How to Share Your Faith at Work
But some pastors are out in front of their leaders: they have left their churches to become workplace-ministry consultants or have landed jobs as "corporate chaplains," spiritual counselors hired by companies as a perk for employees. Rich Marshall, who is now a consultant, was a pastor in San Jose, Calif. Looked at in light of some recent trends, there is a certain logic in all of this. First came the withering of the mainline Christian denominations and the proliferation of new, breakaway churches. Then consumerism took hold: today, many serious Christians are transient, switching churches and theologies again and again to suit their changing needs.
With traditional institutions fragmenting and many people both hungry for spiritual guidance and spending more time at work than ever, it was perhaps inevitable that the job site would become a kind of new church. When it comes to writing about religion, objectivity is a false god. In the interest of full disclosure, I would like to state here that my own orientation is secular but that I also believe that all religions have more or less equal dollops of spiritual truth in them, which become corrupted by personal and cultural dross. This puts me at a certain distance from most of the people in this article.
For one thing, all the marketplace Christians I encountered were firmly of the belief that Christian truth is the only truth and that part of their duty as Christians is to save the unsaved. My task, then, was to try to understand a phenomenon that has, from my perspective, an inherent conflict in it. One of the movement's objectives is to give Christians an opportunity to "out" themselves on the job, to let them express who they are, freely and without feeling persecuted.
Few would argue with such a goal: it suits an open society. And if it increases productivity and keeps C. Then again, the idea of corporations dominated by a particular religious faith has a hint of oppressiveness, a "Taliban Inc. As it is, Christian holidays are the only official religious holidays in 99 percent of American workplaces surveyed by the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.
Religious-discrimination complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have increased 84 percent since and 30 percent since Georgette Bennett, the director of the Tanenbaum Center, attributes the rise in part to the influx of workers from Asian and African countries and an overall aging of the largely Christian homegrown workforce, leading to a clash of traditions. Some friction may come from the insistence of marketplace Christians on seeing offices and factories as arenas for evangelism.
Converting others, after all, is what being an evangelical Christian is all about. One tenet listed in the Riverview Community Bank's first annual report is to "use the bank's Christian principles to expand Christianity. And our employees are on board with that. On-the-job evangelism extends far beyond Ripka's community. In , Angie Tracey, an employee at the Centers for Disease Control, organized what she calls a "comprehensive workplace ministry," among the first officially sanctioned employee religious groups within the federal government.
She says that many colleagues have been "saved" at her group's Bible studies and other gatherings on government property, and she describes the federal agency's not-yet-saved employees as "fertile ground. To explore this movement, I felt I needed a guide. Of all the marketplace pastors I spoke with, Ripka stood out at once in the intensity of his faith, his commitment to using his workplace as a vehicle for spreading it and his openness -- his purity, if you will.
There was also a modest personal connection between us: we are the same age and both grew up Catholic. After several telephone conversations, we made a kind of pact. He would welcome me into his bank and his home and would open up to me his world so that I might better understand why he and others think the faith-at-work movement is part of the next phase of Christianity. And what would Ripka get in return? Through me, he would get a chance to spread the Word. So, the first thing to know about Chuck Ripka is that he says Jesus talks to him -- actually speaks to him, calling him "Chuck.
He has a compact build and pinprick eyes; he talks in a soft, rapid monotone. He once fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, just as Jesus did in the wilderness. He says he has performed more than 60 faith healings in the bank and has "saved" another 60 people on bank premises. Knowing him at first only via telephone, and listening to his talk of visions and voices and Satan and ecstatic healings, I began to think of him as potentially unbalanced.
Yet on meeting him, I quickly discovered that he is a pillar of his community. The mayor stopped by his office for a chat while I was there. The chief of police and the superintendent of schools see him for prayer. He occasionally gives spiritual counseling to Carl Pohlad, the owner of the Minnesota Twins. Ripka runs a quarterly faith-in-the-workplace lunch, which attracts up to area businesspeople. Many Christian business owners and residents say they consider him to be not only a community leader and an expert in small-business loans but also a conduit of the divine, a genuine holy man.
Chuck and Kathi Ripka live in a beautiful log house on nearby Big Lake.
When I went there for dinner, their teenage son was playing a video game in the semi-finished basement. Kathi served a nicely prepared dish of chili, accompanied by Italian bread and salad. Since we were all the same age and the two of them met in high school, we talked about that era. Chuck told me how back then, before he found Jesus, he was a longhaired kid who organized keg parties in the woods.
He worked odd jobs after high school and was born again when he was 21, during an Amway meeting. Shortly after, Jesus began talking to him. They think, Are these my thoughts or God's?
Like many marketplace Christians, the Ripkas have an individualistic theology. Though they currently belong to a Christian and Missionary Alliance church -- an evangelical subdivision that holds, among other things, that the second coming of Jesus Christ is imminent -- they have changed churches often, and for periods of time have belonged to no church.
One of Chuck's refrains is that he's no theologian: he can't rattle off scriptural citations to suit every situation. So while quite a few people look to him as a spiritual leader, his own faith is based not on a denomination's core doctrine so much as on inner voices and convictions.
An individual reliance on the voice of God is part of the increasingly free-form nature of charismatic and evangelical Christianity in America. It jibes with the tradition's ultimate goal -- a personal relationship with Jesus Christ -- but many evangelical leaders worry that it's dangerously subjective.
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Don Couchman, a dentist in Colorado who has made his dental practice a workplace ministry, related a story not long ago about how in the middle of performing a root canal, the Lord spoke to him and told him to go on a pilgrimage to Argentina. I interrupted to ask how he knew it was the Lord.
Some workplace Bible-study groups, including those at the Riverview bank, feature training in how to distinguish between God's voice and random thoughts. Ripka had his marketplace epiphany 20 years ago when he was a salesman at Levitz furniture in downtown St. Then he said: 'Why am I telling you this?
I came in to buy a mattress. So we did.
And then something really important happened. The man bought a mattress. The Lord said, 'Chuck, I wanted to show you how to talk to people about me at work, and I wanted to prove to you that you would be able to do that and prosper. It took some time, but when the Lord spoke next on the topic, he was very specific.
Ripka worked for Kropuenske and his wife, Patsy, at a bank in the 90's. When the couple were considering opening a new one, they wanted to found it on Christian principles. When her husband got in touch with Ripka, Ripka was already expecting the call. Plans for Christianizing the bank expanded as they developed the project, with the three principals believing more every day that they were doing God's work.
As with all bankers, Ripka and the Kropuenskes care a lot about money, but they see it as a token of God's favor rather than a thing in itself. I'm going to cause such a rate of growth, the secular world is going to take notice. This isn't exactly the Bible Belt.
We are 30 miles northwest of Minneapolis, that bastion of Minnesota's secular-liberal tradition. The adjoining communities of Otsego and Elk River lie on either shore of a lazy bend in the Mississippi, a smaller mirror image of the Twin Cities to the south. This is big-sky country, a landscape of wide prairies and cornfield sunsets, but change is all around. Much that was farmland just a few years ago is now bustling exurbia, where brand-new Targets and OfficeMaxs and Applebees sit like boxy packages on the horizon.
Few residents commute to Minneapolis or St. Paul; few seem even to venture there. They have their own culture, which is fast evolving, and religion is part of the change. The Minnesota stereotype of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon -- the pinched, resourceful, left-leaning Lutheran who eschews emotion -- is becoming less common.
There is more charismatic and evangelical expression in the state than ever before. There's been a cultural change, and I feel it's something that's needed, with the way the world is going today. With all the terrorism and fear, people need guidance.