The author of this article is John C. Knapp, Ph.D., University Professor and Mann Family Professor of Ethics and Leadership at Samford University. He also is adjunct professor of Christian ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary. He is author of a forthcoming book, Worlds Apart: How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and what can be done about it). He presently serves on the PCUSA Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy. This article was first published in Church & Society journal of the Presbyterian Church (USA), spring 2006, and is republished here, in a slightly edited form, with the permission of the author and the journal.
Making Faith Relevant to Economic Life: Is The Church Up to The Challenge?
A sales representative for a television station feels conflicted about selling advertising to sponsor programming with content he considers sexually exploitive.
A hospital employee worries that elderly, lower income patients are often neglected and given less post-operative care than others, yet her coworkers accept this inequity as “just the way the system works.”
The owner of a failing business struggles to meet his obligations to creditors, employees and suppliers, while privately weighing the option of a bankruptcy filing.
These thorny situations are among nearly 200 real-life dilemmas recounted by Christians across the country in personal interviews about life in today’s workplace. The research, conducted by doctoral students at Columbia Theological Seminary, explored how church members relate their faith to their daily experiences in occupations ranging from corporate CEOs and elected officials to barbers and bookkeepers.
The diverse respondents had little trouble recalling work-related challenges that were sources of emotional and spiritual stress in their lives.1 Yet few, if any, had turned to a member of clergy for counsel in such a matter. Though most expressed a sincere desire to strengthen the connection between their weekday jobs and their Christian faith, only a handful could recall a single sermon, Sunday school lesson or other effort by the church to bridge these two spheres of their lives.
A study by Doug Sherman and William Hendricks produced similar findings. In a survey of 2,000 people who regularly attend church, 90 percent responded “no” to the question, “Have you ever in your life heard a sermon, read a book, listened to a tape, or been to a seminar that applied biblical principles to everyday work issues?” Their conclusion: “the church has grown virtually silent on the subject of work.”2
The Church’s Responsibilities
Rebecca Blank (see article on page 34) suggests three primary responsibilities of the church in a market-based economic system, which may be summarized as: (1) to help individual Christians participate in economic life in ways that are beneficial to others who may be affected by their actions; (2) to promote the deeply held values of our faith in the marketplace and public square; and (3) to model these values through the conduct of the church’s own business as employer, purchaser and investor. These roles for the church do indeed resonate as appropriate and vital for today’s society. But we must ask ourselves, how well are they actually performed?
Of the three, it is the second – making public statements – that seems most comfortable for mainline denominations. It may also be argued that it is the easiest. Our leading denominations do not hesitate to issue pronouncements on macro-systemic concerns like fair trade, environmental sustainability and global human rights. To be sure, these are critical issues on which the church’s voice should be heard. But how often, and how well, do we connect the dots from grand policy statements to real people in the pews?
There is much evidence, including our field study with lay people, to suggest shortcomings in the other two areas of responsibility. Asked why they had not turned to the church for help navigating the ethical waters of their work lives, our interviewees voiced several common concerns, from a perceived lack of interest by clergy to misgivings about the church’s own business practices.
Our researchers – nearly all of whom were parish ministers pursuing the Doctor of Ministry degree – were astonished to discover a widespread perception that pastors have little or no interest in church members’ work lives. One respondent summed it up this way: “I did not approach the church because ethical issues in business are not of interest to any preacher I know. There is more of an emphasis on your family and how you live your personal life.” Another echoed this view; “My pastor has no idea what I do for a living, and has never shown any interest in finding out by starting a conversation on the subject. He knows a great deal about my family though.” A woman executive was even more frank. “[My] minister is not in tune with today’s workplace and could not relate,” she said. “So it would be better to talk with someone who would automatically understand without getting me frustrated.”
There were also many who thought their churches’ own way of doing business left much to be desired. One active church member asked, “How well does the church conduct its business affairs? Would any of their practices be relevant for the world?” Another complained, “The church’s support comes from businesspeople, but we are not always confident the church uses that money responsibly.” And one said simply, “The church is not a good example itself.”
For nearly all the pastors conducting these interviews, these were the first serious conversations they had initiated with lay people on the subject of ethics in business life. Not coincidentally, the conversations were also the first on this topic that most lay people ever had with a member of clergy. “Ethical and moral issues seem to abound within the business community, both profit and non-profit,” noted one pastor, “and the overwhelming conclusion is that the church is not addressing these concerns. But the reason why is still a difficult question to answer.”
It may be difficult, but it is not a new question for writers and scholars who have given it renewed attention in recent years. Edward R. Dayton observes, “Few churches appreciate their business people as a window on the world and fewer still provide business people with opportunities to discuss in depth the integration of business and Christian values.”3 Similarly, research by Harvard Professor Laura Nash and Scotty McLennan found that many Christians are “looking for ways to live their Christian beliefs and values at work, as they do at home and at church.” Yet despite their best efforts, “even deeply faithful Christians in business tend to feel a strong disconnect between their experience of the church or private faith, and the spirit-challenging conditions of the workplace.”4
Embracing the Tension
Some Christians in business cope with this feeling by concluding the claims of faith and the realities of business life are irreconcilable, finally relegating them to separate compartments. The dangerous result, as the theologian Helmut Thielicke warns, is the “establishment of a temporal sphere in which the radical commandments of the Sermon on the Mount do not seem to apply, a sphere which consequently cannot be called into question.”5
Observes David A. Krueger, “For some people religious life and business practice are integrally related in a creative tension. For others – both clergy and business professionals – the worlds of church and corporate life are galaxies apart, separated by ignorance, hostility, apathy, language, interests, values.” The solution, he argues, is to forge “a proper connection between the church and the world of business . . . that is both prophetic and supportive, critical and constructive.”6
In other words, we must embrace the tension inherent in the relationship. This is no easy task for the individual Christian. And it can be even more challenging for the church, since embracing this tension requires us to come to grips with our own personal and institutional complicity in the very things we condemn. It also means we must let go of any naïve illusion that we are somehow in a position to critique the economic system from a safe distance.
Given the demographics of our membership, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is ideally positioned to engage business and professional leaders in actively exploring the relevance of the gospel to human existence in a global, increasingly market-driven economy. While we are issuing bold public statements on macro-systemic issues, should not Presbyterians also be in conversation with one another about the realities of economic life at the micro level? Can we really hope to combat economic injustice without enrolling business leaders in the effort? After all, aren’t all of us – clergy and laity alike – willing participants (and beneficiaries of) this unjust system?
There is inevitably more tension and discomfort as we move the conversation closer to the micro level where each of us actually live. Yet it is a tension that we must not seek to escape as we bring the proclaimed gospel to a hurting world.
Opportunity and Hope
Courageous conversations of this kind may not come naturally for many of in the church. They require openness to mutual learning by clergy and laity alike. Our field interviews confirmed and expanded upon what other researchers have learned: That most pastors are ill prepared to assist parishioners in their efforts to connect their faith and work lives. This weakness emerges in sharp relief against the broad landscape of ethical challenges routinely encountered in the workplace. For when the Christian is in the teeth of an ethical dilemma, he or she often feels a heightened tension between the claims of faith and demands of work, a circumstance that may actually give rise to a greater opportunity for meaningful engagement with the church. But this will only be achieved if many in the church alter their thinking about ministry with businesspeople, approaching them as willing listeners, mutual learners and valued partners in bringing justice and love to others struggling to be human in our digitized, super sized, globalized economic system.
For clergy, several lessons emerge from our conversations with church members. Many working people struggle to make their faith relevant to the activity that involves most of their waking hours and productive years, yet there is a common feeling that the church is somewhat indifferent to their plight. This perception has deep roots in the history and culture of our churches; and many pastors unwittingly reinforce it by failing to take an active interest in parishioners’ work lives. Those who wish to make ministry more relevant to economic life might begin by asking two questions: How often – and how well – do I preach about the relationship of Christian faith to the sometimes-harsh realities of today’s workplaces? And, how much do I know – and care – about the weekday challenges and aspirations of the people with whom I minister on Sunday morning?
The lessons for the denomination are just as essential. Our current situation is apparent in the dearth of resources provided to support local churches and pastors in relating the gospel to the challenges of economic life experienced by most Presbyterians. Our priorities may also be inferred from the slew of position papers and other denominational documents calling for actions by the United Nations or the White House, but saying little or nothing about the opportunity for individual Presbyterians to influence the corporations, professional firms, government offices and other institutions that so many inhabit in their daily lives.
Seldom has the church been so tested by its economic context. Yet we do have special responsibilities. Responsibilities to help individual Christians participate as agents of the gospel in a system that so often fosters injustice. And responsibilities to model, as an institution, the values and practices we aspire to see others adopt.
1 Other issues cited were financial fraud, product safety, race discrimination, conflicts of interest, employee dismissals, bankruptcy, tax evasion, privacy violations, fair pricing, debt collection, resume fraud and sex harassment, among others.
2 Doug Sherman and William Hendricks, Your Work Matters to God, Your Work Matters to God (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1987), 16.
3 Edward R. Dayton, Succeeding in Business Without Losing Your Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992), 123-24.
4 Laura Nash and Scotty McClennan, Church on Sunday, Work on Monday: The Challenge of Fusing Christian Values with Business Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), 5.
5 Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics, Vol. I, ed. William H. Lazareth (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 364.
6 David A Krueger, “Connecting Ministry with the Corporate World,” in On Moral Business, ed. Max L. Stackhouse, et. al. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1995), 882.