Evangelism at the Workplace

I have heard differing perspectives from pastors and theologians about sharing the gospel with people at work. Some say don’t do it because one’s employer doesn’t give one pay to evangelize. But at the same time, others have said that because one is on salary and what matters with salary employees is getting work done, nothing is necessarily wrong with evangelizing at work. Do you have a perspective on this?

If you are in favor of evangelism at work, would you recommend the same approach as you do in your books? I’m just worried that using such a blunt approach, which you’ve aptly defended from Scripture, could get me to lose my job, or hinder work relationships and stifle career progress. I know that my career does not precede my faith, but just like approaching those in authority with the gospel, would one have the same approach here?

To begin, we will consider the two arguments in an almost purely human context, since things change once we broaden the discussion.

The argument that the worker operates on the employer’s money and should not pursue another agenda at work is compelling. It would be a form of theft or fraud for a person to receive a salary without offering the kind of service and the amount of productivity expected from him.

In fact, this first argument refutes the second, which claims that the salary is paid for getting work done, and as long as the work is done, the worker should be free to evangelize. This is a naïve view of employment. It is unrealistic, and it cannot be consistently carried out. The truth is that an employer never pays only for the work as such, but he also expects the worker to integrate himself into the company and adhere to the culture that the decision-makers wish to develop.

Thus, to illustrate, one cannot say that as long as he gets the work done, he does not have to show up for work on time, or that he may wear a bunny suit to the office. Employment is not just about getting the job done, but it entails getting the job done in a specified manner, or within specified perimeters. The worker is expected to behave in a way that is consistent with the company’s culture and practice. Even those who use the second argument know this, and in general follow this principle without thinking about it. But when evangelism or some other issue of interest comes up, suddenly it is only about getting the job done.

This mentality is shared by those who are very centered on individual rights, on democracy, who despise wealth and the wealthy, or those in authority, and who lack the kind of work ethic and respect for property rights that Scripture teaches. They are generally inferior workers and inferior human beings, and a nuisance and vexation to employers.

When I was in college, a professor of economics mentioned an actual case for the students to consider. A young couple was caught fornicating in the storage room of the company that employed them. They were terminated on the basis of a clause in the contract that targeted this kind of behavior. But they sued to get their jobs back and to recover lost wages. The argument was that they were not on duty at the time, although they were on the company’s property. The case was settled by binding arbitration.

The professor gave us several minutes to think about it, and asked how we would have decided the case. I was surprised, much more so than I would now, that in a large class only a few sided with management. Many students were indignant that the couple was fired in the first place! Forget the contract – as long as they were not on the clock, they could do whatever they wanted even though they were on company property. The arbitrator in the case decided in favor of the employer. Doubtless the couple thought that they were cheated by the rich and powerful once again.

That said, at least in a relatively free society, workers possess certain rights even when they are operating on the company’s time, money, and property. It would be unreasonable to forbid lunch breaks and bathroom breaks, or to forbid personal friendships among the workers. But when we refer to rights on this level, it is all relative to human culture and opinion, so that no universal principle can be established.

In the United States, a company that forbids bathroom breaks would be considered inhumane, but this thinking is based on certain ethical and biological assumptions that a company in another culture might not share, and as long as the discussion remains on this level, does not have to share. Thus it is impossible to further postpone a reference to the authority of God, since nothing definitive can be said on the basis of human law and culture alone.

There is no such thing as intrinsic human rights. When a person possesses a right, it means that others are obligated to treat him in a way that is consistent with this right. It is owed to him. This, of course, contradicts the sovereignty of God. He is the creator and ruler of all things, and he can do with any person whatever he wants. He can kill or make alive, and he can prosper and bring low. If man has inherent rights – rights that he possesses just because he is a man, without reference to any principle external to himself – then even God would be obligated to treat him in accordance with these rights. But since God is sovereign, there is no such thing as intrinsic human rights.

Instead, a right is something that is owed to a person because God has commanded that this person is to be treated certain ways or given certain things. These commands refer to how men are to treat one another, not to how God must treat them, and so these rights are only derived and relative, and not intrinsic or absolute. For example, God forbids one person to kill another, but he can kill whoever he wants, and he can command one man to kill another (as in the case of the death penalty). So God does not owe a man the right to live. Then, in the context of his covenant with man, God has promised to treat him in certain ways and to give him certain things through Jesus Christ, and this tells him how God would treat him. This is not a right intrinsic to man, but a promise freely given by God. Thus the only basis for thinking about rights is the word of God.

We learn how God thinks about these things in his law. There even slaves and animals have rights. They must be treated in the ways specified, not because they have these rights inherent in themselves, but because God has commanded that they must be treated in these ways. For example, Deuteronomy 25:4 says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” The idea is that the ox should be allowed to eat while it works, or it should be allowed to benefit from its labor. Paul applied this to the ministers of the gospel, and said that those who preach the gospel should have their needs supplied by or because of their preaching – that is, they should be paid. This and other divine laws form the basis for a universal principle of rights for workers.

This discussion is not a detour, but it shows that both arguments, although the first is compelling and refutes the second, are in themselves futile. And the first seems to have force only because the divine law against theft is assumed. Unless God’s word is considered and submitted to, neither the employers nor the employees have rights. There would be no authoritative and universal basis to say that theft and fraud are wrong, or that oppression is forbidden. Lunch breaks and bathroom privileges are thus taken away, but the workers retaliate by stealing office furniture.

The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ possesses authority over all realms and all spheres of human life (Matthew 28:18-20). This trumps all human laws and customs. There is the complaint that the missionary enterprise is subversive of the people’s beliefs, cultures, and lifestyles. They protest that Christians invade a people and tell them that they are thinking wrong and living wrong, and that they need to change. Yet this is what Jesus has commanded us to do. Indeed, each people group has its habits, languages, and idiosyncrasies that often do not conflict with the Christian faith, and these can remain undisturbed. But we are under divine command to run over their religions, their philosophies, and to disregard their preference to be left alone. Their resistance is irrelevant. We are going in anyway.

Therefore, when it comes to our topic, the starting point of our thinking is the Great Commission, and this means that Christians are authorized to preach the gospel at the workplace. This is the starting point, or the general principle, but it does not settle the issue. Although we may disregard man’s laws, customs, and preferences when they are against God’s commands, we may not break God’s own commands while fulfilling his other commands.

To illustrate, although we are commanded to preach the gospel, we are also commanded to respect other people’s possessions, so that we cannot rob a bank to finance the gospel. We cannot break into a house while people are sleeping and wake them to call them to repentance. We are forbidden to use violence to advance the faith, and so we cannot threaten to murder a man’s children if he refuses to accept our religion. Of course the command to announce eternal life in Christ is more important than personal property or even physical life, but the Bible does not teach graded absolutism.

So as a general principle, God’s command authorizes us to preach the gospel to anyone in any setting, but his other commands establish restrictions on how this is carried out. This provides biblical support to the first argument mentioned at the beginning, that workers should honor the employer’s rights and expectations. The second argument, that we are at liberty to preach as long as we get the job done, is unworthy of the saints of God, and ought to be abandoned. Rather, we say that we may preach the gospel at work, but we add to this the restrictions that God himself has imposed, and also other restrictions that the employer has imposed, provided the employer’s restrictions do not contradict God’s word, since God’s word says that we are to submit under “every authority instituted among men” (1 Peter 2:13).

What this means in practice is that the Christian could preach the gospel at the workplace when he functions within that circle of liberty that remains after the divine and human restrictions have been observed. For example, earlier we said that a company could not within reason prevent workers from forming personal friendships. And friends talk about things. Here is one context where the preaching of the gospel can happen. I am not referring to “friendship evangelism,” but to the bold preaching and vindication of the faith in the context of personal conversations. If a Christian can talk to another worker about why he likes sushi, then he can also explain why he believes that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. If extended personal conversations are frowned upon in the office, then do it during a lunch break.

You wrote, “If you are in favor of evangelism at work, would you recommend the same approach as you do in your books?” This depends on what you meant by the approach advocated in my books. If by “blunt” you meant harsh, the truth is that I do not simply push for a harsh approach – I never did. In fact, time and time again I have stated that the relatively calm and gentle approach is the default, especially in personal conversation. I have been surprised a few times at how harsh some Christians are at the outset, before it becomes necessary, and I have urged them to soften a little.

Although this is the principle, it is also true that a harsher approach, when the hearer is shown to be hard-hearted or blasphemous, is very often needed. My position is that although it often ends up this way, it is usually not necessary to start out like this. In some situations, it is appropriate to start blasting right away. My complaint against other Christians, especially those who teach others, is that they make it a matter of principle that we should never be harsh. This is unbiblical, and implies a condemnation against the prophets, the apostles, and even the Lord Jesus.

However, if by “blunt” you had in mind direct speech, then this is necessary, because it is the only way to preach the gospel. There is no such thing as an indirect preaching of the gospel. The Bible does not teach us to suggest or to imply the message, but to preach it – to assert it, declare it, proclaim it. The sentences themselves, even if spoken in a soft tone and with kind words, must be clear and direct.

Then, you wrote, “I’m just worried that using such a blunt approach, which you’ve aptly defended from Scripture, could get me to lose my job, or hinder work relationships and stifle career progress.” Yes, this is called persecution. I always caution against unnecessary persecution. Avoid it without compromising the gospel, but if it is inevitable, face it with courage and honor. Do not bring disgrace to the Lord Jesus. Tact must not become an excuse for cowardice; rather, divine wisdom fills us with boldness, because by it we understand the power and the faithfulness of God, and also that he is to be feared more than men (Luke 12:4-5).

Finally, “I know that my career does not precede my faith, but just like approaching those in authority with the gospel, would one have the same approach here?” Of course not, unless you are speaking to your boss. And from biblical examples, we know that 1 Peter 3:15 does not exclude stern speech even against authority figures. Moreover, Peter commanded “gentleness and respect” in the context of his background, not ours. The meaning of these terms, therefore, refer to what gentleness and respect meant to Peter, and what gentleness and respect contrasted against in Peter’s culture. Back then they tried to stone Jesus and to push him off a cliff, they arranged false witnesses against him, and sent him to a criminal’s death, and as Pilate observed, all for religious jealousy. It would not take too much to behave with “gentleness and respect” against this background. On the other hand, Paul also commanded that some people ought to be harshly rebuked. Imagine what he considered harsh against the same cultural background. If we think about it this way, I have never been very harsh at all. It is just that other people are wimps or that they have been indoctrinated by culture instead of revelation, taught by men instead of taught by God.

Preach the gospel hard, or preach it soft, but it is impossible to avoid direct speech. If you are preaching the gospel at all, you will have to tell the person that he was born a sinner, and that unless he relies on Jesus Christ to save him, God will throw him into a lake of fire. Tell him “God will burn you in hell” in the most gentle and respectful manner, following all the mannerisms that the culture demands. If you want, bow down to him and put your face to the floor when you say it. It will still sound like “God will burn you in hell.” How else can you say it? “God will heat up your being to an extremely painful degree in the cosmic inferno”? Will the unbeliever be pleased by this? If you preach the gospel at all, it is going to be direct, and it is going to be offensive, because it is not really the volume or the vocabulary that offends him, but the voice of God in the message.

If all this puts a lot of pressure on you, then you need to grow stronger in the faith. But perhaps I can provide some immediate relief. When it comes to evangelism, I disagree with the simplistic thinking often advanced. Some people say that if you have known a person for a week or a month, and he still does not know that you are a Christian, then there must be something wrong with you. In many cases this might be true, but the generalization itself is not. Just because you must preach the gospel does not mean that you must always charge at someone screaming “Repent, you heathen!” the moment he walks into your visual range. I have used this approach with great effect, but I would not do it all the time. Much depends on the personalities and circumstances.

When we are referring to evangelism in the context of personal conversation, and with individuals that you regularly meet, then I recommend praying for natural opportunities to arise, and patience in waiting for them. You are to preach a God who is living and sovereign, so think like it. A natural opportunity might be a situation that lends itself to a discussion on religion or philosophy, or when a co-worker mentions religion outright, or at least some ethical or political controversy. When evangelism begins this way, the advantage is that the other person has somewhat committed himself to the discussion, and cannot easily withdraw once it makes a natural transition to religion and ultimate principles. Since these are people you will see again, there is no rush to complete the discussion in one session. This reduces the strain on the Christian, as well as the shock to the unbeliever, since the doctrines of the faith can then be gradually introduced and explained.

If you are really having problems, then focus the conversation on the non-Christian at the beginning. When he mentions something that could lead to a discussion on religion or ultimate principles, ask him to clarify his points and to explain his reasons for believing them. Then challenge him, as gently as you wish, with questions about the source, the validity, the relevance, and other aspects of his arguments. Ask, “How did you arrive at this conclusion?” “How do you know this is true?” or “But how does this prove your point?” and the like.

This is not an avoidance of your responsibility, but it is in fact an important part of it. You are only allocating it to the beginning instead of spreading it throughout the conversation. Non-Christians are confident in their beliefs and in their intelligence, and so they have already made up their minds that Christianity is wrong. Thus it is helpful to show that they are not as intelligent as they assume, and that their positions are not as carefully considered as they think. If you can shake their confidence, and even humiliate them a little, they may become willing to hear an alternate view.

You can spend several conversations talking about a non-Christian’s beliefs without mentioning the Christian faith. When it comes to someone that you will regularly meet, you do not have to do everything in one day. This lessens the burden on you, since it focuses on the other person first, and as the discussion transpires, perhaps you will gain confidence to present your own view, the Christian faith. This approach enables even the most timid Christian to take a first step in preaching the gospel.