A Spiritual Growth Industry

Small groups are helping Christians bring faith to bear in the for-profit world.

Mike Valleskey was struggling to understand how his job at Sears fit into his new life of faith. Valleskey hadn't been asked to perform unethically or kept at work so late he lost touch with his family. But he couldn't see how a disciple of Jesus Christ could work 9 to 5 inside an office with such a large mission field outside.

"I contemplated going back to Bible school," Valleskey tells Christianity Today. But before making the jump, he looked at his sphere of influence—his wife and four children, no surprise there, but the next one blew him away. "The workplace," says Valleskey, who now leads a Christian fellowship at Sears with 150 members. "I was around 5,000 people, every day, 40-plus hours [a week]."

Welcome to Faith in the Workplace 101, one of the fastest growing arenas of Christian ministry. If nonprofits are learning lessons from former for-profit execs, it's also true that Christian workers are learning how better to bring their faith into the for-profit world. Like many before, and even more since, Valleskey discovered in 1994 that the largest mission field in his life was inside his Chicago office building. He didn't need a Master of Divinity degree. He just needed to work with a higher mission than receiving that Friday paycheck.

"People don't just want to park their car [and] their soul in the lot outside. They want their personal values, their faith values, to be aligned with the values of the office," says David W. Miller, executive director of Yale University's Center for Faith and Culture and author of the book God at Work (Oxford, 2006). "They don't want to live a compartmentalized life."

That much has become clear. With an explosion of regular Bible studies meeting in American offices, the number of nonprofits supporting those Bible studies has mushroomed to more than 800, according to the International Coalition of Workplace Ministries (ICWM). In 2000, there were 79 books published about faith and work; ICWM has counted 2,000 titles in the past two years. The next new position to be salaried at larger churches will be seminary-trained pastors of workplace ministry, says Stephen Christensen, founder of Concordia University's Center for Faith and Business.

"This will be one of the major issues that will determine the history of the church," says Kent Humphreys, president of the Fellowship of Companies for Christ International.

The business community has taken notice. Articles about increasing expressions of faith at work have appeared on the cover of BusinessWeek and in Fortune, Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times, among others.

Ignorance about Rights

Still, the market has substantial room for growth, experts say, largely because Christian employers and employees are ignorant about religious protections under the law—and many work hard to refrain from any overt religious expression.

"Most Christians sort of cower at this toothless lion called separation of church and state, because they don't understand their freedom and their limits," says Os Hillman, president of ICWM.

That's where Brad Dacus steps into the picture. The founder and president of Pacific Justice Institute, a legal-defense organization, Dacus travels throughout California and occasionally out of state to provide free seminars about what Christians can and can't do at work.

Under federal law, Dacus says, employees can share their faith with non-Christian employees off the clock, use available conference rooms for meetings before work and during breaks, keep religious items on their desks, and redirect union dues to a charity.

Employers have even more latitude. They can begin a chaplaincy, hold Christian-themed corporate retreats, sponsor summer Bible camps for employees' children, and establish scholarships to selected Christian colleges, says Dacus.

But Dacus notes the limitations. "It has to be voluntary, and no employee can ever be punished for not participating in a religious-based activity."

Many Christian workplace fellowships are served by ministries like ICWM, the Fellowship of Companies for Christ, and Christian Business Men's Committee.

A refreshing example

At the Coca-Cola Company, Christians have congregated for a weekly Bible study for as long as anyone can remember. What was a small group now numbers 429 people at the global headquarters in Atlanta and in field offices. Coke—which recently promoted the creation of affinity groups such as the African American Forum, Hispanic Employee Forum, and Women's Forum—has quietly supported the Coca-Cola Christian Fellowship, which began in 2001.

The global headquarters fellowship meets in an open conference room each Wednesday during lunch. Members host occasional lectures after work led by successful Christian business leaders. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the fellowship donated supplies, furniture, food, and clothing to a colleague's extended family. And when an executive assistant's daughter was hospitalized near death after a car crash, the fellowship asked its members for prayer. She recovered.

"The No. 1 thing a Christian can do is live our faith, so people can see our faith coming through. That is going to be the biggest witness. It is not through banging on a person's door and saying, 'The only way to heaven is Jesus Christ,'" says Steve Hyland, director of retail merchandising for Coca-Cola North America and leader of its Christian fellowship. "It's living it versus saying it."

Brad A. Greenberg is a religion reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News.

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