Taking Jesus to Work
The connection between faith and the workplace flows two ways. Some Christians take their religion into the workplace. I have attended Bible study groups that met at lunch break in a factory, and prayer groups in a hospital employees' lounge. Participants use the language of the church: they talk almost as if their workplace were an extension of their Sunday schools. When starting these groups, most believers expect to be criticized or actively avoided by their colleagues. But, with rare exceptions, they find acceptance and affirmation (as long as the group does not become divisive or critical of others). I have usually found participants in these groups to be theologically conservative members of churches. These groups do not aim to convert colleagues or be a substitute for Sunday worship. Rather, they offer an ecumenical fellowship of kindred spirits that can reassure the faithful in secular surroundings.
More frequently, I have seen Christians bring their workplace to the church. Sometimes work-related concerns make up the primary focus of an adult Sunday school class or other educational program. I have been invited to numerous church-school classes on such topics as work-world ethics and Christian perspectives on human relations. Discussions in these groups often move from workplace problems to the resources that faith can provide. I have seen Bible classes move just as quickly from the sacred text to members' life experiences. Recently I heard a discussion about Peter's vision of unclean foods (Acts 11) develop suddenly into an exchange about the once excluded who are now accepted and even honored in the workplace. One white man recounted a Peter's dream of his own: "First we accepted blacks, then women and now homosexuals. As Peter was told, 'What God has accepted you cannot call unclean.'" Traffic goes both ways on the bridge between faith and the workplace.
Work-talk in church occurs not only in organized classes but crops up in informal conversations in the aisles and hallways, during the coffee hour and in the parking lot. Although some of these conversations are on technical issues, like computer memories and bank financing, most are stories about people--how we treat others and how we are treated by our supervisors and co-workers.
These stories echo some of the classic themes of church life. Some are about the meaning of belonging in the community of the workplace. Church people talk about the leaders who make the rules, the brass who enforce them and the employees who get away with murder. When the bosses, like pastors, make fair rules and live by them, employees treat each other and themselves better. People also talk about acceptance in their workplaces. When they trade stories about the heroes of their careers--what it takes to succeed in their jobs--they seem to be asking, in a secular context, "What must I do to be saved?" They also swap stories about community and love--telling of the support that their employers did (or did not) give them during sickness, divorce or other life crises.
Some congregants cluster together because of similarities in their work. Teachers gather in one corner, civil servants in another. Many congregations encourage these subgroups to support each other in their workplace struggles and to "take it to the Lord in prayer. "I have participated in powerful worship services that were organized by workers seeking to share before God the trials and celebrations of their work. One congregation held a worship service led by various medical employees--physicians, nurses, orderlies and support staff. A doctor preached on "healing by faith" (reaching beyond technical wisdom) and an orderly prayed for "God's own family of helping hands." Participants' stories of work-related experiences were grounded in faith.
Max Weber, attempting in an earlier era to show the power of the link between faith and work, devised the idea of the "Protestant work ethic." More recently, in Common Fire: Lives of Commitment in a Complex World (1996), Laurent A. Parks Daloz, Cheryl M. Keen, James P. Keen and Sharon Daloz Parks study a cross section of people from many walks of life who have through their work made a unique and lasting impact on their communities. Far from the individualistic, competitive spirit that characterizes our time, these quiet leaders live out communal values like commitment, confession, compassion and courage. Their strength, say the authors, lies in their "ethical congruence between life and work... a certain seamlessness between what they professed and how they lived."
Sometimes we take faith to our workplace, and sometimes we take our workplace to our church. But faith hasn't really happened until that "certain seamlessness" marks our lives.