Monday, February 15, 2010

Evangelizing the workplace?

I recently got a text message from a high-school acquaintance I reconnected with on Facebook. I'm not much of a texter myself, as it's often simpler (and cheaper) just to call the person and talk rather than spend the time and money on text messages. But occasionally it serves a purpose, so I prefer to have the function; my new phone has a full QWERTY keyboard, since I don't have the hang of abbreviations.

Kurt is a born-again Evangelical who likes to "thrash Scripture". His message read: how r u coming w/ ur witness @ work?

I didn't have an answer for him.

The truth is, I don't talk religion at work. The only on-the-job direct challenge I've had so far was in 1990, and I was too ignorant of Catholicism to make much of a defense. Moreover, my job requires me to be talking to customers a minimum of 54 minutes every hour, which doesn't leave much time for sidebar discussions. And evangelizing the customers is a customer-service no-no.

I can live with the lack of expression in the workplace. If my job required me to advocate social doctrines, practices or ideals that went against my faith, I'd seek employment elsewhere. On the same level, I submit that organizations which represent particular churches and religions should be allowed to discriminate against people who aren't willing to adapt to their requirements. Frankly, a person who openly advocates gay marriage has no more business working for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops than does a rabbi working for the American Islamic Conference or a member of NAMBLA working for BSA. However, businesses which don't front for religious or political groups should do what's necessary to avoid discrimination on any level, save for criminal activity which directly reflects on the applicant/employee's trustworthiness with corporate assets or confidential information. And even then I think there should be some kind of "shelf life" beyond which such a record should not be considered.

(I'll cheerfully admit that a member of NAMBLA has no business being a priest, either. And while I think a homosexually-oriented priest who lives his vows faithfully and consistently would make a good sign of contradiction to the GLBT bloc, the ecclesial culture which can support such a man doesn't exist—too many people pushing him to express his translate his orientation into action, too many others suspicious of him—so the Vatican's current policy of not ordaining homosexuals is probably for the best.)

However, it's fair to say that we're seeing more elements of American society becoming openly hostile to Christianity, though anti-Christians are still far from a majority. Sadly, many of the people who grant anti-Christians their victories are Christians themselves, misled by a vision of "tolerance" that only works one way, so concerned about "tyranny of the majority" that it can't see the rise of an elite class of cultural dictators. In business, the anti-Christians get their assistance from leaders who tend to adopt measures that sacrifice freedom of speech in the name of a peaceful workplace. (Reminds me of Bill Cosby's line about parental unfairness: "Parents aren't interested in justice; they're interested in quiet.")

The net result of this is that evangelizing in the workplace is much like flirting around the water cooler—not a good idea without clear, unmistakable signs of welcome, and not without strict protocols insuring charity. Even beginning to discuss religion is an invitation to others to claim religious harassment.

But more than that, the time available for non-work activities at the office isn't sufficient for more than what one could call "drive-by evangelization": dropping a couple of Biblical citations and making a couple of comments in the hope that you've hit your target. More often than not, any topic which would invite a comment along the lines of, "Well, the Catholic Church teaches …" would also be starting from the end, not the beginning.

For instance, let's say Debbie, a Southern Baptist, asks me why Catholics pray to Mary. To give a full, coherent explanation that would provide the necessary background, I'd have to explain the communion of saints, the participation of the faithful in Jesus' role as the One Mediator through membership in the Body of Christ, and the Blessed Virgin as the Mother of God and the New Eve. And much of this would invite further questions and explanations.

How do you fit all this into a fifteen-minute coffee/smoke break?

A far better idea would be to invite coworkers to a Denny's or Waffle House for dinner and discussion. The time would be off-the-clock, the venue would be off-site, and the atmosphere would be less formal. Plus, you could bring religious material with you without exciting suspicion. But it's one thing to answer a bunch of questions with, "Hey, if you want to talk about this, let's meet at IHOP after work;" it's another to solicit such a meeting by sending a group e-mail, as the other can potentially run afoul of workplace rules.

The biggest concern I have with workplace evangelization is that, sooner or later, matters of morals will come up. To discuss these issues is to walk into a powder magazine with a lit match. No matter how delicately or charitably you discuss these matters, you run the risk of someone hearing only, "You're a bad person and you're going to hell." Whether or not that person is in fact bound for damnation is irrelevant; the fact that you "said" such a mean, hateful thing is likely to cause workplace tensions, to create an enemy you now have to work with. At the very least, it's not "tenure-enhancing."

Doubtless there are some who have no qualms about making such a statement directly, in the belief that they are "speaking the gospel truth", and would welcome their dismissal as a form of martyrdom. But there are two arguments against such a bold, blunt approach. The first is that Jesus taught directly against human judgment of souls (Mt 7:1 ff.). Only God has the necessary wisdom and knowledge to make such a determination. The Church teaches the specification of certain sins because it's part of the Church's greater mandate to "[teach disciples] to observe all that I have commanded" (Mt 28:19). However, even Pope Benedict, for all his formidable intelligence and insight, could not say with 100% certainty that, say, Adolph Hitler or Joseph Stalin were roasting for eternity in the infernal fires.

Besides, though authentic martyrdom is a powerful form of witness—in fact, the Greek word marturion means "testimony"—we are not taught to seek it out, only to accept it when it is inescapable save by denying Christ.

There is a second argument that needs to be considered: The whole point of evangelization is to convert, not to offend. Saint Paul, in his famous passage on love, starts with this observation: "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Cor 13:1). The Greek word agapÄ“, which is commonly translated as "love", is equivalent to the Latin caritas, from which we get "charity". A person who attempts to "speak the gospel truth" without due consideration for what effect his words have on his audience isn't evangelizing … he's simply letting words fall out of his mouth. But more to the point, he's failing in charity: he's risking losing the soul in order to win the argument. Which is more important?

Finally, there is this outstanding insight from St. Francis of Assisi: "Evangelize always; when necessary, use words." The most powerful testimony we can give to Christ is in how we live and behave ourselves. In business terms, you gotta walk the talk. The classic definition of giving scandal is behavior that creates an obstacle to faith in others: "for the tree is known by its fruit" (Mt 12:33). The fact that the obstacle comes from your own unwillingness to practice full discipleship is not what people see, and is therefore irrelevant to them; they only know that you claim to be a Christian, and yet you sin.

To sum this all up:

Evangelization, whether at home or at work or anywhere in between, begins and ends with our own response to God's grace and Christ's sacrifice. Beyond that, fairness to one's employer requires we recognize that we are at the workplace to work, not to preach. Fairness to our fellow employees requires that we respect their religious views by not sharing ours unasked. And fairness to the Gospel requires that, when we are asked, we share them in a way that does not create unnecessary obstacles to faith.

There may yet come a day, in any Christian's life, where he is forced to choose between his faith and his job. Then he may make his stand and dare the stake. But while the Christian should "always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you" (1 Pt 3:15), he doesn't need to go on the offensive.