Dr. Edward L. Harris received his doctorate from Texas A&M University and a master's from Dallas Theological Seminary. His current research and publication efforts are focused on organizational culture.
Does your work matter to God? Is your vocation an integral part of who you are as a Christian? These are questions I have struggled with during much of my adult life. The answers have implications for all believers in secular vocations, especially those of us in academia.
Many professors spend about 50 percent of their waking hours in teaching, research, and service activities. We may spend another 35 to 40 percent on family and personal interests, which leaves about ten percent for our religious activities. However, most Christian teaching and literature address these in the opposite order: a heavy emphasis on religious matters (e.g., Bible study, prayer, church attendance, Christian fellowship), an increasing focus on marriage and family, and very little on integrating your faith in the work place.
There are several possible reasons for this reverse in priorities. One is that many Christians have attempted to separate their lives into two spurious, polarized worlds: the spiritual and the secular. I believe this dualism has been propagated more by societal influences, such as Platonic and even Gnostic thought, than it has by Scripture. The Bible does, however, make some crucial separations, such as the distinction between God and creation or good and evil, and these provide helpful implications for our work lives. For instance, we should dwell on and embrace good ( Phil. 4:8) and reject evil (Eph 4:31), be in the world and not of it (John 17:15-16), and do all to the glory of God ( 1 Cor. 10:31). However, dividing our lives into Christian work and secular work, the private and the public, actually inhibits us from applying these biblical principles, exacerbates an absolute dualism Scripture never intended, and threatens our integrity in both realms.
Another possible reason for the lack of emphasis on vocational life in Christian teaching is a subtle skepticism concerning the relevancy of religion in day-to-day activities. This unspoken notion is that Christianity is fine for Sunday and fellowship, but it just doesn't fit in the workplace; Christ was successful as a religious leader and as Lord over His spiritual kingdom, but He just couldn't make it as a modern-day professor. Sherman and Hendricks (1990) write:
(M)ost professionals . . . hold a mild skepticism toward the Faith. They feel that something abstract like Faith can't stand the rigors of the street . . . religion is a sort of weekend hobby, like golf and fishing. Come Monday, it s time to put away those toys and get back to the real world (p.19-20).
This dualism and consequent skepticism have had some tragic consequences for the Christian in the work place. One can be illustrated in a cross-neighborhood move my family recently made. Since the house we were moving to was in the same neighborhood, we decided to move piecemeal for a few weeks to avoid much of the stress associated with packing and transporting a household. However, what we found was a new type of tension, for at one point we were existing in two distinct dwellings, our new house and our old house. We would commute back and forth between these two worlds and no one really knew what we meant when we referred to our real home.
Unfortunately, many Christians shuttle back and forth between their public world of work and private world of faith, which not only takes a lot of psychological energy, but also jeopardizes their integrity. If one has two lives, which one is his or her real one? Is your private life, your life with God, the one you want to be identified with? Or is your public life, your life with colleagues and students, your primary identification? To live in two worlds sends mixed messages.
Another consequence of dualism is that one is forced to prioritize these two realms, and thereby discount one over the other. If you discount your work, then 50 percent of your life could be considered inconsequential. If you discount your spiritual life, there may be the guilt of not putting God and His Kingdom at the forefront. Both of these alternatives destroy your dignity as university professor, for if 50 percent or more of what you do in life doesn't count to God, then you may feel that you must not count to God. If your work has no value, then you may believe that you have no value and are a second-class citizen of the Kingdom of God. Sherman and Hendricks ( 1990) quote English professor and author Dorothy Sayers:
In nothing has the Church so lost her hold on reality as in her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as a result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world's intelligent workers have become irreligious, or at least uninterested in religion. But is it astonishing? How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life? (p.20)
An alternative to segmentation is integration. The concept of integration is often confused with correlation. To correlate means to show causal relationship between two things or directly implies that two things are complementary to each other, such as two friends and the iron sharpens iron idea in Scripture.
To integrate, on the other hand, is to unite two things into a single unit, such as the integration of words in a sentence. By themselves, words have a limited effect , but they can convey a powerful meaning when they are brought together.
Much of university life is relational. In our teaching, advising, consulting, professional presentations, and even in publications there is a certain amount of human interaction. The foundation for these relationships, and consequent integration of our faith and work, are found in three principles: unconditional love, listening, and continual learning.
The first principle is unconditional love, a love that flows directly from our love of God and His love for us (John 13: 35; 1 John 4: 19). This means that we love those we work with, not because of who they are, but in spite of who they are.
At one institution I was a part of there was one person who was truly unlovable. In fact, it seemed he went out of his way to be obnoxious, crude, rude, and socially unacceptable. He was also an atheist. My prayer was that I could cultivate a genuine friendship with him and demonstrate unconditional love. This was not easy, because he knew I was a Christian and made every effort to magnify his belligerence around me. But we did, in spite of both of us, become friends. Then he unexpectedly went into the hospital for life-threatening surgery. During his recovery my wife and I visited him briefly and joked about the irony of an atheist being in a denominational hospital.
After my colleague returned to work, he stopped by my office. I assumed he wanted argue about our worldview differences, but what he came for shocked me. He came to tell me I was the only one, except his wife, to visit him in the hospital. That single action was a living example of friendship and unconditional acceptancesomething he had never experienced.
My conversations with him about grace have since had meaning and context because of my microcosmic example of God's unconditional love. At the time of this writing, my friend has not become a Christian. But unconditional love means just that, love without conditions, even the condition of trusting in Christ. My responsibility is to be a faithful friend even if he never comes to salvation. On the other hand, if I truly love him, I desire God's best for him, which includes a relationship with Christ.
My job is to demonstrate love, cultivate a spiritually attractive life, and clearly communicate the gospel message. I believe that God's job is to convict and convert. Do you love God with all your heart soul and mind? Do you love your colleagues and students as you love yourself? Love is foundational for an integrated and effective Christian witness.
It's easy to have superficial relationships, and consequently, superficial conversation. I've noticed that many professors' conversations are more monologues than dialogues; one person attempting to get his or her point across. One of the great needs in effective communication is to learn how to listen. Listening allows us to practice unconditional love, for when we genuinely listen to people we communicate that they are important to us.
I will never forget one professor I vainly thought I would lead to Christ in a short period of time. In fact, I thought if she did not become a Christian through my bullet-proof arguments, then no one would. However, that was just the problem; I was too busy arguing my points to listen to hers. She finally told me, "I am not interested in being your Christian project for the semester." It was clear I was not the first believer to try to get another proselytizing notch on his belt, and she did not desire that kind of conditional relationship. Listening communicates respect and regard for both the individual speaking and his or her ideas. We let them know they are people, not projects.
Listening to others allows us to learn, which is vital to our own discipleship. In terms of integrating our faith, our learning should begin with how to bridge the gap between the Word of God and the world in which we live, which includes integrating God's truth with our academic discipline.
To make an impact on our cultural context, we must be students of both God's Word and the world in which we live. Personal Bible study, memorization, participation in a local church, and scriptural meditation are essential, but they should not be ends in themselves; they should be a means for spiritual growth and a way to allow God's revelation to be relevant to our world. Anthropologist and missiologist Sherwood Lingenfelter has written much on the importance of Christians understanding their social environment.
Lingenfelter claims that an understanding of one's cultural context, the worldview(s) of those in that environment, and the application of God's word in day-to-day activities enables a person to effectively present the gospel so that those who accept it become disciples of Christ and live spiritually transformed lives. (Lingenfelter, 1996, p.9)
Central to having a positive effect in the workplace is integrating one's worldview in their academic discipline or field of study. The Apostle Paul gives an example of this on Mars Hill where he developed intellectual common ground with the Athenian philosophers (Acts 17:16-34). In his dialogue it is clear he had a conceptual handle on his belief system and how it related to Athenian cosmology.
In The Pattern of God's Truth, Frank Gaeblein (1968) emphasizes the union of subject matter with the eternal, infinite pattern of God's Truth. Mellichamp (1997) offers some practical help for the professor and demonstrates how one can integrate his/her faith in class activities, presentations, and publications. There are several things one can do to better integrate his or her worldview, including developing a distinct, vocational philosophy, developing a biblical theology, and discovering the structure of your discipline (e.g., the questions it deals with, the answers it seeks, the concepts it uses to analyze the field, the methods it uses to obtain data, and the way it organizes its inquiries and findings).
I strive to set aside time each week to think of ways to try to better understand the cultural context in which I work and how to integrate God's truth in my professional endeavors. A vital part of this preparation is prayer. I pray for my students, my colleagues, and staff. I pray for an understanding of their worldview, God's will for their lives, and I pray my deeds and words will not be stumbling blocks. Many times, I also let them know that I am praying for them.
Does your work as a faculty or staff member matter to God? Since He cares about us and our relationships, and since so much of our work is relational, it must matter to Him. Genuine relationships are grounded in unconditional love and acceptance, active listening, and being a life-long learner of God's Word and His ways. Love, listening, and learning grow through conversations and shared experiences over time. They build a storehouse of memories which reinforces the relationship and serves as a context for sharing the gospel. Relationships grow when we ask God to cause them to prosper.
It is also important to understand the social environment in which we work and the worldview of our associates. In the context of love, listening, and learning we can better integrate our faith and our work. The professor's life should be one of prayer; prayer that we walk with wisdom and speak with grace, and for opportunities to spend creative time with our associates and integrate God's truth in our thoughts and activities.
Graebelein, F.E. (1968) The Pattern of God s Truth. Chicago: Moody Press
Burkett, L. (1990) Business by the Book. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.
Mellichamp, J.M. (1997) Ministering in the Secular University. Carrollton, TX: Lewis and Stanley
Lingenfelter, J. (1996) Agents of Transformation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books
Chadwick, R.P. (1965) Teaching and Learning. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company
Sherman, D. & Hendricks, W. (1990) Your Work Matters to God. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress