My wife’s cell phone was just about dead. She really didn’t want a new one, but the battery wouldn’t hold a charge, and it was becoming increasingly difficult for her to call her mom, text our older kids, and perhaps most important – receive calls from her loving husband.
That’s why we recently found ourselves reluctantly trudging into the wireless store at the end of a long day, eager to be rid of the vexation associated with a barely functioning phone. Our oldest daughter had equipped us with the latest information about incentive offers from our carrier, instructing us in meticulous detail which model we should buy, along with the costs involved. We were prepared – or so we thought.
Upon entering the store, we were greeted by a friendly young salesman. After exchanging pleasantries, he asked, “What brings you in tonight?” We told him about our need for a new phone and described what we were looking for. We then described the promotion our daughter had recommended.
“Really? I’ve never heard of that before. Let me talk to my manager.” He headed off into a back room of the store, reappearing several minutes later. “My manager says we don’t have that promotion. But I have something better.” He went on to describe a complicated new plan, featuring payment terms for a phone and an increased data allowance. “There’s a credit towards the phone, so you basically get it for free.”
My wife and I glanced at one another with looks of mutual confusion. At this point in the day, my brain was pretty close to mush.
“OK, give me that again, a little more slowly please.”
This time, a more patient explanation caused flags to go up. I thought there was a catch. I’m not the sharpest guy in the world, but I am a CPA, and not completely obtuse when it comes to financial matters.
“So, we get the phone at a net cost of zero, but then we’re paying extra for data?”
We didn’t need extra data. We needed a new phone.
We thanked him and left. That night, I ordered the phone online, and got the promotional deal our daughter had recommended. It had all turned into more of an ordeal than we expected, but at least now I’m able to reach my wife.
Have you ever experienced a situation like that, when you’re being sold something you’re not even shopping for? That’s how many people feel about being evangelized in the workplace. When this happens, just like my experience at the wireless store, there’s a strong tendency we all experience: to head for the exit.
Look around, and you’ll see an almost palpable fear of being proselytized (defined by dictionary.com as “to convert or attempt to convert”). I’ve experienced this personally, at the hands of several different faith and ideological perspectives. After all, there is no shortage of people running around our workplaces who are quite certain about the validity of their beliefs and opinions. So how should Christian evangelization (“to preach the gospel to”) be different?
The situation is even more complex when we take into account the state of our culture, and the forces of secularization that seek to silence any religious influences. In many ways, the secular workplace represents the front lines for the culture wars. However, with challenge comes opportunity. The secular workplace also represents the front lines for the New Evangelization.
Reframing the Opportunity
Pope Francis has done a marvelous job showing us how the gospel penetrates human hearts even in hostile environments, by setting a bold example of leading with mercy rather than judgment. If we’re honest with ourselves, could it be that part of the visceral distaste people often have for mixing work and religion is due to a flawed approach on our part? Too often, we act like it’s up to us to convert people.
But it’s not. That’s above our pay grade. Ultimately, conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit. We just plant the seeds… and this is accomplished most convincingly through our actions.
In addition, if we’re too quick to judge others based on our beliefs, might that not alienate us from others, and preclude us from having an opportunity to evangelize in a manner worthy of our baptisms?
Think of the life of Jesus. The gospels provide us with numerous accounts of Jesus interacting, and even hanging out with, prostitutes, tax collectors, and other assorted sinners. He did this in a most radical way for his time, incurring wonder or even wrath from onlookers. Yet the essence of his invitation to each individual is the same as to all of us today: follow me.
One thing to keep in mind as we interact with others at work is that they don’t necessarily share our frame of reference. If they’re averse to the idea of religion, perhaps there’s a reason for that. Have they been hurt? Perhaps they experience shame or guilt stemming from events or circumstances in their lives? Might there be structural impediments, such as multiple marriages? Perhaps they’re cohabiting, or have experienced the pain of an abortion, or can’t imagine what their spouse might say about their interest in the Church?
If we follow the Pope’s lead, we are more apt to listen than speak. We are less prone to rendering judgment as having hearts of mercy. We are more likely to recognize the path of life – and conversion – as a process, rather than an event. Even if a coworker was spontaneously enthralled by breathtakingly cogent arguments for the existence of God, and wanted to enroll in RCIA immediately, don’t you think it might take time for their lives to comport more closely with the faith?
From a strategic standpoint, part of the challenge of the New Evangelization is to present the gospel message with renewed clarity, in a way that resonates given today’s environment. Beating people over the head with a copy of the catechism won’t do it – and could very well get us fired. There are better ways… but look out. They demand that we be more faithful Christians.
In Part 2 of this post, I’ll give you a few specific ideas to consider, of the type that shouldn’t get us sideways with the HR department even in the most secular environments. Of course, I hope and pray we never get to the point where free speech is curtailed to the point of not being able to discuss religion in public, including the workplace, but actions are the key to our words having credibility.
Note: Many thanks to Catholic Answers magazine for publishing this article in their July/August 2014 issue.