Missionaries in a Mercenary World

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“In corporate industries, we’re all mercenaries,” laughed Ashwin Mathews. “We work for the money. Honest—honest truth! I don’t work for loyalty, right? I’m not loyal to the company. I work for the cash!”

I interviewed Ashwin (not his real name) in India in 2012 when I was conducting research for my PhD dissertation in sociology. By that point, I had already interviewed nearly a hundred corporate professionals, many of whom were deeply committed Christians and leaders in their churches. Ashwin, for instance, worked by day as a systems analyst for a global IT giant. But his evenings and weekends were devoted to the leadership team of a charismatic prayer group for professionals.

I was especially struck by Ashwin’s words because they perfectly articulated a pattern that I had been observing throughout my research. These professionals, Christian or not, largely saw themselves as mercenaries. Not the sort who fight and kill for money, of course. This, rather, is a new breed of economic mercenaries in unabashed pursuit of upward mobility. They’re in it for the cash, and couldn’t care less about the company. After all—they told me—the company’s not going to care about you; loyalty is dead, and what matters above all is mobility and promotability; you can’t trust your colleagues since they’ll gladly throw you under the bus if it gets them promoted; you’ve got to keep your cards close to your chest, and dare not be vulnerable.

I found this to be the pervasive normative outlook (i.e., how most people believe they ought to conduct themselves) in the workplaces of multinational (mostly American) companies I studied in India and the Middle East. What especially fascinated me was the prevalence of this outlook even among Christian professionals who happened to be leaders in their churches—leaders of Bible studies, prayer groups, parish councils, and so on, which, as I will discuss later, are profoundly shaped by American evangelicalism and Pentecostalism. Not a single one of these Christian professionals I spoke to saw their corporate jobs as vocations.

This mercenary outlook, I have been learning, is hardly unique to places like India. For instance, I have been in recent conversations with several consultants from the world’s leading firms who admitted that this is basically how they approach their own work. So these findings are applicable to the American context as well to some degree.

Why this all matters

At the Faith at Work Summit in Dallas last year, as well as on a post on this blog, David Gill challenged us to move from F@W 101 to F@W 201. This includes:  

  • the need to go deeper into understanding the nature of specific professions;
  • the need to look particularly into issues such as the role of money (as William Messenger has also noted, we tend to dismiss that sometimes people need to work just for the income); and
  • the need to look broader, especially to people in the two-thirds world outside the US, and to take seriously the context of globalization.

In this series of posts, I want to respond to the above call by highlighting the cultural context in which many corporate professionals around the world, Christian or otherwise, find themselves. I will share some of my research findings, based on 200 interviews and 12 months of participant observation in India and the Arabian Gulf, and draw on theoretical resources from the discipline of sociology to try expand the scope of our discussion on faith at work.

Some of the themes I hope to address include:

  • why does the mercenary outlook appear on the scene at this point in history? (and why should the Church care?)
  • what is it about these workplaces that generates and sustains this character?
  • why do Christians claim to integrate faith at work while adhering to the mercenary norm? (and what are the different modes in which the same person can integrate and segment faith and work?)
  • why integration of faith at work is not just about values, beliefs, and intentions, but needs to also consider tacit mechanisms like environmental cues and triggers, as well as skills, habits, and dispositions;
  • under what conditions can faith commitments disrupt and provide alternatives to the mercenary norm?
  • how do workplaces shape professionals’ contributions to their churches and societies?

By doing so, I hope to shed new light on, and raise questions about, what it means to integrate faith at work in this environment, and about what the role of the Church should be in responding to this context. My hope is that this can generate a fruitful discussion, and perhaps contribute to the development of a more sociologically informed theology of faith and work.

Brandon Vaidyanathan is Director of Research at The H. E. Butt Family Foundation in Texas and Public Policy Fellow at the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.

  One thought on “Missionaries in a Mercenary World

  1. William Messenger
    January 14, 2017 at 12:34 pm

    Looking forward to your series! On the one hand, it seems like Christians ought to have a higher regard for their employers than just being mercenaries. On the other other hand, if Christians serve their customers, co-workers, suppliers, bosses, and employers well (as a mercenary could certainly do), does God really call them to some kind of deeper, more permanent love or loyalty to their company? Can’t wait to see what you have to say, and especially, what we in the F&W world can do as a consequence.

    Like

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