Missions vs Evangelism
So, a meaningful barrier that I've hit early in this process has been a disagreement in what words mean what; I plan on subtitling the book “A Workplace Missiology”, or something to that effect, and everyone else is using Missiology or Missions as a term to mean work that is directed over there, towards “other” people. The proper term, at least in America today, for work directed here, towards “our” people, is Evangelism. I'm going to be using the words differently, in part because of the shape of my brain but also in part because I think the church has missed a really important facet of engaging with the workplace as The Church, by limiting their creativity to this one theater of operation.
Evangelism, for the purpose of this work, will be the work of sharing the Good News (euangelion) of Christ, that The Kingdom of God is at Hand, for people who are prepared and willing to hear it. There are always people in our lives who are feeling a sense of lack, of being without, of being needy, and are looking for a thing to fill that void in their lives. They are the Seekers that are imagined by people wanting their church to be more “Seeker Friendly” or “Seeker Sensitive”. They could be a person who is currently attending a church that is in decline due to poor spiritual health, and they're looking for a more healthy church expression to belong to. They could be someone who is in a period of broad spiritual exploration, choosing to leave behind a secular or rationalist frame of mind, and who is open to hearing from believers of many different religions. They could be someone who is in a hard period of transition or grief, and just needs someone to incarnate Christ to them in the room, to be that presence of God for someone who doesn't know how to find him. Evangelism is many things, but the broad thrust of this blog is an attempt to convince you, the reader, that your responsibility and calling is not limited to these kinds of things.
Missions, Missiology, for the purpose of this work, will be Representing Christ (as His Ambassador) to people, institutions, or communities that, by contrast, are not seeking a new religious practice. They are not impressed in their heart by a conviction of their own lack. They live a life, separate from the fellowship of Christ and the Church, that is relatively stable and makes sense to them. You likely have many coworkers that, even if they self-identify as Christian believers, do not practice Christian spirituality (through the attendance of services, performance of personal devotions, etc etc) and do not consider the Lordship of Christ when making decisions about their life. You likely have many coworkers that profess no faith at all, and live life in a very similar way to the people who culturally identify as Christians. If you're reading this in English, the professional culture of your workplace is probably marked by a deliberate embrace of Western Liberalism, that people should be free to believe and practice (or not believe and not practice) any religion they want, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else (or interfere with work too much). Maybe you belong to a club or association, like a Rollerskating Photography Club, where the purported point and purpose of the group has “nothing to do” with religion.
Western Liberalism believes in and defends the seperation of spheres, the fundamental difference between personal life (where religious belief, home life and structure, romantic/life partner relationships, sexual ethics, etc reside) and public life (professional/workplace culture, civic culture/politics, “the discourse” etc.). People, of course, occupy both spheres at various times, but central here is the belief in the ethic that you should not impose or involve me in your personal life without my consent. If I don't want to talk about your personal life at work, I should be able to say “no” and have that request be respected, while if I don't want to talk to my coworker about a task we've both been assigned at work, I should not expect to have that request be respected. This cuts both ways, it's common for coworkers who are also personal friends to express a desire, if they go out on the weekend together, to not talk about work things at the karaoke bar, for example.
We all know that this is, at best, a fuzzy distinction. If I'm having an extended disagreement with a coworker at work, it can (and does, at least for me) affect my mood and my ability to help with household chores or serve at church. If someone, known as a crabby and impossible manager at work, finds a romantic partner and becomes a much happier person, they might become much easier to work with, at least for a season. The spheres interact, and we know this, yet we are often asked to uphold the boundaries that can exist for as long as we can. The important term, particularly in this cultural moment, is that of consent. If I don't want to, I shouldn't be forced to.
This dynamic, of being allowed some access to a space but having to work under constraints (or risk expulsion) is a major defining factor of missions work, and this is easier to see when we examine missions in an international context. Would it be wise for someone called to spread the gospel in a country that is both hostile to western countries, politically, and inhospitable to Christian spirituality to book a plane ticket, grab an apple box and engage in “turn or burn” street evangelism on the corner of Main and First Street? Of course not! Though many would argue street preaching isn't appropriate anywhere, the fact that the missionary must consign themselves to doing the most work they can do within the constraints given to them is Missiology 101. Maybe the hosting government is unwilling to accept foreign groups who are only there to proselytize new believers, but they are willing to accept foreign food and medical aid. In that case, if you're called to that place, it looks like you need to learn how to get food where it needs to go! Maybe the hosting government is a country that has tense political relations with your home country, and while you're there you must keep a low profile to avoid being expelled. That country, however, is pretty open to foreign economic investment, hoping to grow their economy and improve the quality of life for its citizens. You'll have to find a way to be a missionary who, as far as the government is concerned, is simply a foreign businessperson.
This dynamic is also familiar in home missions, or missions to places inside your home country, not outside of it. I served for years in college campus ministry, and a regular feature of our day-to-day was navigating our relationship with the University administrations on the campuses we worked on. The Administration, particularly the student affairs offices, were concerned with outside organizations using the resources of a student union to the detriment of the student body, either to harm students or to deprive them of money, rooms, etc that would otherwise be available to them. Therefore, if we wanted to meet on campus in one of the empty rooms, we had to follow all the rules (getting a faculty sponsor, have enough students willing to sign up as members, have rules and bylaws that conform etc) and maintain a healthy and friendly relationship with the school admins, people who were sometimes unenthusiastic about religious practice of any kind. Similar concerns exist for missionaries in disadvantaged urban or rural regions who often interact with city/county governments of various persuasions, or missionaries active in Native American/First Nations reservations.
These environments, these mission fields, will not tolerate a ham-fisted or uncareful evangelism-focused approach, and any of the activities that believers in the workplace have long been encouraged to do from the pulpit (invite your coworkers to church, organize a bible study, be prepared to give your testimony to anyone and everyone) may, in a particular workplace, catch someone a reprimand or an instruction to keep the workplace professional. In the past, the church's response to this has often been to either leave our job and find a new place to work with management that is permissive/encouraging of the above activities or to subsume our christian identity at work and say to ourselves that the most we can do is passively live a life of public witness, being both a christian and the best employee, the most helpful coworker, the nicest person etc.
This project is to make a case for a more active approach to being called as a missionary to the workplace and a more expansive view of what kind of activities constitute “kingdom work”. To be Christ's Ambassador at your job could mean all sorts of different things. When you're sitting in a meeting and you ask to hear what another coworker had to say after they were interrupted, that's giving a voice to the voiceless. When you offer to take over a difficult client for a coworker, both to give your coworker enough space to calm down without causing any trouble and to take care of a person who is obviously upset and worked up, you're engaged in the ministry of reconciliation. When you put your position on the line because the team you manage needs more time to do their job well, even when your boss doesn't want to give it to them, that's giving power to the powerless.
These kinds of things are pretty well covered in our imagination as, broadly, “being nice”, but the importance of digging deeper and finding the “why” behind the “why” is one of sustainability, the ability to persevere. I don't think I'm alone in saying that I don't want to be nice to people all the time! If the only thing I have in my gas tank is the knowledge that “I should be nice because Jesus was probably nice”, then we're good for, in my experience, a couple weeks. We need a reason why that's deeper than circumstances or preference. We need a reason why that's more important than the structural criticisms my black leftist heart has against the structure of making a living in this country today. We need a reason why that's eternal. We need a calling, and a mandate. That calling, for the Workplace Missionary, is the Ministry of Reconciliation.
Coincidentally, the Ministry of Reconciliation is the topic of my next blog post.
This post is part of #100DaysToOffload, a challenge to blog a hundred days in a year hosted by Kev Quirk. This is post #2