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Unpacking the Origins of the Sacred-Secular Divide

When believers realize that there is no divide between the marketplace and ministry, they are able to work with a holy purpose.

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Can a person walk out his Christian faith while in the workplace? Struggling to find meaning in a job the world considered the best opportunity for career advancement, Chuck Proudfit stumbled into faith—and came head-on with the sacred-secular dichotomy so prevalent in the church today.

We sit down with Chuck to hear the backstory of what led him to start the network At Work on Purpose, which has more than 10,000 believers impacting the marketplace in Cincinnati, Ohio in the United States.   

Can you tell us a little bit about your journey and why you started At Work on Purpose?

I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, as the son of two English professors. I ended up attending Harvard, without a spiritual underpinning at all. In this cosmopolitan, university environment, I had all kinds of friends who came from all the major faith traditions of the world. I was intrigued by their faith.

I kind of put all of that on the back burner though, because the front burner was my emerging career. I finished my degree and I took a job at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, Ohio. This seemed like the perfect climax to the “go to school, get a good job” plan that everyone was encouraging.

And then with my new job and burgeoning career, I was given the “exciting” task of … marketing a reduced-sheet roll of thicker toilet paper as “new and improved.” It was “new”, because it had 30 fewer sheets, and it was ‘improved”, because it was thicker. There I was, six months out of school, where I had this vision of making my mark in the world and climbing the corporate ladder, and my first job was marketing toilet paper. I’m going to get promoted for short-changing the consumer. I felt like I was having a midlife crisis in my 20s – that’s the easiest way I can describe it.

My apartment looked down over the skyline of Cincinnati, and I remember looking down over the city and just feeling incredibly depressed. According to the world, I had made it; I had this great job with this really well-known company that was considered a major training ground for future executives. Yet I was absolutely miserable. I didn’t know what to do to reconcile that. I just had no idea.

And so I’m sitting out on the deck of this apartment. A still small voice says to me, “Chuck, you have to figure out what’s going to motivate you to work, because you have to work for decades. Maybe if you figured out that spiritual stuff that some of your friends have, that’ll help you.”

Chuck sharing at a conference, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA, 2019

 

I made a decision that night to start exploring world religion. I spent the next 10 years studying comparable religions. I went back to all the original source material – the Quran, Bhagavad Gita, the Torah, New Testament, philosophy, Confucius’ dialogues and Plato. But over the course of the decade, while continuing in a corporate career, all of my studies ended up pointing me to Christ. I came to faith in Jesus at age 31.

Coming to Christ at age 31 must have been life-changing. How did this bring you to where you are today? What led to starting At Work on Purpose?

Well, here I am, a new believer, passionate to bring my faith into all of my life. I’m spending most of my waking hours at work, and I want my work life to be faith-filled and good. My sense of church is being informed by reading the New Testament, where the apostles came from the marketplace. It was a central staging area for their ministry, and God was moving supernaturally.

“When Jesus gave the Great Commission and used the word ‘go’, the word meant ‘go as you are going along in your everyday life.'”

So when I went to church, I was stunned to discover that the vast majority of working Christians separate faith and work. They go to church on Sunday and work on Monday like nothing happened – I wondered, “What happened to the Church over the course of the last 2000 years?”

I felt this gnawing sense that I needed to do something about this. Today I would describe the sense as a “calling”, but I didn’t know that word then. I didn’t grow up in church or go to seminary. All I knew was I could not get this thought out of my head.

So, I began to experiment with the integration of faith and work through the consultancy company I led, which was called SKILLSOURCE. I started to get some real traction with that, but it was also difficult. The marketplace pushed back, because you’re not supposed to discuss religion or politics in business.

I had to learn how to do this with wisdom, and I started to think about what it would look like to engage other Christians in this as well. What if I could help others learn how to have these conversations? And that was the genesis of At Work on Purpose.

But honestly, it didn’t start out as a ministry. It started as a network of like-minded individuals wanting to integrate faith into our work. Today, At Work on Purpose is a citywide workplace ministry model. It’s really a network of working Christians, a network and spiritual influence that covers a whole city. There are over 10,000 of us now in that network in Greater Cincinnati, so it’s become substantial in scale.

You talk about how “sacred over secular”, “calling over career”, and “faith at work” was natural for the early church. Can you explain how and why the early church had these mindsets and lifestyles?

Christianity emerged out of Judaism. The Jewish people knew no separation between faith and any other area of life. In Jewish life, you simply lived a life of faith, and your thoughts and actions every day and in every way were either bringing you closer to God’s will (which is good) or further from God’s will (which was evil). It didn’t matter if you were at work or at home or on vacation. It was the idea that your faith permeates all of you, and you bring your faith wherever you go.

When Jesus gave the Great Commission (to go and make disciples of all nations), the word “go” meant “go as you are going along in your everyday life.” Now, that way of thinking about faith at work is totally different from what emerged after the first few hundred years of the church.

In your opinion, how did this change over the years? How did the church lose this mindset?

The early church simply earned the favor of the people every day because they brought the church with them wherever they went. They were a blessing to the people around them, and they added daily to their numbers. But the Roman Empire was out to destroy the emergent Christian faith in the early years – they burned people at the stake and crucified them.

“That concept of clergy and laity is not Biblical. It did not arise out of Jewish tradition; it rose out of Greek philosophy, especially Plato.”

Yet the Christians continued multiplying. Rome is suddenly challenged with what to do with the exploding numbers of Christians. So, at the Council of Nicea in 325, the Roman Emperor Constantine makes Christianity the official religion of the state, basically saying, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”

When Constantine did this, he issued an edict that created a distinction between the clergy and the laypeople; the lead clergy are to be the people who are set aside to study the spiritual aspects of life and to bring a spiritual perspective to the people. The laity are supposed to just handle everyday life, and they’re supposed to set aside some of their funds for the clergy.

That concept of clergy and laity is not Biblical. It did not arise out of Jewish tradition; it rose out of Greek philosophy, especially Plato. This creates a dualism that separates the sacred and the secular. So “Pastor Pete” has lots to say about the religious realities of life, and “Janitor Joe” has nothing to add.

What ended up happening in the historical development of the church is that we brought into the theology of Christianity a philosophy that is not biblical and is increasingly the way that we think. It’s sometimes called the sacred-secular divide.

Now, bringing this knowledge into a modern-day context: what do you think are the obstacles that keep the church from dealing with everyday work realities?

The first one is caused by the history we just talked about – it is subconsciously programmed into almost all of us. Many local church pastors have the mindset, “I left the marketplace so I can go into ministry.” So, ministry is spiritual, it’s sacred, and everything else is secular. And that is a lie from the pit of hell.

Chuck at the Sea of Galilee, Israel, 2020

The hard truth is that we have almost institutionalized the separation of faith and work. So, if I’m a budding pastor, and I want to go make a difference for the Lord, I go to a Christian university and I go to seminary and I become a pastor. Meanwhile, if I’m a business guy who happens to be a Christian, I’ll go to school, maybe get an MBA and then I go work in a business somewhere. Our mindset is the church is church, and work is work; we separate them. We are not conscious of it most of the time.

Reason number two, in my experience with pastors as I get to know them better, it seems that marketplace people often intimidate them. They can feel like these are hard-charging business people, so the marketplace is an intimidating place to go and serve. Not only that, but most pastors have spent very little time working in the public-private sector so they don’t really understand how it works.

They can talk about the theory of it, but they’ve never actually been in the trenches when your colleagues are telling you to pad an expense report. And you know that it’s wrong, but everybody’s doing it. What should you do? So, I think intimidation is a second factor.

And the third one is a lack of knowledge, or just ignorance. Most local churches don’t even know how to begin to speak spiritually into the day-to-day realities of their congregation. I think there are some pastors who worked first in the marketplace and then they come into a pastoral role in a local church. And they’ll be familiar, they’ll be able to sort of know what it looks like to give some wise counsel or to be able to find the right resource to help somebody.

But most of the time, the local church really doesn’t know how to help, even if they wanted to. And most of the workplace people tell me, “I’m not going to go to my church for help because they wouldn’t know what to do. But I’ll ask them to pray for me.”

And we have to find ways to change this, and At Work on Purpose tries to bridge these gaps.

Come back next week for part 2 of our interview with Chuck, as he shares the practical steps At Work on Purpose is taking to empower marketplace believers in Cincinnati and beyond.