Get to Work In the workplace you need courage, perseverance, and some simple strategies
I own two business suits: one has stripes while the other is plain, and they are different in styling. One of the most embarrassing days of my life was the time I mixed them up. I was running a bit late and was in a hurry. It was a dark winter morning and I must have reached into the wardrobe without really thinking too hard. It was not until a while later, sitting on public transport on my way into the office, that I happened to notice something was wrong. To my horror, there I was wearing the jacket from the plain suit with the trousers from the striped suit.
In the past, I had occasionally found myself wearing mismatched socks perhaps, but this was ridiculous. It was too late to turn back. The thought of facing the office suddenly became terrifying. What would they say? Were there any important meetings that day? How would I live this down? Why did it feel as if everybody was staring at me? (I thought, Lord, could you possibly consider bringing forward the Second Coming to, say, the next half hour?)
The feelings I experienced about my two-tone suit are not unlike those which most of us have felt at one time or another about witnessing as Christians in the work place. Our natural social inclination to blend in with the crowd, and the awkward sensation associated with being marked out as different or perhaps even “odd” on account of our faith, trigger very strong impulses within us. We do not welcome the idea of becoming personally vulnerable or isolated by our workmates. And, quite probably, some of our past attempts at evangelising at work are now high on our own list of life’s most embarrassing moments.
What are the special features of the workplace that might help us understand its challenges better? There are at least three.
First, there is the long-term nature of workplace relationships. We will need to live and relate to this group of people five days a week for a long period of time, usually years. So the perceived cost of making a Christian stand seems to us that much higher and long-lived. It is not like a beach mission or outreach rally: we do not have the “luxury” available to the itinerant evangelist, who can raise the offence of the gospel in one location, then move off to the next town to address another group of strangers. The workplace is an intense context, where our behaviour will be on constant display.
Second, there is the problem of our own idolatry. Perhaps we fear the consequences for our career if we let ourselves become stamped as “religious”. People may begin to question our professionalism. Decision makers (especially superiors or customers) may shy away from us. Or we may simply not have the time for witnessing because we are so consumed with succeeding in our career.
Third, there is the thorny practical issue of how to put Christianity on the agenda, so to speak. In the office and on the factory floor there is often an unwritten rule not to raise topics such as politics and religion. How do we break the ice? When should we speak and when be silent?
The matter is further exacerbated by the shortage of role models and “how-to” guides for workplace ministry. Our churches seem to cater well for training some types of ministers, especially full-time local pastors, but offer far less training for tent-making ministries. Even if we are fired up to witness at work, how do we start? This is not a trivial question.
The way out of this apparent minefield is to consider how to turn these workplace threats into opportunities. Consider the three-priority lifestyle described by Jesus in his soliloquy in John 15:
Abide (verses 1-8)
Love (verses 9-17)
Testify (verses 18-27)
The first essential of Christian living, according to the passage, is to abide in Jesus, or remain in him. He is the vine, we are the branches, and apart from him we can do nothing (v.5). We are to abide in him by letting his word abide in us (v.7) or, as Colossians 3:16 puts it, we are to let the “word of Christ dwell in us richly”. The second element of Christian discipleship in John 15 is love (vv.9-17). Principally, Jesus is talking about loving our fellow believers. The model for such love is that shown between the Father and the Son. Twice in the passage Jesus commands us to love each other, after the example he was to set by laying down his own life for us. And the third essential element of the Christian life is to testify to Jesus (vv.18-27). There is an unavoidable division between believers and unbelievers, deriving from the world’s rejection of God (v.18). We are called to witness to the Lord Jesus Christ despite opposition (v.27) and in the face of unbelief (v.24).
This framework is helpful for underpinning our approach to ministry in the workplace.
First, consider the implications for our workplace ministry of abiding in Christ. This is the key to preventing ourselves slipping into idolatry of career, or having our motivation to witness dulled by a desire for the empty praises of men. Abiding in Christ should be the most effective antidote to the spiritual diseases of workaholism and professional elitism, which can cripple our witness. It will help us avoid the trap of secular humanism which tends to see work as a person’s primary source of meaning and purpose, especially in white-collar circles in advanced industrialised societies.
We need to help the moderns rich man see his spiritual poverty. And we need to acknowledge that in God’s eyes our core “vocation” is to be a Christian, not a member of such-and-such profession, be it butcher, baker or candlestick-maker. Ultimately, it is only by anchoring our identity in Christ that we can guard fully against the workplace shaping us in its own image.
Abiding in Christ is not only our weapon against workplace idolatry, but will also be our foundation for workplace morality. Like Zacchaeus, we will find that faith must shape new values. Social ethics are a feature of the workplace that make it especially opportune for Christian witness. Almost all secular jobs have an ethical dimension, some more than others. In the case of professions the moral issues tend to be more obvious: in medicine for instance, there are the issues of euthanasia, abortion and IVF; in economics, Christians must grapple with wealth, poverty, equity, taxation, and so on. Scripture urges us to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2), and an integral part of this is thinking rightly about ethical choices within our sphere of personal influence on the job.
Ethical judgments may also arise from union membership associated with the job. An example is where a Christian employee needs to weigh the morality of the union’s policy against the desire not to burin bridges of communication with fellow workers (for the sake of the gospel). Another example is probably found in the New Testament, in the episode in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22. This was the matter of joining in social meals in pagan temples, where the food had first been sacrificed to idols. Notable for our purposes is that these probably would have included meetings of trade guilds which Christian tradesmen would have been expected to attend. This was probably an instance of a clash between Christian beliefs and trade norms.
Another dimension is corporate ethics. There is currently a widespread reassessment of the importance of ethics in business, both in Australia and overseas. Harvard University recently made ethics a compulsory subject for MBA students and the Securities Institute of Australia is about to introduce a course on ethics. In the 1989 annual KPMG Global Capital Markets Survey, corporate morality emerged as the major new challenge faced by chief executive officers of world financial institutions, incorporating issues of the environment, excessive profits, insider trading and fraud.
Can Christians make a distinctive ethical contribution? Ethics by themselves can be counterproductive if we simply succeed in reinforcing existing misconceptions that Christianity is about mere morality. However, ethics can be a powerful tool if used to point to deeper theological truths.
Second, consider the importance for the workplace of Jesus’ next imperative: love. In a recent article, Kel Richards argued that the best way to reach so-called Yuppies is to surprise them with generosity; to be marked by a spirit of graciousness, in order that those who are prisoners of greed might be caused to reflect when they see our Samaritan heart. Spurgeon’s description of grace was “surprising generosity”, that quality which mirrors something of God’s unmerited favour towards us. It stands in stark contrast to the typical culture in the workplace, humorously epitomised by the Alex cartoon published daily in the Australian Financial Review. Christians can bring a reminder in a materialist world that the heart of reality is a Person, and the heart of life is relationships. Against the background portrayed by the film Wall Street, we can model the difference between being “driven” and being “called” (see Prov. 30:7-9; Col. 3:5-10; 1 Tim. 6:9-10).
A positive, thankful attitude in the face of daily pressures can speak volumes. In place of envy, jealousy, selfishness, and ruthlessness the Christian can portray love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self control. As Joseph Aldrich put it in his book Lifestyle Evangelism, “We must be Good News if we are to share Good News” (See 1 Pet. 2:12).
In the case of Christians who are in charge of subordinate staff, it is important to model God’s character by communicating an attitude of total acceptance and forgiveness to employees, at the same time as not compromising company performance standards. This is a difficult balance to strike. Importantly, the command to love our work colleagues should lead us to pray for them.
Third, we need to bear verbal testimony in the workplace. It is not enough simply to “model” Christianity by our lifestyle. Eventually, like Daniel, we must speak the truths of the gospel in words. The gospel is unavoidably propositional in content, not existential or allegorical (2 Pet. 1:16). God has put us in our workplace to be his ambassador, to be ready to give a defence of the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15). For many of our fellow workers, we may be the only Christian contact in their lives, and such a large chunk of our time is spent at work that it is a forum which cannot be neglected.
Next, the gospel is also unavoidably eschatological in nature, and somehow we need to communicate truths about eternity to folk whose mindset is bound up in the present. Our aim must be to help fellow-workers look beyond the present moment, to matters of final destiny.
There is a saying that the wise look not just to the minute-hand of history, but to the hour-hand. By God’s grace, the believer is able to look beyond the daily routine of “earning a crust”, to the Bread of Life. Somehow, we need to tell our workmates it is five minutes to midnight.
Here are some practical ideas about how to do this.
Two fundamental practical ideas follow from the preceding discussion: to pray and to include God in our conversation. Prayer for our workmates is something all of us can do. It is also the first step God wants us to take. It is challenging to follow the motto: “Pray as if it all depends on God; plan as if it all depends on you.” A good procedure is to make a list of work colleagues and professional contacts, then pray systematically through the list as part of a daily devotional. Another idea is to form a prayer triplet with two other likeminded believers. The very exercise of praying for someone has the effect of giving us a fresh view of that person and may also prompt us to look for openings we might otherwise have overlooked.
The next vital step is for references to God to become an integral part of our personality and conversation, rather than an afterthought or a secret hobby. This is not to say that all of a sudden we should take on an excessively laboured kind of public pietism, but simply that our relationship with God ought not be omitted from our everyday social discourse.
When asked on Monday morning what kind of weekend we had, our church meeting should be the first thing we talk about, described in much the same way another colleague might describe a soccer match he enjoyed. When talking about plans for the future, we can add the qualification, “God willing” (James 4:15) and so on. If we pepper our conversation with such references, work colleagues will not be completely surprised when we eventually raise deeper spiritual matters with them, and our personality will more accurately reflect the truth we seek to profess, namely that Jesus is more important to us than anything else. Our lives will raise questions in the minds of unbelievers.
Beyond these two basic steps, we need to try various creative ways of breaking the “so-what” barrier. At a recent conference on this subject, a brainstorming session produced the following list of ideas for promoting evangelistic opportunities at the workplace:
- Place a suitable “curiosity raiser” on your desk, e.g. a Christian book.
- When a colleague leaves or gets married, take the opportunity to give him or her a Christian book;
- Be on the lookout for people struck by loneliness or personal tragedy;
- Take time to build relationships over morning tea or lunch;
- Draw out the ethical values inherent in union issues or sociopolitical events;
- Advertise lunchtime Bible studies on the staff notice-board;
- Be trustworthy; confidential; not judgmental;
- Write a suitable article in the company staff magazine;
- Watch carefully one’s behaviour when under heavy pressure of work;
- Organise an outreach meeting at lunchtime with a guest speaker.
Timely opportunities can arise by joining in the corporate golf day, or when travelling with a colleague on a business trip.
Helpful role models are found in the examples of Bible characters who were godly models of success (Joseph), ambition (Paul), power (David), and leadership (Nehemiah), making these instincts God-centred rather than self-centred. Useful books to give away include Paul Barnett’s Is the New Testament History?, Josh McDowell’s More than a Carpenter, John Chapman’s A Fresh Start, and Gordon MacDonald’s Ordering Your Private World.
At the same time we must be careful in our speech not to be insensitive or overbearing. Colossians 4:5 urges us to “be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity”. Our conversation is to be full of grace, the Apostle Paul writes in verse 6. We should accept our colleagues for who they are, and be prepared to show humility by admitting our own mistakes and not pretending we know all the answers.
While we know ourselves to be different, we should not think of ourselves as better, and our difference should be only in our Christian calling, not in any spurious cultural eccentricity. We should not stand on our rights and should studiously avoid gossip.