November-December 1998


Christians At Work

Does religion have any place at work? Millions of Christians are finding their faith can play a role on the job.

by Monte Wolverton

Christianity has invaded the workplace. All over the country, along with briefcases and lunch boxes, people are bringing their religion to work.

A company president in Reston, Virginia prays for his employees in a small group session in his office every morning.

A group of employees at a gas company meets twice a week for prayer and Bible study -- in a corporate conference room.

A CEO in Los Angeles bases his compensation, customer service and vendor relations on biblical principles.

But what's so unusual about believers in the business world? Haven't Christians been working for nearly 2,000 years? Didn't Jesus himself spend 20 years of his life laboring in his family carpentry business prior to his ministry? Haven't Christians followed his example, as well as the many biblical admonitions toward diligence and hard work?

Yes. In fact, the "Protestant work ethic" has guided traditional labor and management practice in North America. As late as the first part of this century, it was not uncommon for companies to endorse Christian principles of honesty, integrity and loyalty, though the prevailing management style was more authoritarian.

As the 20th century wore on, however, pragmatism replaced principle. The bottom line -- profit -- became the driving force. Business lost whatever soul it had.

That's what makes the recent inroads of Christianity into the workplace significant. The last five years have witnessed increasing numbers of:

  • men and women who overtly run their careers and businesses by Christian principles;
  • believers who are not afraid to share their faith with coworkers and business associates;
  • prayer and Bible studies on the premises of large corporations.

According to a recent study by the Norwalk, Connecticut-based research firm, Yankelovich Partners, 70% of those surveyed said they had discussed their faith at work, and 55% of respondents said they had prayed for career guidance.

What's behind this wave of worship and faith in the workplace? The downsizings of the '90s demonstrated that workers can't rely on companies or careers for security. The secular workplace has let people down. Additionally, stress is a common factor in nearly all places of work. Many feel a need to reintegrate the spiritual into their professional lives.

From a corporate standpoint, stressed, disillusioned workers cost more in health care and decreased productivity. Virtually anything that reduces stress and increases productivity is attractive to management, so an increasing number of corporations are finding it in their best interest to allow some spirituality in the workplace. Simply providing a room for a lunchtime prayer group is an inexpensive alternative to morale-building seminars or sick leave.

The phenomenon is not restricted to Christianity, however. Islamic, Jewish and Buddhist believers are making their presence known as well. And -- depending on the nature of the company -- what employers do for one group they are usually obliged to do for others, or else face allegations of unfairness.

For some employers, the trend is disturbing. They are plagued by visions of competing zealots standing on soapboxes waving Bibles or Korans in coworkers' faces, more intent on winning souls than winning sales.

That's why wise and mature Christians are trying to send a clear message to managers and executives that employees who practice genuine Christianity are a valuable asset -- excellent workers who are genuinely concerned about their jobs, companies and coworkers.

In other words, if people don't know that you care, they won't care what you know.

The facets of Christianity at work are many and varied. We survey a few of the major aspects in this article.

Small Groups

Until recent years, Bible study and prayer groups were relatively rare in secular organizations. Now, it's common for employers to grant space for these activities. Companies as large and diverse as Boeing, Southern California Gas, and Disney are allowing Christian groups to meet during lunch breaks.

Bible study groups usually follow some sort of curriculum, and can also attract non-Christians who are curious about the Bible. Prayer groups tend to be more intimate, with participants sharing personal and institutional concerns.

Alan Skinner works for Black and Veatch, a Kansas City, Kansas, engineering firm.

"We have about 2,500 people here. Out of those there are several dozen that get together at lunch for Bible study," reports Skinner. "Our goal is to use the company auditorium, which seats 250."

Cynthia Allen, an insurance agent for Fullerton & Company in Portland, Oregon, coordinates a weekly office Bible study group.

"About three years ago," says Allen, "I asked our CEO if I could put out a bulletin inviting employees to an optional luncheon to discuss prayer -- on the National Day of Prayer. Thirteen people came, and we had a great discussion. Afterwards, several people wanted to start a regular Bible study. I asked our CEO, and he said okay. That's how we started. We've studied things such as women in the Bible, controlling emotions on the job and Christian ethics for the workplace."

Allen credits the Bible study group with improved office relationships. "I've gotten to know my coworkers on an entirely different level. If someone from the study group is having a bad day, I feel like I can encourage them through Christian principles or Scripture."

Even employees who are not professing Christians have expressed interest in the group.

"People are looking for something to re-center their lives around. A lot more people are open to Christianity than we think."

Others with experience in Christian workplace groups offer this advice:

  • Invite -- don't solicit. Solicitation of people to participate in your group may result in their feeling pressured, especially if you have a supervisory role. Some employees may feel that their jobs are in jeopardy if they don't attend.
  • Be professional. Prayer before a business meeting, even in companies with roots in Christianity, may be viewed as unprofessional and may jeopardize any good feelings non-Christian coworkers might have toward Christianity. Be sure that (1) open prayer is okay in the corporate culture and (2) all parties involved desire open prayer.
    Some managers have attached prayer sessions to mandatory meetings. The negative results of such well-intentioned but unwise actions are predictable.

Chapel Services

Once thought of as belonging in educational or religious institutions, chapel services are becoming regular events in some secular organizations, although such organizations are usually Christian-owned.

Chapel was a venerated tradition at Union Equity Cooperative Exchange. The Enid, Oklahoma-based grain storage company began each workday for 66 years with 10-minute chapel services. The custom continued until 1992, when the business was sold. Longtime employee John Ferguson recalls: "All 300-400 employees had the opportunity to give a devotion, read a scripture or give a prayer. Pretty much all of them participated. It started the day off right."

The employees were not the only ones impacted by the daily chapel custom. Says Ferguson: "Salesmen, contractors and other visitors were always taken aback by the fact that each grain elevator had a designated chapel. All that was carried on in that room was daily devotions.

"I wish more businesses did that. It's always good when you can bring your faith in the Lord into the workplace."

Christian Products

In recent years, people have become a lot more open about sharing their faith. To meet the demand, the marketplace has exploded with Christian products -- everything from Bibles, books and magazines to posters with scriptures or Christian slogans, Christian T-shirts, hats, coffee mugs and jewelry. All of these visibly identify their owners as Christian -- and may tend to invite conversation.

Experienced Christian workers offer this advice:

  • Use discretion. It may be okay to place a tastefully designed Scripture plaque on your desk, but it may be distracting to coworkers to tack up a huge "Jesus Saves" poster on the outside of your cubicle. It may be equally unwise to slip gospel tracts into coworkers' in-boxes.
  • Comply with company policies. While secular companies can't discriminate on the basis of religion, companies do have the right, for example, to restrict all religious slogans on T-shirts or other articles of clothing worn by employees.

Christian Actions

When company policy won't allow Bible studies, prayer groups or visible religious elements, "all that's left" is how well you do the job and how you treat other people, including the boss. Ultimately, these are the most important forms of Christianity in the workplace -- as well as the most challenging ones to practice.

Unfortunately, Christians have often been perceived as less than competent in the business world. Some Christian voices are calling for a new emphasis on vocational and business skills in young people, so they can make a significant difference in the workplace. Writing in the Life@Work Journal, television producer and author Bob Briner counsels, "Churches, Christian colleges and parents must show young people that it is not only OK to aspire to a life of business leadership, but that it can be a life of service and ministry on at least the same level as the pulpit ministry or foreign missions."

In fact, behavior and competence are the only aspects of workplace Christianity specifically addressed in Scripture. Paul advises Titus, a pastor on the Island of Crete, "Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive" (Titus 2:9-10).

Further, Paul writes to the believers in Ephesus: "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.

"Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him" (Ephesians 6:5-9).

These ancient instructions for Christian bondservants and masters still apply when adapted for Christian employees and managers in today's workplace.

Christian-Owned Businesses

Perhaps no group is more acutely aware of the meaning of these scriptures than the CEOs and executives in the growing number of Christian-owned secular businesses. Because they desire to create Christ-like companies, these men and women practice industrial-strength Christianity.

Robert Norlund is chief executive of Association Reserves, a Calabasas, California-based firm engaged in long-term financial planning for community associations. He is also a Christian, which means his business is driven by a different set of priorities.

"I enjoy making a profit," says Norlund, "but, I have to take care of my employees. These are the people God has given me to work with. My ministry is to my employees, my vendors and suppliers, my competitors and my clients -- that's my mission field."

Norlund feels a Christian responsibility to look out for the interests of his competitors -- the modern corporate application of Jesus' instruction to love one's enemies.

"We had a crisis last year when our biggest competitor closed his doors. My office manager and I had an impromptu prayer meeting. It would have been so easy for me to be a vulture and just swoop down and cannibalize what was left of his business."

Norlund also sees a Christian imperative to keep a healthy balance between business and home life.

"I may have a wonderful business opportunity, but if it means I don't get home until 10 p.m., then I've lost my balance. God gave me a wonderful wife and family. I have to give my attention to them also."

Thousands of Christian CEOs and executives like Norlund are linked by a number of associations, such as the 1,500-member, Atlanta-based Fellowship of Companies for Christ International (FCCI), and Faith at Work, which provides a variety of resources and seminars for Christian CEOs, executives and managers.

Christian Ministries

One final aspect of Christianity in the workplace is the burgeoning number of businesses that serve the Christian marketplace by providing publications and many other products and services, as mentioned earlier.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the semi-annual Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) trade shows, where over a thousand manufacturers and publishers display their wares to thousands of Christian bookstore buyers.

John Paul Brownlow is vice president of Brownlow, an inspirational book and gift company based in Fort Worth, Texas. A member of CBA since 1976, the Brownlow company has seen big changes in the Christian products industry.

"Twenty years ago, the Christian gift and book market was small and exclusive," recalls Brownlow, "with relatively poor quality products. But the quality has risen. Now, when people go into a Christian bookstore, they expect the same level of service and ambiance as any other store."

According to Brownlow, the reason for the change is that "life is getting more difficult -- people are looking for something bigger than themselves. There's such an interest in inspirational products today that companies that were selling in only the Christian market are now selling the same products in the general market."

Another company that has crossed over from the Christian to the general market is the 200-year-old Thomas Nelson Company, the world's largest Christian publisher and one of the largest publishers in the United States (see accompanying sidebar on page 21).

As Christians continue to take a more prominent role in the world of business, they are certainly fulfilling the words of our Lord: "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:14-16).

Jesus seems to be suggesting that Christians are most effective when they are interacting with the world -- influencing those about them, proclaiming the gospel through their work.

If Christians use these new opportunities wisely, it may be that the future of evangelism lies as much in the place of work as it does in the place of worship.


For further reading: Loving Monday: Succeeding in Business Without Selling Your Soul, by John D. Beckett, Intervarsity Press. Christians in the Workplace, a study series by Roberta Bonnici, Gospel Publishing House. Transforming the Workplace for Christ, Bill Nix, Broadman and Holman.

8 TIPS FOR WORKING CHRISTIANS

1) Do what you were hired to do, and do it with excellence. Ask for a clear job description in writing, so you know what is expected.

2) Accept people as they are rather than trying to change them. Model Christ-like behavior and concern.

3) Improve your skills. Stay current on trends, equipment and people in your line of work. Not only will this help you serve your current employer better, but it will keep you marketable and confident.

4) Avoid any appearance of dishonesty or ethical compromise -- even if your boss should request it.

5) Keep a daily log of your business activities and important conversations for later reference.

6) Invite, rather than solicit people to join in your prayer or Bible study group. Be gracious if a person declines your invitation.

7) If your job is overly stressful or ethically compromising, consider looking for something better.

8) Make sure you're in the right job. Do your aptitudes and personality match your career? Contact a career counselor or psychologist regarding these several tests which can help lead you to a career path more in keeping with your gifts:

  • Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory
  • The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
  • California Psychological Inventory
  • Caliper Profile
  • Reid Integrity Scale

A Christian Business Success Story

Sam Moore is CEO of the 200-year-old Thomas Nelson Publishers, the largest publicly held Christian publishing company in the world. Both the Nelson company and Moore have compelling stories.

The company was founded in1798 by Thomas Nelson, an 18-year-old farm boy with a second-hand bookstall in Edinburgh. Scotland. The Nelson company grew by selling religious works and other books at affordable prices. In 1850, the company revolutionized the publishing industry with the rotary web printing press. In 1901, Nelson introduced the American Standard Version of the Bible, and in1946, the Revised Standard Version.

Raised in Lebanon, Sam Moore immigrated to America in 1950 with only $600. To pay his way through college, Moore sold Bibles door to door. In 1957, after earning a masters degree, Moore started his own Bible and book sales business. Thirteen years later, Moore bought the Thomas Nelson company.

Under Sam Moore's energetic leadership, Thomas Nelson has seen many innovations including the introduction of The New King James Version ©. The company is the world's leading Bible publisher, with over 1,300 editions and formats of the eight leading translations. Nelson is also a leading publisher of Christian books and a major supplier in the burgeoning Christian gift market.

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