At the beginning of the twentieth century, one of the founders of sociology examined the origins of successful capitalism. Why, asked Max Weber, did capitalism thrive in certain parts of Europe and especially in the United States? His conclusion was simple and powerful. He noted that predominantly Protestant nations had adopted values of vocation, hard work, and personal piety that led to greater economic success. Neighboring countries with similar resources and people groups didn’t fare as well. Weber noted that in Catholic societies, the pious served in the Church; in Protestant cultures, the spirit of personal piety permeated into the marketplace and built spiritual capital. Applying internalized biblical values to business resulted in successful capitalism. Almost a century apart, Max Weber and Douglass North reached very similar conclusions—that a society’s beliefs and values are strong determinants of its economic success.
What Is Spiritual Capital?
Spiritual Capital: The Missing Leg in Economic Development
Indeed, it is interesting to observe that with very few exceptions, every nation at the top of the GDP-per-capita list has a long Judeo-Christian tradition. That’s no coincidence. There’s a relationship between economic prosperity and the pervasiveness of biblical values in the culture. When biblical principles are practiced in business, spiritual capital grows, and economic success follows. Thus, spiritual capital provides the link between biblical principles and business success.
Depleting the Trust Fund
Most developing nations are trying to build their economies with very little spiritual capital, and they lack the business practices and institutions necessary to grow that capital. In these situations, people who draw on the nation’s spiritual capital account can bankrupt it. After the fall of communism, Western corporations rushed into the former Soviet Union, attracted to cheap labor, an educated workforce, and a large market. However, many were stung by corruption and lost millions of dollars in the process. Russia is not an isolated case. Companies have encountered similar situations in China and other emerging economies.
Misguided Development Efforts and the Failure to Recognize Spiritual Capital
The lack of recognition of spiritual capital’s importance has led to disastrous outcomes. For example, it has been thought for decades that the world’s financial community holds the keys to success for developing nations. What’s holding back certain regions of the world, the argument goes, is a lack of access to economic capital. Bangladesh has been the focus of the largest microenterprise development programs. More than 10 million people have received business loans over the past thirty years, yet poverty is still pervasive, and the economy hasn’t developed much. Why? Bangladesh also suffers from the highest perceived corruption in the world. Development efforts provided economic capital but not the tools to build the nation’s spiritual capital.
Building Spiritual Capital: The Transforming Power of the Gospel
Spiritual capital is the foundation for successful commerce, and the Church is uniquely equipped to develop and produce Kingdom business professionals who will equip the nations with the life-changing means of growing their spiritual capital account. We shortchange a nation if we introduce laws that facilitate commerce and teach principles of accounting and yet fail to equip the nation with the means to establish a spiritual capital base on which to build its economy. Without the integrity, morality and love that comes from the Spirit of God transforming the hearts of men and women, nations will fall short of God’s ultimate blessing.
Jesus’ parable about the wise and foolish builders (see Matt. 7:24-27) is particularly instructive here. The wise man builds his house on the rock. The foolish man builds his house on sand. Business principles, technical training and start-up funding are just the walls, doors and roof of business. The transforming gospel of Jesus and the ultimate authority of God are the rock foundation. The businessperson must be committed to pleasing Jesus and doing what is right, or his business will be built on sand. If these rock principles are not in place, they will not support the business structure in times of trouble. When the economic storms of life come, the uncommitted businessperson will revert back to what he fundamentally believes.
The gospel is an important component of developing an economy and blessing the nation through Kingdom business. Only the Holy Spirit has the power to transform the hearts of men and women. Only the gospel can work at the core level and alter the collective DNA of a society. Only the gospel can ingrain the biblical values that lead to spiritual capital accumulation and successful business.
Transformed hearts lead to renewed minds. Fundamental beliefs, values and attitudes are radically changed. Spiritual capital is built, laying the foundation for economic development. And that’s why the church is uniquely equipped to break the poverty cycle.
(for more, see Ken Eldred, Spiritual Capital: How the Church Is Uniquely Equipped to Break the Poverty Cycle, Mission Frontiers, July-August 2011)
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