God Loves Our Work - 5 Things Non-Christians Wish About Christian Coworkers: Luke 7 Sermon Notes
Theme: Hopeful Expectations Beneath the Public Rancor
1. The negative public face of the Christian faith crumbles in work relationships.
2. The relationships formed at work harbor hopeful private expectations we can meet.
3. Understanding hopeful private expectations helps us change the public face of the Christian faith.
Key Passage(s): Luke 7:1-10
Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, American Christian churches began to notice a spike in attendance. Depending on which source you looked at, attendance increased an average of 20% in most urban areas as people sought to make sense of this Pearl Harbor-style attack on American soil. That was good news; people turning to Christianity for answers.
Here’s the bad news: By February 2002, this spike had completely disappeared, and they’d taken some who were already there out with them. While we can (and perhaps should on another day) sort out why those people left us, (#1 response: People in the church “were as scared as we were!”) today we’re going to focus on a longer-termed and more hopeful response. What do your coworkers think of you as a Christian? What do they want from you?
In response to the news of this drop in attendance, one workplace chaplain began to seek out people who overtly identified themselves as something other than Christians and who were in the workplace. While some of those he queried were among those who “turned to church,” most were not. In fact, most were responding to long-term relationships with Christians whose work they not only respected, but whom they often termed as friends. Despite this affection, they still found themselves wishing some things were different. And yet, when this workplace chaplain asked if anyone at their workplace exemplified these “wishes,” nearly every respondent could name at least one worker who did; some even acknowledged it was how they built their list…that this person in their mind had qualities “all Christians” should possess.
Here’s their wish list:
“I wish my Christian coworkers…
...knew more about their faith; why they believe what they believe.”
...had more hope in hard times.”
...were more curious about the hard questions of life, so that when asked those questions, they would already have answers.”
...behaved more honorably.”
...were more compassionate.”
While these observations seem harsh at first, they offer the same hope that the 20% post-terror spike offers: When people are in trouble, people without faith and even people of other faiths, Christianity is usually among their first stops in trying to find comfort and answers. In fact, the very things they’re saying they wish were true of us are the very things God says he wants us to be known for as his ambassadors (II Cor. 5:20). Here’s how to be ready when those chances come again…as when a coworker asks you to pray for a sister with cancer, for example. (May God spare us another Sept. 11 experience.)
Point 1: The negative public face of the Christian faith crumbles in work relationships.
a. For almost thirty years now, the public face of Christianity and Christians has been taking a hit. Where evangelists like Billy Graham were once found in regular columns in all major newspapers, today we appear to be adding separation of church and press to our already overly-stated conviction of separation of church and state. Whole forests have been felled to provide the paper used to debate whose fault this is, but we’ll duck that discussion today. For now, at least, let’s agree that Christians are getting and giving themselves black eyes in public on a constant basis these days. (Pastors might want to quote examples here that might include such things as anti-gay Christian activists who are caught in gay activities; Christian leaders who claim natural disasters are God’s punishment for sins of individuals and the nation.) The good news to counter this, however, is found in the next point.
b. Nearly everyone that workplace chaplain spoke with had kind words and warm feelings for certain Christians in their workplaces. That’s a phenomenon I think we can all acknowledge: that our biases and negative images dissipate when we meet someone from a group or category of people who we have lumped together in negative ways. So while the public face of Christianity may be taking hits these days, the private impact of those hits can be limited in our close relationships, including those at work.
c. In other words, over the long haul, many Christians appear to be doing a pretty good job of “being good neighbors” and “good friends” on the job. Why?
d. Like the centurion in our Scripture reading today, people tend to mark out ahead of time who they think will be willing to help in a crisis. More importantly, they also tend to mark out who has the ability to help in a crisis. This centurion obviously cared deeply for this member of his household staff; so deeply, in fact, that he pushed his inquiries beyond the group of Jewish friends he had marked out as willing to help, imploring them to get him access to the One he believed had the ability to help.
e. In the workplaces, non-Christians are mimicking the centurion. When a daughter is sick or a mother has cancer, these coworkers frequently seek the prayers of those Christians whom they know to be “pray-ers”; not only because of their kindnesses shown to them ahead of time, but because they see that those Christians believe God hears their prayers. In short, Christians who build relationships with their coworkers that escape the hot-button debates, or that engage in them with courtesy and tact, are building a bridge that invites anyone to walk across it when a crisis hits.
f. Little things tip them off. Something as simple as not swearing or laughing at inappropriate jokes gives people their first clues, but it takes much more than “living right.” The “go-to” Christian in most offices is humble but not silent; they’re as comfortable talking about their faith as they are talking about their favorite sports team…and they’re usually more gracious about it.
g. While gentleness and humility are key attributes, these non-Christians aren’t looking for milquetoast believers. They don’t want coworkers who pander to them or patronize them; these are evidence of weakness not only in their Christian faith but in their Christian God. Christians who stand fast on faith and Scripture without becoming belligerent eventually break down any walls the public face of faith builds up.
h. Sometimes, it’s even desperation that brings them to a Christian coworker. For example, consider this story. A Buddhist worker’s mother had been seriously hurt in an accident. Desperate to cover all their bases, this Buddhist coworker approached the coworkers she had marked out as “go-to” prayer warriors. What “sealed the deal” in crumbling the “public face” barriers was a charitable reaction from those she approached. Not one of us, she told us later, had responded with “Oh NOW you want to know our God?”
h. (alternate anecdote) A manager had repeatedly criticized her Christian coworker’s stand on abortion, sometimes in dramatic and crowded settings. To her, the fetus wasn’t a baby until it was born. Until the day she raced into her coworker’s office to show him ultrasound pictures of her new granddaughter. Without thinking, her coworker rejoiced with her over this good news and then they both went back to work. Later, in an emotional and moving conversation, she thanked him for not throwing her original arguments “back in her face.” Can you imagine if he had? It could have dramatically changed her outlook on Christianity, and Christians, for the worse.
Point 2: The relationships formed at work harbor hopeful private expectations we can meet.
a. One of the remarkable things about the list is the positive outcomes hoped for by those watching their fellow Christians; expectations not beyond our ability to meet!
b. …knew more about their faith…Scripture is full of admonitions for us to know about God; in other words, to know what we believe and why. (I Peter 3:15; Psalm 119:11 & 105; Deut. 6:4-9; II Timothy 3:16; I Timothy 2:15) In fact, one of the great gaps in the body of Christ these days is Biblical literacy. (See Barna & Gallup for supporting statistics.)
c. …had more hope in hard times…Again, I Peter 3:15 teaches us to be prepared to explain why we have hope; but we must have that hope (and show it) to be able to explain it. Particularly in times of great trial and strife, we Christians should be able to see, think, and speak eternally so we can be strength to those who need strength; hope to those who have none.
d. …were more curious about the hard questions of life…This is the only one of the wishes that was as rooted in daily activities as it was in times of great trial. Why the gap between science and Scripture? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is salvation only through Christ? These are but some of the questions non-Christians expect us to have explored because they (non-Christians) want to know the answers, too, and they assume if they’re curious from the outside, we should be doubly so from the inside. They’re puzzled—and discouraged—when we seem uninformed; or worse, disinterested!
e. …behaved more honorably…When pressed, the respondents said that non-Christians don’t see Christians as worse than others in their behaviors; they just see them as the same as others. This would be good news if what they’re seeing is our attempt to demonstrate this absence of difference is about grace and that salvation is not performance-based; but that’s not what they’re seeing and hearing. What they say they’reseeing and hearing from us as Christians, they say, is that we Christians live differently, and we live better. However, they see us as behaving and living the same as non-Christians. (Although, interestingly, the Christian they admire most at their workplace almost always “behaved more honorably”.)
f …supporting information for “honorably”…Especially in this political climate, Christians are often among those arguing that illegal immigrants and welfare recipients are largely responsible for workplace theft and other crimes on the jobs. Stephen Albrecht (Fraud Examination, 2003) dismantles these ideas with his “fraud triangle” research which shows 80% of fraudulent employees are white. Fraudulent employees are three times more likely to be married, four times more likely to be men, 16 times more likely to be managers and executives and they’re five times more likely to have post graduate degrees. A companion study by the Federal government shows 30% of workers plan to steal from their employers, 30% give in to occasional temptation, 5% will commit fraud regardless of circumstances, 85% will commit fraud given the circumstances. What are the right circumstances? Need, opportunity, and the ability to rationalize their behavior—it’s called the fraud triangle, and Christians (Barna & Gallup show again and again) are no better no worse, but the same.
g. …were more compassionate…Of the five issues, this is the one which seems most affected by the public face of Christianity. The rhetoric over hot-button issues like abortion, immigration, and gay rights is “often expressed in less than loving ways” by Christians who allow themselves to be drawn into debates, and for non-Christians this is the most visible aspect of our faith to many, including those who work alongside Christians they admire.
Point 3: Understanding hopeful private expectations helps us change the public face of the Christian faith.
a. If you’re alert, you’ve noticed we’re closing the circle here. We started with the public face of Christianity, and we’re closing with it; but in ways that offer us a chance to affect it positively. Even if you believe the media is complicit in any negative impressions Christians are experiencing in their public image, the result is still the same: Those negative public images affect even the narrow part of our lives where work and faith intersect. While most of us wait for a movement that sweeps these impressions aside, Christianity is a one-soul-at-a-time faith, where hearts are won and lost not in the court of public opinion, but in the face-to-face encounters we have every day; most often in the places where we work.
b. Working on our lives in ways that are consistent with Scripture’s call on us in the first place seems not only logical and obedient, but fruitful and hope-inducing. Fruitful not only to those who have not yet met Christ, but to Christians who are newer to the faith, and even to our own faith morale. We honor God not to please humans, but to express our love and gratitude to him; and we honor others to express our love for them; a love fed by the unconditional nature of God’s love for us.
If you’re a typical follower of Christ, in fact, if you’re a typical human being, this list developed by outsiders likely led to a negative response initially. Outsiders daring to criticize the hard task of living our faith in a diverse and often antagonistic culture are likely to evoke a cranky response. But like Jesus, we must look past the outside and see the heart. In our Scripture passage, the centurion’s love for his household staff member is striking, and in truth, closer to what Christ expects of Christians than centurions. We must emulate him, pushing past what seems like criticism to discover the reality that this is a plea for us to give people a reason to explore our faith.
A story is told of Alexander the Great, the conqueror of most of the ancient world. During a fierce battle, Alexander found a young soldier cowering near the rear. Lifting him up, he asked his name: “Alexander” was the timid reply. “Then,” said Alexander, “live worthy of that name.” Let that be our call this day, too, to live worthy of the name of Christ.
Randy Kilgore offers us a unique opportunity. After a twenty-plus year career in business, most of which was spent in senior human resource management positions and serving three governors on state education commissions, and having received his M.Div from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 2000, Randy is now a workplace chaplain and author. As a writer, Randy has released six volumes of workplace Bible studies and two books: Made to Matter: Devotions for Working Christians (Discovery House Publishers: 2008) and Talking About God in the 21st Century Workplace. Many of the ideas in the sermons come from his books if you want to delve more deeply into this topic. His writing also appears regularly in magazines and online. As a minister, Randy offers over 500 devotions and dozens of Bible studies at www.madetomatter.org. He is also a part of the exciting new Theology of Work Project www.theologyofwork.org, where you’ll find dramatic new data on what God says about work in his Word. Randy has dedicated his life to faith in the workplace and has written important content to help those who struggle with connecting their everyday work life to their Christian faith.
Other sermons in this series on God Loves Our Work and Our Words: