In this session, we will introduce you to a series of compelling stories about the intersection of Christian faith and business—the Faith and Co. film series. Produced by Seattle Pacific University Professor (and Biola graduate) Dr. Kenman Wong, the series tells 13 different stories of Christian faith informing the mission of companies around the world. You’ll want to view the film series too after hearing this conversation with Dr. Wong.
More About Our Guest
Dr. Kenman Wong is Professor of Business Ethics at Seattle Pacific University. He holds an MBA from the University of Washington and a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California. He is the co-author or editor of three books, most recently Business for the Common Good: A Christian Vision for the Marketplace (w/ Scott B. Rae; IVP Academic, 2011). His articles have been published in journals as the Journal of Business Ethics, Journal of Markets & Morality and Christian Scholars Review.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics at Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: And I'm your co-host, Sean McDowell, Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: We're here with our special guest today, Dr. Kenman Wong, who is Professor of Business Ethics at the Seattle Pacific University School of Business and Economics. He's been there for 20-plus years. He's also a dear friend and writing colleague. We taught business ethics together at Biola for a while and have written a handful of books together, but Kenman, what I really want to talk about today is this Faith and Company film series that you are the producer for. It's a series of 13 eight to 10-minute short films on the intersection of Christian faith and business in companies throughout the world. It's a fabulous film series, highly recommended. For our listeners, just Google Faith and Company, and it'll come right up and you can have access to the film series. Kenman, welcome. Great to have you with us. Great to connect with my good friend, and thanks so much for coming on with us.
Kenman Wong: Thanks for having me, Scott. You've been a great colleague over 20-plus years, and really good to be with Sean as well. I remember he was at a class that you and I taught together and I've kind of followed him from afar, and really proud of the influence that both of you are having in the work that you're doing there at Biola, so really a pleasure to be with you today.
Scott Rae: Well, thank you very much. Kenman, let me start out with sort of how you got involved in producing this film series to begin with, because I don't know too many professors who transitioned to becoming film producers like you have done here. How did this work? How did you get involved in this in the first place?
Kenman Wong: Well, great question. I'll back up a little bit in the sense that a very generous donor approached us about making a digital media project to encourage and equip Christians working in business to approach their work in biblically and theologically sound ways. The entire project involves the films which are the most visible part, a small group curriculum built around the films, and a free online digital course that develops the themes in the films into a much deeper learning experience. Initially I was invited to join really as a subject matter expert, but since quite honestly we really didn't know what we were getting ourselves into, my role had to expand into that of a traditional film producer and then some. It was a lot of hard work, but really probably one of the great blessings and highlights of my career so far.
Scott Rae: Well, the film series is just so well done, so professionally done, I think, for a bunch of people who started out not knowing quite what they're doing. You guys have done a wonderful job with that, but tell our listeners a little bit more about what exactly were you and your team trying to accomplish with this?
Kenman Wong: Yeah, great question. Really several objectives. First, we really wanted to honor the story and vision of our lead donor. He's a tech entrepreneur and with a lot of emotion in his voice, he'll tell you how vocational theology deeply changed his life. He grew up in a Christian home and had a committed, active faith, but he'll tell you that it was not until his mid-forties that he realized his work in business as a tech entrepreneur could be a form of worship and service, and his work could be a place of spiritual formation in its own right. By then, he estimates that he had put in by his count over 40,000 hours into work, but realizing that work is a form of service and worship changed both why and how he went about his work in the world of technology. I don't think his story is uncommon.
As you know, Scott and Sean, a lot of Christians working in quote unquote secular jobs only see their work as extrinsically valuable to God's mission. That is, our work is either a platform for evangelism or a way to earn money to support the church missionaries or other charitable causes. While we're not saying that these are bad ways to connect our faith in work, we see them as tragically incomplete because they leave the actual work we do. For business people, it would be making products, designing retail spaces, allocating resources, managing people, interacting with customers. It leaves those activities as really devoid of value to God's purposes and mission. And when we separate our faith and our work like that, we're largely left to be guided by dominant cultural values of how we do our work.
So we wanted to encourage Christians to see their work in spiritual terms, and we wanted to provide examples of how that could be done. As business ethics professors, we're well aware that there are too many stories and examples of how not to do business, but there are not enough positive examples about how to do that in light of the gospel. So we really wanted to provide exemplars, not definitive models, mind you, but faithful expressions of how faith can deeply inform business.
Sean McDowell: Now Kenman, being a professor and a writer and researcher is very different than producing a film series. I can imagine you had a pretty steep learning curve in doing this. Can you tell us a little about the process and what you learned along the way?
Kenman Wong: Yeah, I'd say there's some things that we professors do that lend themselves pretty well to producing films. For example, really knowing your students or knowing your audience and the questions they're asking, and at a risk of sounding a bit presumptuous, perhaps the questions they ought to be asking. And then also using elements of story, conflict, tension to evoke learning and to evoke emotion or both elements, I think, of teaching to the heart as well as good filmmaking. But that said, I think for me, I've really come to appreciate just how much goes on behind the scenes in making any kind of art, especially film. Literally thousands of decisions and details have to be in place for the creative team to do their work before any cameras come out or any editing is done. And then secondly, I've really appreciated what it takes for creative folks to blend together narrative, dialogue, visual images, sound, and music to develop a story that will take viewers on an emotional journey.
Scott Rae: Kenman, you use the tagline business on purpose to describe basically the point of the film series. Tell us a little bit more about what exactly do you mean by that term?
Kenman Wong: Yeah. I think just even tying together Sean's previous question, one other thing I really would learn in this process was just how many Christian business people are out there quietly engaged in doing business on purpose, redemptive work in incredibly creative ways. And what we mean by this is Christians who see their work as a true calling, not only as a place to share the gospel or to earn money to support missions or ministries, but as a part of the mission of God to promote Shalom or flourishing or the reconciliation of all things. For business people, we found that would translate to several ideals or aspirations, one thing being really the purpose of why they're in business in the first place. Is it profit alone or is it to serve God and their neighbors?
Secondly, it relates to the products and services they offer and how they support human flourishing. Thirdly, it relates to place, how businesses can serve communities and their immediate neighbors, especially those who lack opportunity. And fourthly, it relates to people, how we go about treating our employees and our customers both in our practices, policies, and our day-to-day interactions.
Sean McDowell: Kenman, I have a two-part question for you. How did you find people doing kind of this business on purpose approach, and how did you decide which stories to include in this project?
Kenman Wong: That's a great question. That was really a lot of work, to be frank, but well worth it. And really, it really came down to the generosity of people opening up their networks to us. We kind of talked to people we thought knew somebody and they would give us some names, and we just kept digging and digging. And really, we knew it was God's work, because some incredible doors opened, incredible connections were made, and people were super generous. But the criteria we had was, really, we were looking for people who saw their work as purposeful by the current criteria just described in my previous answer. They had to be articulate about making connections regarding how their faith informed their values and choices. We were looking for some theological nuance. We really tried to avoid the kinds of stories that are pretty prevalent out there that really sort of tacitly reinforce the prosperity gospel.
You know, those stories where, "I was kind of going down the wrong path, and then I changed my practices to be more biblically faithful. Then all of a sudden I made all this money." I don't doubt that that can occur, but I don't think that's the norm. Sometimes faithfulness can really lead us to losing money. It can be costly. And so we try to find people that recognize those kinds of tensions and understood limits, and really kind of understood suffering. And then we looked for people who had a good story, meaning they tried to overcome or had to overcome some kind of significant tension or conflict, whether it was a theology that said you can only glorify God by working in a church, an economic downturn, or even industry norms.
We found a number of Christians who were really, for lack of a better descriptor, cultural disrupters, who were working in industries that had terrible reputations for how they treated customers or clients and were really trying to redeem those industries. And then ideally, we wanted to find people who work in a context that would have some enticing visual elements, something that would be beautiful or visually interesting to film.
Scott Rae: Kenman, I've seen all 13 of the films and they are some incredibly inspiring stories. I'd like to have you tell our listeners about some of the ones that maybe are at the top of the list of your favorites. But the one that I wanted to hear about is the one about the Flow Motors Company. That, I think, is one of the ones that you were describing where you had a company that was doing business really differently in an industry that had a lousy reputation, and part of their purpose was to help redeem an industry. Tell us a little bit about the Flow Motors stories, and then I'd love to hear sort of one of your very favorites.
Kenman Wong: Yeah, I think all the stories were just tremendous in terms of the example, and how people were living out their faith at work. So it's kind of like asking me which one of my children is my favorite. But I'd say, yeah, Don Flow is a car dealer in North Carolina and Virginia. Owns 35 dealerships, or is the primary owner of 35 dealerships. He does have partners in the business. But yeah, if you've ever purchased a car under that kind of negotiation model where you go back and forth, and the salesperson can't give you the final word. They have to go to a desk to get a final price. It's not a great experience. I think buying a car has been rated as one of the worst consumer experiences, largely because we walk off the lot not ever knowing if we got a good deal, and Flow is very much a disruptor.
And so some of his practices are actually pretty mind blowing. People told him he was crazy and he'd go out of business immediately, but he uses things like upfront fixed pricing so you know exactly what you're paying. They're very open with customers about what they pay for a car, especially a used car so it's clear what the markup is. They repair cars. They'll give you one estimate. They'll never exceed that. If they get the estimate wrong, they'll eat the cost. They cap pricing on financing. In other words, even though consumers would be willing to pay more, they don't think it's fair to charge people past a certain point. By the way, all of that is really motivated by a sense of justice. What they found is that people who were lower on the income level tended to be not as capable negotiators over the price of a car or financing, and so they felt like it was really taking advantage of people who were poor by not having fixed pricing and not having caps on financing.
They also give a 100,000 mile warranty on used cars. I mean, I think that's pretty unbelievable. We've been shopping for a car for our teenager-
Scott Rae: Wow, I've never heard of that.
Kenman Wong: - and that's not something we've ever found. In fact, most places give you no warranty. You drive a used car off the lot and you're kind of on your own.
Scott Rae: Ten days at most.
Kenman Wong: He's very much a disruptor on the consumer side, but then also has some incredible practices with employees. We got to spend a couple of days hanging out at one of his dealerships, and really quite an experience to to watch that. Again, somebody who's really disrupted the whole industry in terms of how to go to market and how do you treat your customer. Second one I'll mention is a very small company in San Francisco called Dayspring Technologies. Dayspring, just wow. They were so thoughtful. I went out there filming, quite honestly thinking I knew a lot about how to integrate faith in business, but these guys were at a whole other level. They're in San Francisco.
They used to be located downtown, and at one point they decided to move to Bayview, which is a kind of a downtrodden community with high crime, high unemployment, not on a tourist map, so you can imagine the risk of moving from downtown to a community like that as a tech company, a risk to their business. But they moved there really to co-invest and co-house with a church in that community and join the work of God there, and really across all those dimensions of purpose. They serve a lot of science and tech companies. But in addition to the relocation, they emphasize 40-hour work weeks. As a consultancy, they will really kind of turn down work that would require their employees to work more than 40 hours a week.
They practice hospitality to the community, and perhaps most radically, and they would not hold this out as a definitive model, but they actually have a three-to-one CEO to janitor pay ratio, largely because it's so expensive to live in San Francisco. They wanted their lowest paid employees to be able to afford a decent living. So really quite a company, very thoughtful in what they're doing.
Sean McDowell: These are such good stories, and the question I'm going to ask you, the answer might be as simple as just point somebody to see your films, to see it for themselves. But I'm curious what you'd say to the person, the Christian, who insists "My work is just a paycheck," and this is also kind of a two-part question. How do you motivate somebody to start thinking on this kingdom level, and what are the theological or biblical points somebody's missing who views their job in a completely secular fashion just for a paycheck?
Kenman Wong: Yeah, that's a great question, Sean. And I want to answer this very carefully, because I think for many people, especially those who may lack vocational choice or have say over how they do their work, their work may in fact be primarily exchange of labor for money. And many people do work in context, where they're not treated with a great deal of respect or dignity, so it'd be hard for them to see their work as anything more than a means to earn a living. In fact, my own parents were immigrants, so for them, meaningful work was earning money so their children could have work that was about more than a paycheck. That said, I think I would encourage anybody in that position to perhaps take a bit of a deeper look. We're about to release actually a second season of films late this year or in January of 2020, and one example is we filmed a pallet company in Denver that is doing all kinds of admiral things for their largely immigrant workforce.
One thing they do to create a sense of purpose beyond making a paycheck is by emphasizing to their employees how something as seemingly mundane and boring is making and delivering wood shipping pallets is really critical to the functioning of our entire economy. Those pallets are essential to the physical movement of the goods that we purchase and enjoy every day in our lives. And while many of our films are really about leaders who have more influence, I think everyone could perhaps think about how they can be faithful in their own small sphere of influence, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem.
For example, in my own town here in Seattle, at the original Costco kind of south of downtown, there was a doorman at the checkout line named Tom. I don't know his faith background or if he even had one, but he would brighten each customer's day by taking the receipts as they exited, looking in their carts, and then playing a guessing game of what the total amount of their receipt was. Most of the time he'd come really close. And then he'd also often return the seat with a quick drawing of a caricature of the customer, and he moved, I think, a year or two ago to Arizona and people missed him. I mean, it's kind of amazing. Even our local paper wrote a long story of where Tom went.
And I'll give one more example. The husband of one of our films subjects shared with me, he's a computer programmer, how he approaches debugging code as an act of worship, interestingly enough, and how he really kind of worked quietly to sort of initiate more celebrations of his coworkers' achievements in his workplace, really to kind of introduce more of a humanity to the work that they're doing. So I would encourage people to look that way. And then the second part of your question, I think a lot of that might start with what's taught in our churches. I don't think that many churches are now overtly kind of separating spiritual and secular work, but I think sometimes it gets tacitly reinforced. In other words, I think there are things happening in churches. For example, when someone leaves a secular job for professional ministry, there's often a celebration. But in contrast, when the opposite occurs, when a pastor perhaps leaves working in a church to go into a secular profession, there are whispers about scandal or burnout.
Sean McDowell: Interesting.
Kenman Wong: Likewise, when a pastor is quote unquote bi-vocational, their secular job is only seen as a means to support his or her church job. And finally, I think we often quote unquote commission those going out on short-term missions trips, but why don't we do likewise for those about to do internships or enter new jobs in fields like medicine, teaching, the arts, business, or even construction?
Scott Rae: Kenman, that's all really good stuff, and I think it's a big part of helping people recognize in essence what they are already doing, and to frame it correctly theologically in terms of a biblical notion of work and vocation. I think my favorite story is the film about the Magpies Girl Company, particularly their mission to young girls in a culture that is encouraging the hypersexualization of girls at a younger and younger and younger age, and I think the cultural impact that they are potentially having is pretty significant. Tell us about their story.
Kenman Wong: Yeah, great story. And having two teenage daughters myself, I immediately resonated with her mission and her purpose when I conducted a preproduction interview with her. But her name's Maggie Tucker and this is a store in Nashville. In fact, she owns two stores. One is for younger children and one is a quote unquote for a term that she hates, tweens. She absolutely hates that term. But yeah, she's very, very intentional about what she carries in the store. She wanted to create a retail space where girls could be treated and loved for who they were, and not trying to be someone else as she understood all the pressures of that age.
And she shares that she was a very awkward teen, so to speak, and so she really could relate to that age very well. And one thing that really struck out to me was how she trains her staff. She has her staff bring in pictures of themselves at that age and share about how they felt, and to remind themselves what it's like; the pressures, the hypersexualization, all that comes with being in that age, in that really awkward age. So yeah, it's a great story. Another one of, I think, cultural disruption.
Sean McDowell: Kenman, I was speaking at a large church in a state I won't even mention. I met two men in their thirties who had been in church their entire life, and they were both mechanical engineers. And I asked him, I said, "I'm curious, how does your faith intersect with your work?" They looked at each other, they looked at me, and they said, "I don't know. We've never thought about it." And it hit me that that's indicative of so many people today not making those connections. I'm curious what you would say to these two men in their thirties. And then second, how practically do you envision people using these films that you've produced?
Kenman Wong: Yeah, that's a great question. I think I would try to ask where that lack of connection perhaps comes from. And I suspect it might be theology or an understanding of the Bible that's really been distorted, that really elevates quote unquote the spiritual over the material. And I think if we understood that God loves the world... John 3:16, the word there is cosmos, so it means the entire world. God built and loves the material world as much as he loves our souls. And so for a mechanical engineer, somebody building cabinets, which is a person that one of our films is about, building things out of beauty, building things for safety, building things that enhance lives, our roads, the pipes in our house, our air conditioning systems, cabinets, all of those things I think can serve to benefit life here on earth, which God very much cares about. And what's the second part of your question?
Sean McDowell: Oh, I was just throwing you a softball to tell us and the audience specifically how you envision these films being used. It could be seminary professors, pastors, even parents, like with their kids.
Kenman Wong: Yeah, I think all of the above. We've had some really great reception to the project so far, both the films, the small group curriculum, and then people taking the course. We've had churches show them, we've had university classrooms use them, we've had a couple of companies actually use them to help train their employees, we've had people, yeah, use them in high school classrooms, small groups in churches. The films we made to be evocative. We hope that they really get people to lean in and be inspired. And then we hope that leads them perhaps to use the study guide or digital course or in a deeper reading, even in a deeper conversations in their churches about how to take this deeper.
The hope would be this changes why people do their work and how they go about doing their work, and that they see their workplace really as a place of spiritual formation, because I think a lot of how we're formed spiritually happens in the conflicts and the tensions and the things that we create and the joys that we experience through our work. We spend so much time there. How could God not use it for those purposes?
Sean McDowell: Kenman, just really practically for our audience, how long are most of these films?
Kenman Wong: They're six to 10 minutes a piece. We purposely kept them short enough that in this day and age of quick attention spans in YouTube, that they'd be watchable, but long enough so that they'd have some good content to them. And I think, at the risk of sounding boastful, I think all of them are quite engaging. We had a great creative team. Our film director and cinematographer did a wonderful job of the creative storytelling so that they're all pretty compelling.
Scott Rae: I can attest to that having seen them. They get your attention pretty quickly and they hold it really well.
Kenman Wong: Thank you.
Scott Rae: Kenman, one other thing. How would one of our listeners access these films?
Kenman Wong: Yeah, they're all online free, as is more information about the other parts of the project. www-
Sean McDowell: Hey Kenman, let me cut you off. They're all online free. Just make sure this sinks into our audience in case they zoned out for half a second. Top quality videos, resources for families, churches, you name it is free. Six to 10 minutes in length. I want to make sure our audience hears this, because this is a great resource. Tell us specifically the website to make sure that we don't miss it.
Kenman Wong: Yeah. Www.faithand.co. C-O. And we're also distributed through Right Now Media, Theology of Work Project. [Queue] is going to, I believe, also carry our films here with an upcoming media project that they're doing. So they're out on different sites, but our primary hosting website is www.faithand.co.
Scott Rae: Great. Kenman, I am so encouraged to see these films get out in public. So delighted to hear there's a second round of them coming in the next few months. And I was just so excited about the message this gives, how it helps people in the workplace frame their work biblically and theologically in a way that I think a lot of folks just haven't thought about. Sean, like the two engineers you talked about. I think that, as you know, Kenman, that experience is not uncommon. A lot of people that just have never thought much about how their work intersects with their faith. It's as though it's church on Sunday, work on Monday, and if the two happened to meet by chance, that's great, but we sort of live life as if they don't most of the time.
Sean McDowell: Kenman, when I was in your business ethics class, I distinctly remember you shared how sometimes at Biola in chapel, we'd have people stand and commission them for mission trips, but we wouldn't commission people going to be interns at IBM or going to work in schools for the summer, and I still share that story in my talks today. And as you know, our theme at Biola now is think biblically about everything. What you're doing is so in line with our vision and our mission here at Biola, so be encouraged. Keep it up. Thanks for producing a great resource for the church.
Kenman Wong: Thank you. Thanks for having me, and a great honor to be with both of you, and great to talk to you again, Sean. It's been a long time, so I'm really glad to be reconnected. And blessings to you, Scott.
Scott Rae: Yeah. Kevin, great to have you on. Thanks so much for telling the stories, and for all the work that you and your team put in to produce these films.
Kenman Wong: Thank you.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr. Kenman Wong, and the film series Faith and Company, and to find more episodes, go to Biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's Biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and be sure to share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.