WWJD – What would Jesus do? Most people are familiar with the popular Evangelical movement that sprang up in the ‘90s, inviting people to ask this question about daily life decisions. Many people are aware that this movement was rooted in Charles Sheldon’s best-selling novel, “In His Steps,” written in 1896, featuring a minster who encourages parishioners to ask this question throughout their daily lives for a year. What many may not be aware of is the event that transformed Sheldon life and led him to write the book.
How could your local church better help people connect the worlds of faith and work? Are their things being done in your congregation, or in other congregations, that we all might learn from? What obstacles do you see in having the courageous conversations Knapp describes? What thoughts do you have about how we might create congregations with a more inclusive narrative? This being the last post, what do you make of Knapp’s thesis for this book?
Today we continue with the eighth and final chapter of John Knapp’s, How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and what can be done about it), titled “The Church’s Potential.” Knapp summarizes for us what he thinks our next steps are. He begins by recounting the events that shaped Charles Sheldon’s life.
Knapp explains that Charles Sheldon was minister in Topeka, KS, in 1889. He wanted to make his ministry relevant to the everyday lives of his parishioners. He asked to be relieved of all but his preaching duties for twelve weeks. He spent those twelve weeks going to every part of town to learn how people lived and made a living. He spent a week as a homeless person looking for work. He hung out with streetcar workers on the job. He attended classes at the local college. He spent time in the African-American part of town. He lived with railroad workers, firemen, brakemen, switchmen, yardmen, and engineers. He spent time with lawyers and doctors. He spent time with businessmen in real estate, accounting, dry goods, hardware, and other fields. He ran a printing press.
Sheldon credited this experience with helping him to see the reality of his parishioners and it made him better able to preach and minister to his congregation. And I love this story Knapp tells:
“Lest we underestimate the impact of Sheldon’s project, consider this. Upon learning that black children were woefully behind their white peers in academic achievement, partly because many of their mothers worked during the day to help support their families, Sheldon set out to establish the first African-American kindergarten west of the Mississippi to provide early-childhood care and better education. Among its graduates was Elisha Scott, who went on to law school with Sheldon’s help and later gave the name Charles Sheldon Scott to his son, a future lawyer who in 1954 successfully argued the Brown vs. Board of Education case before the United States Supreme Court, effectively ending school segregation in America.” (149)
[Note: Sheldon’s 1890, Andover Review article, “Practical Sociological Studies,” the source of Knapp’s discussion, can be found here. On a related note, I recommend Alain de Botton’s, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, (a philosophical rather than theological work), a travelogue through several modern professions that is both humorous and moving.]
Knapp is not suggesting that each minister needs to take a similar three month sabbatical but he does suggest that pastors make an effort to get into the workplace and talk to people about their work lives. For several years I’ve sensed that until people see a profound connection between their daily work and God’s Kingdom, the church will always be something supplemental to “real life.” I strongly identify with Knapp’s speculation that, “A serious emphasis on faith at work may actually be a catalyst for the church’s larger mission.” (150) So where should the church begin?
Knapp points us back to earlier chapters. We need for churches to think about how they can enliven the moral dimensions he highlighted in Chapter 6: Moral discernment, moral discourse, moral influence, moral encouragement, and moral example. But beyond that, he points us to four essentials to consider.
“We have seen what lay leaders can accomplish by pouring their energies into ministries outside their own churches. If the culture of the institution is to change, lay leadership will be indispensable in helping the clergy rethink some of the timeworn ecclesiastical assumptions about the priorities of ministry. … The credibility and insights of lay leadership in faith-at-work ministries cannot be underestimated.” (150-151)
We need space for conversations we all know need to happen but are not happening. The church doesn’t talk about vocation, business, or money. These conversations are going to make pastors and businesspeople alike uncomfortable. Included in these conversations will be how people handle their own money as well as how the church handles its own business practices.
Once the church begins to learn how to handle the internal dialog, it will need to engage the community. Knapp lifts up Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s (in New York City) Center for Faith and Work as one model. The Center offers forums for dialog on a being a Christian in a variety of industries. Through their Gotham Fellowship, they offer a nine-month training program helping young-adults integrate work and life in a variety of fields.
The images, rituals, and language of worship are disconnected from the reality of work life. We (and particularly pastors) have to be intentional about tearing down the dualities that we have created between work and worship. Knapp reminds us about the possibility of commissioning services. Sermons, prayers, and hymns that incorporate an integrated perspective need to be brought into worship.
A More Inclusive Narrative
What is the church’s narrative of itself? Visit a congregation’s website. You will find pictures of people in worship, attending bible studies, youth groups, mission trips, pastors, and possibly a mission worker or two. What you will not find is pictures of people at work!
Personally, I think folks should do as I did (though not on purpose) and read the “King Jesus Gospel” and Knapp’s book together. Our work is a central expression of living as citizens of the Kingdom of God.
Finally at the closing of the book he writes about young adults:
“… for the millennials are far less willing than their predescessors to divide their lives into two worlds. “Many millennials see their careers and personal life as one,” writes Ron Alsop in his book The Trophy Kids Grow Up. “They don’t talk about balancing work and life but rather about blending them.” (155)
Curiously, the failure of congregations and denominations to nurture integrated lives may lead not only to fragmented lives but also to the demise of the very structures that have ignored this reality.
Because of my work in the hierarchy of the PCUSA I have been a party to many conversations about the status of the church (the PCUSA being one expression) in our culture and the church’s future. If there is one thing I keep coming back to it is the presence of two disconnects.
First is the disconnect people feel between their daily lives and the mission of God. Knapp has focused on businesspeople. While most of us may not be businesspeople with a capital “B,” most of us do work in business settings where integration of work with faith is a challenge. Knapp’s concerns and suggested responses can be pressed in other vocational directions as well.
Second is the disconnect in the institutions of the church about the work and faith disconnection! Knapp nails it with this quote I included in the previous post.
“Diehl, Hammond, Butt, and others like them erected a platform of ideas that has allowed a multifaceted movement to thrive through the initiative and leadership of laypeople. The institutional church, meanwhile, has been less than enthusiastic about these ideas, preferring to redefine lay ministry as more active involvement in existing church programs. ‘Whether church professionals never fully absorbed that, by definition, the location of lay ministry was extrinsic to the gathered church or whether they were threatened by a loss of power and control is open to debate,’ writes [David] Miller.” (125)
My experience is that when I share my concerns about lack of integration in our daily lives with working people I frequently see a hunger to learn more. There is an eruption of both excitement and frustration. When I talk with church professionals, I have the sense that I might as well be speaking Martian. Sometimes there is a head nod toward the issue. Sometimes there is patient listening. But in the end, the critical issues on the agenda are how to improve the worship service, the youth programs, sharing of faith stories, summer mission trips, compassionate ministries, and justice advocacy efforts. Surely if we just did these things better, more people would come.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there is no merit to wrestling with these programmatic issues. There is. I’m saying that focusing on these issues to the exclusion of nurturing people to live integrated lives as citizens of God’s Kingdom is pure folly. The image of a failing car company obsessing over body design, airbag safety, and suspension systems for vehicles that have no engines pops into mind. Until this changes, the steady stream of people out the back door of our churches into the ranks of the “religious but unchurched” will not stem and young adults will at best see the church as interesting anachronism.
I’m hitting the institutional church pretty hard. I don’t want to be unfair. I do see a pastor here and there in my own PCUSA tribe who is deeply wrestling with this stuff. I encounter an occasional denominational official who gets these issues. They span a range of political and theological leanings. I’m personally grateful to have a pastor who is tuned into these issues, who is deeply rethinking what his role is, and continues to gently nudge our congregation in new ways of thinking and being. I don’t think it is fair to paint a monolithic picture of despair among my tribe or the tribes of others, but the challenges are big.
I will offer one last concern. I’m all for para-church organizations. They play an indispensable role. Still, worshiping communities are an essential expression of the Kingdom of God. A central feature of baptism is making a visible identification with the community that God has gathered to give witness to his Kingdom.
I’m uneasy with how disconnected some expressions of the faith at work movement are from worshiping communities. There is a danger of setting up yet another dualism. We can end up having a para-church community of like-minded people for support at work, and a worshiping community that supplies us with a range of religiosity goods. That conveniently insulates our like-minded community from having to reflect on challenges that those outside our community might raise, while freeing us from the honest conversations that need to be had so that people within the worshiping community may learn from us. It becomes just one more exercise in compartmentalization. Knapp has pointed us in some directions of first steps for finding coherence, not just as individuals, but for the church. We will need winsome advocates from the business community who will actively engage in the patient work of reintegration in the institutional church, even as they are open to being transformed by God through the church.
There you have it. If you haven’t bought the book, now would be a good time. My thanks to Scot for making Jesus Creed available for this discussion. My thanks to John Knapp for having written such an important conversation starter. And thanks to all of you for conversation throughout this series.