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Evangelism In the Workplace

  • Timothy D. Terrell,
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The 1999 film The Big Kahuna depicts three salesmen in a hotel hospitality suite at an industrial convention whose job it is to land a big sales contract. Kevin Spacey plays the role of an acerbic, sharp-tongued veteran ("Larry") whose existence revolves around selling industrial lubricants. Danny DeVito is "Phil," another veteran who is worn down and depressed by personal problems. Peter Facinelli plays the part of "Bob," a well-mannered young lab tech new to the world of sales-and a Christian. The primary goal of their evening is to meet a certain businessman ("Dick Fuller," the Big Kahuna) who could singlehandedly solve their company's problems with a large order.

Almost the entire movie is shot in one room, which means, as in other adaptations from the stage (like the 1998 BBC production of King Lear or Hitchcock's Rope), that dialogue must be in the forefront of the plot development. Character development is therefore more thorough than is usual for film. Each of the three key characters is given high definition by the time of the key event of the evening — the reception. At first, the reception appears to be an utter failure. Larry and Phil never make contact with the Big Kahuna, but discover afterwards that he and Bob had had a lengthy chat. Bob, ignorant of Fuller's identity, spent most of the conversation trying to turn it into an evangelistic opportunity. Larry and Phil, who are irritated by Bob's neglect of the point of the reception, and angry with themselves for missing the Big Kahuna, send Bob to catch up with Fuller at another event and make a sale.

Bob succeeds in meeting with Fuller, and the two evidently have a prolonged, congenial conversation. Yet Bob again completely neglects his assigned task and spends the entire time evangelizing his prospective customer. Industrial lubricants never enter the discussion, and Bob may think that making a sales pitch would compromise the sincerity of his witness. Upon Bob's return, Larry is incensed (Phil is rendered somewhat apathetic by his deep-rooted inner despair) and lashes out at Bob.

Many Christians would defend Bob's behavior as evidence of a strong commitment to the Great Commission. Spreading the gospel, they would say, supersedes all earthly responsibilities. We must obey God rather than men, so no matter what a boss tells us, we must be missionaries for Christ wherever we are.

Yet Christians who believe they are serving God by departing from their employer-assigned tasks in order to evangelize could be disobeying God's explicit commands. The eighth commandment forbids us from stealing. If an employer has paid a person to perform a certain task, and the person does not perform the task but instead does as he pleases, then we would rightly say that the employee has stolen from the employer. No matter how noble the alternative use of time may seem, the employee gave up his discretion over the use of his time when he contracted with (or made a promise to) the employer to do as the employer directed. Peter Facinelli's character in The Big Kahuna was therefore a thief, a promise-breaker, and a hypocrite. He had sold a promise of certain services to his employer, and his conversation with the prospective customer should therefore have been directed toward producing a sale.

We know that God will not put us in a situation in which there is no right choice. We will not ever be required to sin in order to do something that is commanded. God punished King Saul severely when Saul illegally performed sacrifices in Samuel's absence, even though God commands sacrifices (I Samuel 13:8-14). Stealing from an employer will not be a condition of evangelism, any more than Saul's intrusion into a priestly office was a condition of following the requirement to sacrifice.

This does not mean that evangelism and productive employment are incompatible. We must simply recognize that though we may be called to spread the gospel, we are not called to spread the gospel every waking hour. There are other uses of our time that enjoy God's approval; in fact, to neglect some of these other occupations would be to disobey God. Work is a requirement of God, both as a means of providing for our families (I Timothy 5:8) and as a means to take dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:28; 2:15). The understanding of work that emerged from the Protestant Reformation is that all work, when done well and to God's glory, is pleasing to Him. Even the lowest forms of work can be satisfying to God, when done well. Paul commanded servants in the church in Ephesus and Colosse to obey their masters, doing their work as a service to God as well as to their masters (Ephesians 6:5-8, Colossians 3:22-25).

Some may conclude from the discussion thus far that no evangelism may take place in the workplace. This is not true. Furthermore, there are, in most work days, some "down times" when non-work-related discussions could take place without reducing productivity. Yet Christians must be careful not to rob their employers by using otherwise productive time to evangelize.

Implicit in the actions of many Christians in the workplace is the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. Because the physical is viewed as inferior to the spiritual, labor for material gain must have a lower priority than labor for spiritual gain. Something as mundane as a job selling industrial lubricants could only be justified as a way to achieve more spiritual goals. In fact, to many believers, a job is merely a way to get into a position to evangelize co-workers or customers, or to earn money to support a family or those who do evangelistic work. Any thought of reforming the work itself to be more in conformity with God's law, and more productive, is far from their minds.

While speaking with their coworkers, clients, or others about Christ, these believers may actually be hindering the spread of the gospel. Employers will learn not to hire Christians, because they will not be diligent in their assigned tasks. The worktime evangelist conveys to everyone around him that work is not important to the Christian, and others may regard the believer as lazy, incompetent, or disdainful of "earthly things." This implicit Gnosticism is damaging to a complete Christian testimony of Jesus Christ, and needs to be purged from the attitudes and actions of working believers.

  • Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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