Faith, Tech and Entrepreneurship: What difference does it make?

What difference does faith make when it comes to technology entrepreneurship?

This talk answers the question by comparing and contrasting Jeff Bezos’ wisdom with Biblical wisdom. By considering the commonalities, we discover what’s still missing, pointing us to the ways faith makes a difference in our pursuit of technology entrepreneurship.

Note: The manuscript and slides below are from a talk delivered at the “Vocational Thriving in a Changing World” conference in Seattle, WA on May 5th, 2018. Full slides are available here.

Outline:
1. Is Bezos Biblical?
2. What’s missing
3. TheoTech’s Magic Quadrant
4. How Faith Makes A Difference


Is Bezos Biblical?

About two weeks ago, Jeff Bezos–the founder of Amazon and the richest man in the world–received the Axel Springer Award for his innovative achievements in e-commerce and digital journalism. During the corresponding interview Bezos talked about: “leaving a steady Wall Street job to start Amazon, why his rocket company Blue Origin is his most important project, and what it’s like to have Trump as your biggest critic”.

Here’s what he had to say about a few topics relevant to our conference today:

First, when was asked how he was able to leave his cushy Wall Street job to do a startup, here’s what he said:

when you have loving and supportive people in your life like Mackenzie [his wife], my parents, my grandfather, my grandmother, you end up being able to take risk because I think…you kind of know somebody’s got your back and so it’s just an–I don’t even think you’re thinking about it logically–it’s an emotional thing.”

“So I think it’s, anyway, I won that lottery, I won that lottery of having so many people in my life who have given me that unconditional love

Interesting. Jeff Bezos says that the unconditional love of his family and community were the key to his risk-taking.

What could this mean for Christians who confess the unconditional love of God?

Shouldn’t we be unleashed to think big and to take big risks for God’s Kingdom?

And if we aren’t, what does it say about the love in our churches and our personal experience of God’s love?

Second, let’s talk about criticism. Here’s what Bezos said about being criticized:

“Well, first of all, with any criticism, my approach to criticism and what I teach and preach inside Amazon is when you’re criticized, first look in a mirror and decide are your critics right? If they’re right, change, don’t resist.”

Interesting. Doesn’t this sound a lot like biblical wisdom? For example, Proverbs 15:31-32 says:

Whoever heeds life-giving correction will be at home among the wise.

Those who disregard discipline despise themselves, but the one who heeds correction gains understanding.

How about generosity? Bezos is the richest man in the world, surely he could be doing so much more to help others? Some of his critics are pretty unhappy with how he uses his money.

Well, here’s how Bezos responded:

I’m finding I’m very motivated by the here and now…when you go study homelessness, there are a bunch of causes of homelessness. Mental incapacity issues are a very hard-to-cure problem, serious drug addiction, a very hard-to-cure problem, but there’s another bucket of homelessness which is transient homelessness, which is a woman with kids, the father runs away, and he was the only person providing any income and they have no support system, they have no family. That’s transient homelessness. You can really help that person. And you by the way, only need to help them for like six to nine months, you get them trained, you get them a job, they’re perfectly productive members of society.

Whatever critics may say, they can’t deny that his pragmatic and short-term approach to giving is reasonable. In fact, it resonates with what the Apostle Paul said he wanted Christians to do in his letter to Titus (3:14):

And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.”

Lastly, here’s what Bezos had to say about something very important to a lot of Christians in the tech industry in particular… on work-life balance:

…this work-life harmony thing is what I try to teach young employees, actually, and senior executive[s] at Amazon too, but especially the people coming in. We’re asked about work-life balance all the time and my view is that’s a debilitating phrase because it implies there’s a strict trade off and the reality is if I’m happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy, and if I’m happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy. And so it actually is a circle, it’s not a balance. And I think that that is worth everybody paying attention to. You never want to be that guy…who as soon as they come into the meeting they drain all of the energy out of the room. You can just feel the energy level go whoof …you want to come into the office and give everybody a kick in their step.”

Some people may cynically think work-life harmony is an excuse for overwork and I’m guessing Bezos doesn’t intentionally rest on a Sabbath day, but even this response has echoes of Biblical wisdom, for example Proverbs 11:25 says:

A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.

So what’s the point? Why do I point out the resonances between Bezos’ words and Biblical wisdom?

It’s twofold.

First, I want to show how much the capital “c” Church–of which I am a member–can learn from leaders in the tech industry. Not to overstate it, but I fear complacency, cowardice and incompetence in the Church has damaged the cause of Christ more than persecution.

  • We’re more ambitious for our careers and salaries than we are for God’s Kingdom.
  • We tolerate ineffectiveness and laziness in Christian community that would be unacceptable in the professional world.
  • We forget rigor, due diligence, and accountability when it comes to Christian leaders and causes only to get blindsided by scandal and mismanagement.
  • We uncritically assume our activities are aligned with God’s Kingdom so we can focus on pursuing our own comforts, interests and definitions of success.
  • We forgo Biblical sacrifice and suffering, believing worldly methods can accomplish God’s will.
  • We seek fame, riches and recognition for ourselves, thinking we can use it as a platform to glorify God.

I don’t like speaking this way. It’s hard to be vocally self-critical.

I know it doesn’t equally apply to everyone and that there are nuances in every person’s situation. But I’ve spoken in these terms to drive home the point that we as the Church have much to learn and much room to grow.

If technology’s power can be so effectively harnessed by entrepreneurs like Bezos to deliver spectacular shareholder value and reshape our entire world, shouldn’t it be intentionally and effectively leveraged to advance the Gospel?

The Gospel is not a hobby or a community service project. The Gospel is God’s power to save the world. If we can make our greatest strengths productive for companies in the marketplace, how can we make them productive for the Gospel too?

Which leads to my second point. In all of the biblical wisdom espoused by Jeff Bezos, what’s missing?

What’s missing in Bezos’ wisdom?

Bezos doesn’t make any reference to the Bible, God, Jesus, the Gospel, or the church, yet his answers resonate with biblical wisdom. Can we just follow what he says?

What does faith have to do with any of it? What does the Bible have to meaningfully say about technology and entrepreneurship beyond what he’s said?

To think about this question, I want to share with you this diagram I made that has helped me think about vocational integration. If you’ve heard of Gartner’s Magic Quadrant, maybe you could call this “TheoTech’s Magic Quadrant for Faith-based Vocational Integration”.

TheoTech’s Magic Quadrant

On one dimension you have a range from explicitly non-Christian to explicitly Christian. On the other dimension, you have a range from the Kingdom of this World to the Kingdom of God.

 

The reason why this diagram is helpful for me is that it keeps me from making the mistake of collapsing the two dimensions.

Growing up in church, it’s really easy to mistake everything Christian with God’s Kingdom and everything non-Christian with the world.

But it only takes a little bit of experience to know how much sin, incompetence, deception and abuse happens in the Christian sphere. And it only takes a little bit of experience to discover how much justice, creativity and good there is in the non-Christian sphere.

The church has suffered great harm from the collapse of these two dimensions because it has cut it off from a lot of godly wisdom simply because it lacked the Christian label, while simultaneously embracing worldly practices simply because they were labeled Christian.

By putting each dimension on its own axis, we end up with 4 quadrants. Here’s how I’ve labeled them.

In the top left, we have explicitly Christian appearances, but beliefs and practices that are actually aligned with the Kingdom of the World. When we find laziness, cowardice, injustice and deception in quadrant 1, we are in the Hypocritical quadrant.

Below that we have the non-Christian realm intersecting with the Kingdom of the World. This is evil in its most obvious forms. For example sex trafficking. There’s nothing redemptive about it because it violates the God-given worth of its victims, abuses their sacred sexuality and robs them of their freedom.

This is the Disintegrated quadrant.

To the right we have the non-Christian realm intersecting with the Kingdom of God.

This is the “Aligned” or “Common Good” quadrant. I might place the philanthropic work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to alleviate global poverty here for example.

And above that we have the Integrated quadrant.

This is where the opening lines of the Lord’s prayer are fulfilled. Not only is God’s will practiced in justice, righteousness and steadfast love, or God’s creativity reflected in wonderful inventions, but God’s name is also explicitly hallowed.

By putting “How close is it to the Kingdom of God” on a different axis than “How Christian is it?” we have a category for all the ungodly things that happen in explicitly Christian contexts. We also have a category for all the glorious and good things that happen in explicitly non-Christian contexts. And as Christians in any context we can discern the “True North” of God’s Kingdom and actively move things in that direction.

Applying the Magic Quadrant

Let’s look at a few examples of how to use these quadrants.

How many of you have heard of Theranos?

Theranos is a startup founded in 2003 that claimed to revolutionize medical testing through new technology that could run comprehensive tests on just a few drops of blood. This would make medical testing incredibly affordable for the masses. The founder was a brilliant storyteller. Widely praised by the press, Theranos eventually raised $700 million at a $9 billion valuation. It sounds fantastic, the kind of company that would fall under the “Kingdom Aligned”/“Common Good” quadrant.

But in March of 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged the company with defrauding investors by lying about the company’s technology and business performance. It turned out the tech was a total failure and today its value is virtually nil. Not only were investors swindled, but thousands of people who used the unreliable technology may have been misdiagnosed and harmed.

If you were a whistleblower in such a company, Christian or not, your actions would have aligned with God’s Kingdom and pushed the company towards the Aligned quadrant.

For a second example: How many of you have experienced a church scandal or at least a serious church conflict?

Isn’t it scary when God’s Word and Christian religiosity are used to cover up lies, protect abusers, or swindle people out of their money?

When you stand for the truth in such situations, perhaps at great personal cost to your relationships and reputation, you’re pushing things away from the hypocritical, worldly quadrant and towards the Integrated quadrant. You’re fulfilling Jesus’ description of being salt and light.

Alright, so this is how I think these quadrants can show us what’s missing in Bezos’ wisdom.

The biblical resonances in Jeff Bezos’ thinking exist in the “Kingdom Aligned” quadrant. That’s what makes it so insightful and effective. It’s not explicitly Christian or Gospel-oriented, but as Christians we affirm and learn from it. It reflects God’s wisdom and simply acknowledging God as its source would move it towards the Integrated column.

However, it’s not enough for us as Christians to stay in the “Aligned” quadrant. If we do, we get stuck in our faith.

If the most we can say about being a Christian engineer is “be a competent and honest engineer”, then the Christian adjective doesn’t really make a difference.

Many people want to do good, find meaning and purpose in work, express their creativity, make good money, and serve with excellence. It’s all well and good, but to paraphrase Jesus’ words in Matthew 5: “If you’re just as good as everybody else, what’s the point? … Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

We live in a post-Christian context. If your faith has nothing meaningful to add, maybe we’d be better off just going to top tech conferences like AWS:Reinvent or Google I/O. Maybe we’d be better off learning leadership from Jeff Bezos than pastors. Maybe we’d be better off creating the wildly successful startups of tomorrow rather than investing in church planting.

But I hope to show you, as this diagram makes clear, that these options are not mutually exclusive and that faith does make a big difference–if we’re willing to act on it.

How Faith Makes a Difference

So how does faith make a difference? Here are three ways that I see faith making a difference for technology entrepreneurship.

#1: Faith makes God your ultimate customer
#2: Faith makes eternal salvation your ultimate exit strategy
#3: Faith makes God’s Kingdom your ultimate vision and mission

Faith makes God your ultimate customer

First, faith makes God your ultimate customer.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “The customer is always right” or “The customer is king?” Well I learned from one of the panelists we will hear from later today that in Japan, they actually say, “The customer is God.”

okyakusama wa kamisama desu” / 「おきゃくさま は かみさま です”」

Wow.

In a consumerist society that supremely values the customer, the only way a Christian can be faithful is to say, “God is my customer.”

Now you may ask, “Chris, that sounds nice, but what does this actually mean in practice?”

And I’d like to give you two approaches one is top-down, the other is bottom-up.

First, when God is your customer, it means that you will apply God-centered design instead of human-centered design in everything you create. You will deeply empathize with what God desires and study the Scriptures to understand his vision. Then you will work backwards to design a product or service that delivers the results God wants.

In my company, we’ve tried to practice this principle in the design of a prayer app called Ceaseless. We worked backwards from 1 Timothy 2, where the Scriptures say that God wants Christians to pray for all people because He desires all people to be saved. With that user goal in mind, we built an app that helps Christians do God’s will when it comes to prayer.

 

Instead of adding a Facebook “pray” button or focusing on ways to request prayer, Ceaseless is designed to help you pray for others.

It integrates with the address book on your phone and shows three people to pray for each morning. By showing you the full breadth of your relationships one day at a time, Ceaseless helps Christians, not only have more discipline or enjoyment in prayer, it actually helps Christians pray according to God’s will and desire that all people be saved.

That’s one very practical example of the principle of “God is my customer” in action. That’s the top-down Bible-based approach.

There’s also a bottom-up people-based approach.

We believe God became a human being and walked among us. The Incarnation, God in the flesh, means that many of the tools of human-centered design are transferable to a mindset where God is the customer.

Let’s pretend you own a food truck startup making multi-ethnic food available in highly trafficked locations on-demand. I actually heard a pitch for a startup like this by some students from Seattle Pacific University. They called it “Chomp!”.

Anyway, let’s say you were creating this startup. What would it look like for God to be your ultimate customer?

Well, let’s imagine it’s 1pm and Jesus literally shows up at your food truck because he wants some of your famous jambalaya, Ethiopian flatbread and spicy popcorn chicken.

I’m drooling. It may feel silly, but let’s think about this.

What if Jesus showed up as a customer? What kind of experience would you want him to have?

What if your truck was really popular and he had to wait in line for an hour in the rain–what would you do for him? What if he showed up and didn’t have enough cash–how would you treat him? How would you treat your God?

Although the idea may seem comical at first, the principle is powerful. Making God your customer is a driver for innovation and excellence. It applies the words of Jesus: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Faith makes God your ultimate customer.

Faith makes eternal salvation your ultimate exit strategy

Okay, a second way that faith makes a difference in technology entrepreneurship is that it makes eternal salvation your ultimate exit strategy.

Today’s tech founders are so valuable and powerful because they’ve had spectacular exits. They’ve taken their startups from zero to a large acquisition or successful IPO.

They’re now so rich that they aren’t really sure what to do with all that money.

So what do they do? They set their sights on even bigger dreams. Some focus on immortality through medical science, some focus on saving humanity from the AI-apocalypse while still others focus on space, the final frontier.

Here’s what Jeff Bezos said he would do with his 12-digit net worth:  

I believe on the longest time frame — and really here I’m thinking of a time frame of a couple hundred years … I believe…that Blue Origin, the space company, is the most important work I’m doing.”

“I’m pursuing this work because I believe if we don’t, we will eventually end up with a civilization of stasis, which I find very demoralizing. I don’t want my great grandchildren’s great grandchildren to lie in a civilization of stasis. We all enjoy a dynamic civilization of growth and change and let’s think about what powers that. We are not really energy constrained…Now if you take baseline energy usage…and compound it at just a few percent a year for just a few hundred years, you have to cover the entire surface of the Earth in solar cells. So that’s the real energy crisis and it’s happening soon…So what can you do? Well, you can have a life of stasis where you cap how much energy we get to use…[Or] take the alternative scenario where you move out into the solar system. The solar system can easily support a trillion humans, and if we had a trillion humans, we would have 1,000 Einsteins and 1,000 Mozarts and unlimited, for all practical purposes, resources from solar power and so on. Why not? that’s the world that I want my great grandchildren’s great grandchildren to live in.

That’s Bezos’ vision of humanity’s salvation, filling the heavens (aka space) where we will find limitless resources to provide for all of humanity’s needs.

Let’s compare this with the Christian vision of salvation through a snippet from Revelation 22:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Although it’s apocalyptic literature, I think we can say that in the long term future of God’s plan there will be infinite energy, unparalleled beauty, boundless life, complete healing, righteous power and deeply satisfying relationships with God and one another. Everything will finally make sense. Everything will finally be made right.

Christians in technology and business need to grapple with this.

What does salvation mean to us? What’s the endgame?

Which story are we living? Where do the narratives align and diverge?

Bezos sees energy scarcity as one of humanity’s biggest existential crises and he wants to use his billions to solve it by sending more humans to space. We see sin and Satan’s dominion as humanity’s biggest existential threat and we want to see billions of people experiencing the power of the Gospel so that they can inherit a renewed, flourishing planet and Universe that the Creator will give to us forever.

Yes, space exploration can serve the common good and align with God’s vision for humanity. Human beings reflect God’s glory by being relentlessly curious: “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out” (Proverbs 25:2). Whose to say we won’t be a spacefaring civilization in the New Creation?

 

But as Christians, we must also seek the uncommon good. We must lead not only in creativity, curiosity or ethics; we need to lead in eschatology, in hope. We can’t be ashamed of the hope of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for every human being not only in the past, not only in the distant future, but in the here and now.

If we really believe that through faith in Jesus Christ, God will raise us from the dead and give us a magnificent inheritance in the New Creation forever, it will change the way we go about building companies, inventing technologies and serving the common good.

Everything we create will be yet another foretaste of the future we believe God is preparing for us. We can’t help but infuse our products, services and organizations with the flavor of God’s Kingdom. And anytime our customers, investors, employees, vendors and colleagues delight in what we do, we’ve inadvertently witnessed to them about God.

The Kingdom of God is like a startup, let’s call it Gospel Inc. At the price of his blood, Jesus acquired us from being slaves of the Devil and now he’s made us co-owners of his company by giving us shares.

Right now our shares may not seem like they’re worth much. Gospel Inc. hasn’t gone IPO yet. But it has paid dividends through the joy and power of the Holy Spirit that we experience today.

And one day, when Jesus returns, when the New Creation finally launches, when Gospel Inc. goes public, our shares will be worth infinitely more than we ever dreamed.

As of this writing, 1 Amazon stock would cost you $1,580 (5/6/2018) $1,974 (9/25/2018).

The price of a share in Gospel Inc.? Free.

The value? Priceless.

Isn’t this why the Scriptures say, “Good news is preached to the poor”? The poor may not be able to buy Amazon stock, but they can receive by faith in Christ, something worth infinitely more in the long term. And when we use our Amazon stock to share with them the good news in word and deed, we show that our hope is in that future too.

Here’s how the Apostle Paul put it in 1 Timothy 6:17-19

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

Faith makes eternal salvation your ultimate exit strategy.

Faith makes God’s Kingdom your ultimate vision and mission

Every modern organization has a vision and mission statement. Churches, businesses and even small meetups have a reason why they exist and how they fulfill that purpose.

A lot of books, teachers and coaches focus on how to help you find your calling, your purpose, your personal mission(s). I get it, everybody wants to know “Why do I exist?”

However, I think sometimes we can get stuck and frustrated trying to figure out our passions, interests and skills instead of lifting our heads and being captivated by the big picture vocation God has given to the Church.

What if instead of working forwards from our personality and life situation towards what God might want, we worked backwards from God’s vision and mission to our circumstances and calling?

Here’s how we’ve tried to do it in my company TheoTech. We’ve built a real time translation product called spf.io with a very succinct and common good mission: “To make every event accessible in any language”

Spf.io enables events like this one to be accessible to people in many languages with the tap of a button on their smartphones. I can speak freely and you can receive captions or translations of what I say in real time. It has widespread applications throughout society and I think spf.io’s mission is something that a lot of people can get behind, Christian or not.

But where did this mission come from? It came from God’s vision and mission.

In Revelation 7, the Apostle John receives a vision from God where he sees people from every tribe, tongue and nation worshiping Jesus together. In Matthew 24, Jesus specifically says that the Gospel of the Kingdom must be preached to every nation before the end will come.

So working backwards from this criteria, we decided on a mission for our product spf.io that would align with God’s as best as we could: “to make every event accessible in any language.” If that mission is fulfilled, it will contribute to the gospel being preached to every nation. If that mission is fulfilled, it will contribute to foretastes of God’s vision by making it possible for people to worship together in many languages every Sunday in every church.

 

That’s one example of how faith has informed and shaped the way we practice technology entrepreneurship. It’s how we move from the “Aligned” quadrant to the “Integrated” quadrant.

Faith makes God’s Kingdom your ultimate vision and mission.

So what?

So what.

You may think, “Chris, that all sounds really cool, but what does it mean for me in my work? I’m not a senior leader. I’m not an influencer. I’m still just learning, trying to figure out the basics. I just need to make a living. I want to integrate my faith and work, but what can I do?” (Start now. Build God’s Kingdom into the DNA of your career from the outset.)

Or maybe you think, “Chris, you’re crazy. You take the Bible too far to the extremes. Can’t we just do good works, succeed in our jobs and lead a quiet, dignified life as the Bible says?” (You can do all these things. But just know that they are not all of what God calls us to. You get to choose how much you want to buy into the Kingdom of God.)

Or maybe you’re thinking, “Chris, this is too abstract and impractical. I’m bored at work and stuck in a dead end job with a manager who doesn’t care. I’m tired of the drama and just want something more fulfilling that pays well.” (God cares about your work. When you make it about serving Him wholeheartedly instead of your boss, you may find the freedom, joy and guidance you’ve always longed for.)

Well I’m glad you asked, because we’re about to get really practical.

I’m going to invite three panelists to share about how they’ve practiced faith and work integration in tech, their struggles as well as their successes. (Unfortunately panelist responses were not recorded.)

But before we move on, let me restate the outline of this talk.

We started by asking, “Is Bezos Biblical?” and traced through some of his thinking and how it aligns with what the Bible says in several areas. The Church has much to learn from technology entrepreneurs and Bezos in particular. He may be a modern Cyrus or Solomon.

Then we asked, “What’s missing in Bezos’ wisdom?”

I showed you this diagram to help categorize our experiences and orient our actions towards God’s Kingdom in any context. In whatever quadrant we find ourselves, our organizations, or our societies, we serve as salt and light by relentlessly pressing into the Integrated Kingdom of God quadrant. Being a pastor is not anymore significant than being a software engineer, but serving God’s Kingdom is significantly different than serving the Kingdom of the World.

Next, we asked, “How does faith make a difference?”

I gave three examples of how faith impacts technology entrepreneurship:

First, faith makes God your ultimate customer. In a world-age where the customer is god, making God the customer is not merely a nice idea–it is the only way we can be faithful to Christ while benefitting society and thriving at the same time. By obsessing over God as your customer, you get to know God better.

Second, faith makes eternal salvation your ultimate exit strategy. Instead of hoping to become overnight billionaires by going IPO, we fix our hope on the return of Christ as our true reward.

Third, faith makes God’s Kingdom your ultimate vision and mission. Even though we don’t always have control or even clarity about our personal or organizational visions or missions, we proactively seek to align any areas of our influence with God’s stated plan.

What I hope to do – Memoirs of a Venture Calvinist (Part 2 of 3)

What is the most amazing, delightful, life-changing product, service or experience you can think of?

Take your time…

Palouse Falls

The Life-Changing Product

I believe there is nothing more satisfying or delightful than to know the vast riches of God’s love for you. It heals wounds no hands or words can touch. It produces overflowing joy that never grows old. It brings peace that overcomes the darkest of fears and washes away all anxiety. It is a mouthwatering foretaste of the glory of God’s kingdom. Nothing can compare with it.

I came to this conviction following a childhood of relentless achievement and striving to impress others. The only way I knew to affirm my worth was to earn people’s admiration and affection by exceeding their expectations. Exhausted from living this way, I found myself in a double of life of outward excellence and inward emptiness. I turned to things like games and pornography to dull the pain and satisfy my craving to be loved, but ended up in a cycle of guilt, shame and worthlessness instead.

Then, amidst my helplessness, I experienced the power of God.

Out of the blue, a friend from middle school contacted me on AOL instant messenger sharing his struggles with addiction and how God set him free. He did not know what I was going through, but God used his vulnerability to give me hope and that evening I began to experience a season of grace and freedom like I had never known before.

This grace enabled me to come clean with my family and prepared me to understand how Jesus’ death in my place and resurrection had the power to transform my life.  Though I heard the message growing up, it was at a conference later that year when I finally experienced the truth that in spite of all I had done wrong, all I failed to do, all expectations I failed to meet and all the filth accumulated in my life God accepted me, loved me and gave his Son to die for me. I did not need to win his approval or impress him, but was simply and completely loved by him as demonstrated on the Cross and attested to by the Spirit.

This realization transformed my exhausted drivenness into immensely productive contentment. It healed my soul so that I no longer medicated pain with porn. It moved my heart to ceaseless praise. My self-absorbed personality turned outward in genuine love and generosity. This experience and others like it have led me to conclude that the knowledge of God’s love in Jesus Christ is the central need of all people. It is the most magical, revolutionary, life-changing “product” there is and it is one we need continually.

The Mission

So here is what I hope to do: I hope to help people experience the power of God’s love for them through technology entrepreneurship for the gospel.

  • Technology – Instead of accepting the status quo, we invent and simplify solutions to problems. We constantly discover new ways of doing things, cultivating the best ideas into real products and services.
  • Entrepreneurship – We take responsibility for delivering value to real people in a sustainable and profitable manner. We iterate, learn, risk and suffer whatever it takes to fulfill the mission.
  • Gospel – We measure ourselves by the values of God’s kingdom and shape what we create accordingly. We know the solutions we deliver cannot substitute for God, but trust that all good things we make can help people hope in, enjoy and obey Him.

Let me share two specific examples of pursuing this mission.

First, in Scripture, we see people praying that others would have the strength to know the greatness of God’s love towards them. We also see examples of sharing the gospel with others. Unfortunately, many of us are so busy with our own lives and problems there is little temporal or mental capacity for praying for others and cultivating relationships outside of our existing circle. Both we and others miss out on the joy. Ceaseless is an initial attempt to solve this problem by bringing to remembrance people to pray for.

Second, preaching and teaching are common means God uses to help people experience his love–but what if people cannot hear the message in their language? Or what if churches are so segregated by language or ethnicity that the experience is incongruous with the message? The Synchronous Presentation Framework is a prototype solution for this problem used each week at my church.

Admittedly, technology is no substitute for the work of God in people’s hearts, but it should be employed where it can make a difference.

The Vision

The happiest investor is one who sees a great return on investment not only for himself, but for everyone served by his capital. The happiest laborer is one who is rewarded for the fruit of his labor and is satisfied that it made a difference. The happiest customer is the one whose greatest needs and desires have been met beyond what they ever imagined. I hope the interests of all three can be aligned in the service of God’s kingdom.

I dream of a day when you can visit any church and hear the gospel in your heart language and experience it’s power lived out in the community. I dream of a day when every person on earth is personally prayed for by Christians and experiences the difference it makes. I dream of a movement of investors, laborers and customers who together know the riches of God’s love and thereby bless the world at large with the products of their just and fruitful collaboration.

I suppose I dream of the kingdom of God. What’s your dream?

venture calvinist
definitions
  1. someone compelled by the love of God to embark on risky adventures for the sake of the gospel because he/she loves others and trusts in God’s sovereign grace.
  2. a “speculator” who makes themselves and all they possess available for innovative projects that magnify the supreme worth of Christ and bless the world at large because they trust in God’s sovereign grace.
  3. a silly pun on venture capitalism which allocates money to high risk/high reward opportunities frequently in the technology industry.

See also: Why I Left Amazon – Memoirs of a Venture Calvinist (Part 1 of 3)

Next: The Journey of Faith (Part 3).

Why I left Amazon – Memoirs of a Venture Calvinist (Part 1 of 3)

In his commencement speech at Princeton renowned entrepreneur Jeff Bezos challenged the graduating students:

  • How will you use your gifts? What choices will you make?
  • Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure?
  • Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions?
  • Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling?

These were convicting questions after working for three years at Amazon (affiliate link). Before joining, I wanted to start a company based on my research in automatic language translation. I competed in business plan competitions, vigorously working to turn ideas into products that could help people, but as my degree came to a close, so did the doors of opportunity.

Dejected, I submitted resumes to recruiters at career fairs and despite interviews and offers found myself in deep depression. Through my parents’ comfort and counsel I eventually came to terms with the death of my dream and changed my ambition to simply serve God faithfully where ever he sent me.

That place turned out to be Amazon and it was an incredible blessing.

What I learned at Amazon

Working closely with world-class engineers motivated me to become skillful enough to scale up and productionize any idea. I learned that things take time. I learned the importance of figuring out the right thing to build instead of building as an end in itself (balanced with a bias for action). I learned how to recruit and how to work with and lead a team. I gained a treasured community of Christians at Amazon, and organized events to discuss the Theology of Technology and to compare Amazon leadership principles with Scripture. I loved my team and enjoyed a comfortable income with which I could bless others.

But on a lonely May Friday night, everything changed. The dream came back.

The Adventure Begins

Exhausted after working late, I plopped on my bed and tried to take a nap. But instead of dozing off, I felt wide awake and it seemed like the Lord said to me:

“Chris, I want you to leave your job and devote your attention to the purpose to which I have called you and trust me to provide for you”.

I wasn’t sure. So I talked with family and friends who expressed concerns for my welfare, but nothing that led me to doubt the call. It seemed in line with Scripture since it was calling me to trust in God and to holiness.  After a period of discernment, I told my manager of my intention to leave and agreed to stay until the completion of the big project my team was working on.

In the ensuing months, my heart sank like a teabag in an eco cup. Self-doubt, fear of failure, attachment to my team, my salary and my identity as an Amazonian, fear of being alone, of being put to shame and looking crazy for doing this without being “ready” or because “God told me to”, hearing about competition, hearing cautions about making money in the faith+tech space, and innumerable other anxieties plagued me.

The Lingering Question

Some of the hardest conversations were with people who recommended that I do things on the side until I had something solid. It was common sense, but I felt speechless because I believed God called me to leave my job. So during a weekend at Cannon Beach, I pondered the question:

“What can you do after you quit that you could not do before?”

There had to be something more than just giving time and attention to my dream. While praying on the serene shores of the Oregon coast, I arrived at an answer:

“By leaving you can witness to the supreme worth of Jesus Christ”

I could show that He is more valuable than money and more desirable than a life of comfort. I could show that following him is more secure than a successful career. If minimizing regret and the promise of independence, riches, fame, adventure and changing the world are enough to motivate people to entrepreneurship, how much more should God’s call compel me to go? How could I joyfully invite others to trust in my Savior, if I would not trust him in this matter?

And so it was settled. Despite all of the pros and cons, I had to leave Amazon in obedience to God’s call. I wanted to show by my actions that Jesus Christ is more precious than anything else I desire in life. So when the project wound down, I submitted my letter of resignation, celebrated with my colleagues and began a new adventure.

In my next post, I want to get you excited about the vision :).

Call to Action

If you’re a Christian, is God calling you to do something challenging? Does it help to know that this is an opportunity for him to show his trustworthiness in your life?

If you’re not a follower of Jesus, do you believe there is some other person or cause that you can unreservedly devote your passion, affection, intellect and energy to? I believe there is no greater pleasure than giving unmitigated love to Christ because he is worthy of it all. And though I still have far to go, this is the joy I would like to invite you to as well.

Please share your comments below!

3 lessons learned from AngelHack Seattle

Team MoodMeme

I recently did a hack-a-thon: nearly 24 hours of intense coding to transform a nascent idea into something useful that can wow judges and attract investment.

It all began when my friend David (read his thoughts here) told me he really, really wanted to go to AngelHack this year. He ran his idea by me and asked me to help code it up and pitch to the judges. This is when I learned my first lesson.

Lesson #1: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

Growing up I was basically a self-centered achiever. My mind has always bubbled with ideas that I wish other people would help to make a reality. I’m sure many of you have felt the same way, especially in group projects–you want your ideas to be heard, appreciated and implemented.

This time though, likely due to what I’ve been learning about servant leadership, I felt a strong desire to fully support David in the ideas he wanted to work on–to do whatever it took to help him succeed. Surprisingly, a few days after I agreed he changed his mind and asked me what I wanted to do instead. I don’t think this is the point of lesson #1, but I was delighted to get support for my idea after all. We ended up building a prototype of MoodMeme, an app that helps you track your mood and notifies your friends when you’re down so they can help (go ahead and enter your mood–there’s a little surprise :-)).

Are there ideas you want others to help you accomplish? How can you do for them, what you would want them to do for you?

Lesson #2: God’s grace makes all the difference

On the day of the hack-a-thon we had a team of four. Gary built the Android app that prompts you for your mood while Sean mocked up the experience. David built the web app, and I was responsible for visualizing mood data with D3. By the end we had a working prototype and a pitch that together got us into the final round of judging.MoodMeme ScreenShot

We were exhausted, living on adrenaline and Red Bull. After a first round of judging, the emcee announced the six finalists who were to pitch to the full panel of judges. We were to go third. My anxiety made it hard to focus on the first two presentations.

“Next up, we have MoodMeme.”

Sean connected his laptop to the projector while I opened my transcript.

I began:

“MoodMeme helps you track your mood over time and connects you with your friends when you’re feeling down…”

The emcee’s buzzer went off two minutes later just as I finished:

“MoodMeme can be that scalable, affordable way to a healthier nation.”

There was great applause. Several of the judges, engaged me with insightful questions and everyone seemed satisfied by the end. The demo and pitch were a success.

Half an hour later, the judges re-appeared and announced the winners, beginning with the honorable mention. Then the prizes from sponsors were distributed. Then they awarded second place.

My mind raced through the pros and cons of each of the 6 pitches. I felt like MoodMeme was the most polished, although the second place winner had a more impressive product. Could it be? Could we have won first place?

“And first place goes to … TruBalance

We didn’t win. We didn’t even place.

Thus I relearned lesson #2: God’s grace makes all the difference.

The Scriptures are replete with texts like: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” (Psalm 127:1) and “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21).

But what about our merits? Aren’t a group of people coding away at 5am, chugging Red Bull what it takes to win? Isn’t it the preparation and mad skills of these rockstar hackers that matters?

Yes, merits matter. You have to build, watch and plan. But God’s purpose determines the outcome and to take it a step further, our merits themselves are a grace from God, as Paul proclaimed: “Rather, [God] himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25b). Merit is grace.

Three grumpy guys harmoniously working together at 5am is a gift from God. Writing a compelling pitch in less than an hour is a gift from God. Everything “just working” and being more productive than ever before is a gift from God. Getting psychology papers on moods from UW Professor Christopher Barnes at a serendipitous meeting far in advance of the hack-a-thon is a gift from God. Everything, from our abilities to the generosity of the AngelHack sponsors and volunteers to the judges’ final decision, are from God (Proverbs 21:1, James 1:17).

What will you do with the grace God has given you?

Lesson #3: Gospel-driven ideas are not niche. They are widely applicable and desirable

Even though we didn’t win, I was amazed at the response after the event. Several people approached me and told me they hoped we kept working on the product since they felt like it was much needed. One woman suggested that it could help doctors finely tune treatments for patients struggling with depression. One man suggested that we incorporate weather since many Seattleites suffer from seasonal affective disorder due to the lack of sunlight. What set MoodMeme apart from other mood tracking apps is that we wanted to proactively address negative moods–it was more about mood management than simple tracking. Some of the ways we do this might be a bit gimmicky (you know what I mean if you entered your mood earlier), but the heart of the application is that it helps you love your neighbor as you love yourself (Mark 12:31). When you know how your neighbor feels, you’re better able to serve them and do good to them.

What if technology could help you obey these words?

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15)
Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble (1 Peter 3:8)

That’s the dream.

Check out MoodMeme here. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

If you want to be part of movement that creates, promotes and uses technology to help people fulfill the commands of Jesus, please like this, tweet, +1, pin,  comment, etc.


P.S. Here’s a 2-minute video of the initial pitch (sorry for the poor quality of the video):

What I learned from Urbana 2012

urbana_plenaryThe antiphonal hallelujahs crescendoed to blazing lights which I thought would explode from the joyous singing. It was the last night of Urbana and we ushered in the new year with a 16,000 strong multilingual, multicultural worship service. It was incredible.

I attended the missions conference with my sister (who wrote about her experience here) and met friends like MIT Media Lab RA Nate Matias (who posted his track notes here) and speaker Christopher Yuan who led packed sessions on the topic of “A Christian Response to Homosexuality“. The sessions were good (I wept for joy when Ram Sridharan preached the gospel from Luke 15), but I particularly thank God for connecting me with believers who share my passion for technology entrepreneurship for the gospel (direct message me if you’d like to join the group).

Who I Met

Urbana was organized into four tracks: Urban Poverty, Pastoral Leadership, International Students and Business Changing the World. In the business track I got to meet professionals, entrepreneurs and investors who created companies and products that advance the gospel in the marketplace:

I came away refreshed by my conversations with these people and many others. It’s invigorating to be part of a community creating technology and doing business to advance the gospel in word and deed.

What I Learned

Here were some of my key takeaways from the conference:

Faith First: I went not knowing what to expect and left overjoyed by many serendipitous connections. I usually try to figure out the cost/benefit of decisions and think everything through ahead of time, but I’m beginning to accept the wisdom of Proverbs 3:5-6; it seems that Jesus requires us to trust him first and think things through second. Like Abraham who left his homeland for a land God would show him, we must first believe that God is good and in believing we can respond and in responding we can think through where he is calling us to, how to get there, and what to do.

Cherish People: Being task oriented, I tend to view relationships in terms of my goals and responsibilities, but at Urbana I had the pleasure of simply enjoying people: hearing their stories, sharing mine and praying with them. Ram’s message reminded me that all my heart’s desires are met in Christ and that despite everything I’d like to do for God, the real satisfaction is being with Him. I hope this carries over to work where it’s easy to become so task focused that legitimate opportunities to deeply connect with people are neglected.

I’m Not Alone: I formerly felt like no one shared my passion for technology entrepreneurship for the gospel. Being at Urbana changed all that not only by giving me access to likeminded people, but also by renewing the joy of God’s invitation to all people to feast at his table. Instead of wallowing in isolation, I should seek out and cultivate diverse relationships with others since I’m not as different/alone as I might think.

Don’t Resist the Spirit: There were two occasions when I felt the Lord lead me to do something and I resisted. The first was an internal voice telling me to pray for a woman on crutches. I avoided her, walking deeper into the stadium ostensibly looking for my sister, but couldn’t resist. I walked back and asked, “Excuse me, but–could I pray for you?” She replied, “uhh–okay”. I was afraid it would be awkward. But when I asked, “what happened to your leg?” she shared that she had knee surgery and accidentally dislocated it afterwards. When I learned she would be on crutches another 8 months, my awkwardness was washed over with compassion and I joyfully prayed for her healing.

The second case was in the prayer ministry room where a woman next to me started weeping and I felt led to say, “God’s peace be with you, your sins are forgiven in the name of Jesus”. I questioned this inclination thinking, “Who am I to say such things? I don’t know her and what she is going through.” But I realized that God knew and if he wanted me to speak, who was I to resist? So I put my hand on her shoulder, whispered the words, and left the room.

Upon reflection, I’ve probably resisted the Spirit a lot, which may be why I’m reluctant to pray about certain things…I don’t really want to hear an answer. This experience may sound weird to some, but I am simply trying to honestly recount my experience. Testing these inclinations against Scripture, I find no reason to believe they were not from the Holy Spirit.

Don’t Wait for Perfect Motives, Wait for the Lord: During a Bible study session on Peter’s calling, I tweeted: “Feeling unworthy to try great things for God because I can’t handle the pressure of living up to people’s expectations”. Two InterVarsity staff members, Steve and Carrie, prayed with me on separate occasions when I shared my personal tension between being a witness for Christ at work and pursuing a vision of enabling multilingual churches to flourish and become the norm. Maybe I wanted to stay in place out of fear or maybe I wanted to pursue this idea out of selfish ambition. Steve said that I cannot wait for pure motives because we always have mixed motives and can only continually repent of the wrong ones and cultivate the right ones. Carrie reminded me that waiting on the Lord is not passivity, but faithfulness and that I need not rush to decide since the Lord would act in His time.

How About You?

I have reams of notes on what else transpired at the conference and many awesome experiences remain unrecorded, but I hope this taste has been enough to whet your appetite for what God has in store for you this year.

  • Are you procrastinating responding to God by overanalyzing instead of trusting Him?
  • Who can you listen to and love instead of merely transacting dialogue with?
  • Can you join/start a community that will stoke the flames of your passion?
  • In what areas of life are you resisting God’s leading?
  • Is there a desire you need to wait on the Lord for? Is there a God-given desire you need to act on instead of waiting for pure motives?