Look who’s calling ‘Commercial Theology’?

In his talk at the 2002 “Professing Christ on Campus” C-A-N Conference, John Griffiths introduces fresh ideas on communicating the Gospel in the modern world.

Who’s Calling – ‘Commercial Theology’?
(John Griffiths)

Jesus was a carpenter from the age of 12 to 30. What was the connection between Jesus working as a carpenter in Nazareth and being the saviour of the world? How did he feel about crosses and crucifixion – did he ever make them to order for the Romans? This early on, before his visible ministry began, did crosses have significance for him as the way he will later save the world? Perhaps he made crosses as a way of identifying with those who suffered whilst also anticipating his own death. But it raises a wider issue – does our calling in Christ fulfil our professional calling or does it get in the way? What is the connection between working life and destiny? Have we found it easier to keep the two at arm’s length from each other?

How did Jesus integrate his faith with his working life? There is no answer in Scripture. His working life is a gap, between being a young tearaway giving his parents the run-around on the Passover pilgrimage and having a row with his mother at a local wedding. The only rather unreliable account we have is that the opinion of the people of Nazareth was that he and his family were nothing special.

A Visualisation Exercise. The best way to do this is to sit comfortably, close your eyes and get someone else to read these questions to you.

I want you to imagine Jesus in his workshop in Nazareth. He is in his mid 20s – he has an established business. Look around his shop – what is he working on? Does he look busy? Is he working alone – is there anybody else there with him? Are they family or customers? Is he training apprentices?

Look around the room. Is the shop open onto the street or a closed area? What impression of the business do you get from it? Does it look as if the business is thriving – is he doing really well or just well enough? Are there any personal touches? Is the workshop tidy or cluttered? Are there examples of his work lying around? Are they mostly finished or unfinished?

Watch the carpenter at work – how does he work – is it skilled? Has he got his mind on the job – or is he daydreaming?

Now are there some questions you might want to ask the carpenter directly? Write down his answers. How important is his job to him? Does he enjoy carpentry? Is he interested in business? Is the job just a means to an end? If so, what is it? Does he have good relationships with other traders in the town – is he a team player? Does he work with other people? Is he a good neighbour? Is he involved with his local community? Does he strike you as an obviously spiritual person? If you asked him a question about spiritual matters in the workshop, how would he react? Would he initiate conversation about spiritual matters?

We will never know what Jesus was really like while he was a carpenter. The answers to these questions are a projection of your received values, your values on work and faith. There are three main areas of response:

  • Dualists – who keep faith and work separate, ‘using the job as a platform for what he does outside of it’.
  • Quietists – who are waiting for the right time to bring faith into work, ‘brought it together but doesn’t impose it on other people’.
  • Integrationists – who combine faith and work all the time, ‘job and spirituality are all part and parcel of the same thing’.

I was asked to speak today in large part because of the writing and thinking I have been doing on integrating spirituality within work. I work in communications and have had no language for expressing faith at work, other than not lying about being in meetings, not stealing the pencils and being public about being a Christian so as to use the opportunities. But is this enough? In the last year my clients have included Unilever, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Peugeot and VSO among others. And I ask myself what place they have in God’s world. Or do I just do my job?

‘Commercial theology’ is my title for working out what faith means in everyday worlds. What are we drawing on in academic thought? How full, or how empty, is the bank account behind it? Is there new learning which is taking us all forward, or is it all established fact we are rehashing?
In the Bible God’s people lived in wicked cities.

  1. Joseph – does having a faith make you better, worse or have no impact at work? God gave Joseph the dream’s interpretation but Joseph’s advice and business plan that follows is pure opportunism.
  2. Daniel – does prayer make a difference in our working lives? Daniel was at the heart of a political process but given a vision of 500 years ahead. Would a civilservant who prays three times a day be sufficiently engaged with our culture and with God to be the prophetic voice of 2500?
  3. Sodom/Gomorrah – was Abraham or Lot the more righteous man? Lot moved into the middle of the city whereas Abraham stayed in the suburbs. Should Christians take care to live well within their boundaries or on the edge?
  4. Colossae – without the restraining influence of a Christ figure divine and human, will ideologies and brand values dehumanise and enslave us? Colossians 1 tells us that only in Christ do all things find their proper place. Does this include McDonalds? If Christ is not merely a deliverer of personal salvation but everything has its place in him, then every brand, corporation and institution must also have its place in him. Corporations now control security, environment etc. for their employees – should we be praying for them as the powers and authorities of our day?
  5. Romans 13 – the state that was about to bring persecution was an agent of God. Nike, Nestlé, Sadaam Hussein: these must all be agents of God’s plans. Has God given the corporations as the new divine order, replacing the old institutions of church and nation states?

I am trying to draw on the Bible to ask these questions in new ways not just to help me do my job but because the issues they raise challenge the ways everyone does their job. Most of the new ideas in business – about being customer responsive, being holistic, achieving a better balance between home and work – are not being advanced by Christians. There is a market for ideas and in my field Christians are not making a contribution – it is being left to those with no particular faith, only strong environmental, socialist or ethical credentials.

The original title of this paper was ‘Strategies for being Salt and Light’. What I would like to do now is to look at how we can act as salt and light in our work and how we can exercise our God-given role as his people in his world.

Light: how does the gospel illuminate our academic discipline?

C S Lewis said ‘I believe in the sun not only because I see it but because by it I can see everything else.’ Our Christianity transforms how we see everything else. How does the good news shed light on our academic disciplines?

Should our faith make us better at our work? I studied philosophy and English. In English, Lewis, Chesterton, John Donne, George Herbert and Dante. In philosophy, I was only directed to Schaeffer and Dooyewerd: primarily apologists or using pre-modern ‘Christian’ structures. Is the gospel only powerful enough to defend our position instead of shedding light on our academic disciplines? This month Wired magazine has run a feature on Science and God and makes the now familiar claim that atheists operating in cosmology and quantum mechanics are working at a disadvantage. Of course these things are cyclical. But it is a reminder that we cannot assume that by virtue of being Christians that we have to fight to get a hearing.

Do we have Christian thinking that challenges the non-Christian principles we are faced with? Is our faith a resource we can apply to our discipline?
Salt: how does our faith keep our discipline from going bad?

What forces are distorting it? How can Christ’s resources stop that? Whether they are Christians or not, who are the people stopping your discipline from going bad?

Roy McCloughry has written a book called Living in the Presence of the Future (London Lectures in Contemporary Christianity, IVP, ISBN 0 8511 1545 4) which highlights four roles in society that the church plays. It became evident to me that there are groups other than the church filling these roles.
Who are the voices of responsibility?

What are the issues that are driving accountability in your field of work? Who is driving the agenda there? What is motivating them? For example, in the secular world today, the environmentalists are the ones who keep telling us we cannot just run down the natural resources indefinitely.
Who are the voices of celebration?

What is the good news in your discipline? Do we praise those who do well, or do we wish it had been we to make the discovery? In the secular world today it is the gay community who are known for celebrating, in entertainment, TV, community life etc.

Who are the voices of prophecy?

Who in your discipline exercises the role of challenging wrong ethics, with ‘I’ll stop you if I can’? Who is speaking the hard words within your discipline? How are they being treated? Are they being given respect? Where do we stand with respect to them? Do you agree with them? Have you told them so? e.g. the anti-consumerism protestors who demonstrate during multinational organisation AGMs, or even terrorists (you won’t let me in so I’ll blow you up to make my point).

Who are the voices of suffering?

There are always casualties. What adverse effect does our discipline have on people? Who are the outsiders and how can we help them? For example, Third World charities not only provide relief but also education.

Consider: where is the Holy Spirit prompting you? Where is God calling you to make a difference? Which of these contributions can you make to your discipline?

In the end, Jesus is remembered for what he did on the cross, not for the crosses he made. He used two pieces of wood, and bread and wine, and ordinary people – ordinary things to change their world. Jesus was a craftsman who used hands-on illustrations to reveal spiritual truths. He probably did not revolutionise first century woodwork but he did change the world.Further comments made during questions

What difference does your faith make to your actual work, not just your attitude? There is a market for ideas at the moment – have a radical idea, present it to non-Christians, if it’s new and workable it can be presented, marketed and sold across the world. We need ideas, which will change a discipline from within.In conversation we separate topics; we have things we will only talk about with Christians and others only with non-Christians. Can we somehow reconcile the two and draw our Christian worldview into everything we do?