Movement) “the whole Church” in order to take “the whole Gospel to the whole world,” but the path ahead is long and, in some cases, treacherous.

Mike Baer – United States of America

Just how badly has the sacred-secular divide damaged the Cause of Christ? Consider just the following areas:

Ministry is severely limited to and focused on the professionals. The “trained” pastor does the study, preaching, teaching, counseling and discipling for the congregation while the “trained” missionary does the global outreach. The “laity” is left to do the relatively menial tasks – not meaningless – of Sunday School, VBS, choir, caring for the building, etc. while the higher profile work is left to those better suited.

Faithful followers of Jesus with a heart to honor Him find themselves feeling trapped in “non-ministry” jobs. They can’t seem to wait to get off work so they can go serve the Lord in something “sacred.” They feel guilty for not being in “full time Christian work” and discount or even ignore 10-12 hours of every day in which Jesus longs to use them…in their job.

The Body is confused with the Building. We go to church, i.e. to a place instead of being the church, i.e. the Body of Christ. Jesus made it clear that in our unity (John 17) and our love (John 13) we would powerfully demonstrate His Lordship and our belonging to Him. When we are the church this can happen; when we go to church it cannot.

Many bright, talented and committed Jesus’ followers end up in a “ministry career path” because, after all, that’s what you do if you love God and can speak decently. There is no counting the number of men (and women) who have lived entire lives miscast into a “call” they never received, no way of measuring the weakness of the Body caused by miscast “preachers,” and no way of imagining all the good that could have been done in the world had these folks pursued other equally godly paths in business, research, medicine, education or politics.

There are more damaging effects that accrue to the Body based on this false way of thinking but in the end it comes down to this: Jesus is not glorified in the world as He should be, the Gospel does not go forth in power as it needs to, and most followers are relegated to the stands rather than the playing field of the Kingdom. Will God let this stand? I think not.

Doug Seebeck – United States of America

When I think about the sacred-secular divide and how it is holding us back, I immediately think of two recent stories:

At a Monday lunch meeting with one of our board members, I asked him who he thought was the greatest competitor to the mission and unique value proposition of Partners Worldwide. His almost immediate response surprised me:  The Church!  I said really, why?  “Well, yesterday in church, our pastor said during his sermon, ‘God doesn’t love technology, he loves relationships!’  Now how does he think I can have any meaningful relationship with my business partners in Nigeria if it weren’t for technology, planes to get there, skype to chat, go to a meeting, etc. He went on to give additional examples of how Church leaders unintentionally undermine or diminish the vital role of the marketplace and business for the good of community.

Last summer I was invited to a national conference for a 40 year old reputable, nationally known organization that focuses on justice for the poor. They were holding their first ever Business track. The focus was on the role of business for social good.  Participants were diverse including a representative from the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Divinity School. I was stunned at the total lack of awareness, again, of business and markets. One leader from the Divinity School actually asked something like, “Is it even possible for profit and social good to occur? That is my fundamental question, I don’t believe profit and social good can even be considered together.” My response was it is nearly impossible to achieve any lasting benefits to society if we don’t have profit.

When well known Church leaders say things like: “It’s just business!” or “It’s just money!” and relegate business to a lower calling than any other, it is terribly discouraging to business people who do feel like they are called to a mission in business. The other side of that coin which is equally dangerous, is when Church leaders say, “Make as much money as you possibly can, so you can give more away to the church or ministry”. They are not considering that revenue and money are outcomes of a good business that serves the community in multiple ways for the long haul. It affects how business people view themselves, and their role. They relegate themselves much the way the church has taught them.

All these points clearly illustrate the lack of holistic thinking and systems thinking. Of course we know that what is so critically needed today is for us to think eternally, systematically and holistically so that we are integrated and whole as people, as a community, as a nation, in the world and with the creation which sustains us.

With thanks to Doug, Mike and João.

Also read:

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

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

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


Doug Seebeck is the founder and President of Partners Worldwide and co-author of My Business, My Mission.

Mike Baer is the Chief People Officer of EmployBridge, author of Business as Mission. Mike’s perspective was originally posted at Third Path, where he is a regular contributor and is adapted with kind permission.

 João Mordomo is the President of a Brazilian mission group and has also co-founded a Business as Mission Consultancy and two BAM businesses.