This sermon is part of the sermon series "ReImagine Work". See series.
A few months ago, I came across an article in The Boston Globe about religion in the workplace. The columnist, who is one of the few Jewish people in her office, often finds herself in awkward situations. Sometimes people expect her to be the official representative of her faith or of Israel, a role she feels uncomfortable with and unqualified for. Other times she finds herself on the wrong end of an ethnic joke or a racial slur. But the thing that bothers her most is when co-workers or associates try to press their religion on her.
She describes one particular co-worker:
He's the nicest person in the world but has the unfortunate habit of using the workplace as a recruiting center. When he approached me to discuss religion, I mentioned that I was Jewish. Big mistake. His face lit up, and I came to find out that converting Jews was his personal mission.
I couldn't get up without finding a religious tract on my desk when I came back. After many attempts at conversion, I finally convinced him that I was happy with my religion and nothing he said would change it. He reluctantly moved on and now tries his hand with our clients.
She entitles her article, "Keep the faith, but keep it on your side of the cubicle."
This woman's column raises all kinds of questions for us as Christian workers. As followers of Christ, we're convinced that the gospel—the good news of Jesus—has the power to change any person's life for the better, in this life and the life to come. We genuinely care about the people we work with and for; we want them to know the peace and joy and hope that we've found in Christ; we're eager to fulfill the Lord's command to be his witnesses everywhere we go. But then along comes this fellow worker who tells us that she finds it uncomfortable and even rude when we treat the workplace as our own personal mission field. Recent legislation and court rulings have declared proselytizing on the job to be a form of harassment, calling for disciplinary action or termination. So what do we do? We want to share our faith, but we don't want to offend people or get fired. So how do we share our faith at work in a way that's legal, appropriate, and effective? That's the question we'd like to explore in this final message in the ReImagine Work series.
The basic message of the series is that work is good. For too long, too many Christians have looked upon work as a necessary evil that can only be redeemed by witnessing to our co-workers and tithing our paychecks. But that's not the biblical picture at all. According to the Bible, work is good. It's good for God when we work to the best of our ability, as if we were working for God himself. When we approach our work in that way, it becomes a daily act of worship. Work is good for the world when we use our knowledge, skills, and connections to make the world work the way God intends it to work. God has invited us to join him in the creation and expansion of a universe that displays his glory in ever increasing ways. Work is good for us when we allow God to use our work to shape us into the people he would have us to be. Ever since the Fall, there is a dark side to work that tests our faith and character, but those tests become opportunities for God to transform us even as he transforms the world. So we're beginning to understand that work is good, in and of itself, even if we never get an opportunity to share our faith on the job. But having said that, we don't want to leave this topic without declaring that work is also good for the gospel when the quality of our work is so distinctive that it causes people to wonder why. Let's see what we can learn about sharing our faith at work by looking at two brief passages from the New Testament.
The Quality of our work
Let's begin in 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12. The apostle Paul is writing a letter to Christians living in the city of Thessalonica, giving them practical instructions about how to live between the first and second coming of Christ: "Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anyone." This is a curious bit of career counsel, isn't it? Imagine interviewing for a position with a company, and the hiring manager says to you, "Where would you like to be five years from now if you were to join us here at Dunder-Mifflin?" You say, "Well, sir, my ambition is to lead a quiet life here at DM. You know, keep a low profile, nose to the grindstone, that sort of thing. As long as I can collect a paycheck at the end of the week, I'll be happy to spend the rest of my career here in the shredding room." Would you hire somebody like that? What would prompt Paul to offer this kind of instruction?
There are a few things to consider. First, most of the Christians living in Thessalonica were Gentiles, and they were heavily influenced by Greek culture and philosophy. The Greeks, for the most part, had a low view of labor—manual labor, in particular. It could be Paul is addressing that bias and affirming the working class members of the church. Secondly, the Christians in Thessalonica were in something of a panic mode about Christ's second coming. They were so certain that he was coming back soon, and so afraid they might miss it, that some of them were neglecting their work, quitting their jobs even, so they could be watching for the Lord's return and be busy about his work when he came. Thirdly, it seems some Christians were being so publicly demonstrative about their faith that they were inviting persecution, making life more difficult for themselves and the rest of the believers.
Paul writes these words to correct certain misunderstandings. First, he reminds the Thessalonican church that work itself is a noble endeavor. When you use the strength and skills God has given you to be productive and to provide for your loved ones, it's right and good. 'That's true whether you're working with your hands or your head. Secondly, if Christ were to return suddenly, he would be just as pleased to find you selling widgets or doing laundry as he would be to find you preaching on a street corner. When you make a positive contribution to your company or customers or community or campus, you are doing God's work. And third, there are times when making a public spectacle of your faith can be counter-productive for you and the gospel. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for the gospel is to do your job, and to do it so well that you win the respect of those around you.
Unfortunately, 'not all Christ followers work that way. Recently I was talking to a small business owner about this very topic of faith and work, and he quickly and emphatically declared that he doesn't like to hire Christians. When I asked him why, he said they have a terrible work ethic. They're not productive; they expect all kinds of breaks, and they just don't seem to care that much about their work. He doesn't understand why, but that's been his experience time and time again. He said the other business owners and managers he talks to feel the same way. He happens to be a Christian himself, so he's not only confused and disappointed by this, he's embarrassed. These unproductive employees discredit the gospel and undermine his efforts to share his faith with colleagues. What would the people you work with or for say about you? Are you so conscientious about your work, so skilled at what you do, so helpful to the people around you, that it makes them wonder why you work the way you do?
I read about a Christian woman named Edna who took a job with an engineering firm. Edna took very seriously her responsibility to share her faith with her co-workers. When Christmas rolled around, she got permission to hold a Christmas party in one of the company's conference rooms. Her pastor came, along with his portable sound system, and sang and preached so loudly there was no escaping the sound of his voice. Her co-workers complained about the noise and the distraction. When she was reprimanded for her actions, she took to distributing gospel literature all over the office. That didn't go well either, so she started sending Bible verses by e-mail to her co-workers. Eventually she was fired for using company time and equipment for non-work purposes. Edna meant well but ended up alienating the very people she was hoping to reach and losing whatever opportunity she might have had to share her faith if she had simply done her job!
A few years ago, one of our church members, Paul, wrote a book with the provocative title, Stop Witnessing, Start Loving. The message of the book, as you can guess, is that the most effective way to share our faith in Christ with other people is to talk less and love more. People don't want to be "witnessed to." They want to be valued, cared for, and accepted for who they are. When that happens, they'll probably be more than willing to hear about your faith.
Paul's book has such a good title, that I'd like to tweak it a bit and suggest that if you want to share your faith at work, the best thing you can do is stop witnessing and start working. Just do your job. Do it well. Let the quality of your work be so distinctive that it wins the respect of the people around you. That simple thing will create all kinds of opportunities to speak about your faith, and when you do, people will be willing to listen. Work is good for the gospel when the quality of it causes people to wonder why.
Ready and able?
Let's look at another passage that takes this a step further. First Peter 3:15-16 says, "But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander." Once again some background will help. Peter is writing this time, and he's addressing believers who were scattered all over the Roman empire, many of them living in areas that were hostile to their faith. They were a minority population. Their beliefs and practices were misunderstood, and they were considered a threat to society. As a result many were suffering social and economic persecution for their faith, finding themselves shut out of social circles and struggling to find jobs or do business in their communities. While most of us don't experience that kind of persecution, I think we'd all agree that the workplace is an increasingly challenging place to live out your faith. So what does Peter have to say to them and to us?
Verse 15: "In your hearts, set apart Christ as Lord." Before you attempt to share your faith with anyone, on the job or otherwise, get this much straight: Christ is in charge. The lordship of Christ means that Christ is in charge of your working life— not the company or your customers or your co-workers or the culture. Remember, you work for God. When you get that right, when you live and work the way God would have you to live and work, it will get people's attention. They'll notice. They'll wonder why. In fact, they won't just wonder; they'll ask.
Look at the next verse: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." See? You don't have to make a lot of noise about your faith or pressure people into conversations they're not comfortable with or hack into the office network and change everybody's screen saver to John 3:16. When you work like a follower of Christ, it will be so distinctive, so compelling, that people will come to you. They'll want to know what makes you tick. Has that ever happened to you? Has anyone ever said to you, "Boy, there's something about the way you flip burgers or build houses or raise children or sell insurance that's different than the way other people do those things." That can happen—that will happen—Peter says, if you make Christ Lord over your work.
When it does happen, will you be ready and able to answer them? Being prepared means two things. First, it means being willing. Remember, these Christians were living in a hostile environment. It wasn't easy or comfortable for them to talk about their faith, and it isn't always easy or comfortable to talk about your faith at work. So the first question is, are you willing to give an answer—to speak up about your faith?
Being prepared also means being able. It means having something to say—a message to share. When people ask why you work so hard when no one is watching, are you prepared to say, "Because I believe my work matters to God, and I want to do it to the best of my ability"? When someone asks why you're so patient with your customers or clients or co-workers, are you prepared to say, "Because I believe every person matters to God and is worth my best attention"? When someone asks why you have such a positive outlook, are you prepared to say, "Christ has filled my life with joy and hope"?
"Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect." You don't have to get in people's faces. You don't have to tell people more than they want to hear. You don't have to attack their faith or lack of faith. All we have to do is to work in such a way that it prompts people to ask us why. And when they do, we offer a clear and honest response that respects their beliefs and the rules of the workplace. When we do that, our work is good for the gospel.
Randy Kilgore is the vice president of Marketplace Network, an association of people interested in the integration of faith and work. He writes a weekly on-line devotional for people in the workplace called Marketplace Moments. In a recent entry, he describes a conversation he had with a woman on a commuter train. Somehow they got talking about faith and work. This woman was not a believer and clearly had some issues with Christians in the workplace. Randy asked her a question he's been asking people like her for years: "What are the five things you want from co-workers who claim to be Christians?" He got quite an earful, but in the end she identified the same five things Randy hears every time he asks this question. I found them very interesting, especially in light of the Scripture we've been discussing. Here they are:
First: "I wish my Christian co-workers … knew more about their faith—what they believe and why." Isn't that interesting? Who would have thought the people you work with and for wished you knew more about your faith? It seems that when they ask questions, they are looking for a thoughtful, substantive answer. They don't want some glib Christian cliché or an embarrassed or hurried response. They really want to know what we believe and why. Isn't that what Peter just told us?
Here's the second one: "I wish my Christian co-workers … had more hope in hard times." 'Of all the things people are looking for in us, the one they're most interested in is hope? It seems that when bad things happen in the world—like terrorist attacks or tsunamis—or when bad things happen in life—like sickness or family strife—people are looking to Christians for hope. They are looking for positive perspective on what's happening, for some source of strength or courage. Apparently, it's the very same thing people were looking for back in Peter's day!
Third: "I wish my Christian co-workers … were more curious about the hard questions of life, so that when asked those questions, they would already have answers." There it is again - the fact that people are far more interested in talking about spiritual things than we give them credit for. Many people have no opportunity to do that, and they're wishing that the Christians they knew were more willing to talk about those things, too.
Fourth: "I wish my Christian co-workers … behaved more honorably." It seems that people expect Christ-followers to live distinctive lives and are disappointed when they see no difference in the way we live or work. Suddenly we realize why it's so important that we "set apart Christ as Lord."
Fifth: "I wish my Christian co-workers … were more compassionate." It seems that many Christians come across as harsh, judgmental, insensitive, and intolerant. People aren't bothered by the fact that we're passionate about our faith, they just wish we weren't so hard on people who don't share that faith. Now we know why Peter calls for "gentleness and respect."
Isn't that an interesting list? They didn't say, "I wish Christians would keep their faith to themselves." They didn't say, "I wish Christians would loosen up and party once in a while or bend the rules a bit to close a deal." All they want from us is that we would be true to our faith, honest about our struggles, serious about our work, and respectful of those who see things differently than we do.I found that list so surprising and so consistent with what Peter was saying that I called Randy up and asked him if this was really the list. He assured me that those are the same five things he hears all the time. As we finished our conversation, Randy said that 'there was good news and bad news here. The good news is that Christians still are the "go-to" people when life gets hard and people are looking for answers. The bad news is that when they do look to us for hope or help, they're often disappointed. by the quality of our faith or by our inability to answer their questions.
Are you prepared to give an answer for the hope that you have in Christ? Do you know what you believe and why? Are you able to share your faith with gentleness and respect?
Imagine how meaningful your work would become if you made it your goal every day to work in such a way that you would win the respect of people around you. Imagine how exciting it would be to have one of those people turn to you and ask why. Imagine how good it would feel to give them a gentle and reasonable answer for the hope you have in Christ. Imagine what can happen when we ReImagine our Work.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.