By: John Elton Pletcher
“Give it a gentle shake, right up next to your ear. Listen close. If the filament yields a tinsel sound, the bulb is blown. That’s why the light’s not working, Son. ‘Time to replace the bulb.” This was Dad’s explanation for assessing old-school light bulbs.
Is Faith at Work shining bright? I would love to say the several-decades-old movement is glowing with resilient brilliance. Alas, all is not aglow—at least not in those ways that are essential to bolder luminosity and long-term mission. ‘Already disgruntled by my assessment? Perhaps you’re thinking, “How dare he? This fellow can’t be the brightest bulb in the lamp.” Hold on; please be patient. I recently gathered with key influencers to “shake the bulb”—a time of careful reflection and evaluation.
Shoulder to shoulder, over two hundred seventy-five leaders crammed into the Boston hotel conference room for the first-ever Faith @ Work Summit. Chairs were squeezed tight; ubiquitous blue lanyards draped participants; spotlights flooded the stage. The room pulsed with anticipation for the lineup of speakers and the agenda’s strategic discussion groups.
Organizers of the Faith @ Work Summit were David Gill of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Al Erisman of Seattle Pacific University, and Bill Peel from LeTourneau. The late-October ‘14 conference delivered an unprecedented event, attracting a kaleidoscope of leaders—movers and shakers from marketplace ministries, entrepreneurs, pastors, as well as seminary and university faculty—all under one roof for the Friday-Saturday conversation. The gathering sported a healthy blend of candor and camaraderie.
Our aim was ambitious: Identify what is actually working, where the big challenges still lie, and what needs to be done to encourage ongoing workplace discipleship. In retrospect, the results were both sobering and marvelously motivating.
Speakers delivered in “TED Talk” style—a collage of fifteen-minute presentations. The array of presenters included: Katherine Leary Alsdorf, co-author of Every Good Endeavor; Will Messenger, executive editor of the Theology of Work Project; Tim Liu, senior associate for the Lausanne Committee for Marketplace Ministry; Ray Hammond, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston; and Bill Pollard, chairman of Fairwyn Investment Co. Sessions were punctuated by content-rich talks as well as thoughtful tributes to historic faith at work pioneers. Generous coffee breaks allowed for plentiful conversation and networking.
Saturday morning’s practitioner huddles brought serious assessment—that close-to-your-ear bulb shaking. The operative questions for these working affinity groups: What is already working well? And what still needs accomplished?
What IS working well, truly shining bright?
Numerous marketplace organizations, such as the C12 Group, CBMC, and At Work on Purpose (serving greater Cincinnati) are consistently creating dynamic platforms that resource local and regional business leaders. Across the past two decades, the proliferation of such resourcing groups has strengthened significant numbers of individual workplace disciples. Eric Welch (Institute for Faith, Work & Economics) is leading the charge for the newly formed National Faith & Work Association, aiming to help such groups connect, communicate, and collaborate in even brighter ways.
Universities, business schools, and seminaries are wonderfully promoting faith-work connections. A growing number of schools now offer curricula on faith in the workplace. In addition, more campus groups are engaging in strategic outreach with business students.
During the Summit, two luminous new resources were introduced. The Theology of Work Project rolled out a Theology of Work Bible Commentary and The Bible and Your Work Study Series. In addition, Regent College has produced ReFrame, a film-based discipleship course designed to help people connect faith with all of life. Both resources demonstrate vibrant collaborative efforts.
What needs to shine brighter?
Working affinity groups conducted candid discussion. Subsequent plenary reports revealed three important bulbs that need to shine brighter so the movement truly works with radiant missional impact for the future.
Brighter academic bulbs
With transparent self-admission, professors and administrators spotlighted the need for more faith-work integration throughout the wider scope of institutions’ curriculum, chapels, and internships. A school offering one or two classes addressing faith in the workplace is noble, yet still insufficient. Leigh-Anne Walker’s report from this focus group highlighted students’ potential benefit through more holistic mentorship. Vital theology of work concepts need more lustrous integration across wider academic departments, helping students better personalize their calling and deepen faith perspectives for God-glorifying work.
A quick glance across the crowd revealed the majority demographic—graying heads were prominent. Sadly, millennial leaders were largely missing from the event, attracting only a tiny handful of young adults. Several in attendance shared their assessment. “Too much of the faith-work conversation remains primarily theoretical, lacking real-time stories and more accessible tools.” When asked what it will take for more millennial leaders to truly engage, Carson Leith, Wilderness Adventure Specialist at Nootka Marine Adventures, replied:
You've got to meet us where we are. If you want to engage me, it would need to be through a sermon series at my church, an article online that's marketed through social media, or a small group initiative that I can join. What's attractive to me is a conversation, not a workbook with preset fill-in-the-blank answers. I think that's the kind of stuff you have to be developing if you want to engage millennials.
Mark Washington of InterVarsity echoed similar themes in his Summit presentation, creatively modeling a coffee shop conversation. Greater accessibility, vulnerability, and authenticity are essential with next generation leaders.
Brighter Church Bulbs
It became painfully evident with each group’s feedback—church lamps are barely flickering in faith-work endeavors. Despite a few churches’ noble attempts to convey the connections between economics and faith, most business leaders still feel very lonely in their daily endeavors. Church engagement remains stunningly dull.
Cheryl Broetje, owner of Broetje Orchards, boldly queried, then declared: “Where is the spiritual formation for marketplace leaders? It is not happening through pastors and churches.” The majority of pastors are still not preaching on work-faith issues, connecting regularly with everyday workers, or leading in work-faith initiatives. AME Zion pastor Gina Casey astutely asked, “If we aren’t getting the pastors and denominations to embrace this, who is embracing it?”
During the Summit’s plenary panel discussion, seasoned church developer Mark Roberts postured with optimism: “There is progress now, with better conversations between church and business. The barriers are coming down.” But long-time business leader Andy Mills cautioned, “It’s not as pretty a picture as you think.”
Such candor evoked sober realizations. Everyday laborers, factory workers and other blue collars, desperately need help for workplace mission. Heads were nodding in agreement. The greatest opportunity for such influence is still in the local church. Church leaders must grasp a theology of work, to more vibrantly blend both the Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission in preaching. In addition, churches must very intentionally design new bulbs—glorious ministry planning and priorities that implement practical, work-faith endeavors and resources.
Faith @ Work—Shine Brighter!
The Summit itself was a brilliant event. Plans are underway for a second gathering in Dallas, 2016. Across two years, we have marvelous opportunities. Brighter academic integration is essential. More authentic mentoring with millennials will build longer-term momentum. Pastors must light the way with passionate, intentional faith integration. Better preaching and planning for work-faith ministries will brighten congregants’ daily work. With such glowing bulbs, we truly can beam the light of Christ every day!
John Pletcher has served as lead pastor at Manor Church since 2009. He earned the Master of Divinity from Baptist Bible Seminary (PA) and the Doctor of Ministry in Leadership from Denver Seminary. His recent faith at work novel Henry’s Glory was reviewed in the September 2014 Mockler Memo. This is his journalistic reflection on the October Faith @Work Summit Conference.
© 2015 Mockler Center at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Mockler Center for Faith & Ethics in the Workplace. Article by John Pletcher.