The history and future of the faith and work movement

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By Adam Joyce

This year, the Oikonomia Network’s annual faculty retreat featured provocative and stimulating talks from three leaders of the faith and work movement. Access their talks and slides here:

  • David Miller, “God Bless Us, Every One: The Past, Present and Future of the Faith and Work Movement” (audio)
  • Amy Sherman, “In and For Community: Helpful Models in Theological Schools” (audio and slides)
  • Amy Sherman, “In and For Community: Helpful Models in Local Churches” (audio and slides)
  • Paul Williams, “Theological Education: From Scholastic and Clerical to Ecclesial and Missional” (audio and slides)

David Miller, director of the Faith & Work Initiative at Princeton University, opened the retreat with a superb presentation on the past, present, and future of the faith and work movement. Grounded in his current research and illustrated through his teaching and consulting experience, Miller’s presentation began with a review of the three waves of the movement:

  • Wave 1: Characterized by the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum and social gospel
  • Wave 2: The lay ministry movement after World War II
  • Wave 3: The current wave, driven by the search for integration, meaning and purpose

Beginning in the late 1980s, the third wave has been a lay-led movement primarily formed by those who have felt let down by the church in relating their faith to their work. In 2007 Miller wrote God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement, which provided this history of the movement and an analysis of the third wave.

Miller recently engaged in a new stage of research, studying over 450 faith and work organizations. He evaluated these organizations through the lens of his four-part Integration Profile, looking at ethics, experience (is your work or a calling?), enrichment (how does work tend the soul?) and expression (verbal and non-verbal evangelism). There was a large diversity to the organizations – they are local, national, and international in scope, some are old and some are new, and characterized by a range of finances, reach, and audience. These organizations helped provide a sense of the current status of the faith and work movement.

Miller shared his thoughts on a range of questions. Where is the faith and work movement now? Is the faith and work movement still a movement? What will be guiding and influencing the conversation moving forward? How has the movement changed since 2007? What does its future look like?

What has Changed?

Before discussing what had changed, Miller affirmed that the central concern of the third wave is still the same: “The organizing principle is still about integration, wanting to bring the whole self to work and still also about desiring meaning and purpose.” The third wave of the faith and work movement was founded upon this desire and it still holds true today.

The first large change Miller highlighted is the Millennial generation. With their emergence, generational differences are becoming more observable both within and outside the movement. Miller emphasized how Millennials “… are going to ask different questions of the faith and work movement…So we as teachers, educators, and activists – the various roles we play in the faith and work movement – we need to make sure we are asking the right questions. It’s more than just the old questions.”

Miller discussed how ethical relativism is prominent amongst the Millennial generation, illustrating this with an example from the banking industry. A company provided a meal per diem for their analysts, a position filled with young Millennials. It was discovered that over a third of the analysts – 200 out of 600 – were abusing the system, using it to purchase extra meals at the company’s expense. When confronted with their theft, many of the analysts were indignant, arguing that they deserved everything they got and did not view it as stealing. Miller surveyed his Princeton students about this case study and 19% responded they saw no problem with the analyst’s behavior.

Next he discussed the external influences that are putting different forms of pressure on the movement. The Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case and legislation in general are influencing the movement in new ways. While in the past the movement was growing and flourishing largely under the radar, as a result of these court decisions it is experiencing more scrutiny in the public domain.

The third change Miller discussed was how there are more consumer choices today for those who are hoping to think holistically about their work. The faith at work movement is now, in a sense, competing with less religious movements such as “conscious capitalism” and “mindfulness at work.” There are secular ways of thinking about discipline, meaning and even prayer in your work that didn’t exist previously.

Fourth, the social media explosion also means that there is no barrier to entry into the movement; it is easier to enter the conversation or start an institution. Miller pointed out how Robert Putnam’s thesis in Bowling Alone helps articulate how this ease of entry facilitates the emergence of online “solo groups” and “disconnected-yet-connected” communal conversations that are cloistered off from one another. Miller said there are currently over 1,000 organizations focusing on the topic of faith and work.

The next change is the political polarization of parts of the faith and work movement. Miller observed that some faith and work groups are spending time on culture war issues, something that didn’t occur in the earlier part of the third wave. Earlier in the movement, the common denominator of the hopes, joys and difficulties of work often held groups together even across political divides and doctrinal differences.

What Does the Future Hold?

While discussing the future of the faith and work movement, Miller provided a set of both descriptive and prescriptive thoughts.

First, the investments and support of foundations will continue to have significant impact on the movement. Miller stated that foundations had played an important role in the three waves of the movement, and will continue to influence the movement in a dynamic way.

Next, the topic of faith and work was originally taboo in the corporate environment. However, it has become a necessary topic, usually discussed under the rubric of diversity and inclusion. Diversity and inclusion will be the category through which space is provided for believers to explicitly engage their faith at work in corporate environments.

Miller emphasized the need for the faith and work movement not to concentrate solely on faith and work, but also faith and the economy. Economics, the structure of how we work together, is a vital point of discussion and engagement for the movement that has been neglected in the past.

Fourth, the conversation is becoming more and more international in scope; the corporate world is increasingly global and so too is the faith and work movement. This is not something that can be ignored. On this point, Miller also highlighted how the movement hasn’t always been attentive to certain forms of diversity, especially racial, socioeconomic and theological/denominational diversity. He observed that corporate executives have arguably done as much as foreign missionaries to spread the gospel in recent decades. “Expats [are] traveling on planes and trains into countries where Christianity is expressly forbidden….and they are carrying the gospel.” They have ready access to power elites and often engage in conversations about faith.

Finally, Miller highlighted the problem of the “silo effect” in academia, and how that serves as a barrier to scholars engaging with work and the economy. Riffing on the corporate mantra “Quality is everybody’s job,” he emphasized that engaging the topic of faith and work is the responsibility of everyone involved in theological education. However, the tenure system discourages junior faculty from researching this subject, and those who do become involved in the movement typically begin after they get tenure. In contrast, the secular management academy has become highly engaged in studying spirituality and religion in the workplace. He observed the emergence of new scholarly research and programmatic centers on faith and work in the broader academy, including not just his own research center at Princeton but also centers like the Tyson Center for Faith and Spirituality in the Workplace at the University of Arkansas and the Lorentzsen Center for Faith and Work at Concordia College.

Miller ended his talk by sharing two stories. In 2008 at Christ Community Church, Pastor Tom Nelson replaced the pulpit with a workplace cubicle, preaching from it for a month on faith and work and ending with a panel on faith and work integration. And at a church in Bonn, Germany, Miller saw a sign over the building exit – where people would see it as they left the church – reading: “Servants Entrance.” Here are two churches assisting believers in connecting their faith to their work. This is what the faith and work movement is about.

Listen to his full talk and the Q&A session here.

Adam Joyce is program assistant, Center for Transformational Churches. Reprinted from Oikonomia Network. Image: ON.

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