What would Jesus do?

In 1995 David W. Miller shocked his friends in the corporate world when he left a successful career in international finance to study theology. He eventually became an expert on how Christians have tried to relate their Sunday faith to their Monday workplace over the past 150 years. Here are excerpts from Miller’s book and a glimpse into his story. (Our editor’s linking text is in italics.) 

About a hundred years ago, a businessman and a pastor each blew the clarion call for integrating Sunday and Monday. The businessman was interested in what lessons he could find in his faith to help his work. The pastor was interested in what lessons he could find in his faith to help society. 

Bruce Barton, a successful New York advertising executive and later a U.S. congressman, read the Bible for the first time and discovered that Jesus was not a mild, meek, domesticated God whose relevance is relegated to quiet once-a-week visits. Rather, Jesus was a strong, vibrant being who lived in the rough and tumble of daily life, who assembled a management team made of both winners and losers, and who built an organization from scratch that has outlasted most other known businesses, governments, and societies. 

Walter Rauschenbusch, a pastor in New York’s “Hell’s Kitchen” [at the time a particularly dangerous slum] for years and later a theologian, also looked at Jesus differently than did many of his day. He, too, saw Jesus as a vibrant figure, someone who made some rather specific demands of his followers in the here and now. 


How do we help the poor?

Rauschenbusch (1861–1918) and Barton (1886–1967) both operated against a background of great social and economic change, where factories and their mass-production assembly lines became the center of employment for many. Rauschenbusch’s efforts came first: he helped spark the Protestant “Social Gospel” movement, which tried to figure out Christian approaches to social concerns like poverty and drunkenness.

Assembly lines created a voracious appetite for low-cost labor, often drawing women and children into dangerous, monotonous jobs with long hours. . . . This demand for labor in the cities where the factories were situated caused huge social unrest both in these cities and in the rural towns the workers left behind. The cities did not have the infrastructure or social services to absorb the influx of workers, and the family unit was often torn apart as the historic models of family farms and small family businesses were forever changed. City pastors were overwhelmed with new levels of affluence in their congregations, as well as with increasing levels of poverty, crime, alcoholism, hunger, and spiritual thirst. 

Rauschenbusch wanted the church to address these issues in part by developing Christian workers, rather than grabbing the “best and the brightest” for pastoral careers.

He rejected the typical concept of a good layman who attends church, tithes, and is a member of church committees doing good works. Instead, he argued, “What we want is young men who will carry the determination to live consecrated lives into the workshop and office and clear a track for their determination by revolutionizing the conduct of business in which they are engaged.” 


Gideon Bibles and bestsellers

Rauschenbusch was far from the only person thinking about these issues. At the same time, a large number of lay-led special-purpose groups sprang up to help people evangelize and live Christian lives in their workplaces. One is still instantly familiar to anyone who has ever looked in their hotel-room nightstand and found a Bible: the Gideons. In addition, writers turned their attention to what Jesus might do if faced with the workplace crises of the late 1800s. One was pastor Charles Sheldon, who wrote the runaway bestseller In His Steps in 1896. 

What began as a simple sermon series in Topeka, Kansas, asking what would happen if people really modeled their lives on Jesus turned into a mass-marketed book phenomenon paralleling the popularity of today’s Purpose-Driven Life. . . . 

The basic thesis of the book [was] for people to ask, “What would Jesus do?” in response to any and all modern issues that Christians might encounter. Indeed, In His Steps is the literary forerunner of the modern popularity of WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelets and t-shirts. Sheldon’s book was a clarion call to Christian social action to transform one’s community, with particular emphasis on the workplace.

 Advertising executive Barton’s book, The Man Nobody Knows (1925), also became a “runaway bestseller.” Barton, a pastor’s kid from Tennessee, grew up to become—among other things—the creator of the advertising character Betty Crocker and a prolific author.

Barton bemoaned that the church had distorted the image of Jesus, portraying him as sissified, sorrowful, meek, and lowly, whereas his reading of the Gospels revealed a vibrant, strong, life-enjoying, and popular leader. He noted that Jesus “picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world.” 

Barton wrote The Man Nobody Knows to “tell the story of the founder of the modern business,” in hopes that “every business man will read it and send it to his partners and salesmen” as a means to spread Christian culture throughout the world. . . . [It struck] a chord with those whose church experience echoed Barton’s and with those who had never considered Jesus as having any relevance to the business world.

Baptist preacher, frequent traveling lecturer, and former lawyer Russell Conwell (1843–1925) also spread a popular message about Christians, vocation, and money.

His signature speech, “Acres of Diamonds,” was given more than 6,000 times and reached tens of thousands of listeners. Its central theme was that wealth could be found where we are planted and not in faraway exotic places. Moreover, he stressed that people should become wealthy: “I say you ought to be rich; you have no right to be poor.” Conwell argued that people ought to be rich because money has power—power to pay scholarships for poor people, to build hospitals and schools, and to take care of one’s family. Faithful to his teachings, Conwell died with little money to his name, having used his fame and money to fund worthy causes; his particular interest in education for the poor led to his vision of what later became Temple University. 


Prayer, not cocktails

In the twentieth century, authors like Quaker Elton Trueblood (1900–1994),“a noted philosopher, theologian, writer, and speaker,” inaugurated a second “wave” of the faith at work movement. Trueblood urged people to be “full-life Christians.” 

. . . [He noted] that commercial travelers had formed the Gideon Society, that many cities had associations of Christian businessmen, that even a society of Christian professors had been formed, and that in Washington, D.C., a small group of legislators met regularly to pray. What all of these groups had in common, he concluded, was that they came to look upon their work as a holy calling. . . . [H]e wrote, “This movement is small, and seems to have little chance in a city where the normal basis of a meeting is not prayer but a cocktail party, yet it is a step in the right direction in which we must turn if our common life is to escape ultimate decay.”

Trueblood was not alone. In 1954 the Second World Council of Churches Assembly endorsed the expression of faith in the workplace.

“[T]he real battles of the faith today are being fought in factories, shops, offices and farms, in political parties and government agencies, in countless homes, in the press, radio and television, in the relationship of nations. Very often it is said that the Church should go into these spheres; but the fact is, that the Church is already in these spheres in the persons of the laity. . . . It is the laity who draw together work and worship.” 

Episcopal clergyman Sam Shoemaker (1893–1963) pastored churches in New York City and Pittsburgh, and as a “master of start-ups” influenced Alcoholics Anonymous. He founded the magazine Faith at Work in 1956, which “contained engaging stories of how businesspeople in all walks of life relied on their faith for inspiration and motivation.“ In 1955 Shoemaker launched the “Pittsburgh Experiment” to bring the church into the workplace in a tangible way. 

Instead of basing the Pittsburgh Experiment staff and events in the church building, Shoemaker chose space in a financial office building in the heart of the business district. From there, he hosted, coordinated, and initiated a steady flow of lunches, discussion groups, and workshops. Each of these adhered to a basic guiding principle: “apply your Christianity to your job.” 

Shoemaker was convinced that God enters the business world in two ways: through converted men and women whose hearts God has changed and who carry God’s spirit with them wherever they go and through human relations that are different because God has become a third party to them. So effective was the Pittsburgh Experiment that it was featured in a 1953 article in Fortune magazine under the title “Business Men on Their Knees.” 

But despite the best efforts of many, the movement suffered from several handicaps: its clergy-dominated nature, church structures inhibiting lay ministry, the tendency of church professionals to equate ministry with serving on church committees, and, especially from the 1960s on, theological perspectives that named business as inherently wicked. 

People in the workplace, particularly in for-profit businesses, were led to conclude that participation in the marketplace was unpleasing to God, making money was evil, and life in the economic sphere was somehow intrinsically tainted. . . . Congregations [often] were given a false choice between personal salvation and piety or organizational transformation and social justice in the economic sphere, as if God were interested in just one and not the other.

Going into business with God

But in the last few decades of the twentieth century, these questions exploded with new urgency—including in Miller’s own life. 

Lay ministry is arguably a classic interpretation of Christian discipleship, a tradition faithful to the New Testament teachings and the first 300 years of the life of the church. . . . [From the mid-1980s on], work-related questions about meaning, purpose, ethics, and how to express one’s faith at work [began] to drive the movement. And there appears to be an irrepressible urge in laity to live an integrated life . . . a deep desire to connect faith and work, while hoping for both personal and societal transformation. . . . 

In the summer of 1995, I sent out a letter to some 400 executive contacts and business acquaintances around the world to advise them that I was leaving my [business] partnership [in London] to return to the United States to study theology . . . and see what it had to do with the business world and the people in the workplace. 

Expecting mostly snickering and derisive responses, I was stunned to receive back more than 150 faxes, letters, and phone calls. What surprised me even more was that my letter seemed to strike a deep chord with the recipients. Despite external measurements of career and financial success many of these executives were feeling a deep emptiness and a disconnect from the beliefs, people, and things they valued most in life. 

I still remember one phone call vividly. . . “I have worked hard to reach the pinnacle of my profession. I have more money than God, yet I am unfulfilled. My marriage is a shambles, I hardly know my kids, and when I look in the mirror, I wonder where the man went who so idealistically graduated from college 30 years ago and was ready to make his mark on the world. I’d like to talk to my pastor, but he has no clue about my world and the pressures I face. Let me know what you find at seminary. I’d like to talk with you.” CH


By David W. Miller

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #110 in 2014]

David W. Miller is the founding director of the Princeton University Faith and Work Initiative where he conducts research, teaches, and hosts programs on the intersection of faith and work. This article is excerpted from his book God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement.
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