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Wycliffing the Workplace

By Randy Kilgore
Marketplace Network, Inc. John sensed the natives were getting restless. All his gentle attempts to share the gospel were rebuffed or politely dismissed. He didn't speak their jargon and couldn't connect with them socially because most of their social rituals flew in the face of biblical standards. He felt the natives' hospitality wane as they became increasingly uneasy around him, but what was he to do? John knew God wanted him to share Christ with the people around him, but he felt completely incompetent.

No, John's not a missionary in a far-off land. He works as a CPA in a large accounting firm in the United States, and he understands his workplace calling to be a light. But even though John may not be a foreign missionary, he is a cross-cultural one.

The experiences of foreign missionaries can teach us much about our own struggles to reach across the cultural divide that separates us from our non-believing employees, colleagues and managers. These "lessons from the missionary trenches" are practices tested across centuries, national boundaries and cultural differences. They offer hope and strategies for working Christians—the cross-cultural missionaries in the world of business.

The Cross-cultural Missions Framework
Names like Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, Adoniram Judson, Lottie Moon—we speak about these missionaries in Christian circles with respect and admiration because their lives were characterized by sacrifice and compassion for the lost. They made conscious decisions to be faithful to the Great Commission in places where the Gospel was not a central feature to the culture.

Ah, there it is! A seven-word sound-bite to capture the imagination: "… not a central feature to the culture." While Western commercial enterprises remain loosely based on Judeo-Christian ethical standards, many working Christians affirm that Christianity is not a central feature in their work culture. Indeed, more than a few of these same workers describe Dilbert-like anecdotes of how the cultures at their workplaces are actually antagonistic to their faith.

In many ways, Christians at work face the same cross-cultural difficulties that overseas missionaries face, and the rich trial-and-error, practical experiences of foreign missionaries offer keen insight—"best practices" of sorts—about how to reach coworkers. Accepting the premise that evangelical Christian faith is unfamiliar to our workplace cultures enables us to explore new strategies for equipping believers to thrive and minister in their careers. Four traditional missionary approaches in particular, transfer well to our own workplace mission fields:

• "Wycliffing the workplace" (translation of Scripture into readily understood cultural terms)
• overcoming competitiveness and quickly resolving conflicts
• cultivating indigenous believers to do the work, versus outsiders
• using excellent service as a powerful pre-evangelism strategy

Lesson 1 from the Trenches: "Wycliffe the Workplace"
The Wycliffe Organization presents one of the most exciting stories in the history of cross-cultural missions. By translating the Bible into native languages, they make firsthand encounters with God possible for whole people groups. For centuries, missionaries have understood that to effectively introduce Jesus Christ to a culture they must 1) translate the gospel into the common language of the people and 2) use readily-understood cultural information to transmit the meaning of gospel truth. Imagine what would result if we as workplace cross-cultural missionaries were to find ways to illustrate the concepts of our faith to coworkers too busy to know them, and too busy to work at understanding them!

Once, an executive criticized me for suggesting that Christians need to constantly interact with Scripture, even while at work. I pointed to The Wall Street Journal under his arm and asked, "Do you read that every day?" Slightly bemused, he retorted in his best I-can't-believe-you-have-to-ask voice, "Of course I do. I wouldn't be ready for my work if I didn't …" His voice trailed off as he recognized the parallel to my argument. Like a cross-cultural missionary, I used the man's own cultural experience to relate a spiritual truth. It worked.

To further illustrate the point, consider the concept of Sabbath rest and its use as a culturally relevant tool for missionaries a hundred years ago and for workplace missionaries today. Ester and Roger Winans' worked among the Aguarunas, a fierce tribe of headhunters who persistently resisted efforts of missionaries to minister to them, often with fatal and grisly outcomes.

Remarkably, Esther and Roger earned the favor of Chief Samarin. In describing God to the tribe, they discussed the concept of Sabbath rest. Samarin was deeply moved that a god would care enough about his people to instruct them to rest. The Winans had appealed to the chief's desire to care for his people, linking it to the way God cares for his children. The approach was ingenious, and the result was an opportunity to evangelize the tribe.

In history-comes-full-circle irony, many Christian workers today describe how the same concept of Sabbath rest marks them as religious to their own "tribe" (employees and peers) and "chiefs" (managers), and opens opportunities to describe their faith to those who might otherwise be disinterested. In our culture, which decries its own busyness while accelerating it, the idea that God prescribes rest for His children can be a significant introduction to God's character.

One principle that missionaries have long understood from experience is to resist the "just give them a Bible" syndrome. Case in point: Adoniram Judson endured incredible hardships as a missionary to Burma in the early 1800s. He translated Scripture into Burmese and produced an English-Burmese dictionary. The former opened the Bible to the Burmese readers, and the latter created a way for English-speaking missionaries to share their years of Bible experience with the Burmese who were now reading it for the first time. The result: Thirty years after Judson's death, Burma had 7000 Christians and 63 churches descended from his labor. On the 100th anniversary of his work, there were 200,000 Christians. Just "giving them a Bible" was not enough to reach Burma—missionaries had to explain to the people what they were reading. So, too, workplace believers need to be trained in tutoring coworkers as they discover God's Word.

It is important to note when applying the "Wycliffing the workplace" principle to our own jobs, that cross-cultural missionaries seldom see contextual illustrations as gospel presentations in and of themselves. They often view them as exercises to prepare the ground for later witnessing. Or more often, they see them as simple ways to pique the interest of the intended audience. We workplace Christians should be just as comfortable as our missionary brothers and sisters in identifying opportunities to use relevant cultural illustrations to introduce and explain our faith.

Lesson 2 From the Trenches: Control Your Competitiveness
An employer once commented to me that "… you Christians eat your young." I was offended by his remark, and pressed him for an explanation. He pointed out two workers who recently fell in love, saying "Everyone in this place knows they're dating. There's electricity between them. The way you Christians talk about love, you'd think we'd see the same thing. Instead, all I hear is what you don't agree about." His observation was a stinging reminder that Christians in the workplace are surrounded by a "cloud of witnesses," watching to see if the things we claim to believe really do impact our lives.

Missionaries who have made unity and conflict resolution central to their relationships with each other have not only enhanced their own comfort, but avoided the damage these disputes have on those watching them. In the 1930s and 40s, Bill Wallace was a surgeon practicing in Wuchow, China. A Southern Baptist, Wallace's patients included missionaries from the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Catholic priests and nuns, and workers of other (potentially) competing mission agencies. Not only was he their doctor, but their friend, and the writings of each group after Wallace's death at the hands of Communists, reflects not only their deep sense of loss but their awe at his ability to brush aside the competitiveness that fuels many missionary enterprises. Perhaps as telling are the testimonies of the Chinese residents about the remarkable example Wallace set, highlighted when not even one resident could be cajoled or bribed into giving false testimony against Wallace, even under duress. The same should be said of us by those we work with—that we are adept at resolving conflict and our love for other believers is too obvious to miss.

Unfortunately, those missionaries who haven't controlled their competitiveness with each other and with non-believers forfeit the harvest that could be theirs. Missionary writings often lament that the number one cause for missionaries leaving the field is not financial struggle, physical danger, isolation, or even impatience for results, but conflict with other missionaries. During a split in a major Protestant denomination in the 1990s, the rift worked its way through the ranks overseas, tearing apart even long-time coworkers, and causing charges that missionaries were even "outing" other missionaries to the hostile governments where they were serving.

These illustrations from foreign mission fields highlight how conflict resolution is one of the most fertile territories for workplace disciples to introduce their faith in a meaningful, understandable and useful manner. The late Dan Smick (founder of Marketplace Network, Inc.) wrote: "Most of the principles taught in Scripture about dealing with conflict and difficult people are directly applicable to the workplace. It just takes courage and discipline to use them: Keep your list of grievances short by seeking opportunities to resolve them as soon as possible; don't indulge your ungodly curiosity by participating in gossip; and keep the process of confronting someone as confidential as possible. Not all efforts at conflict resolution are going to have a happy ending, but you can go on with a clear conscience that in as much as it is under your control, you are at peace with all men."

When believers apply these conflict resolution principles to their relationships with other Christians, coworkers get the chance to see the bonds that link us instead of the dogma that divides us.

Lesson 3 From the Trenches: Churches Should Cultivate Workplace Missionaries
Whether cubicles in New York, merchant shops in Zimbabwe, rice fields in Thailand or assembly lines in Laos, the largest mission field in any country is its workforce. This field of workforce souls is rapidly becoming an unreached people group in its own right. In the middle of this vast need, sit "indigenous" Christians who are stunned by perceived restraints on their faith and discouraged by the antipathy exhibited by their coworkers and employers.

This problem is really an opportunity, and churches and seminaries are beginning to realize this. They are starting to see the parallel between traditional mission fields and the marketplace mission field—namely that indigenous missionaries are more effective in spreading the gospel. Who better to translate faith into understandable terms, who better able to minister inside an organization, than the believers already familiar with the language and the culture? This explains in large part, the rapid growth of the work/faith movement in today's Christian circles. Still, workplace Christians often describe themselves as ill-equipped to share their faith with coworkers. So what can we learn from missionary efforts in order to resolve this problem?

History records four major missionary efforts to evangelize China: Alopen and the Nestorians in 635, John of Montecorvino and the Franciscans in 1294, the Jesuits in 1582 and the Protestant Robert Morrison of the 19th century (1807).

Each of these efforts made a fatal error: They sought to curry the favor of the leaders of China in a trickle-down theory of evangelism (not uncommon among those involved in the work/faith movement today). While Morrison and others experienced more success than the previous efforts, this was largely because they included in their targets the general population and not just leaders.

Western missionaries eventually realized that the Gospel was more effectively spread by peers than by outsiders, and they began training these "insiders" to do the work themselves. The success of this thinking is seen in the explosive growth of the Chinese church after the Communists evicted foreign missionaries in the 1950s.

Training is the key for transforming workplace Christians into cross-cultural missionaries within in their own companies. But, what we've historically failed to do in the faith in the workplace movement is tap into the vast storehouse of missionary literature and experiences that are useful for equipping workplace Christians.

Many working Christians, and even some work/faith ministries, lament the fact that this training is not occurring in the church, but some of their expectations are unrealistic. Most churches are small, and populated by people with a wide range of professions and jobs. Their diversity makes useful workplace classes challenging. Plus, there's a long list of issues and topics demanding time and "shelf-space" in the Sunday School hour and in the pulpit. Parenting, marriage, discipleship, managing money, and learning spiritual disciplines all compete with workplace ministry for time, energy and attention.

Churches are designed for fellowship, and for equipping Christians to live and share their faith in their daily lives, and most do a solid job of that, objections from laity notwithstanding. The unique stresses that work places on us, and the unique opportunities that work offers us to serve God, requires special attention by ministries and by individuals able to bridge the gap between the church and the office. When those ministries and individuals partner with the local church instead of contributing to the complaints that the "church doesn't understand the workplace," they give the church access to detailed, timely and specific equipping tools, as well as information to use in the lives of its members.

These ministries in turn, can help disaffected Christian workers understand the important role the church plays in providing foundational teachings for how faith affects their jobs.

For these workplace ministries, the volumes of missionary biographies and training can become templates for creating their own literature, which is rooted in life-tested, sacrifice-driven, Spirit-filled experiences, and not in the "short shelf life" tomes that use hot buttons and pop references to score quick points (often at the expense of the church).

Lesson 4 From the Trenches: Excellent Service is a Powerful Pre-evangelism Strategy
Missionary biographies are rife with tales of men and women who broke new ground in unwelcoming cultures by making themselves useful to those cultures. The history of medical missions and other humanitarian efforts demonstrates that one of the most effective ways to reach into a culture is to become a useful thread in the tapestry of that culture.

Famed explorer Henry Stanley once wrote when surrounded by Africans wanting to know more about the "white man's God", "Oh (for) some practical Christian who can … cure their diseases, build dwellings, teach farming and turn his hand to anything, like a sailor-this is the man who is wanted. Such a one, if he can be found, would become the saviour of Africa."

Along came Scotsman Alexander Mackay whom the Africans called "Mazunga-wa-Kazi," (White-Man-At-Work). Moved by Henry Stanley's plea, in 1878 Mackay settled into a land where slave-trading was still common—a tribe of Ugandans ruled by King M'tesa. In fact, M'tesa himself raided other villages to gather slaves, selling them to outsiders who were offering guns and other items in exchange for human beings.

In the middle of this tragic time in Uganda's history, Mackay set up his forge and began working. Villagers gathered around to peer at this stranger who worked with his hands. Everyone knew that work was for women (men in Uganda fought in battles or sat and talked with the king, but they never worked with their hands). Yet here was Mazunga-wa-Kazi forging hoes. Already, he had axed and trail-blazed a 230-mile wagon road just to reach this people. "Turning his hand to anything," Mackay captured the hearts of many of the villagers, impressing even King M'tesa. Then one day, the workplace missionary traded on his reputation and stood up to M'tesa about his slave trading. Confronting the King in the presence of a dangerous slave trader from the Middle East, Mackay challenged the king to be a true leader to his people. The vicious M'tesa looked first to the slave trader, then to Mackay … and ended the raids and trades.

African missionaries aren't only ones who understand that competency is a precursor to evangelism. Many working Christians understand this, too, evidenced by the fact that competency and utility have been cornerstones in much of the contemporary work/faith literature.

An emphasis must also be placed on the early selection of the places we choose to work—specifically, where we choose to be useful and competent. For many years now, campus ministry organizations have guided some of their brightest members into campus ministry upon graduation. This strategy enabled campus ministries to recruit high-caliber workers, making the university campus a wonderful success story in the annals of Christian outreach. But, the majority of college students who pass through these ministries train for roles in the general workplace. We can help these students view job selection the way overseas missionaries discover their missionary fields. Service and usefulness should become factors in career and relocation decisions. Students leaving college for careers will do so with a renewed purpose and an understanding that their work matters to God, even as they teach others that God matters to their work.

This strategy can be used to grow a network of Christians who bond and equip each other. Imagine a campus minister at the University of Colorado emailing Marketplace Network in Boston with the names of students leaving his ministry to work in Boston. Think of the preparations Boston workplace Christians could make to welcome them. And, imagine the impact this could have on the newer generations of workers if they enter their fields not only as a means of worshipping God and fulfilling the Cultural Mandate, but also as a means of fulfilling the Great Commission in purposeful passion.

The Natives Don't Change Until the Missionary Does
Let's conclude where we started—with John, our CPA cross-cultural missionary friend. What does all this advice mean to him? John finally realized that the natives at his company were restless because they felt threatened. People don't listen when they feel threatened—they defend themselves.

So, John applied field-tested tactics of more experienced missionaries: He served his supervisors and colleagues with excellence using his accounting skills. He consciously set aside divisive theological discussions with his fellow Christians and quickly resolved conflict with coworkers. (That wasn't easy, but it was doable.) He "Wycliffed" his workplace, asking God to show him relevant cultural illustrations that his colleagues would understand. And, he encouraged other "indigenous" workplace believers to do the same.

The results? Some people still resisted any mention of John's faith, but many more felt comfortable opening up with him about their own beliefs. God finally connected through John, and productive dialogue followed. As the missionary changed, so too did some of the natives.

Randy Kilgore worked for twenty years as a senior human resource manager before returning to seminary. He is now a Senior Writer at Marketplace Network, Inc., a work/faith ministry in Boston. His latest book is entitled: Talking about God in the 21st Century Marketplace.

From Regent Business Review, Issue 14. Copyright © 2004 Marketplace Network, Inc. Used by permission.

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