A couple years ago at a clergy retreat I cornered a colleague who had entered pastoral ministry after a previous career with a multinational energy company. At the time, I was preaching to a host of successful businesspeople and needed guidance. “Well, here’s where most of those people are,” my friend said. “They are busy and don’t feel they have the time to be there, but they came. And they are thinking about how the decisions they had to make on Friday are going to play out on Monday.”
The conversation made something I knew the truth of–that people have a life outside of church activities–refreshingly and challengingly concrete.
In How the Church Fails Businesspeople, John C. Knapp tackles the thorny subject of the Church’s role in helping people integrate faith and work in their Christian discipleship.
THE BIG IDEA
“There is arguably no more important issue on the horizon than the church’s need to explain itself — to itself and to others — in a way that connects with where real people spend their daily lives.” (p. 154)
Park-it-at-the-door thinking discourages workers from taking their faith into their workplace. The issue is not only businesses’ resistance for fear of workplace religious discrimination. Virtues like faith, hope, and love can be less-than-compatible with values like “increase shareholder profits.”
At least equally troubling is when the Church exhibits that same park-it thinking, discouraging people from taking their work with them to church. Work is addressed as a place of stress, an opportunity for professional accomplishment, and frankly as something necessary to help fund ministry. But too seldom is work affirmed biblically and theologically, and too often “ministry in the workplace” is limited to evangelistic opportunities, as important as evangelism is. This ignores a need for practical guidance for honoring Christ in making decisions at work, for example. And it misses an opportunity to infuse a larger sense of purpose into people’s relationship with their work.
Knapp arranges the book into two main sections. The first section, “Worlds Apart,” explores the landscape of the problem, surfacing the dynamics of the divide between Sunday and the other six days of the week, including a provocative review of the relationship between money and the Church. The second section, “Towards Coherence,” identifies possibilities for a renewed sense of vocation and moral guidance at work, as well as sharing examples of lay Christians addressing the issue.
“The church’s failure to bridge the gap between pew and workplace is deeply rooted in another issue: the Christian community’s longstanding ambivalence about money.” (p. 45)
An excellent contribution of the book is chapter three, “Uneasy Bedfellows: Money and the Church.” Knapp offers a sweeping survey of the Old and New Testaments, the early Church, the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and the contemporary scene. He traces the evolution of attitudes towards money across these periods, citing major texts and figures and describing changing contexts.
Though brief enough to fit into a single chapter, the presentation is nonetheless rich and will benefit anyone interested in issues of faith and wealth. Knapp’s connection regarding the church’s neglect of ministry that helps people integrate faith and work with the church’s general attitude towards money is a welcome insight.
“In today’s usage, vocation has lost much of this richer meaning and is virtually synonymous with words like occupation and career.” (p. 89)
The church has an “implicit hierarchy of occupations,” which the author charts in an earlier chapter. Missionaries, pastors, and “helping professions” are at the top, relegating business, government, and other work to a lower status in terms of what is important to God. Knapp draws on Karl Barth, in whose understanding, “vocation is a calling that transcends and integrates human spheres of activity and ‘has nothing to do with’ God directing a person ‘to enter a special sphere of work.’” (p. 94) The Church will do well to help people understand their work as a place to live out their calling as Christian disciples to be salt and light in the world.
THE TAKE HOME
“Equipping Christians for vigorous discipleship in public life may be the church’s best hope for bringing the gospel to a world desperately in need of God’s love.” (p. 156)
The subtitle of the book promises help rectifying the failure of the Church faithfully to minister to businesspeople. I found two practical applications especially helpful. The first application is Knapp’s use of Micah 6:8 as a moral framework for helping people assess their Christian responsibility in decision-making at work. As pastors and teachers, we might help people pose the threefold instruction of the prophet as questions: What would doing justice look like in this decision? How might I demonstrate a love for kindness here? Am I truly walking humbly in my dealings at work?
The second application comes from Knapp’s description of Charles Sheldon’s experiences preceding his writing of In His Steps. Sheldon requested and was granted by his congregation in Topeka, Kansas three months’ break from duties apart from weekly preaching in order to spend time researching his people’s daily work. He exposed himself to the wide variety of workplaces: courtroom, factory floor, classroom, shipping truck, boardroom, and first-responders stations, to name but a few. Not only was he able to preach with greater understanding of the people as a result of that investment, he found himself “less inclined to judge [people] harshly or hastily.” (p. 148) This witness reminds me to spend time interfacing with people at and/or about their work.
Knapp’s book is no how-to silver bullet, but it clearly articulates the problem, introduces a framework for addressing it, and invites pastors and churches to join a growing number of Christians who are working to integrate faith and work in their discipleship.