I recently wrote a dual book review for Christianity Today. One book, Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture and the Church, was cogent, clear and helpful; the other, Christ + City: Why the Greatest Need of the City is the Greatest News of All was chatty, poorly argued, and at times misleading. In my review, I argued there was a key difference that separated the two volumes: “one book is merely in the city; the other is engaged with the city.”
One book brought Bible stories “into” an urban context (the author was from Chicago), yet showed very little understanding of the city nor engagement with its culture. The other book, Why Cities Matter, combined social analysis and ministry application to produce a useful tool that helps ministry leaders not just move into the city, but to winsomely engage its culture.
“In” a city versus “engaged with” a city is a helpful distinction that can shed tremendous light on the faith and work conversation. Many Christians are simply “in” a company or organization, and even are very “Christian” there (personal evangelism, ethical decision-making), but are not in any meaningful way influencing their organizational culture or the culture of their industry. I would venture to say that the majority of faith and work ministries unknowingly encourage versions of this kind of isolation by promoting a “protect and defend” mentality. Christians gather, circle around the Bible, and defend their personal morality against the pressures of cut-throat competition, secular humanism, or unsavory influences.
Of course, other Christians are not just “in” an organization, but are actively engaged with its culture, and do so winsomely. Some strands of faith and work ministries do this extremely effectively, and though the means for influence is indeed work, the outcome is actually cultural influence. So how do you move from simply being a Christian “in” an organization to actually engaging its culture with the gospel?
Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard offer five clear questions for determining the “storyline” (culture) of a city, which also works well for a company or organization. There are five key questions to determining your organization’s culture.
1. What is your organization’s history? When was it founded and by whom? Where did it start and when? What was the original mission statement and how has it changed over time? Answering these questions is foundational to understanding your organization’s unique culture.
2. What are your organization’s values? Entrepreneurship, faithfulness, long hours, creativity, success at any cost, the bottom line? What does your organization reward at the end of the year?
3. What are your organization’s dreams? Global influence, millions of dollars, brilliant scholars, Broadway? Perhaps a better way to ask the question: if your organization found $10 million in a treasure chest, what would be done with it?
4. What are your organization’s fears? Past non-existence, what is the worst case scenario? Generally, flip its dreams upside down, and you get its fears.
5. What are your organization’s ethos? An organization’s ethos is shaped by its unique geography, history and climate. It’s no accident that REI thrives in Colorado, and even that the tech executives of sunny Silicon Valley wear t-shirts and sandals. The climate affects their casual culture.
If you can find time to hammer out these questions with your co-workers, you can begin to define your organizationally culture. When Um and Buzzard applied this framework to cities, they labeled (accurately, I believe) key urban centers with their corresponding idols: Boston: Knowledge; Paris: Romance; London: Influence; Boulder: Adventure; San Diego: Health; Singapore: Order; Oklahoma City: Family. If you can understand your organization’s culture, which is always ruled by a god, you can begin to engage it’s culture with the gospel.
Engagement is twofold: (1) Challenge your organization’s storyline, and (2) Re-tell it with the hope of the gospel. The Scriptures frequently command direct confrontation of idols. Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal, Josiah crushed the Asherah poles, and Paul’s “spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city [Athens] was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Taking the step to say your firm, school, or guild’s focus of ultimate significance is not ultimate is no easy task. In my personal experience, one of two things will happen: (1) People will think you’re crazy and say there are no such gods in this place, or (2) Try to drive you out (he’s really not our kind of person after all). Nonetheless, challenging the idols is a necessary part of ministry within your industry.
Second, and perhaps this is the way to not get fired, retell your organization’s storyline with a renewed hope inspired by the gospel. A friends of mine works at a public relations firm in Denver. In the world of PR, there’s a tendency to “bend” the truth for your clients, as there is across the world of marketing. The Christian story points to a person who is himself the way, the truth, and the life, and calls his children to live in the truth. The gospel also points to the day when light will expose all darkness, and the truth of Jesus’ kingly authority will be made known to all.
Truth, as it turns out, is good for marketing and PR. In a culture of “noise”, people are skeptical about advertising and marketing campaigns, expecting to be bamboozled, if even subtly. Seth Godin recently advised marketers to lead with the unattractive parts about your product or service. This kind of “leading with truth” can actually surprise people enough to cut through the noise and potentially win more clients. Perhaps not. But the reward of telling the truth is reward enough for the Christian who values integrity over pandering for more business.
This is just one example. Other industries will have other idols to confront, and Christians will have other (better) stories to tell. But I believe this is where cultural influence begins, first on the micro level and then at the macro level.
(1) Understand your organization’s culture.
(2) Challenge your organization’s storyline.
(3) Re-tell your organization’s story with the hope of the gospel.
Of course, all this talking by itself is insufficient to change the culture of your company. Ideas must be incarnated; they must put on flesh. Re-telling must culminate in creation, in new kinds of work. We must take a better hope and make new processes, policies, programs, or products. Here is where we can plant the seeds of renewing the face of the earth – and the office.
Photo: Denver Panorama
Discussion Questions: What is your organization’s culture? What are its idols? And how would you re-tell your organization’s (or even your industry’s) story with the hope of the gospel?