A Second Reformation?

Summary

What would it look like around the world as people catch what it means to serve God in all areas of our lives?

What would it mean for our churches to experience a Second Reformation?

We explore the history of the first Reformation to uncover the striking similarities to our present situation–similarities which explain why we’re ripe for a Second Reformation.

By seeing the implications for our society, churches and personal lives this talk presents a kind of roadmap for leaning into what God is doing in our disruptive times.

Listen on YouTube or read the manuscript below.

[Note: Catholics are welcome in this conversation–we are exploring history to understand the present situation we all face. Historians may also point to other occasions that could be called second theological reformations, but this talk focuses on the social, political and technological dimensions that make our time particularly disruptive.]

Outline

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Manuscript

Today, we’re discussing the possibility of a Second Reformation. What it would look like, why now, what it’s impact could be and what that means for you and me.

The First Reformation

But before we begin, let’s consider what happened in the First Reformation.

If you’re not familiar with the origin story, it goes a bit like this:

In 1515, Pope Leo X needed money to build St. Peter’s Basilica. He had a revenue stream through the sale of indulgences, which were said to absolve people from sin in exchange for money, regardless of contrition.

Johannes Tetzel, a Dominican preacher was commissioned to sell these indulgences in the region of Bishop Albrecht. He was an effective growth hacker, inventing a catchy slogan, “When the coin in the coffer rings/the soul from purgatory springs” that soon reached the ears of Martin Luther in the neighboring region of Frederick the Wise.

In 1517, disturbed by the sketchy theological basis for indulgences and by the manipulative religious extortion happening at the expense of his people, Luther posted his 95 Theses–written in Latin–to start a scholarly debate.

But this soon spun out of control into what we of the Internet age might call a “flame war”.

Why did it go viral?

Unbeknownst to Luther, someone translated the 95 Theses from Latin into German–the language of the people. Gutenberg’s printing press, invented about 77 years earlier was already widely in use, printing books for the wealthy. But Luther’s 95 Theses was a major breakout hit that demonstrated the scale of its disruptive potential. Within 2 weeks, pamphlets of Luther’s writing had spread throughout all of Germany.

Other Reformers from other regions joined the debate and started new threads surrounding the authority of the Pope, the Scriptures, the nature of salvation, and much more. The floodgates were opened, society was upended and there was no going back.

Five years after the 95 Theses were posted, Luther published a popular vernacular German translation of the New Testament and completed the whole Bible 12 years later. His translation was unique for its basis in the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts and high quality German that commoners could understand. The result was an explosion in Biblical literacy among ordinary German speaking peoples and a unification of the language. It busted the privilege of the religious elite and gave the movement legs, which leaders would parlay into greater freedom.

Different Reform movements allied to secure religious freedom and in 1526, an initial imperial parliament gave each government within the Holy Roman Empire permission to decide which religion it wished to follow. But 3 years later, this freedom was rescinded and Lutheran teaching was condemned resulting in an April 20th “Letter of Protestation” by the German princes and delegates of the Imperial Free Cities. Incidentally, this letter received legal status as a formal complaint on April 25th–490 years ago, to the day.

This is where the word “Protestant” in “The Protestant Reformation” comes from.

And so we come to today.

History is messy, but I want to draw out a few observations from the First Reformation to get hints for what a second might look like.

My first observation is that the Reformation was initially about correcting an injustice in the church. The church was corrupted and having monopolized salvation and the Scriptures, it ended up selling the forgiveness of sins to enrich its hierarchy.

Second, the Reformation was effective because of translation and technology, which rapidly reached and connected diverse people into a greater movement. Without the translation of the 95 Theses into German and the printing press to affordably put these pamphlets in the hands of every person, no movement would have formed and the status quo along with its injustice would have prevailed.

Third, this movement was enabled by innovations in the arts and humanities and resulted in the prolific creation of new artifacts and institutions to carry it forward.

Beyond the numerous pamphlets, songs, cartoons, sermons and other creative works generated by the Reformation, Luther’s Bible stands out as the powerful artifact that reshaped all of Europe. It was made possible by the Christian humanist scholar Erasmus who published bible manuscripts in the original language. And it resulted in a unified German language as well as a pluralistic polity with new religious and political freedoms.

And perhaps an even bigger outcome? The emergence of vocational integration. Every person in every discipline had a contribution to make for the glory of God. The sacred/secular divide was broken.

So what might these observations mean for “A Second Reformation” in our day?

The Injustice in our Day

Let’s begin by talking about injustices we see in the church in America today.

Yes, there’s everything from abusive leadership to sex scandals to plagiarism to embezzlement. Jesus said there would be wolves in sheepskins who would not spare the flock.

But let’s talk systemically–institutional churches, the Christian market and the non-profit industrial complex. What injustices do you see?

[ Discuss examples from the audience ]

I want to highlight one systemic injustice I’ve noticed. Bear with me as I speak boldly, but generally–I’m not referring to any church in particular.

I think the injustice in our day maybe less in the use of money, but in the use of time. Churches waste people’s time. And by extension they devalue their labor.

The sacred secular divide enables church institutions to claim greater significance for the activities and needs of the church, which justifies extensive unpaid labor and time. Instead of activating and unleashing people to use their most valuable gifts to build up the Body and bless the world, churches pull people into church activities to serve the church community in cookie cutter roles.

Not only are people expected to volunteer, but much of their efforts are ineffective at producing change, which is at the heart of meaningful labor. When you work, you never want to work in vain. That’s what makes people quit their jobs.

When you volunteer at church, you go through the motions, but to very little effect and may try to resolve the cognitive dissonance by attributing it to a different spiritual economy or a different spiritual causality. In actuality, much of the action keeps people busy, distracts them, gives them something to do in order to involve them in church as an end in itself.

This is an injustice.

Instead of selling indulgences, churches try to be value-added resellers of meaning, purpose and relationship by claiming eternal significance when you participate in the activities and work of the church. But deep down, I think many people can tell it’s grasping at straws. They can seek their need for meaning and connection elsewhere.

Completing the Truncated Gospel

Strangely enough, this error flows from a misunderstanding of salvation–it flows from a truncated Gospel.

When you hear the word “salvation”, what do you think of? I think for the majority of Americans, it would mean a personal relationship with Jesus that ensures you go to heaven when you die because your sins are forgiven by believing he died for you and rose again from the dead. That’s not the Gospel–in the least it is incomplete.

What’s missing?

When Jesus began his ministry, he preached, “The Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the Gospel.” When Peter preached at Pentecost, he said, “Believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and you will receive the promised Holy Spirit.” When Paul spoke of what happens when we die, he said, “If anyone is in Christ, he/she is new creation. The old has passed, the new has come.”

The Gospel was that God’s cosmic purpose to unite heaven and earth in Jesus Christ through the Church is being fulfilled. Jesus through his death on the Cross not only bore our sins, but also became the seed for the New Creation, which would be given as an inheritance to everyone in Him.

The apostles bore witness to his Resurrection inviting all people to repent and believe in him so they would become a new redeemed humanity that would inherit and rule this New Creation with Christ. In the present time, every believer receives the Holy Spirit as a downpayment in advance of this promise.

So, the hope of the Gospel wasn’t to go to heaven when you die. It was always, a New Creation ruled by a New Humanity redeemed by Jesus Christ–aka the Kingdom of God.

Do you see the difference?

When salvation is understood merely as forgiveness now and eternal life when you die, all work unrelated to these two things are demoted in significance. But when salvation is understood as God making all things new in Jesus Christ and giving it to redeemed people from every tribe, tongue and nation to rule, all work done in Jesus’ Name is significant and all people in Jesus Christ are indispensable.

Making disciples is no longer about making converts to our way of life–it’s getting people ready for the New Creation through the good works God has prepared for them to do today.

It is in a sense vocational integration.

So if the First Reformation broke the institutional church’s unjust monopoly on salvation and Scripture by making God’s Word available to people in their own language, then perhaps a Second Reformation will break the monopoly on what it means to serve God by unleashing God’s people in every vocation to be productive for God’s Kingdom throughout the world.

Why is the time ripe for A Second Reformation?

Now, what I am saying is not new. Vocational integration has been a movement for some time.

What makes our present time ripe for A Second Reformation?

I want to suggest three things: Technology, Politics and Translation.

The First Reformation started about 77 years after the invention of the printing press, which enabled mass communication.

The political situation was a highly fragmented, restive Holy Roman Empire. Local rulers saw in the Reformation an opportunity to press for greater freedom and oppose the hegemony of the empire.

And translation lit the fuse of Luther’s 95 Theses by pushing it out of academia and into the international political scene. It brought together diverse people from many nations into a continental movement that disrupted all of Europe.

Today, we have the Internet, which recently turned 30 years old. It amplifies mass communication to the extreme where everyone has access to overwhelming amounts of information for free and anyone can distribute their own ideas–as long as they can get attention.

We also have a highly divided political situation in America, which cuts through our churches. It’s exacerbated by the ways we’ve come to use the Internet and other countries have taken advantage to undermine the United States. Trust in general, feels scarce.

And advances in AI and automatic translation mean we’re approaching human quality for many major languages, driving down the cost and speed of translation and enabling diverse people to connect and collaborate even internationally in unprecedented ways.

Something disruptive is coming.

What will be the impact on the church?

So what does this mean for reforming the church?

Here are three ideas.

First, gatherings must shift from being a product to be consumed to a platform for productive vocational integration. This requires a change in the pastoral role and turns denominations from being clergy-oriented to focus on equipping and unleashing the saints. It also makes church gatherings “lightweight”.

Second, technology must be used for large-scale ongoing interaction and collaboration rather than just mass content distribution and consumption. This may even go beyond off-the-shelf collaboration software like Slack or WhatsApp and require churches to become innovative creators and early adopters of technology, not just consumers.

Third, church communities must embrace the unity in diversity that bears witness to the Kingdom of God. This means including and empowering people with disabilities and people who speak many languages because they are indispensable to our witness that Jesus is Lord.

Let’s dive into each of these ideas in turn.

From Product to Platform

The first idea is a paradigm shift from church as a product to church as a platform. What’s the difference?

A platform empowers others to build on top of it. A product satisfies a felt need.

For example, Amazon Web Services is a platform that equips startups to build products that meet customer needs like ordering a pizza through an Echo. Platforms like AWS have a brand, but customers don’t choose to subscribe to Netflix because they built on AWS.

Similarly, the church is a platform that equips saints to produce good works which satisfy God’s desires for them and for the world. God is the customer. The church gathered is not a product that meets the felt needs of those who attend. It is a place of shared discernment and pursuit of God’s will.

The Apostle Paul frequently used the analogy of building in reference to the Church where each person gets to build on the foundation of Christ and each person’s work will be tested at the return of Christ.

His description of worship gatherings in 1 Corinthians 14:26 seems to be an example of one way church services can be a platform for all members of the Body to exercise their gifts in an orderly way to build up the Body:

When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. (1 Corinthians 14:26)

There are other ways as well–steps to take that move from church as a product towards church as a platform.

Some churches have discussion groups on certain Sundays where people can think through Scripture together and benefit from the gifts and perspective of every member of the Body.

Some parachurch ministries form vocational integration and discernment groups for people in different industries and spheres of society to practice the implications of the gospel in their work.

And some events like hackathons, which can be extended to prayathons, preachathons and pitchathons, facilitate in an orderly way the sharing and exercise of every member’s gifts, ideas and contributions to build up the Body of Christ.

The common thread in these models is that every member of the Body of Christ is doing the work of the ministry together with their Spirit-given gifts.

This is how the Body is built up according to Paul in Ephesians 4:

[God] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

In this picture, our church gatherings and institutions become like a spiritual infrastructure or spiritual skeleton, connecting people who are equipped and activated to build up the Body of Christ.

A New Role for Pastors?

Many pastors and laypeople are burnt out because they are not fulfilling their roles. Pastor teachers are not to do the work of the ministry, it is too much for them! They are to teach and equip the saints. And this goes far beyond preaching a sermon or visiting someone in the hospital.

Saints have work to do and that work happens outside where they gather on Sunday. Pastor teachers must help them make their strengths, their work, productive for the Kingdom of God. Pastor teachers must equip them to think theologically about their work, to discover how their work bears witness to the Gospel of the New Creation God will give us in Christ, and how to be motivated to carry out their work as unto God.

Pastor teachers must set an example for saints to not love money or worry about money, to find their identity in Christ instead of their work, to practice justice, righteousness and steadfast love, to be a courageous witness and a humble and generous leader, to find their place in God’s story, their role in the Body, how they build up the Body and to help them maximize their impact for God’s Kingdom.

Then the work of the ministry will be effectively accomplished by the Body of Christ. Then our churches will be a platform that unleashes the gifts of every member to bear fruit for the Gospel in every sphere of society.

This function is desperately lacking in the institutional church today, but a Second Reformation might change that. I have heard from so many people that their motive for entering the pastorate was exactly to equip the saints and unleash them for the work of ministry, but the existing church systems, expectations and structures made it virtually impossible to change the status quo.

Which leads us to the next big idea of using technology to bust the status quo.

Busting the Status Quo with Tech

Whether the church changes or not, society is being disrupted by technology. The pace of innovation has increased to the point where breakthroughs are happening in the span of years rather than centuries. That makes it very hard to hold on to your traditions and survive.

Churches in America may have a Facebook page or a website. More affluent ones may even have an app. They use it to share announcements, accept donations and post videos.

What’s wrong with this picture?

It’s stuck in the age of the printing press!

Print was a one-way medium for mass communication. The Internet is a two-way medium for mass, group and private communication. Not only that, it gives us the capacity for real time feedback.

We have the capacity for massive many-way communication. We can now connect people to one another on a regular basis across the world for free.

Think about that.

Not only do we have access to feedback loops that we can learn from and adjust to, we can also help people directly engage with one another in order to do the work of the ministry God has called them to do.

We already see evidence of how technology is helping the church transition from product to platform.

Around the world, small groups of believers are growing exponentially while remaining connected to one another via group chats in WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and other apps. Removing the requirement of physical buildings for churches has resulted in a lightweight, networked infrastructure that enables people to gather on demand, collaborate and act on a fluid basis.

They share videos and pictures and texts of what God is doing throughout the day. They are passionate about hearing God’s will and obeying. They share requests for prayer and pray together in many languages via video conferencing.

What could happen if our category for church shifted from primarily a physical gathering place and 501c3 to instead emphasize the relational networks we’re connected to in-person and now through technology? Would it change when and where we gather? Would it change our liturgies? Would it change our business model? Would it change our expectations for pastors and staff?

I think so.

I think it could free up pastors to show up at many people’s places of work. It could result in flexible gathering times and locations to create space for people of various scheduling and geographical constraints. It could create a new expectation of personal relationship with church leaders and personal investment as co-laborers for the Kingdom. And from that could flow a new business model oriented around investing in God’s Kingdom throughout society and in the world rather than growing a church budget.

And now we get to one of the most important ways I think technology can disrupt the status quo.

The Community as the Witness

Earlier I mentioned that the First Reformation resulted in the prolific creation of new artifacts and institutions to carry it forward. And that this was well-represented by the Luther Bible and the early stages of denominationalism.

I expect a Second Reformation to also result in the prolific creation of new artifacts and institutions, only this time we may have YouTube videos instead of pamphlets, apps instead of books and networks instead of polities.

And if the First Reformation resulted in the Word of God being available in every language–which we’re still working on!–I think an enduring “artifact” of the Second Reformation might be the People of God united across many languages.

Here is what I mean.

As the internet reaches the ends of the earth, the truncated Gospel message can theoretically reach the ends of the earth also. Just buy enough Facebook ads so that people get exposed to a gospel presentation in a 15 second spot right? Translating the spot into every language will be easier and faster than translating the Bible and once everyone has a chance to believe, Jesus is going to return. Done!

I think we all know that this isn’t how it works.

It turns out that bearing witness to the New Creation inaugurated by the Resurrection of Jesus requires a community of diverse disciples who love one another as Jesus loved them. In such communities, people experience the power of the Gospel, not just the message.

Unfortunately, most churches around the world remain segregated by language, race and culture. Before, there were practical barriers to language diversity, but as technology enables us to bridge that, we’re running out of excuses.

The Apostle Paul explicitly rebukes Peter for rebuilding the wall of separation between Jews and Gentiles as out of step with the Gospel. He goes on to teach church integration across weighty cultural differences as the way we learn to imitate Christ’s attitude of self-denial and welcome in Romans 14 and 15.

Diversity is a Gospel issue.

Furthermore, against the backdrop of a rapidly diversifying and polarized society, our message will sound increasingly meaningless unless the language diversity of God’s Kingdom is reflected in our communities. As the Internet commoditizes our message, the reality of our integrated communities must be the witness that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus makes us one.

Project Pentecost

So in anticipation of a Second Reformation, I’d like to ask you to join something my company launched called Project Pentecost.

It’s a movement of people and churches who want to reflect the diversity of God’s Kingdom in their gatherings.

If you believe God’s Kingdom is incomplete without the Deaf, the blind and people of many languages, and if you want to do everything in your power to welcome them and unleash the gifts of every member of the Body of Christ, then Project Pentecost is for you.

In the short term, we’re campaigning together to make Pentecost a thing. We want Pentecost celebrations to be as big of a deal as Easter or Christmas. It’s the day Jesus poured out his Holy Spirit on the Church and opened the gospel to many languages.

What if this Pentecost tens, or hundreds or even thousands of churches create foretastes of God’s Kingdom by incorporating other languages in their celebrations?

Here are a few ways Project Pentecost can help with that:

We’re providing a video of people from many nations glorifying God in many languages that helps you feel connected to the global Body of Christ and catch God’s vision for unity in diversity.

We’re providing a series answering from Scripture the hard questions of:

And we’re providing an open-licensed worship song that has been translated into multiple languages that you can sing, perform and translate freely.

And after Pentecost, we plan to continue collecting and sharing the learnings and stories of how the Holy Spirit is uniting us across languages, cultures and abilities into the brilliant diversity of the mature, beautiful Bride of Christ.

If God wills, we may one day see a world where every church is accessible in any language and people from every tribe, tongue and nation glorify God together with one voice–a foretaste of the God’s Kingdom that people can experience today.

Join the movement at projectpentecost.com

Conclusion

So in conclusion, what would a Second Reformation mean for you and me?

The first of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses went like this:

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent”, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

Perhaps that’s where we can start–with repentance.

It’s true, the sacred secular divide has devalued your work and vocations outside of the institutional church. The teaching of a truncated Gospel may have hindered your fruitfulness for God’s Kingdom. And our churches all struggle to welcome people different than us.

But instead of feeling bad or angry or acting out of guilt, what if we repented–what if we changed our minds?

What if we realized that our work and vocational integration isn’t just about us finding purpose–it’s about others? And it isn’t just about people like us. It’s about people from every tribe, tongue and nation–including people with disabilities–who are gifted by the Holy Spirit and have an indispensable contribution to make to the Kingdom of God.

What if we realized that God is using our vocations to fulfill the Scriptures?

What if we understood what repentance meant in our field, just as John the Baptist specifically explained to soldiers, tax collectors and others in Luke 3?

What if our personal ambitions were eclipsed by Jesus’ heart’s desire?

Jesus Christ is returning for a beautiful holy bride, consisting of people from every tribe, tongue and nation who are made into one new humanity through union with him. She’s going to reign in the New Creation with him when she finally matures to reach his full stature. She’s clothed in bright, pure linen, which are the righteous deeds of the saints–those good works which God has prepared in advance for each saint to do in the cosmic project of building up the Body of Christ.

As that Body, we must work together, equipping, unleashing and activating each other to fulfill God’s call so we can be complete and ready for the New Creation at Christ’s return.

Let’s get to work. Soli Deo Gloria.

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Discussion Questions

  1. How is God using your vocation(s) to fulfill the Scriptures?
  2. How can the church serve as a platform to support and unleash you to use your most valuable gifts to bear fruit for the Gospel in every sphere of society?
  3. How is God calling you to create and to be that platform to activate and unleash others?

Thoughts on the ERLC’s Statement on AI

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention recently published a widely shared statement on Artificial Intelligence.

As a founding member of the AI & Faith Consortium via Theotech, I was asked for some personal thoughts on the statement, which I wanted to share through this blogpost.

News outlets like Christianity Today, Religion News Service and The Christian Post reported on the wider response to the statement.

Others have produced some thoughtful work prior to this statement and I’ve spoken and been interviewed on the topic of AI and Faith as well.

A Good Start with Good Intentions

First, I was glad to see people making a contribution to the conversation around faith and AI. It’s something I hope other Christian organizations and denominations do as well.

Unfortunately in its present form, I felt like the statement focused too much on grounding its principles in human dignity instead of what God is doing through technology to fulfill the Scriptures.

This means that for people who research, develop, train, and use AI in their work, the document doesn’t provide much ethical guidance beyond the human rights promoted by the UN and the privacy practices of the Western world.

The statement may help Christians reaffirm their beliefs, values and tenets, but it’s not helpful as a document to operationalize.

Could I take this statement into the Google (or Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, etc.) board room? Maybe not.

Does it provide substantive moral and ethical guidance for the engineers, scientists and product managers in these companies? Would it help Christians in the tech industries of Europe, China, Russia or elsewhere in the world?

I think these questions show that simply affirming human dignity as creatures made in the image of God doesn’t get us very far in the present ethical conversation around AI.

What’s Interesting

I was happy to see the final article on the “Future of AI”. It’s one place that I felt went beyond boilerplate ethical statements about technology to address some of the unique questions artificial intelligence brings up.

It tries to address the following questions:

  • Will AI surpass human abilities (i.e. superintelligence)?
  • What role does the church have as AI pervades and dominates more of society?
  • What does AI reveal about what it means to be human?
  • To what degree can AI bring about the world we hope for?
  • What is God’s purpose for AI?

These are very weighty topics and since Article 12 is only two paragraphs long, I think it’s the questions themselves that are more valuable for Christians to think about and discern.

Discerning how God is using AI (and how we should too)

The statement rightly speaks of God’s omniscience and redemptive plan for creation. However, it fails to proclaim God’s design in the advancement of technology to bring about God’s cosmic purpose to unite heaven and earth in Jesus Christ through the Church.

Our discoveries and work in AI while powerful and dangerous are also directed by a sovereign God to help bring about the future the Scriptures bear witness to. And for Christians, that is exceptionally hopeful. God is using AI and we Christians get to join God in directing it to fulfill God’s purpose.

Ethics for us is interwoven with vocation.

For such a task, the Christian role is not simply to preserve human dignity, but to also carefully seek the will of God so we can prophetically discern and say what unique contribution God is calling every Christian to make in the disruption AI is inevitably bringing to all of society.

Appendix

Brief thoughts by article:

Image of God – This section is a good foundation for the statement–I only wish it included “the Purpose of God” for technology.

AI as technology – Upholding human dignity/mitigating suffering/promoting flourishing is good, but may not be the ultimate telos of technology. Again, I wish the statement affirmed that God is using technology such as AI to fulfill his purpose in Jesus Christ to reconcile humanity to its Creator and that we affirm the use of AI towards that very same end.

Relationship of AI & Humanity – Thoughtful section on responsibility, but hard to operationalize in practice. Once you’ve created an autonomous agent you can hold its creator or operator responsible, but sometimes they really don’t have control.

Medicine – I’m not well-versed in medical ethics, but this section sounds good. I think the last sentence speaks to the question of transhumanism. It assumes transhumanism comes from a materialist/consequentialist worldview, but the two do not have to coincide.

Bias – The issue with bias is that our training data for AI comes from past human decisions and datasets. So AI naturally amplifies the biases we’ve practiced for a long time. I think this article should have addressed the human aspect of the problem more thoroughly.

Sexuality – Sex technology has existing for a long time. The issue with AI would seem to be the substitution of human beings with artificial bodies and minds. The article could do more to address this, which is potentially even more problematic than the present pornography crisis.

Work – I loved this section, including how it calls out the dignity of work and rest by not using AI to pursue lives of pure leisure. (Check out my friend Al Erisman’s Theology of Work project).

Data & Privacy – Privacy is jeopardized by the idols of money and power. I think this addresses the power issue, but not quite the money issue, which is a big problem in the West at least.

Security – Sounds standard. I wonder if they could have affirmed the use of AI to preserve and promote individual freedom and responsibility via better self and community-based policing. There’s also some challenges around easily abused tracking technologies, social credit scores, etc.

War – AI is easier to proliferate than nuclear weapons. This article reiterates that humans are responsible without providing guidance on how AI can be used in war ethically. This is an issue some Microsoft, Google and Amazon employees were concerned about because of their company’s Pentagon contracts. How can Christians in those companies serve their companies and countries in the deployment of their skills in wartime?

Public Policy – This article focused on public policy governing AI, but I wished this article addressed how AI can benefit civil liberty and righteous governance. This would guide conversations like how to ethically use big data to make policy decisions, which AI may one day be making on the fly.

The Future of AI – I already gave my thoughts on this earlier.

Faith and the Tech Sector

How can we support, activate and unleash technologists to use their gifts to advance God’s Kingdom?

In this talk I share the massive opportunity for the Church (especially in the Pacific Northwest)–so massive it would be irresponsible not to pursue–as well as 4 methods and 6 models for doing so.

This talk was delivered at the Christ and Cascadia 2016 conference. A recording, manuscript and slides are below.

Overview

The Opportunity

Good morning, my name is Chris Lim, and I’m Founder and CEO of TheoTech. Today I’m going to share some thoughts on Faith and the Cascadian Tech Sector.

Whether you are a pastor, a business person, a technologist, or simply a follower of Jesus, my aim is to inspire you with what God could do in our local technology industry to advance his Kingdom. I want to show you examples of what has already been happening and how you can get involved in advancing God’s Kingdom with technology.

In February 2015, the Washington Technology Industry Association released the “Information and Communication Technology Economic and Fiscal Impact Study”, which revealed some surprising facts about the Cascadian Tech industry. Here are some highlights:

There are 238,900 workers in the Washington tech sector spread across more than 8600 companies. Of these, about 90,000 are coders and each coder generates 7 additional jobs.

In 2013, the industry paid $22 billion in wages contributing more than $2 billion in taxes. The total market value of the Washington state technology industry exceeds $1 trillion dollars.

That’s some pretty heady stuff. Globally renowned companies like Boeing, Microsoft and Amazon have infused Cascadia with a tech culture and their outsized impact means that whether we like it or not Cascadian values and cultural exports have significant influence around the world.

So point number 1: the Tech Sector is hugely important.

I cross referenced these statistics with the Pew Forum’s religion research for Washington in 2014. I was surprised to learn that about 60% of Washingtonians identify as Christian. 32% identify as religious “nones”.

Now if you’ve been in the tech sector for awhile, you probably feel like these statistics should be reversed. At first you might feel lonely. You may be the only follower of Jesus on your team at work. In a company of 25,000 maybe only 10 people show up to a weekly prayer gathering.

In an industry full of extremely intelligent and successful people who largely think they don’t need faith or Jesus, you may feel like simply minding your own business and keeping quiet about the Kingdom of God.

But I think you’d be mistaken to do so. God has placed you in this powerful industry for a reason and gifted you with technological acumen so that you can bear witness to his Kingdom. Don’t be afraid, you are not alone. God is with you. In fact, in many ways, I think He is presenting you with an enormous Blue Ocean opportunity.

Instead of 60%, let’s assume 20% of the Washington tech industry identifies as Christian. That would mean 18,000 coders who claim allegiance to Jesus Christ. Wow, 18,000? What could God do with 18,000 coders? I’m going to share some ideas shortly, but let’s briefly consider the financial power of the industry.

Assuming the 20% ratio holds, we would expect Christians to earn about 20% of $22 billion or $4.4 billion. If they allocated 10% of those wages to funding work that explicitly advances God’s Kingdom, there would be about $440 million in annual revenue available to make disciples of all nations.

To give you some perspective, $440 million is comparable to all of Cru, formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ, and it is larger than InterVarsity. It is about half of World Vision’s annual revenue. This global work could be supported by the giving of the tech sector of just Washington state.

I believe many Cascadians are already very generous, but imagine what could happen if we saw this kind of generosity coming from the tech sector? What would be possible if more than 20% of the tech industry became followers of Jesus?

I did the math with these assumptions and every time someone in the technology industry becomes a follower of Jesus and invests 10% of their wages explicitly in the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom gains almost $10,000 in free cash flow annually.

So one hundred new tech disciples unlock $1 million of free cash flow for the Kingdom of God.

Now like any other technologist, I don’t like being viewed as simply a dollar sign for this or that cause. But I wanted to call out the immense influence of the Cascadian technology sector and with it the immense responsibility of the Cascadian Church to make disciples of people in the industry.

And for those of us in the industry, perhaps the words of Paul to the wealthy Corinthian church apply:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich…

For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness.

As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.”…

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. (excerpts from 2 Cor 8, 9)

Now, I think this generosity goes far deeper than money. God has entrusted technologists with gifts and skills and wisdom that, like the craftsman who constructed the Tabernacle, can be explicitly applied to advancing God’s Kingdom. And I think the Cascadian Church must support these software craftsman in using those skills to create foretastes of the Kingdom.

4 Ways to Unleash Coders for the Kingdom

Here are four ways it can do so:

First, theological instruction, second kingdom witness, third technological activation, fourth eschatological entrepreneurship. Let’s briefly survey all four and give special attention to number 3.

So number one, Theological Instruction.

When John the Baptist and Jesus started proclaiming the Gospel, they said, “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the Gospel.” John in particular was approached by tax collectors and soldiers asking what it meant for them to repent and he said, they should collect no more than owed and to stop abusing their power to extort money.

In our present day we often speak of how business and the marketplace advance the common good. This is good. People need to understand intimately how their work reflects and advances God’s Kingdom and they need to be instructed and helped in the process of discovering how their vocation explicitly glorifies Jesus Christ.

It doesn’t happen automatically, so we must preach and teach life in the Kingdom of God. We must proclaim God’s vision and show the correspondence between present reality and the trajectory of history with the prophetic word.

Then by breaking it down into the nitty gritty details of daily work from code reviews, debugging, performance reviews, human-centered design, artificial intelligence and everything else we equip and release believers to use their gifts to advance the Gospel of the Kingdom in every sphere of life.

Theological instruction is therefore intimately connected to Kingdom Witness.

Not everything in the tech sector is good and not everything is bad. By thinking deeply about Scripture and being led by the Spirit in the royal law of love, Christians have a special discernment about what can be affirmed in the industry and what must be corrected. With boldness we must speak up for what is pleasing to God in technology and call for repentance in the areas that are contrary to God’s design.

And the interesting thing is that much of the industry is open to listening.

You might find that surprising, but I want to call out some recent things that have been coming out of the industry with respect to artificial intelligence. With one voice, all industry leaders from Bill Gates to Jeff Bezos believe AI is going to disrupt and reshape society.

On the one hand, it has great potential to make our lives healthier, more convenient and connected. But it also has great potential to cause massive job loss, it poses ethical dilemmas in cases like accidents between self driving cars and it brings up deeply spiritual questions about the nature of intelligence, consciousness, and what it means to be human.

Recently industry giants like Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Google formed a “Partnership on AI to benefit people and society”. They want it to be an open platform for engaging the public about AI and society, which means that it is an ideal forum to bear witness about God’s Kingdom as the industry navigates really difficult questions about AI and the ways technology can be used to benefit humanity instead of destroying it.

6 Models for Technological Activation

Now I’d like to dive into the third way the Cascadian Church can unleash coders for the Kingdom: Technological Activation.

As I mentioned earlier, if 20% of the tech industry were disciples of Jesus Christ, we would have about 18,000 coders who have been gifted by God for an amazing purpose.

The Church must help these believers to use their gifts to advance the Gospel, not simply invite them into cookie cutter volunteer roles. There will always be a place for serving as an elder, volunteering on a weekend or leading a Bible study, but these believers have the capacity for so much more.

So here are 6 models for activating technologists to use their gifts to advance the Kingdom.

The first model is a hackathon. It’s basically 48-hours where like-minded people collaborate to create solutions to Kingdom challenges, particularly with tech.

You don’t have to be a coder to participate–applying and adopting technology for the Kingdom is as important as creating it. But a hackathon is a place for do-ers. People who want to get their feet wet with new technology, people who want to use their skills and do something about the challenges they see in the world from a Christian perspective.

Do you know people like that? Are you one of them?

Hackathons

So let me walk through an example from last year’s Code for the Kingdom Hackathon.

First we start with prayer, an introduction and then an open mic. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who has an idea can get in line and share it with the room for 2 minutes. Then each person with an idea gets a sign and everybody mingles to chat and decide which team they want to join.

Once everybody has a team, it’s time to get to work. Some people pull an all-nighter, others take a nap–either way, it’s lots of food and lots of fun.

On the last day of the event every team has the opportunity to pitch their project to a panel of judges. These judges and the people get to vote on the project they want to award and those projects compete at the global level to get further support, momentum and distribution.

So after nearly 48 hours, we celebrate God’s grace over the weekend and go home and sleep.

So the hackathon model is very flexible and a great way to get people started using their gifts for the gospel and getting connected to and inspired by other like-minded people. It’s something that your church can do–all you need to do is provide the space, the time, the food and a program. It doesn’t have to be 48 hours, it doesn’t have to be a big production. Again, at the heart of it is activating people to use their gifts for the Gospel by bringing them together for a period of focused and intense, but fun collaboration.

You’re all invited to this year’s Code for the Kingdom Seattle hackathon. It is going to be next weekend from Friday to Sunday at Seattle Pacific University. Here are some links where you can register and learn more. Come and see for yourself what it’s like and please share it with other do-ers!

Since my time is almost up, I want to briefly touch on the other 5 models of engagement.

“Bezalel” Open Source Model

One is the Bezalel Open Source Model. Open Source means that the intellectual property behind the software you produce is licensed in a way that enables other people to read and contribute to the source code. How many of you use Linux? Linux is so ubiquitous, powerful and flexible because it is open source. Developers from all over the world can contribute to the code base and use it for their own purposes.

In the case of Linux, it’s original creator Linus Torvalds is known as the BDFL or “Benevolent dictator for life” because he has the final say in whether or not to accept people’s code contributions to the Linux kernel. In some ways he is like Bezalel the master craftsman overseeing the construction of the Tabernacle to fulfill Moses’ specifications. That is why I call it the Bezalel Open Source Model.

At my company we’ve open sourced Ceaseless, an app that helps you pray for others.

The app is available for iPhone and Android. It shows you three contacts to pray for each day so that over time you pray for all the relationships in your life. You can download it at ceaselessprayer.com

The advantage of making the app open source is that other people can contribute to making it better and more suitable for their use cases. They don’t have to work for your company or organization, yet if they find the app useful and want to make it better, they can be a part of improving it.

You can see here that Ceaseless has a team of 14 people who are largely volunteers, contributing to the app. So this is a way beyond hackathons that people can continue using their technological gifts on explicitly Kingdom-oriented software projects over time.

Again, if you’d like to try out the app, you can download it at ceaselessprayer.com or if you’d like to contribute to the code you can check it out by searching for ceaseless-prayer on GitHub.

Missional Communities in Corporations / Corporate Chaplaincy

Model number 3 for technological activation is missional communities in corporations.

There are believers in companies like Microsoft and Amazon who gather for regular prayer and the word. When I was an engineer at Amazon, I convened a group of believers to study the Theology of Technology because as creators of technology we have a great opportunity and responsibility to infuse what we build with the values of God’s Kingdom.

This was consistently a refreshing time, not only to think about the Kingdom of God, but also to encourage one another in the daily struggles of work. God uses groups like this to make disciples in place–making disciples directly in the marketplace and at work.

If you are a pastor interested in serving the tech community, I’d love to speak with you about the need for corporate chaplaincy.

Missions/Non-Profit Platforms

Model number 4 is the Missions model, or non-profits that create technology platforms that others can build on.

One example of this is the Digital Bible Platform from the ministry Faith Comes by Hearing. By making their Bible content available through an API, developers can easily integrate Bible content in their apps. Ceaseless for example uses the Digital Bible Platform to show a Scripture related to prayer each day as a devotional aid.

So if your church or non-profit has certain kinds of data that it can export via an API, creating a platform is a way to engage and activate technologists to build things that will advance your mission.

Software Foundations

[Skipped in the talk recording]

Model number 5 is the institute or foundation model and this is related to the missions model, except that it is more explicitly focused on technology. How many of you are familiar with the browser Firefox? Did you know that it is created by the Mozilla foundation, which believes that, “the Internet must always remain a global public resource that is open and accessible to all”.

I mention them because I think there is similarly a need for a Christian software foundation which can steward the software generated by many developers to address Kingdom challenges so that the projects and its impact can outlast the individuals who started them.

Eschatological Entrepreneurship

And so we close with Model 6, Entrepreneurship or as I like to call it Eschatological Entrepreneurship:  Spirit-filled leaders fully exercising their gifts everywhere and together to hastening the coming of Christ.

One local example of this is a startup led by my friend Jonathan Kumar. His company, GiveSafe helps people be the hands and feet of Christ when they see someone in need.

Basically their company partners with non-profits to distribute bluetooth beacons to people experiencing homelessness. Then if you have their app installed on your phone, you’ll get a notification when you are near a beacon. From that notification, you can read the person’s story and give money to help with their needs. The money goes to an account they can use to get goods and services from non-profits and vendors, so that you can give without worrying about the money being used for a negative purpose.

A second example is my company TheoTech and our product SPF.IO. It’s a product that lets you speak freely in your language while providing subtitles in real time on people’s smartphones for those who are hard of hearing or do not speak your language.

The Kingdom purpose of this product is to empower churches to reflect the multilingual glory of God’s Kingdom. Churches should be a foretaste of heaven and SPF.IO is meant to help make that possible.

The common good purpose of this product is to help minorities have access to the same experiences and services that English-speakers have. Talk with me afterwards if you’d like to use it in your church or organization.

For the long term, I believe that paying people market rate for using their technological gifts to advance God’s Kingdom requires prosperous for-profit companies that have business objectives explicitly aligned to Kingdom objectives. That is one reason why I created TheoTech and why I believe Model 6 is an essential component for long-term activation of technologists for the Kingdom.

So there you have it. 6 ways the Cascadian Church take advantage of this amazing opportunity to accelerate the Gospel and make disciples of all nations through technologists and technology. I realize we covered a lot of ground today and so I want to leave you with one simple call to action as a next step.

Come to Code for the Kingdom Seattle next week. See for yourself what God is doing about Faith and the Tech Sector.

Thank you.

How to build enduring habits

Think about the last time you felt seriously unproductive.

Not the casual “I feel like going to the beach and taking a day off”, but the “I don’t want to get out of bed and reply to dreaded e-mails” kind of unproductive.

Now, let me ask: Did you brush your teeth?

If you said “yes”, then you’ve experienced the remarkable resilience of ingrained habits. However stressful or depressed we may feel, they stubbornly keep us going. Like building relational redundancy, enduring habits are an effective way to stay productive in times of distress.

So how do you build a habit that lasts?

In this post, I want to use the prayer app Ceaseless as a case study for habit formation. For deeper insight, check out books like The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business (affiliate link) and Transform Your Habits: The Science of How to Stick to Good Habits and Break Bad Ones.

Case Study: Ceaseless Prayer

In one of his letters, the Apostle Paul writes, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thess 5:16 NIV). While there are several ways to interpret this verse in context, all of those ways include the notion of habitual prayer.

And therein lies a unique problem.

Despite the best of intentions, I know many Christians who struggle with prayer. Jesus characterized the problem as intrinsic to human nature with the famous words: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:38b NIV)

Can we apply science and technology to these spiritual problems?

I believe the answer is yes. Humans are both physical and spiritual beings. This overlap is precisely where technology can make a difference.

One common insight from the science of habit formation is the habit loop, a virtuous cycle characterized by Reminder, Routine and Reward.

Ceaseless helps people “pray continually” by nudging each part of this cycle forward.

Step 1: Reminder – Daily Notifications

Ceaseless prayer reminderThe first step to build a new habit is to connect it to an existing one.

Ceaseless does so by showing a daily reminder in your smartphone’s notifications. Since you’re already in the habit of checking and acting on your notifications, you’ll also remember to pray for others. Tapping on the notification opens the app.

Step 2: Routine – Praying for Others

Ceaseless pray for a friendKeep the habit simple.

When you open the app you see a person’s face, name and story (notes you’ve written to help you remember how to pray for them). Note: the very first screen is an inspiring picture and Scripture to help you focus.

You see everything you need and nothing distracting. The app has chosen three people from your contacts and all you do is take a moment to pray for each of them.

Step 3: Reward – See your Progress

Ceaseless prayer progress

Feel rewarded for completing the habit.

After you swipe through the people to pray for, you get a short-term reward: a progress bar shows how many people you’ve prayed for so far. You also see the number of days you’ve prayed for others.

The long-term reward is of course the joy of loving others and watching God graciously respond to your prayers for their lives.

The Result: A Habit is Born

After using Ceaseless for over a year, my prayer life has never been more consistent. I’ve been through some very difficult ongoing trials and to my surprise God has used the app to keep me from drowning in the seas of self-pity and despair. The daily nudge God-ward and out-ward to others has helped me press on in my calling.

For Christians: God has not left us powerless. While our flesh may be weak, we have been given the Spirit. Effective habit formation does not undermine grace, but is a good use of the grace God has already given us in order to obey Him.

Conclusion

Here are some ideas you can apply to your habit-formation endeavors:

  1. What existing habits can you use to start new ones?
  2. How can you simplify the habitual action so that it becomes sustainable?
  3. What short-term reward can keep you motivated until you start enjoying the long-term benefits?

There remains of course one important set of questions lurking in the background:

  • What habits are worth adopting?
  • What am I being productive for?
  • What’s the point?

These are the questions I plan on exploring in my next post.

Succeeding as a Christian at Amazon and in the Marketplace

Are marketplace values compatible with God’s Kingdom?

Does succeeding according to corporate values and principles help us grow into the likeness of Christ?

Does following Jesus faithfully enable us to succeed in the corporate world?

In this talk (audio below), we’ll see one example of comparing Scripture with Amazon’s leadership principles to thoughtfully answer these questions. Chris will walk through a method for examining the values of your workplace and finding the alignments with the Kingdom of God and he will close with some thoughts on the recent press Amazon has received for its work culture.

Outline

Manuscript

Good morning friends, it’s a pleasure to join you today. My name is Chris Lim and as a former Amazon engineer for 3.5 years, let me be the first to admit that:

Work is Hard.

I know what it’s like to stay in the office past 11pm on Halloween in order to clean up a workflow database for the next day. I know what it’s like to see people burn out from slavish pressure and poor management. I’ve seen politics kill good products, ruin careers and frustrate entire organizations.

But for all these problems let me also be the first to say that:

Work is Fun.

I love the thrill of seeing customers light up with joy the first time they use my product. I love the relief of getting to the bottom of a ridiculously complicated problem that was stressing out my team for weeks and solving it once and for all. I enjoy the pleasure of mastering new technologies and getting better and better at what I do. I also appreciate the good-natured whining that happened while hanging out with my team past 11pm on Halloween to get a job done since nobody really wanted to go home anyway.

I open with these anecdotes because I realize that my goal this morning is not to teach you something you don’t already know. Rather, my goal is to encourage you by giving a perspective on how God may be using the pressures and values of the marketplace to make you like Jesus. I hope that coming out of this talk you will feel gratitude for the way God has united our marketplace work and the work of his kingdom. And I pray that you will be unleashed to do good with the grace God has given you by making the most of everything you have to give the world a foretaste of God’s Kingdom.

As Al Erisman, founding board member of Kiros likes to say, “You can serve God wherever he has placed you. You don’t have to be a pastor to serve God. God has a great purpose for work in a secular environment.” And today I want to show you an example of one way this plays out in the marketplace.

I’m going to share with you three Amazon leadership principles, compare them with Scripture and close with some practical steps you can follow to proclaim God’s Kingdom in your context.

When I started at Amazon, I was a young, naive, insecure software engineer. I knew how to program, but I didn’t know how to engineer production quality software that could serve millions of customers. I didn’t know all the tools I needed to use, much less why I needed to use them. And although I knew how to get good grades in school and finish projects, work was a completely different game. Setting SMART goals and writing up peer reviews and waiting for the results of an opaque performance review process always left me questioning if I was doing well or just a waiting to be exposed as a disappointment.

In the software world, we often follow a project management process called scrum. A part of this is something called the “Daily stand-up”. At the appointed time, everyone on the team gathers around a whiteboard that shows what needs to be done in order of priority and progress. Each member shares what they did yesterday, what they’re working on today and anything they need help with. Once everyone has given an update, the meeting is over. These daily stand-up meetings were a simple, but powerful tool for accountability.

It was after one of these stand-ups that a senior engineer on my team pulled me aside and asked me if I knew Amazon’s leadership principles. I remembered hearing about them during my new hire orientation, but I hadn’t paid very close attention. He told me:

Chris these leadership principles are very important. I know other companies might just put them on posters, but at Amazon they go into your performance reviews. It really defines what it means to be a leader at Amazon. You should memorize them.

I immediately looked up the principles, printed them out, went to a whiteboard and spent the rest of my day memorizing all 14:

  • Customer Obsession
  • Ownership
  • Invent & Simplify
  • Bias for Action
  • Dive Deep
  • Hire and Develop the Best
  • Frugality
  • Vocally Self-Critical
  • Are Right A Lot
  • Insists on Highest Standards
  • Think Big
  • Has Backbone; Disagree & Commit
  • Earns Trust of Others
  • Delivers Results.

I felt like my colleague had given me the secret playbook to succeeding at Amazon and I was going to make the most of it. Before I wasn’t sure of how well I was doing, but now I felt like I knew how to play to win.

And to a small degree, I did win.

In my second year I received an Outstanding performance review rating and a Role Model leadership rating–these are the highest marks a person can receive. I was honored with an “Above and Beyond Award” in my organization for driving the adoption of the product my team built within the company–this required taking on the responsibilities of a technical program manager while still fulfilling my role as a software engineer.

I share this not to boast–I believe everything is grace; every achievement is a sheer gift from my heavenly Father–but I share this to highlight my discovery of the power of the performance review system and the leadership principles.

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “You get what you pay for”.

I would like to add a new, but similar saying: “You get more of what you pay for”.

For example, if you reward people for being vocally self-critical, more people will be forthcoming with their mistakes. If on the other hand you punish people for having backbone and standing up for what they believe is right, more people will silently comply.

To put it simply: I realized that the Amazon’s leadership principles and performance review system rewarded me for conforming to Amazon’s image of leadership.

Now, if you’re familiar with the Bible, you may hear echoes of Romans 12:2 in what I just said:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Instead of conforming to the world, we know that God’s vision for humanity is to conform us to the image of Jesus as written in Romans 8:28-30:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

As a Christian, as someone who professes a desire to be like Jesus more than anyone else–more than Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg I want to be like Jesus–this led me to ask:

“Does conforming to Amazon’s leadership principles help me conform to the image of Christ?”

If it doesn’t, then I risk being glorified by the world while missing out on the supremely important glory that comes from God. I risk playing the wrong game and losing everything in the end.

If it does then those leadership principles and rewards are actually very powerful tools that God is using to fulfill his promise to make me share the glory of his Son.

In order to explore this question, I decided to compare the Amazon leadership principles with Scripture and I invited the christians-interest mailing list at Amazon to join me. Together we spent several weeks over lunch carefully studying and discussing each principle.

So without further ado, let’s dive into three of the fourteen principles and see what the Bible has to say about them. For each principle, we’re going to:

  1. Define the principle
  2. Ask a few clarifying questions and
  3. Find answers from relevant scriptures.

It’s a really simple method that I hope you can take with you and apply to your own companies.

Principle #1: Ownership

Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job”.

Question number 1: “What does it mean to be an owner?”

Can anyone think of a relevant scripture?

The one we discussed is from Matthew 25:23:

His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

This verse implies that as an owner, you share in the long term risks and rewards of the things that belong to you.

Now this verse refers to a servant-master relationships, which led to the next question: “How is ownership different than stewardship?”

Any thoughts?

Although they are different, a good steward always acts in the best interests of the owner, so that the actual behavior is similar.

In John 10:11-14 Jesus describes the degenerate case where the behavior is different:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,

Jesus distinguishes himself as the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep versus hired hands who don’t really care for the sheep and run away when endangered. They are unfaithful stewards exactly because they are not acting like owners. Their long term well-being is not aligned with the well-being of the sheep.

Tying this back to the workplace, we then asked the difficult question: “Can you act like an owner even when you don’t feel like one? What are some reasons why you may not feel like an owner?”

Any thoughts?

These are some reasons why it can be hard to act like an owner:

One, you really may not be an owner, or you may not have the influence to affect change and benefit from the outcome of your decision.

Two, you may be driven by selfish ambition, using what you have to get ahead in the short term instead of doing what is right in the long term for others. For example, as an engineer you may design a system for the short term, expecting to get promoted and switching to another team so that you don’t have to deal with the long-term consequences.

Three, you may not want to benefit your bosses because you feel like they aren’t looking out for your best interests. You may have disagreements with those in authority that make you feel disempowered because you have to take on the consequences and responsibilities of ownership without having the freedom and rewards of it.

Now, despite these difficult situations, as Christians we believe that God is the ultimate owner. He has entrusted a stewardship to us and our reward is guaranteed by him, even if we cannot trace out the connection between the responsibilities we fulfill today and the rewards that will come in the future.

In Psalm 24:1 it is written, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;”

God is in fact the owner of all things and his incredible promise is that we are not merely stewards, but also heirs (owners!) of all things in Christ:

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8:16-17)

So to summarize: God owns everything and will one day give everything to us. This means that growing in ownership actually prepares us to receive the kingdom of God. Growing as an Amazonian means growing as a Christian. And the reverse is also true, growing as a Christian means being the kind of leader Amazon values.

As Paul wrote in Colossians 3:23-24: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

So to adapt Amazon’s definition:

Christians are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire Kingdom of God, beyond just their immediate interests. They never say “that’s not my job”.

How does that sound?

How does realizing that God owns everything and that we will one day inherit all things affect how we approach our work and our life?

Let’s go to the next principle

Principle #2: Bias for Action

Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.

Question number 1: Why is it difficult to have a bias for action?

Any thoughts?

I think it’s tempting to delay decisions until they are made for us because it’s scary to take responsibility for an unknown outcome.

But let me ask, what story from the Bible comes to mind when you think of bias for action?

I think of the time shortly after Saul was anointed king.

He was supposed to attack the Philistines, but instead faithlessly cowered with his 600 men. His son Jonathan on the other hand demonstrated a bias for action that achieved a great victory for Israel. Let me read a snippet from 1 Samuel 14:

Jonathan said to his young armor-bearer, “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised men. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.”

“Do all that you have in mind,” his armor-bearer said. “Go ahead; I am with you heart and soul.”

Jonathan said, “Come on, then; we will cross over toward them and let them see us. If they say to us, ‘Wait there until we come to you,’ we will stay where we are and not go up to them. But if they say, ‘Come up to us,’ we will climb up, because that will be our sign that the Lord has given them into our hands.” …

Jonathan climbed up, using his hands and feet, with his armor-bearer right behind him. The Philistines fell before Jonathan, and his armor-bearer followed and killed behind him. In that first attack Jonathan and his armor-bearer killed some twenty men in an area of about half an acre. (see full story at 1 Samuel 14:1-14)

How is that for bias for action?

And what was the secret to Jonathan’s bias for action?

I think it was simply, faith in God. And growing in faith is exactly growing in Christ.

Question number 2: How does a bias for action fit with waiting on the Lord?

This is a very deep and tricky theological topic and in our discussions at Amazon it was hard to come to a conclusive summary. We ended up discussing what a bias for action and waiting for the Lord are not.

For example, we should not confuse procrastination or avoiding responsibility with waiting on the Lord—sometimes we already know what God wants us to do, but haven’t accepted his answer. Like the faithless Israelites who refused to enter Canaan when the Lord told them to go and then tried to invade when he told them “no” (Deuteronomy 1).

On the other hand, many Scriptures that speak of waiting on the Lord connote a stillness while he acts on our behalf:

Psalm 40 begins with “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.”

Psalm 37:5-7 says:

Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!

So it seems that biblically speaking there is a place for action and stillness, but at the root of both of them is complete trust in the Lord.

Let’s make decisions, act and take calculated risks by faith in God instead of succumbing to analysis paralysis or anxious toil. Growing as a person of faith and courage will result in a bias for action as well as the wisdom to know when to wait on the Lord.

And now we come to Amazon’s first and foremost leadership principle: Customer Obsession.

Principle #3: Customer Obsession

Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

Do any of you know Amazon’s mission statement?

It’s “To be earth’s most customer centric company.”

Many companies start with business goals and what they already have and work forward to figure out how to capture the market and profit. Amazon wants to begin with customers–their values, needs, desires–and work backwards to invent things that will benefit them.

I’m going to share shortly how this one principle changed my whole perspective on business, but first let’s ask some clarifying questions:

What are the limits of customer obsession?

Can the customer ever be wrong?

What is the difference between giving the customer what they want versus what they need or ought to want?

I think it’s funny that lines like this are in the Bible–Proverbs 20:14 says, “It’s no good, it’s no good!” says the buyer—then goes off and boasts about the purchase.”

Have you ever experienced that? Maybe after buying a car?

We can’t always take what customers say at face value, can we?

But what we can do is commit to loving our customers and doing what is right for them.

I’d like to recommend a book that goes into this distinction more thoroughly titled The Gift of Work: Spiritual Disciplines for the Workplace (affiliate link) by Bill Heatley (Editor’s Note 1/3/2018: I recently discovered disturbing news about this author and while I benefitted from his book, I want caution the reader and would suggest this book in its place: Connecting Faith and Work in the 21st Century (also an affiliate link)). He writes, “One way of thinking about service is, ‘I love you and I’ll serve you by doing what you want me to do.’ That’s perhaps one of the most common ideas today. The other idea is, ‘I love you and I will serve you by doing what is good for you, whether you want it or not.’”

True customer obsession focuses on what is truly good for customers, not simply satisfying their felt needs and desires.

Question 2: What happens when we lose customer obsession?

If you aren’t obsessed about your customers, who are you obsessed about?

Probably yourself. Or perhaps fearing or envying competitors.

Customer obsession is one way we fulfill God’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves. It protects us from the perils of envy and worshiping money.

Obsessing over customers is obsessing over God’s second greatest commandment.

And this leads me to the question that changed everything for me.

What if God is the customer?

What would it look like to create earth’s most God-centered company?

Could we empathize with what God values and desires and work backwards to invent products and services that deliver the outcomes he wants?

Could we intentionally align all of our labor to create foretastes of his Kingdom?

This is actually why I left Amazon and started my company TheoTech. I’m testing that hypothesis. I want to see if we can create a prosperous business by explicitly serving the interests of God as our customer. Can we be earth’s most God-centered company?

Now, the truth is, you don’t have to quit your job and do a crazy startup to do this. You can make God your ultimate customer where you are right now. And I think he wants you to.

He wants you to deeply empathize with what he values. He wants you to obsess over his desires. He wants you to work backwards from his Kingdom vision to help others experience the glory of the new creation he promised to everyone that trusts in Jesus Christ.

And not only does God want you to make him your customer, but I believe he is already equipping, growing and discipling you to do so through your marketplace experiences by the power of the Holy Spirit.

One of the biggest lessons that I learned during my time at Amazon was that discipleship doesn’t really happen through church programs–it happens anywhere and everywhere because the Holy Spirit is with me, guiding, correcting, teaching, prodding, encouraging and growing me.

When Scripture is applied by the Spirit in the circumstances God has arranged for my life, everything ends up molding me into the likeness of Jesus. The joys and trials of the workplace, the incentives and values of the marketplace, the successes and the failures, everything converge to grow me as a follower of Jesus. Discipleship happens in place.

What happens when things go wrong?

Now I’d like to briefly address what happens when things go wrong. Amazon may have some good leadership principles that in many ways align with Scripture, but what happens when people don’t live up to those principles? Or what if some of the principles are lacking or simply wrong?

I think the recent New York Times expose on Amazon is an example of this.

The article described the experiences of several former employees who faced hardships like being put on a performance improvement plan after returning from a pregnancy, being brought tears through bruising disagreements and unsustainably long hours.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sent an internal e-mail in response to the article, which was published online and some of my friends asked for my opinion on the matter. I wrote a post titled, “Jeff Bezos’ Biggest Fear and Other Thoughts on the NYT’s Amazon Expose”, which you can read on my blog at www.meritandgrace.com, but let me give you the gist of it here.  

At every all hands company meeting I attended, someone would inevitably ask, “What is the biggest risk for Amazon?”

And in every meeting, Jeff would say something to the effect of:

The biggest risk is that we will value social cohesion instead of truth. Truth seeking is exhausting, finding the right answer, compromising with someone is easier…seeking the truth and the right answer is critical, don’t fall victim to the social cohesion mentality to compromise for pragmatic reasons.

In other words, the biggest threat to Amazon is internal politics. Jeff is afraid that the company will succumb to the game of power rather than submitting to the power of the truth. People will get tired of figuring out what is true and choose to do what is convenient.

Unsurprisingly, the terrible stories outlined in the New York Times article seem to be cases where Amazon’s leadership principles were disregarded in favor of corporate politics and bad management.

Instead of using their power to serve those under them as good leaders do, managers and individual contributors can “manage up” by trying to please their bosses for their own protection and advancement. Those bosses in turn are trying to please their bosses and so on and so forth. Rigor, reviews, goals, spreadsheets and data in this political system turn into tools for enforcing social cohesion rather than seeking truth.

For anyone with experience in office politics, this isn’t unique to Amazon. Whether people are being “nice” or “rigorous”, when everyone is looking out only for their own interests, it does “create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.”

It creates a culture of fear, selfishness and oppression–the exact opposite of the Kingdom of God.

In response to the article, Jeff Bezos invited any employee who witnessed the abuse of power to report it directly to him, saying, “Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.”

However, I know from experience that most people who are undergoing oppression are too shy or afraid to take him up on his invitation. Many victims will prefer leaving to causing a ruckus or fighting those in power over them. Many will belittle problems as minor offenses or personal differences. Many will commiserate with peers, try to give feedback to a skip-level and then give up when nothing changes.

I have seen the HR process work for a friend who spoke up and got transferred to a different team. I have seen the performance improvement process abused by a manager to get rid of a competent developer. I have seen a friend get quickly promoted twice and given a large raise in a short time. I have a seen another friend exhausted and burnt out after several years of poor leadership. I have seen managers make data-driven decisions as well as expedient ones.

My point is that business as usual is not going to work.

I think that Jeff needs to go further to ensure his entire company embodies the culture of joyful invention he experiences everyday. God has given him immense authority and holds him responsible to use it justly and kindly for the good of those under his authority.

With such a large workforce and many layers of management, mismanagement and politics are inevitable. By applying the Dive Deep leadership principle to get at the truth about why these dysfunctions are happening in his company and correcting the errors, he will not only protect his company from the threat of subtly valuing social cohesion over truth, but he would also embody a new principle:

Do What’s Right: Leaders do what is right even when it means sacrificing their own interests. They use their power to serve others instead of using others for their own ends. They commend those who do likewise and correct those who do not.

In preparing for this talk, I asked a friend who was with Amazon for three years,  “What would be the most encouraging thing I could say to you if you were still at Amazon?”

She told me, “I’ve spoken with the people at the top and we’re making changes to make things better.”

Now I haven’t actually spoken with Jeff Bezos or his team of senior vice presidents, but I have been speaking with God and listening to his Word and I think that we can safely say, “We’ve spoken with the top and we are making things better.”

This is exactly why we’re here. This is exactly why Christians are in the marketplace. To make things better. To fulfill the mandate from the top.

To proclaim God’s Kingdom and invite people to submit to God’s leadership in every sphere. To show people how good things are when God is in charge.

As Christians, we not only benefit from marketplace values and economics, but we also raise the bar on the marketplace, as salt and light, so that it better reflects the justice, righteousness and peace of the Kingdom of God.

So to summarize: today I walked you through three Amazon leadership principles. For each principle, we compared its definition with relevant Scriptures to see how conforming to that principle helps us conform to Christ.

First, Ownership: Since God will give us a completely renewed creation as our inheritance, taking long term responsibility and growing as an owner prepares us for the day when the Universe will be ours to govern.

Second, Bias for Action: God wants us to act by faith today on the promises he has made for our future. Growing in faith means growing in a bias for action, which is important for success in business as well as advancing God’s purposes.

Third, Customer Obsession: God wants us to obsess over his will and apply all the best we have to offer to fulfill it. This is nothing less than loving God with our entire being and our neighbors as ourselves.

I hope that these examples make it clear that when we excel in these principles, we not only succeed in great companies like Amazon, but we also grow up to maturity in Christ. Our work and conduct become foretastes of God’s Kingdom, an invitation for people to trust in Jesus because they’ve seen for themselves how good his ways really are and that his promises are what they’ve been really hoping for all along. And I don’t know about you, but that is the kind of success that makes my heart smile.

Practical Steps

So here are two practical steps you can take today:

The first is to simply take your company’s values and leadership principles and examine them in light of Scripture. Figure out the points of alignment with God’s Kingdom and your character. Maximize your pursuit of growth in those areas. It’s all win.

The second step is related to something I’m currently working on.

How many of you pray?

How many of you feel like your prayers tend to be self-centered?

What if there was an easy way to remember to pray for others? Not only Christians or your family, but everyone–colleagues, bosses, employees, clients, vendors, etc.?

If this piques your interest, I’d like to invite you to try a smartphone app my team has been working on called Ceaseless. If we want to see lives transformed in the marketplace, I believe it will begin with regular, earnest and personal prayer.

Ceaseless integrates with the address book on your phone and shows you three people to pray for each day. One day it may show you the love of your life and the next it may show you the annoying coworker you wish would quit already.

The point is that God urges us to pray for all people because he wants all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:1-4 ESV). We invented Ceaseless to help people do what God wants them to do and if just 1% of the earth’s population prayed for 3 friends each day, we could theoretically personally pray for everyone on earth in less than a year. You can be a part of this movement. Learn more at www.ceaselessprayer.com

Thank you.

Discussion Questions

  1. Describe one situation you are facing at work and how God maybe discipling you through it.
  2. What would it look like to deliver foretastes of God’s kingdom in your marketplace milieu?
  3. How does growing in the values/leadership principles of your business help you grow in Christlikeness?