The words shot out of my mouth and slapped my dad in the face. “I will NEVER be a businessman like you are!” SLAP! “Business people focus on money and profit and things that make Christians take their eye off the ball!“ SLAP! “I have decided to be a pastor so I can concentrate on the stuff that really matters.” SLAP!
The sting of my declaration spread across my dad’s kind face. In a few verbal swipes, I demeaned all of the good he had done in his role as a community banker over the previous quarter-century. I discounted all the times my dad stuck his neck out to help his customers get a loan for their first house. I dismissed the many times he gave chunks of his day to gently help customers and employees process personal struggles. I overlooked his employees’ frequent, grateful testaments to my dad’s godliness and compassion and how he made their workplace a good place to be. In my youthful tendency to divide things into sacred and secular, I had drawn a line through my dad’s significance to the Kingdom as a Christian businessman.
At the time, I was a junior in college with double majors in business administration and religion. I had come to my own conclusion that all the under-grad business classes I took would go on the scrap heap. Things had changed for me since I started college and a career in business no longer appeared to be a noble way to serve God. The path I had chosen at the time of my rant led to seminary after college, and then to become a pastor where I could affect peoples’ lives in a meaningful way. My jaw was set. My self-righteousness was intact. My resolve was firm. The problem was that this was the path that I had chosen. God had other ideas.
Sometime during my senior year of college, God put me in a spiritual time-out and helped me realize two things: 1) that I would make a horrible pastor. God needs great pastors. I would not be one of them. My God-given temperament and natural gifts were meant for something else, and 2) that there was a desperate need for God’s presence in the marketplace and that I would find my Kingdom-role there. God was definitely calling me, but it was not as I had expected.
Once it sunk in that God was calling me to a mission outside the church organization, I resumed my pursuit of a degree in business. In God’s beautiful sense of humor and irony, He arranged for my first assignment…as…a…banker! Go figure. I think God chuckled a little as He worked that out. Never say never, right?
Over the next couple decades I was “commissioned” to serve in several varied business contexts from financial services to manufacturing to consulting to marketing. No matter which context I was in, I found that business – like the church – has relationships at its core. People who work together at least forty hours a week, sharing space and goals, can’t avoid sharing life. And where life is shared, it’s possible for curtains dividing secular work from sacred work to fall.
Because God awakened me to a sacred calling within my slice of the marketplace, I became aware of the potential for every aspect of my work to be sacred. Helping a sales rep through his wife’s terminal illness: sacred. Being chosen to lead a team that would discern the ten-year trajectory of our company: sacred. Protecting a gay employee from being cruelly bullied by his coworkers: sacred. Being loyal and encouraging to a difficult boss: sacred. Praying with co-workers for our employees and our company: sacred. Being an encouraging force in a cynical work environment: sacred. Telling my God-story to a broken associate: sacred. Working really hard to perform my job at a level of excellence and skill that honors God: sacred.
Viewing all of this as good, sacred work gave my life divine purpose and freedom. It became very clear to me that God had extended to me a personal invitation to join Him in making His presence and character known where neither pastors nor church programs were invited or welcome. He gave me the great privilege of seeing His Kingdom seep into conversations and situations all around me in ways that connected people with Him. My experience shook the way I had previously viewed the borders and approach of the Church. I didn’t realize that I was feeling tremors of a much greater movement.
Over the last several decades, people who watch what is going on with church, as we know it, have seen the Western culture nudge the influence of the modern expression of church to the margins. The population’s engagement with mainline churches has weakened. The political and social voice of clergy has fallen on increasingly deaf ears. Many who claim to follow Jesus and His ways have divorced themselves from traditional forms of organized church and feel justified in doing so. If we measured the power of the church with the yardstick we’ve been using over the last 50 years, many of us would say that the significance of the church is sadly and disturbingly unraveling within the fabric of our culture.
As far back as the mid-1970’s, respected Christian leaders Loren Cunningham, founder of Youth with a Mission, and Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade, simultaneously sensed these changes and expressed that the role of God’s people would have to expand beyond the reach of the organized church if we are to fulfill the mission He has given us in our world. Other highly regarded leaders spoke out to echo and affirm the idea that, to restore our world back to God, Jesus’ followers would have to follow Him into all segments of cultural influence, where He is already at work. Jesus-followers would need to follow their vocational expertise, skill and training into spiritual realms within environments that were formerly viewed as secular. With this convergence of inspiration, the term “marketplace ministry” came to represent the efforts of Christians to go beyond the conventional space and influence of the church to apply their faith and values within their workplace.
For many Christians, Rev. Billy Graham shifted their view of the role of the marketplace in the advancement of the Kingdom when he made his well-known projection: "I believe one of the next great moves of God is going to be through the believers in the workplace." Graham’s prediction indicated that a new front of renewal and restoration was being re-established by God, that it was beyond the conventional church walls and programs, and that it would be led by those who were employed outside the church. Graham put words to what others, like me, were only feeling. The visceral reality of a role in a significant movement of God elevated the need for awareness, training and activation of millions of Christians who were immersed in the marketplace, but who were not prepared for such
Awareness of this movement has been growing, but the size and trajectory of the conventional church organization have caused it to struggle to find an active response to this reality. At the same time, many Christian leaders in the marketplace find it bewildering and often inconvenient to embrace a role in a “great move of God’ within their every day context. The same curtains that were dividing me in my early exchange with my dad continue to hang in the perceptions of many church and marketplace leaders alike.
About seven years ago, leaders of Ashland Theological Seminary and members of the business community keenly felt the rumblings of the marketplace movement and recognized the tension of living within the sacred/secular curtains. While training of marketplace Christians was not part of the span of traditional seminary training, the seminary’s desire to equip men and women for ministry in the church and the world granted permission to venture into new territory.
Over the past six years, Ashland Seminary has provided awareness, encouragement, and permission to Northeast Ohio business leaders, that they might be agents of change within their companies, cultures and communities. These leaders have been immersed in a nine-month process that informs participants through nationally recognized experts, cultivates trusted relationships, initiates intentional conversation, infuses Christ-like values, and invites the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. Through this experience, God has removed the sacred/secular curtain from the lives of more than 150 leaders, and has compelled them to approach all aspects of their lives as sacred endeavors.
Earlier, I said, “Never say never, right?” About three years ago, God and my dad probably chuckled again when I was called to Ashland Theological Seminary to serve and encourage Christian business leaders as the director of our marketplace engagement initiative. I could fill countless pages with stories of businessmen and women who have come alive in their awareness of their sacred calling within the marketplace. We’ve shared tears, laughter, sweat and cheers as they’ve torn down their own personal curtains and allowed the Holy Spirit to mend and knit every part of their lives together for His service. I have spoken to family members, supervisors, associates, employees and friends of these men and women and they recognize the difference these leaders are making for the Kingdom.
The effect of these businesspeople has been truly profound, yet God has recently reminded us that business is only one element of cultural influence in our world. Just as the ancient city gates of Jerusalem were a defining melting pot of many cultural influences, our world is being defined by more than church and business. Let’s face it, most of us work in the marketplace and, on average, we’ll spend 100,000 hours of our lives there. There are doctors, actors, teachers, artists, reporters, athletes and politicians who have not yet been awakened to their sacred calling. There are social workers, soldiers, lab technicians, authors and physicists beyond our region who are waiting to be encouraged and equipped to be a part of this great movement of God. Ashland Theological Seminary is embracing a role as a facilitator of this movement, and we are faithfully expanding, as God moves, to equip Christians to live out their calling within every segment of cultural influence. What a privilege to serve the Kingdom in this way!
All my life I’ve just wanted to be at the heart of what God is doing. Here. Now. I’ve wanted to be where the stuff-that-really-matters happens. I’ve wanted to encourage people to take God’s call seriously and to enter into it passionately. I’ve longed to watch, from within, the Body of Christ’s swirling, swarming love as it embraces and restores what has been broken and devalued. Who would have thought that in the gray-shaded, messy, shifting, unlikely environment of office building, board room, studio, lab, classroom, profit, production, competition, pluralism, that such a surprising, beautiful, powerful movement of God would take place. Who would have imagined that a seminary and a person like me would be part of this movement? Never say never, right? Maybe God is chuckling.