Review of God at Work by David W. Miller

In 1995, David Miller, at the age of 38, left his dream job in London as a partner in a private equity firm to study theology and see what it had to do with the business world. When he announced his attentions to all his executive contacts and business acquaintances around the world, he was stunned at how deep a chord he had struck. One phone call that he remembered particularly vividly went like this:

I have worked hard to reach the pinnacle of my profession. I have more money than God, yet I am unfulfilled. My marriage is a shambles, I hardly know my kids, and when I look in the mirror, I wonder where the man went who so idealistically graduated from college 30 years ago and was ready to make his mark on the world. I’d like to talk to my pastor, but he has no clue about my world and the pressures I face. Let me know what you find at seminary. I’d like to talk with you.

If you work in corporate America, this man’s story may sound sadly familiar. The so-called “Sunday-Monday gap,” whereby believers’ spiritual lives are compartmentalized from their workday lives, is unfortunately an all-too-common scenario. Lay Christians seeking guidance on how to integrate their faith into the workplace often feel that they have no resources to turn to, with clergy seemingly not caring, or at least not understanding, their needs.

In light of this state of affairs, Miller’s remarkably thorough and scholarly study God at Work is a welcome resource. Over a quarter of the book consists of endnotes and bibliographic references that document books, articles, periodicals, official church statements, and organizations devoted to the examination of the relationship between religious belief and the workplace. Though I consider myself better informed than most people on the subject, I discovered innumerable resources in Miller’s book that I had never heard of before.

A large fraction of Miller’s book is devoted to recounting the history of the subject, focusing on Christianity during the last hundred years or so in the United States. Miller divides up this historical period into three eras or waves.

1. The Social Gospel Era (c. 1890s–1945)
2. The Ministry of the Laity Era (c. 1946–1985)
3. The Faith at Work [FAW] Era (c. 1985–present)

The term social gospel is still familiar today, and is typically associated with postmillenialism and Marxist critiques of society. The term also appears in the title of Walter Rauschenbusch’s book A Theology for the Social Gospel—though Rauschenbusch himself had a rather nuanced view that emphasized both individual and social transformation. By using the term social gospel era, however, Miller is not claiming that the social gospel was the only notable development of that period. Various special-purpose groups formed, many of which are still active today, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (an offshoot of the Oxford Group), the Gideons, and the Christian Business Men’s Committee. There were also several notable popular books about Jesus, such as In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? by Charles Sheldon, and The Man Nobody Knows by Bruce Barton. The latter book is not so well known today but was a bestseller at the time.

Barton, a layperson and successful advertising executive, discovered in Jesus all of the leadership attributes of a successful business executive. Barton bemoaned that the church had distorted the image of Jesus, portraying him as sissified, sorrowful, meek, and lowly, whereas his reading of the Gospels revealed a vibrant, strong, life-enjoying, and popular leader. He noted that Jesus “picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world.” Barton wrote The Man Nobody Knows to “tell the story of the founder of the modern business,” in hopes that “every business man will read it and send it to his partners and salesmen” as a means to spread Christian culture throughout the world.

Miller regards World War II as marking the end of the first wave. In addition to its obvious disruptive and disillusioning effect, the war inaugurated a new era of rapid technological progress and change in social norms. Anti-institutionalism and anti-establishmentarianism affected people’s attitudes toward the church, and led to an increased focus on the ministry of the laity.

While several factors combined to affect the midcentury FAW movement, four were predominant: the emergence of strong leadership figures; the development of a theology of the laity; the rise and decline of a focus on lay ministry by the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey and the WCC [World Council of Churches]; and the parallel influence of and dialogue with Roman Catholicism. As regards leadership, three individuals consistently championed the ministry of the laity: J. H. Oldham, a theologically trained Anglican lay leader; Hendrik Kraemer, a Dutch missionary and scholar; and Hans-Ruedi Weber, a Swiss Reformed theologian and self-described “disciple of both Kraemer and Suzanne de Dietrich.”

Influential writings from this period cited by Miller include A Theology of the Laity by Kraemer, Salty Christians by Weber, and several Catholic documents coming out of Vatican II: Gaudium et Spes, the section on the Laity in the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, and the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laypeople. I was interested to learn that the Presidential Prayer Breakfast (now known as the National Prayer Breakfast) was initiated by Abraham Vereide during this period (specifically in 1952). Most interesting to me is Miller’s analysis of why this “second wave” apparently petered out. Among the reasons suggested by Miller are that the institutional church was more concerned with perpetuating its existence and training the clergy (and so diverted the energy of the lay movement toward that end), and the influence of liberation theology and related ideas that led many “to conclude that participation in the marketplace was unpleasing to God, making money was evil, and life in the economic sphere was somehow intrinsically tainted.”

In fact, Miller devotes an entire chapter (Chapter 5) to what he regards as the failure of the church and the theological academy to respond adequately to the needs of believers who wish to integrate their faith and their work. One of many striking quotations in this chapter is the following remark by Bill Diehl, a former sales manager and active Lutheran layperson:

In the almost 30 years of my professional career, my church has never once suggested that there be any type of accounting of my on-the-job ministry to others. My church has never offered to improve those skills which could make me a better minister, nor has it ever asked if I needed any kind of support in what I was doing. There has never been an inquiry into the types of ethical decisions I must face, or whether I seek to communicate the faith to my co-workers. I have never been in a congregation where there was any type of public affirmation of a ministry in my career [as a sales manager]. In short, I must conclude that my church really doesn’t have the least interest in whether or how I minister in my daily work.

While the situation in my own church is not nearly as dismal as Diehl’s apparently was in 1976, it is certainly true that the kinds of issues mentioned by Diehl are relatively far down the church’s list of priorities. A few years ago, someone in our congregation tried to start what might be called a FAW support group, but it did not gain much traction and is no longer active.

With this anecdotal evidence as background, I was rather surprised at Miller’s main thesis, which is that there has been a “third wave” of the FAW movement, starting in the 1980s and, according to Miller, showing no signs of abating in 2007, when God at Work was published. Any doubts that I had, however, have been more than addressed by the plethora of evidence provided by Miller. Notably, Miller cites increasing interest at business schools in offering courses that specifically address the relationship between spirituality and business, as well as many articles in the popular press about FAW.

Magazines and periodicals have also recognized the increasing interest in religion and spirituality in the workplace. The venerable business publication Fortune magazine ran a July 2001 cover story entitled “God and Business: The Surprising Quest for Spiritual Renewal in the Workplace,” and more recently in 2007 Fortune Small Business had a cover story, “Jesus at Work.” Another well-regarded business magazine, BusinessWeek, ran a 1999 cover story on faith in the workplace entitled “Religion in the Workplace: The Growing Presence of Spirituality in Corporate America.” Even Newsweek Japan had an article reporting on the American phenomenon.

Miller also gives a long list of books and special-purpose groups that have burgeoned in the decades since the 1980s. This third-wave movement seems not to have been spearheaded by the church per se, but rather by lay Christians who have taken matters in their own hands to meet the needs that they perceive the church to have neglected. Miller notes that many well-known companies, such as American Express, Bear Stearns, Ford Motor Company, and Coca-Cola Company have become “faith-friendly” in the sense that large FAW affinity groups have formed and flourished at them. He also points out that workplace chaplains have increased in popularity.

One Tyson Foods plant manager, for instance, was originally deeply skeptical of the concept and did not want his already thin profit margins to have to absorb the “nonproductive” costs of a workplace chaplain. That same manager today will jokingly say that only over his dead body will he allow you to remove his chaplain. Another vivid example came from Robert Pettus, vice chairman of Coca-Cola Bottling Company Consolidated. … Pettus shared that some union employees—who happened to be a group of single mothers—approached him and said that, if tough economic conditions meant the workplace chaplaincy program might have to get cut, they were willing to give up other benefits instead so as to keep that one. In thirty years of work in human relations, he had never heard such an offer.

In addition to providing a thorough historical and sociological survey, Miller also offers a conceptual framework for thinking about the issues that the FAW movement is concerned with. He calls it the “Integration Box” (since he sees the third wave of the FAW movement as emphasizing the desire of lay Christians to integrate their faith with their work) or the “Four E’s”: Ethics, Evangelism, Experience, and Enrichment.

• Ethics: ethical challenges faced in the workplace.
• Evangelism: spreading the gospel in the workplace.
• Experience: the spiritual and theological value of one’s job or “calling.”
• Enrichment: the healing and restorative power of prayer and meditation.

For example, Miller notes that Diehl, as quoted above, touches on all four E’s implicitly. On the other hand, Miller is not primarily concerned with developing a systematic theology for integrating faith with work, but he does mention some theologians who have attempted this.

With a few notable exceptions, most theologians do not develop interdisciplinary competence nor seek to understand the complexities of modern global economies and develop a constructive theology of work. Some of these exceptions include homiletician Barbara Brown Taylor, pastoral care theologian Don Browning, theologians Miroslav Volf, James Childs, and Richard Mouw, and social ethicist Max Stackhouse, to name a few.

Specific books include Volf’s Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work and Mouw’s Called to Holy Worldliness.

After reading God at Work, I learned that Miller is hard at work on a revised version of the book that will take into account developments since 2007. I am very curious to see whether Miller still thinks that the FAW movement shows “no sign of receding” and is “if anything, intensifying.” My impression is that demographic surveys are showing a general decline in interest in spirituality and religion in the United States, especially among the younger generation, and that the rise of the LGBT movement and the politicization of Christianity has contributed to this decline. I can contribute one anecdote from my own workplace. A few years ago, we had a training session about our company’s code of conduct, and the lawyer presented a partly true, partly fictionalized scenario featuring a workplace conflict between a fundamentalist Christian and a gay activist. The lawyer’s presentation was strongly biased in favor of the gay employee and against the Christian employee. This kind of tension is not new, of course; in fact, on page 184 of God at Work is an email from one of the founders of the Christian affinity group at American Express that describes exactly this kind of tension occurring back in 1995. Nevertheless, my impression is that “faith-friendliness” is under attack in corporate America today in a way that it was not back in 2007. When I tried to search for the type of articles and publications mentioned by Miller, I had trouble finding anything recent, and for example the magazine Business Reform, which Miller says had 200,000 subscribers in 2003, no longer seems to exist. It will be fascinating to see whether Miller’s systematic research backs up my impression or refutes it.
Posted November 2019

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