On his way home from London to New York, Mark Campisano sat next to a senior partner at McKinsey & Company, where he himself was a junior partner. Mark didn't know the older gentleman very well so when their dinner arrived, Mark tried to bow his head and give thanks to God as inconspicuously as possible. Knowing that many of his colleagues held unfavorable opinions of Christians and their faith, Mark didn't want to trigger any negative stereotypes or pray "so as to be seen by others" (Matthew 6:5).
But Mark wasn't subtle enough. Immediately, the senior partner said in a booming voice, "What are you doing?! Praying?! You're not a Christian, are you?!"
Mark felt a bit trapped, but the words of Jesus came to mind: "Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father" (Matthew 10:32). So he gulped and replied, "As a matter of fact, I am." There was silence. Then the senior partner smiled, winked, and said, "Good! Me, too. Can you thank God for both our meals?"
Cities, Industries, Roles
In Manhattan, where evangelicals make up only 4 percent of the population, experiences like Mark's are rare. It's much more common to find someone skeptical of Christianity than to find someone who is "born again." Having spent the last 15 years in highly secularized cities, New York and Washington, I have come to realize that believing in a God-man who was raised from the dead is tantamount in some people's minds to believing in Santa—it may be an innocent delusion for children, but it's a foolish, or even dangerous, conviction for adults. Such a perspective often makes it hard for Christians in cities like New York or Washington to be open about their faith.
This isn't just true for certain cities; it's also true for certain industries and workplaces. Investment banking, for example, may be willing to tolerate people with all sorts of strange beliefs as long as they are making money. International relations, however, may be less willing because it's so committed to cultural diversity and the inclusion of all people regardless of faith. In such an environment, a Christian who believes in the exclusivity of Christ may be considered ignorant or judgmental. When I was working at the State Department, for example, a high-ranking government official once told me that he wasn't interested in taking a meeting with a particular nonprofit executive because the man was "in the Christian mafia" and had a reputation for always bringing Jesus into his professional conversations. Not knowing at the time that I was a Christian, the official told me that he thought the man was inappropriate and offensive.
I knew the man and knew that he was well respected in Washington evangelical circles, but I didn't know how to respond to this comment. I may have been a presidential appointee, but I was also a young, low-ranking special assistant. The official, on the other hand, had the rank of ambassador and was several years older than me. Since I knew I would be working with him on future projects, I decided not to say anything at the time. Yes, I wanted to be a faithful witness of the gospel, but I also wanted to be a compelling one. And regularly talking about my faith at the office was obviously not going to work.
Toward an Exilic Mindset
Being a Christian in these types of circumstances—certain cities, certain industries, certain roles—is like being an exile in Babylon. David H. Kim, who directs the Center for Faith & Work in New York City, writes, "Often churches assume that they are in Jerusalem with all the comforts and security that it affords them when, in fact, we are . . . 'exiles' (1 Peter 1:1, 17) and 'aliens and strangers' (1 Peter 2:11) in this world—citizens of a heavenly city (Hebrews 13:14)."
Having an exilic mindset, he argues, changes how we engage culture. We are in the minority (exile), not the majority (Jerusalem). Our identities are challenged (exile), not assumed (Jerusalem). We cultivate servant hearts (exile), not triumphalistic spirits (Jerusalem). In other words, we live in the tension of Jeremiah 29:7: "Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it because, if it prospers, you too will prosper."
Temptations in Exile
In exile, it's tempting to avoid talking about faith at work altogether for fear of adverse career ramifications. Yet most of my friends approach the issue in the same way—they're not going to hide it if a colleague asks whether they're a Christian or if the topic comes up in conversation, but they're also not going to lead with it. Their approach reminds me of Daniel. He didn't share his faith at work with everyone he met, but he also didn't shy away from talking about it when his two obligations—doing his job as his employer wanted and remaining faithful to the Lord—came into conflict (Daniel 1).
My friend Andrew Nemr, for example—a renowned tap dancer, TED Fellow, and Gotham Fellow—isn't shy about his faith. Before performances, he often leads a prayer for the entire cast of his company—regardless of their personal faith traditions. He also isn't afraid that his public faith may hurt his career.
"Two or three years ago," he says, "I made the decision that, if I were ever to be blacklisted from Broadway for my faith, that would be hard, but it would be okay."
Yet Andrew lives as an exile—he talks about his faith in subtle ways, but he doesn't share the gospel in every performance or rehearsal.
"I'll do little things," he explains. "If someone says, 'I don't know how you dance for an hour,' I'll reply, 'It's not my strength.' That's how I gauge their curiosity. Faith is a journey and God is at work. Maybe I'll be the one who plants and someone else sows. I just try to be sensitive to the Spirit so that my witness is timely and compelling."
Temptations in Jerusalem
In other cities, industries, or roles, talking about faith at work is common. These contexts feel more like Jerusalem than exile. For example, churches and faith-driven organizations naturally bring up faith before employment has even begun—at the interview. Even some companies have taken such strong public commitments to faith that they welcome Christian employees. For example, Chick-fil-A's corporate policy actually states a preference for managers who participate in "community, religious, and professional organizations." This policy empowers Christians who work at Chick-fil-A.
Yet even in Jerusalem there are temptations. An accountant in Dallas, for example, might advertise her business by using "the sign of the fish." Her motive, however, may not be to testify to the gospel; it may be to get more business. Politicians, too, may make campaign ads about their faith and fealty to the Scriptures in order to gain more votes rather than to share the good news of Christ. Indeed, pressure to share in collective identity can actually mask unbelief in Jerusalem.
Five Guidelines for Balance
Whether we feel like we're in exile, we are—all of us. Even in places like Dallas, where it sometimes feels like everyone is a Christian, the evangelical population is only 28 percent. Yes, that's higher than the national average (16 percent), but it's by no means a majority. If we feel like everyone is a Christian where we live or where we work, then the most likely explanation is that we're in an evangelical bubble—something that's far easier to do in places like Louisville (24 percent) than in places like Silicon Valley (8 percent) or in industries like vocational ministry than in industries like film and entertainment.
In my experience at the State Department, in Congress, on Wall Street, and in Big Law, I tried to balance these five guidelines:
Be patient. Unlike many contexts, work is a place we go to every day and—for the most part—with the same people. We don't have to talk about our faith every time it comes up because the context of work gives us the ability to take a long-view, relationship-building approach. I think of Jesus and the three years he spent in public ministry—sometimes he spoke (e.g., John 4:7-26), but other times he didn't (e.g., Matthew 14:1-23; 27:11-14).
Do my work. And do it well. Some Christians view work primarily as a means of personal evangelism; it's not. Work matters. God doesn't just love lawyers; he loves justice, too (Psalm 33:5). He doesn't just care about florists; he delights in flowers, too (Luke 12:27). The content of our work—not just our relationships at work—matters. What we do expresses the fullness of God's character to the world.
Serve my boss. Most employees report to someone else—even CEOs report to investors. Not only does the Lord call us to prefer others in all of life (Philippians 2:3), he also calls us to serve our bosses in the context of work (Ephesians 6:5-8). If there comes a point where the will of our boss directly conflicts with the will of the Lord, then Daniel offers another good example—he and his employer found a creative solution that didn't compromise his faith or his work (Daniel 1:12-14).
Acknowledge the Lord. Yet there came a time when Daniel's will and his employer's will were impossible to reconcile, and Daniel chose to acknowledge the Lord no matter the consequences (Daniel 6). My friend Mark, too, believed in God's promise that, if he acknowledged the Lord before others, then the Lord would acknowledge him before the Father. He took God at his word. Indeed, the time for us to use words to share the gospel will come for all of us. And when it comes, those words will be far better received when I've been patient, done my work well, and served my boss.
Trust the Spirit. No act of evangelism has ever saved anyone. It is God who initiates and saves, not us. We cultivate faith; we don't create it. God uses us to draw out the Spirit that he has already sent in the hearts of others. Trusting the Spirit enables us to be patient, do our work well, serve our boss, and know when and how to acknowledge the Lord.
I've always found, of course, that it's helpful to talk about these things with others in my city or industry. Figuring out how to apply biblical truth and guidance to the daily work to which God has called us is challenging. At my church, these types of groups are called "vocation groups." Jeff Haanan, executive director of the Denver Institute for Faith & Culture, has written here at TGC about the importance of such groups ("Why Your Church Needs Vocation Groups").
Special thanks to Pastor Steven Dilla of Metropolitan Faith Church in Manhattan for his help in city-based research for this article.
Bethany L. Jenkins is the director of The Gospel Coalitions’s Every Square Inch, the director of career development at The King’s College, and the founder of The Park Forum. She previously worked on Wall Street and on Capitol Hill. She received her JD from Columbia Law School and attends Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, where she is a current CFW Fellow and a former Gotham Fellow through the Center for Faith & Work. You can follow her on Twitter.