Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Western Capitalism and The Great Commission

Written by: on January 17, 2013

“It is the change of moral standards which converted a natural frailty into an ornament of the spirit, and canonized as the economic virtues habits which in earlier ages had been denounced as vices. The force which produced it was the creed associated with the name of Calvin. Capitalism was the social counterpart of Calvinist theology.” *  These words of Max Weber greatly interest and challenge my reformed perspective.  I needed this book to fuel an uneasiness about the evolution of economics in the United States, specifically, the brutish advance of capitalism in the wake of the church’s quiet retreat.

The late 1800’s witnessed a great global missionary advance.  Concomittantly, there was a tremendous economic boom in the West, the sending base of most of the missionary efforts.  In retrospect and in light of Weber’s critique, could it be that much missionary effort was invested in building and expanding organizational infrastructure in foreign lands rather than Kingdom character?  This may not have been done maliciously or even consciously, but one wonders if the way the missionary advance was often prosecuted that it may have been motivated by a capitalistic perspective of growth and progress.  Rather than allow nationals to raise up their own infrastructure mission agencies erected their platforms, established thier own entities, and even staffed their foreign offices with expat missionaries.  The process of indiginization was either slow or nonexistent.  

Weber suggests that labour and one’s “call,” is not only an economic pursuit but a spiritual end and that the virtues of a hard working man are also the virtues of a spiritual man  (Kindle location 170).  The resources mobilized by the Western church resulting in the great missionary movement were resources generated by capitalism (finances needed to send and support missionaries) and the resouces of the church (spiritually committed people).  I have no doubt that much of the missionary advance was undergirded by pure and Godly motivation.  But I do wonder if the “drivenness” of the missionary movement was facilitated more by piety or profit (spiritual profit)?

The metrics that evaluate the missionary enterprise seem to reflect an economic and capitalistic mindset.  The stress on numbers reflects this attitude, “how many made a decision, how many were baptized, how many churches were planted?”  The inherent dangers of these metrics are obvious.  They are not bad intrinsically, but they can promote a “works” perspective that smacks of captialism.

Discipleship is my primary focus and reading Weber’s book prompts me to think about how discipleship is influenced by economic and capitalistic perspectives.  Methodology often requires regular meetings with disciples rather than a lifestyle approach.  Similar to the above remards regarding metrics, disciples are often evaluated on their church attendance, sharing the gospel, reading the Bible, etc.  

Finally, much missionary effort today follows the path of “micro enterprise” development.  How does our Western capitalistic mindset influence this “missionary” approach?  I seriously struggle with whether Jesus would have propagated such a strategy or such an emphasis.  

Weber’s book and Dr. Clark 🙂 has caused my to be careful with my Protestant (reformed) perspective of labor, work, and calling.  What I once swallowed easily now sticks a bit in my throat for further evaluation.

* Weber, Max (2012-11-01). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Economy Editions) (p. 2). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.

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