Christians can inspire curiosity about why work matters
In a previous piece we wrote about how Christians across the United States want their churches to affirm the value of their work. This was based on a nation-wide survey and over 200 interviews that I (Denise) have been conducting over the past several years as part of Faith at Work: An Empirical Study. In addition to wanting encouragement and support for their work, our Christian respondents also expressed a desire for guidance from their churches on how to engage their faith at work.
Guidance for how to engage faith and work, at work
Particularly, people told us they wanted direction about how to navigate the topic of faith and work actually in the workplace. But the kind of guidance they were looking for seemed to vary by age. Younger people (20s and 30s) wanted guidance about how to understand and respect others in a pluralistic workplace, while those in their 40s and older were more likely to want guidance about how to share their faith at work in a non-offensive way.
Younger people were attuned to the range of religious identity in the US and expressed an interest in understanding the faith of others. They wanted to know from their pastors how best to communicate respect for non-Christian beliefs and faith commitments. This sentiment was fairly representative of the younger respondents who emphasized understanding and respecting religious differences in the workplace. It was uncommon for a Christian young person to say anything about sharing their beliefs with those from other faith traditions.
In contrast, older respondents – particularly those from Evangelical churches – were more likely to look to their church community for concrete suggestions on how to share their faith in the workplace “and not get fired or offend everyone around you,” as one 40-year old corporate trainer put it. Of course people in this group were also cognizant of the range of beliefs or lack of beliefs represented in the workplace. But rather than wanting to know how to have non-judgmental conversations about religion, we heard more from this group about their desire to communicate their own faith in a way that was not off-putting. A woman in her 50s wanted to learn about other religions from her church so that she would know “how as a Christian to reach those people,” while a man in his 60s wanted churches to “train people in the way to present the gospel in a manner of an invitation instead of like a coercion.”
Both older and younger workers want the church to provide direction about how to engage winsomely (and legally!) with those who do not share their Christian faith. The emphasis for younger workers tended toward understanding those who were different from themselves, while for older workers it was more likely to be motivated by a desire to communicate their own faith to others.
Neighborly love and the church’s response
Given that we are both in the “40 and older” crowd, you won’t be surprised that we would encourage Christians to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others, including, when appropriate, others in the workplace. This conviction comes from our belief that what God did, is doing, and will do through Christ is a (true) story worth telling. Those who don’t know this story deserve to hear it.
Ironically, though, perhaps the best starting point for this kind of storytelling is precisely what folks in their 20s and 30s are wanting from their churches. The research shows that younger generations want help with understanding and respecting the religious (and non-religious) views and experiences of others. This is not something most Christians have done particularly well in the past, partly because of our zeal to share our own good news. But, in today’s world, if you want others to care about what you believe, you’d best begin by genuinely caring about what they believe.
This isn’t just a strategy for evangelism, however. It isn’t merely a faith-sharing technique. Rather, it’s a way to show profound respect and love to others, the kind of neighborly love Jesus expects of his disciples. One of the most effective ways we can express love for others is by caring about their lives, their experiences, their longings and losses, and their core beliefs. This sort of care requires active listening, asking before telling, and truly wanting to know more about what matters most to other people, including but not limited to their religious convictions and practices.
When it comes to sharing our faith with others, we need simply to be honest. If we express genuine interest in others, chances are they will return the favor (not always, of course, but often). There is no better opportunity to talk about our faith than when someone asks about it. If we have shown respect to others, it’s likely they will show respect to us. That’s a strong foundation for sharing the good news of God’s love in Christ.
Inspire curiosity about why work matters
Moreover, if our Christian faith helps us make spiritual sense of our work, if it gives deeper meaning and purpose to our occupational endeavors (and the research also suggests Christians want their churches to help with this kind of sensemaking), then our colleagues might well be curious about our faith because of the way it shapes our experience of work. Most people want their work to mean something more than income generation and career advancement. But, in many cases, they don’t have a worldview that gives work eternal meaning and value. So, we don’t have to plop a big Bible down in our cubicle in order to intrigue our colleagues about our faith. Rather, we need to work in such a way, and talk about work in such a way, that folks might want to know more about why we work and talk as we do. Again, this opens up an opportunity, not to start preaching in the company coffee bar, but rather to speak openly about our faith and how it matters to our work. We’re not trying to win a debate, but rather to open our hearts and minds to others so that they might see in us something of the presence of Jesus Christ.
In response to the desires of all generations, churches can and should help their congregants learn how to develop authentic, mutual, respectful, and caring relationships with others, including folks at work. This is an essential element of Christian discipleship, after all. It’s loving your neighbors and yourself, not just so you can talk with them about your faith, but so that you can communicate to them their inestimable value as people bearing the image of God, and so that you can honor Christ through obedience and imitation.
 Faith at Work: An Empirical Study is a research project funded by the Lilly Endowment, and conducted by Elaine Howard Ecklund, Rice University (PI), and Denise Daniels, Wheaton College (co-PI)