by Kara Martin
The field of faith and spirituality in the workplace is a burgeoning area of research and discussion. It includes terms such as “faith and work”, “religion and work”, “workplace spirituality”. It encompasses all faith traditions, as well as the non-religious, and is integrated with the field of management.
While there is nominalism in every religious tradition, Christianity perhaps more than others has had a custom of separating the sacred from the secular. This is because in other faiths, such as Islam and Hinduism, there are daily prayer rituals, washing practices, dress codes and/or food laws that seamlessly interweave religion into every waking hour.
Christianity, however, has always grappled with the Greek philosophical tradition that it was born into, which encouraged a divide between the soul/spirit and what was done with the body. Plato especially was strident on the body as being merely a vessel to hold the beauty of the soul. There are ancient cartoons that mock Christianity for worshipping a ‘god’ that had died on a cross. Early Christians argued over whether it was possible for Jesus to be fully god and fully human; until the creed at the Council of Nicaea in 325 declared that Jesus was “begotten, not made”, not a mere creature, but “of one substance” with God.
Yet time and again, this soul/body separation has extended to a sacred/secular separation, where the church has seen itself (what happens in the building on a Sunday) as central to God’s work, separated out from the world. People’s ordinary work is seen as only having value in funding the ‘real’ work of God in the church.
This sacred-secular distortion impacts personal understanding of faith. As one Christian worker told me: “There is nothing on the outside that reveals the faith within.” There is a practice for many Christians of keeping their private faith separate from public life. Often this separation is reinforced in Australian society where it still is taboo to discuss politics, money, sex … and religion.
Yet, the Apostle Paul declares that the whole person is changed once they become a Christian: they are a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17), and the whole body is a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1), and “whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as if working for the Lord, not human masters” (Colossians 3:23). Thus, breaking down the sacred-secular divide for Christians offers exciting potential for seeing our daily work in a new light, as something of interest to God.
However, once the barrier between religious and mundane has been removed, we must progress from “Oh, wow!” to “So, how?” How can Christians be better equipped to link their faith with their ordinary work?
In the last four years, I have been investigating that ‘So, how?’ question. I had already published books covering a theology of work, spiritual disciplines for the workplace, practical wisdom for working, and how churches can equip workplace Christians. Now, I wanted to investigate beneath the surface.
There is a large range of training options that exist for workplace Christians. The question remains: what is the most effective teaching for Christians to receive to enable them to flourish in making faith–work connections? What knowledge, skills or values should they develop?
I surveyed all that was available from a variety of Christian organisations and churches and summarised 35 variables covering knowledge, skills and values. I then tested those variables with ten doctors and ten teachers who had been recommended by Christian professional organisations as being integrated Christian workers. The interviewees selected their top two choices in each section and were then asked to tell positive and negative stories about Christians in relation to those variables to draw out evidence of the constructs behind the variables. These vocations were chosen because they worked with other Christians and were able to tell stories about their work.
A clear top result in the knowledge category for both vocational groups was spiritual disciplines that deepen intimacy with God. Spiritual disciplines include practices such as reading the sacred text, prayer, meditation—not as ends in themselves, but as keys to developing a relationship with God.
Clearly in second place was the biblical narrative. One teacher noted, “You need to understand the big story [in the Bible], and the place of story, and the place of the discipline [you teach] in that story. For example, science is about understanding the world God has made, and worshipping [the creator]. We can use this world to benefit others. Science has purpose, it’s living out our calling as a human.”
Perhaps the surprising top result in the skills category was influence others through servant leadership. One doctor explained: “This is where you can really make a difference as a leader in the world. There are still many leaders who call the shots, and lead in a very autocratic manner; they don’t bring their teams along with them, and are still very patriarchal in their leadership models. You can really show difference, what we are doing is quite a different model of leadership; and servant-leadership is counter-cultural in an Australian hospital context.”
The second and third skill choices were very close. Teachers clearly preferred building authentic relationships, as one affirmed: “In the teaching profession, everything you do is relational: colleagues, students, parents… this is the binding skill in education. If you don’t have authentic relationship with children, they won’t learn. They don’t learn from people they don’t trust.”
Meanwhile, doctors were keen to transform working, working relationships, the workplace or work recipients through gospel renewal. One doctor described it as going, “Beyond the spiritual, by applying faith to the work.” Another said, “The [Christian story] is at the centre of transforming us and then flows through to everything.”
In the values category, there were two choices that were very close. Intimacy with God as the basis for relationship with others and the world was slightly preferred as the number one variable by doctors over teachers. As one doctor said, “Without this, other things will not follow. This is the key, otherwise faith can be just theoretical.”
A close second overall was godly (good) character. As one teacher explained: “Part of good character is recognising that you want to do your best, and to use your talents for what you are called for. Kids observe character. As Christians we can preach and teach, but if we lack good character, they will see us as hypocrites. Faith should be transformative of character.”
What was surprising from the research was that the workplace was credited by interviewees as the place that had most shaped their faith, not church, not a spiritual retreat. These findings challenge prevailing thought and current practice about how religious people grow in faith—not just being equipped to make faith—work connections but seeing the workplace as an incubator for faith.
Kara Martin is the author of Workship: How to Use your Work to Worship God, and Workship 2: How to Flourish at Work and co-editor of Transforming Vocation: Connecting Theology, Church, and the Workplace for a Flourishing World. She is a lecturer with Alphacrucis College and Adjunct Professor with Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Boston. She is also on the Advisory Board for the Global Lausanne Movement Workplace Ministry and on the Board of the Karam Fellowship.