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29.06.2020

Life Changing Work: Chris Gillies

This article first appeared on the Praxis Centre for Hope & Activism website.

In The Hopeful Activists’ Podcast on 15 June, I explore how the world of work has changed dramatically. How this has brought about a realisation amongst many business leaders that the role of business is not simply to make more profit for its shareholders, but rather that attracting and retaining the best customers and the most talented employees also requires business to act responsibly, to take care of our world.

Of course, there’s still a long way to go. In the UK, we still have 8 million working-age adults, 4 million children and 1.9 million pensioners who live in relative poverty. Around the world, we still have more than 3 billion people living on less than $2.50 a day and more than 2 billion people without access to basic sanitation. The relatively rich (which includes the other 50 million people in the UK) are getting richer.

Profit remains the primary driver of business activity. There’s much about business that is still crying out for improvement. But more businesses are discovering that it is profitable to be responsible. There’s empirical evidence emerging over the last five years or so, for example from the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, to show that businesses in the bottom quartile for corporate responsibility are less profitable investments than those in the top quartile for social responsibility.

In the podcast, I ask a crucial question: in a world where people of no faith have discovered that it’s profitable to be ethical, how do Christians bring a distinctive point of view to the table? How can we be salt and light in a business context where enlightened investors and chief executives are presenting a more ethical face to their customers and employees, because it’s profitable to do so and because they understand the wider benefits to society? If we want the business world to take Christian thinking seriously, I think we need to up our game. If we want to be that salt and light, I think we need to offer more than a call to be ethical. Something multiplicative, something beyond ethical, that is even better for humanity. Something redemptive.

We can only be effective in aspiring to this if we first understand and embrace the gospel message for ourselves. Without the cross, without God’s grace, and without the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we won’t last very long in the tough arenas of modern society.

I’ve been researching the topic of faith and work for some time, and I’ve found two organisations that have developed some very powerful thinking on this.

The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity has many resources around the concept of fruitfulness. What does it look like practically for a Christian to be fruitful on their frontline, wherever that may be?  They offer six ways to think about fruitfulness, which when practiced together move us firmly into the redemptive, rather than the ethical, space.

The New York based Praxis Community has developed a suite of resources and practical ventures around the idea of redemptive entrepreneurship. I unpack this further in the podcast, so do take a listen if you’d like to find out more – especially if you are an entrepreneur, business owner, or an innovator. You can also check out their Praxis Community online course: https://course.praxislabs.org/.

The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity’s model of six ways to be fruitful in our work is applicable to any Christian, working in any context. The good news is that many of us do some of this most days already. It’s not brand-new activity that we have to build on top of our existing practice. But it is a way of being more intentional about the way we engage with society.

Fruitfulness is an important concept in the Bible. We see in both Old and New Testaments that God wants us to be fruitful. This mandate is first given to Adam and Eve, then it’s repeated to Noah after the flood. When God appeared to Jacob and changed his name to Israel, he said: ‘I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply’. Jesus used several examples of vines, trees and sowing crops to illustrate that this fruitfulness mandate extends way beyond growing the population or converting people to the Christian faith. There’s something about his call on our lives that flows out of our relationship with him into a mandate to be fruitful in a much wider context. In essence, it’s about helping to build a flourishing society. To bring a piece of God’s kingdom into every workplace.

So what does it look like to be fruitful at work?

Just as there are many types of fruit, Mark Greene, the Executive Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, makes the point that there are lots of ways to be fruitful, wherever we find ourselves. He suggests six different dimensions of fruitfulness for Christians to pursue, all beginning with the letter M:

1. Modelling godly character

2. Making good work

3. Ministering grace and love

4. Moulding culture

5. Being a mouthpiece for truth and justice, and

6. Being a messenger of the gospel.

At first sight, these sound like a far cry from the cut and thrust of the business world, or from the way most people experience their workplace. I didn’t discover this framework until I had been working for more than thirty years. It sums up in one place things that I had felt intuitively, lessons I learned as my career progressed and as I gained experience. Perhaps most importantly, this framework sums up in a convenient and memorable way things that many Christians are already doing at work every day, whatever their frontline.

When we model godly character we’re reminding ourselves right from the start that our workplace is a place where God shapes us, where he can form our character to be more like Jesus, so that we can better reflect his character to those around us. And as that happens, we become bearers of the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s list in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

What could kindness look like at work? Maybe kindness is taking time to talk with a colleague who needs help when you’re under pressure yourself; maybe self-control is keeping a cool head when you’re sorely provoked in a meeting; can you see the Spirit’s fruit at work in you and through you in those every-day interactions?

How might you bring joy or peace into your workplace?

The second dimension is making good work: it’s so important for us to connect our own work with God’s kingdom purposes. How do the goods or services you’re involved in help others to flourish? And it’s not always obvious, I think of the accountant who might feel that her work was irrelevant to God, but whose skill with numbers is helping to keep her company solvent, or the project manager on a rainy, motorway resurfacing site, sacrificing a warm bed at home to play his part in getting the traffic flowing again, or the supermarket shelf-stacker ensuring we have enough essentials during the Covid-19 lockdown.

It’s also vital to do our work to a high standard. What’s the job of a Christian pilot? It’s not to evangelise the co-pilot! It’s to land that plane safely every single time. We should be prepared to learn our trade, whatever that may be, and practise it to the very best of our ability. I’ve just celebrated my sixty-second birthday, and even at this stage of my career I’m still studying, sitting exams and gaining qualifications, trying to be the best that I can be. And in addition to improving our skills, we can pray for excellence, asking God to give us extra ability and insight.

These first two Ms are foundational. And in a way, they go together. The more we try to model Godly character, the more likely it becomes that God will give us extra ability and insight, and the more likely it becomes that Godly character will make our working practices distinctively excellent. We can all practice these two Ms every single day, whatever we are working at, whether paid or unpaid.

The next three Ms are based around opportunities that God sometimes puts in front of us. We may not get a chance to practise some of these every day, but we always need to be looking out for these opportunities. As we remember Jesus’s great command to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves, there’s our third M: ministering grace and love. This could be as simple as a timely cup of coffee – but it could also be some coaching that helps a member of staff to develop ways to be more creative, or listening and not criticising someone who is struggling. How do you minister grace and love at work on your frontline?

Jesus also said that we are the salt of the earth, the light of the world and our fourth M, moulding culture is all about the influence we have on how things are done around us at work. It may be countering a blame culture or quenching gossip with a positive word for the person who is always the butt of jokes. Perhaps we demonstrate forgiveness in our dealings with our co-workers or nurturing a safe space for our team in which to work well.

Some years ago, I put together a team that built an internet bank. I wanted the culture of that business to be different. But I didn’t know how I could mould that culture into something Godly. A friend of mine gave me a suggestion.

Why don’t you get in early every morning and pray over the chairs in the office. Pray God’s peace on every person who sits in those chairs. So that’s what I did, regularly. I can’t fully explain it, but it made a real difference to the atmosphere in the office. Staff and visitors all commented on how the place felt different to the rest of our group’s businesses around the world. You don’t have to be the Managing Director to do that. Anyone can pray over the chairs.

We can all reflect on the current culture of our workplace and choose to do something small that is counter-cultural, that shifts the culture in a team or office by one degree. Culture is like a super tanker: it’s very hard to turn. But if you shift it by just one degree, ten miles further on that super tanker will be in a very different place than if it had maintained its original course.

And that leads us on to our fifth M, being a mouthpiece for truth and justice. God is very keen on righteousness and justice. At work this is about ruling our patch, the area of responsibility we’ve been given, ruling it well – making sure other people get the credit they deserve when we could have taken it for ourselves, for example. Or speaking up when someone’s being treated unfairly. Have you ever done that? This is sometimes uncomfortable – it puts our heads above the parapet, but it’s close to God’s heart and I’m sure many of us recognise when we’ve been his mouthpiece in that way.

And then lastly, there’s being a messenger of the gospel.

This is different from the other five. And there’s a reason why it comes last. The idea is that we should be good news first and foremost. Once our friends and colleagues have seen the difference in the way that we go about things, then they are more likely to hear the good news of Jesus.

It’s not about delivering a pre-packaged gospel warhead and retreating to a safe distance. It means building on those other Ms – the credibility created by the life we live at work – and when the appropriate opportunity arises, explaining naturally the hope we have in Jesus.

My best conversations were never at work, but rather after work, in the pub or a restaurant, when people were curious about something they had seen me doing. They weren’t comfortable to ask about it in the office, but after work, over a drink or a meal, it was easier for them to say, “Why is it that you work differently? Why did you stand up for that person or decide that particular course of action?”

Then, using language that people on our frontline can understand, we can tell them about the difference Jesus makes to us. If it’s appropriate, maybe we can also offer to pray for someone in trouble. Simply witnessing to the reality of Jesus in our own lives without judging others is a powerful step. Remember that God is the evangelist. We are there to play a part in someone’s journey – not to impose our faith in Jesus, but to share it open handedly so that others can explore it without pressure – then we let the Holy Spirit do the rest.

So I hope you can see from this framework that joining in God’s mission can take many forms that go beyond what is ethical into a more redemptive space and the idea is not that this burdens you with six more things you should be doing in your already manically busy working day, but that it helps you to see what you are already doing and maybe fires your imagination for something else you could do as part of the normal flow of your working life. You can find more resources about fruitfulness on your frontline here.

Everyone can try to model godly character and make excellent work. From time to time we’ll encounter opportunities to minister grace and love, be a mouthpiece for truth and justice, mould the culture of our workplace and as a result of being good news at work we might earn the right to share the good news of the gospel with our colleagues.

So whatever frontline you’re working on today, whether it’s to earn a living, to care for a family, to study for exams, to volunteer by serving others, to engage in research, to create art, to make music, to train to be an athlete, or something else, have a great day and work well.