How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and what can be done about it)

Frozen assets?

How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and What Can Be Done About It)
John C. Knapp

Heard a sermon about work lately? Ever been encouraged from the pulpit to regard your job as a ministry? If yes, you are among the fortunate few, according to John C. Knapp. He spends a good part of this sprightly book lamenting the church’s failure to affirm the daily work of its members.

The provocative title singles out businesspeople, but Knapp is talking about anyone with an “ordinary” job. The church, he says, has been strangely silent about the daily “nine-to-five” work of its members, leading many Christians to feel uncertain about the shape of discipleship in the workplace. Not only has the church let its workers down, it also has missed a wonderful opportunity to expand its mission and boost its relevance to an increasingly detached generation.

“I believe the church has largely failed Christians who struggle daily to live out their faith commitments in their places of employment,” Knapp writes.

He bases much of his critique on a nationwide survey he conducted at Samford University, Birmingham, Ala. Interviews with 230 people about their experience of work and church yielded two striking conclusions. One, people readily identified ethical challenges they faced at work. Two, the church had not been much help in addressing them, had done little to equip them for faithful living at work, and didn’t seem to even care about the stresses of their Monday-to-Friday world.

“Our researchers discovered a widely held perception of clergy being disinterested [sic] in church members’ work lives,” Knapp writes. “What’s more, no respondent could recall a sermon or lesson at church that specifically addressed business or workplace issues….” A scant few (18 out of 230) had ever felt comfortable consulting a pastor for advice about work-related matters.

Knapp attributes part of the problem to an unspoken spiritual “caste system” or hierarchy of occupations where full-time clergy and missionaries rank highest on the spirituality scale, the helping professions like teachers and healers coming next, followed at a distance by ordinary workers and businessfolk.

But, Knapp contends, there is plenty of discipleship work for people in “regular” jobs, too, and the church should equip them for it. Many workers are simply unaware of the impact they can have in their jobs, or the breadth of possibilities to do justice at work.

“Must we really go to India or Africa to be instrumental in meeting the world’s needs?” he asks. “Could it be that God also needs Christians to serve the world as factory workers, hairstylists, and bond traders?”

Knapp found that working Christians truly want their work to mean more than a paycheck. “Our weekday occupations are the primary venues where most of us serve others and develop our God-given abilities,” he writes.

Many people have grasped this, and make connections on their own. “More believers than ever are seeking creative ways to integrate their faith lives and work lives, and they are doing it with little help from the institutional church.”

How has this alleged neglect come about? For one thing, Knapp says the church has never come to grips with how it feels about money and the means by which people earn it (such as in business). Nor has the church ever escaped the legacy of Constantine who, by granting the clergy great political and economic power, elevated them above the masses.

Then, too, there’s the myopic comfort churches feel in being gathered entities rather than communities in dispersion. It just feels easier to promote programs within the walls of the congregation (or denomination) than to energize members to be missional “out there” in the marketplace.

“Too often the church portrays itself as a place of refuge rather than a spiritual gymnasium to strengthen Christians for the transformative work they must do in the world,” Knapp says.

The church self-consciously portrays itself thus, reducing its rich story to “a collection of programs, inevitably dampening the vitality of a community of believers serving Christ through their everyday living. How different might our understanding of discipleship be if the church’s narrative told of bankers, bakers, teachers, and truckers – the living body of Christ in action?”

But the church doesn’t do that, says Knapp. Its priorities “tilt heavily toward private faith and away from ministries that might equip believers for a robust public faith…. I believe the church has largely failed Christians who struggle daily to live out their faith commitments in their places of employment…. By and large, the church is ill-prepared for the woman who wonders what Sunday worship has to do with her hard hours at the chicken factory.”

Knapp concludes with chapters on how to rethink Christian vocation and develop a moral theology for work. He urges churches to capitalize on a new workplace awakening that has come about despite the neglect he depicts.

“More believers than ever are seeking creative ways to integrate their faith lives and work lives, and they are doing it with little help from the institutional church…. How much could we advance the gospel if each of us were encouraged and equipped to live out our common vocation of discipleship in the myriad contexts of our daily work?”

He challenges individual workers, as well, to see their daily work as an arena of Christian discipleship.

“What would it mean,” he asks, “if we actually responded to God’s redemptive grace by loving every person within our scope of influence at work? Are you capable of this? Am I?”

This accessible book will benefit pastors and laypeople alike. Church leaders can find new possibilities to expand and animate ministry to include that portion of life where many members spend the bulk of their time. Laypeople will discover anew that their daily work is vital to God’s economy.

—Wally Kroeker is editor of The Marketplace magazine, published by Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA). He attends River East MB Church in Winnipeg.

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