Saving the Three “E”s
I think we’ve been a bit too hard on the three “e”s.
Here’s how the argument often goes. In a past generation, those interested in “faith at the workplace” stressed the three “e”s: excellence, ethics, and evangelism. Each of these are “good but insufficient.” We need people to actually see the value of the work itself, and not just get people converted or be nice to co-workers.
Now, I sympathize with this line of reasoning. I was recently at a Christian business conference, and one man gave his testimony of how he lives out his faith at work. As the owner of a company that produces dental products, he proudly noted how he begins staff meetings with prayer. What he failed to mention, however, was that producing artificial teeth for his clients was itself an act of neighbor love and a way to provide for the needs of the world.
Indeed, for many of us younger folks interested in faith/work integration, we react against a highly individualistic view of Christianity that understood the core expression of “faith at work” was “ethics” in the sense of being kind to co-workers so that they would come to a prayer meeting or Bible study at the office. In our evangelical fervor, we often forgot about the value of the work itself – and that the world needs education, legal systems, restaurants, component parts, and works of art to flourish.
Indeed, work itself can be an act of neighbor love and should always be an act of worship, a living sacrifice offered to Christ the Lord (Romans 12:1-2).
Having said that, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. In emphasizing the inherent value of our work, whether that be making tables, providing childcare care, or serving in the military, we don’t want to overlook the centrality of the three “e”s to a Christian understanding of work.
I’ll give you an example. My friend Bill Kurtz exemplifies excellence in his work. He’s the founder and CEO of Denver Schools of Science and Technology (DSST). In a recent email newsletter, he reported that DSST has 5 of the top 6 schools in Denver (out of 181 schools). With a 100% college admission rate for his student, most of whom are from a low-income background, DSST has drawn national attention. Why does he do it? This is what he says,
“We know that despite our success, we have a long way to go to be the system of schools we need to be. We still aren’t meeting the needs of every single student; students with special needs, students learning the English language, students at the lowest proficiency levels—we need to serve these students better. We must get better. Not because of rankings, but because these extraordinary results remind us of what can be accomplished for all students.”
Why is Bill so incredibly committed to excellence? He’s driven by an undying desire to serve – and to provide an excellent education for every single student.
Secular people, Jews, pluralists, Muslims, and Christians alike have to take note of Bill’s work. He’s literally changing the charter school landscape in America. Because he does work at such an incredibly high caliber, people ask, “Who is this? What drives him?” Indeed, in an article I wrote about Bill for Christianity Today, he confesses that he believes it is his vocation, his calling from God, to serve the needs of students and build these schools.
My friend Matt Turner, who’s the CFO of Morning Star Senior Living in Denver, also exemplifies this type of excellence. In the past five years, he has helped Morning Star go from 5 to 12 properties, each with an acute attention to excellent service of their residents, and the inherent dignity of the elderly in America. (And publicly proclaiming that their work “honors God” to boot.) As a result, the Denver Business Journal recently highlighted Matt and asked him about his work.
Doing excellent work is a testimony to the God who creates. And it allows Christians a voice in a secular culture that they don’t have when they do sloppy, half-hearted or incomplete work. Doing work well, as if we are doing it for Christ himself (Col. 3:23), is an important aspect of living out our faith through our work.
Or take the example of ethics. I can see why so many have criticized the highly individualistic (and reductionistic view) that sees all the historic Christian faith can offer to us at work is not cheating our clients or working with integrity. (Don’t our secular friends believe the same thing?) If we mean by “ethics” only how we treat co-workers, then I agree with this critique. We can’t just reduce the world-altering power of the gospel to not sending nasty emails.
However, if we take a look at ethics in the bigger sense, and look at the essentially moral questions that shape and form values in organizations, our interactions with the broader community, and the moral framework that sits at the basis of all “professions” (long ago we used assume that “professing” a set of ethical standards was the basis of many industries such as law, banking, government or the manual trades), ethics needs to be at the core of the faith and work movement.
Let me illustrate. Two weeks ago I had the chance to visit Duke University to attend a round table discussion on “Reimagining Medicine”, which is a part of their program in Theology, Medicine and Culture. It was hosted by Duke Divinity School and led by people like: Warren Kingshorn, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist; Jeff Bishop, a doctor, philosopher, and author of the ground-breaking The Anticipatory Corpse; Rich Payne, a former cancer doctor at Sloans Kettering (one of the nation’s finest cancer centers), and Dr. Ray Barfield, a pediatrician and philosopher at Duke University. As ministers, academics, doctors, and administrators, we gathered to discuss topics like: historical Christian views of the suffering and ill; time and the pace of life for physicians; justice and health equity issues; the mechanization of the dying process; the vocation of nurses and chaplains; and ways congregations can partner with health care institutions.
Upon reflecting on the event, I was struck that every single conversation was essentially debating a vision of “the good.” That is, each was inherently ethical. And in many ways, we were debating competing values, and not merely good or bad, but a better harmony of many “goods.” For example, when many leveled critiques at secular medicine’s unwillingness to acknowledge that we are indeed human and will will actually die (!), nobody took the view that the advances in medical care in the last century didn’t have value! No, instead we sought a more humane way of understanding palliative care and end-of-life issues, acknowledging that despite the powerful tools of modern medicine, we cannot relieve the human condition.
Of course, this is just one example among literally thousands. I wrote last year about the severely toxic environment of investment banking in New York City. As a summary of Kevin Roose’s book Young Money, a portrayal of eight young investment bankers, I wrote:
“If we were making a laundry list of everything that can be depraved about human work, Young Money would hit nearly all the highlights:
- Boring, Repetitive Labor. “Many entry level bankers conceive of themselves as lumps of body mass who perform uncreative and menial work, and whose time can be exchanged for labor at any moment.”
- Measuring the Worth of Employees With Dollars. “In Jeremy’s little corner of the trading world, all that mattered was a person’s P&L and a related number, called ‘gross credits’ (or just “GCs”), which measured revenue generated by a single employee.”
- Isolating your Morals from Your Work. “Many of the Wall Street analysts I’d met were thoughtful, robust ethical thinkers in their private lives. But professionally, they were foot soldiers.”
- Loss of Freedom. “‘It’s not the hours that kill you—it’s the lack of control of the hours,’ one analyst told me. ‘My life doesn’t belong to me anymore.’”
Now, I’m just pointing out the obvious here. But each of the problems here are essentially ethical. That is, it’s wrong to pile debt onto a struggling company and profit off their demise; it’s wrong to make people work from 9am to 5am in the morning; it’s wrong to reduce people’s worth to a numeric value of how much money they make for an investment firm.
If we reduce ethics to simply how we treat co-workers, then I agree, this view of “good but insufficient” is spot on. But if we open our eyes to the moral purposes of the institutions of which we take part each day, and boldly stand for the good, and expose the evil (both individual and systemic), then conversations about “ethics” are exactly what those of us in the faith and work movement must be doing on a daily basis.
Finally, evangelism. In recent decades, the workplace was seen merely as the venue for personal evangelism – or possibly a way to gain a platform to tell co-workers about sin and the need for personal salvation at the water cooler. The criticism here is that they’re not looking at how the Christian faith actually informs the work they do, but instead see the workplace only as an opportunity to share one’s personal testimony. And in the process they assume that daily work is just a way to make money, fund “ministry,” or invite people to church.
Again, I can understand the criticism. This view of “faith at work” essentially views the structures of our shared life – whether that be the corporate values of Google or the principles of design for a new apartment complex – as either neutral or simply unimportant. Or it can’t seem them at all, and assumes that “winning one individual at a time” is the only path for fulfilling the great commission. This, clearly, is a mistake, as the Scriptures see sin as both a personal issue and a systematic power or “principality” that keeps men and women in bondage in unjust structures.
But again, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. First, all Christians clearly do have the responsibility to share their faith in private and in public, when they get up and lay down, when they walk to the board room or when they eat lunch on a construction site. We never, ever want to deprecate personal evangelism. This has always been a part of Christian mission, and always will.
But if we understand evangelism more broadly, the “good news” that through Jesus’ death and resurrection he has been made the King, the Lord of all creation, then we need to be “evangelists” all the more! If Christ is really Lord of all, and everything was made for him and through him (Col. 1:15-20), then we should seek ways to testify to his creative and redeeming work as we consider how to handle a bankruptcy case, how to craft a story for a newspaper, or how to put together a chemistry curriculum. Testimony, here, is both for the sake of personal salvation, and for the sake of co-laboring with Christ in his work of restoring the created order.
Mission always goes forward in both word and deed. I’ve written about this previously on this blog. So for now, I’ll just say that we really can’t have a full, robust understanding of Christian mission without both evangelism and service, a clear verbal proclamation of the gospel and a humble self-giving love manifested in whatever we do, including our work.
Just look at Christian history. Augustine was obviously powerful in word, but he also sought the freedom of slaves in North Africa as a pastor of a congregation. Catherine of Siena too was a strong verbal witness – but she also got involved in politics, and had some very clear words for the pope regarding his involvement in the crusades. Martin Luther King Jr thundered truth from the pulpit and led freedom marches to right the historical wrongs of racial segregation. Evangelism (broadly understood) and service are two sides of the same coin.
To say that our work has value to God simply because we are image-bearers, and we reflect the one who worked for six days and rested for one, is good. But we begin to depart from our historical roots when we say things like, “Let’s just recognize that work has inherent value.” Of course it does. But what makes Christians unique is this message which infuses our work with a sense of purpose and excellence, as it’s done for Christ; a commitment to moral action, as it’s done in response to God’s grace; and a deep love for our neighbors, as it was God who first loved us; and a commitment to justice and shalom, as we follow the Lord, the Prince of Peace.
Well, that was an egregiously long blog post just to say, As we affirm the inherent value of work, let’s not forget to embrace the three “e”s: excellence, ethics, and evangelism. For many of us, we’ll need to expand our view of each of these, but nonetheless each is a worthy contributor to bringing the gospel into our world. Plus, the alliteration is awfully catchy.