Frontline Faith – In Conversation with Mark Greene

Mark Greene was Executive Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity for over 20 years, leading a movement that’s reached hundreds of thousands of Christians with the message of whole-life discipleship. He’s the author of over a dozen books including Thank God It’s Monday and Fruitfulness on the Frontline. Before joining LICC, he was Vice-Principal at the London School of Theology, and prior to that spent a decade in advertising in London and New York.

GJM: Thanks for joining us Mark. I suspect that a lot of people have come across you through your work with LICC, especially your ground-breaking book on workplace discipleship “Thank God It’s Monday” and follow-up publications like “Fruitfulness on the frontline” and “Transforming Work”. Why has this been such an important part of your life’s work? How did you become aware of this issue in the first place?

Mark Greene: Well, I became a Christian comparatively late in life. I was 23 and in my last month at university. My first job was in advertising and I was transferred to New York where I joined a small (by American standards!) Baptist church. It was what we now call a “Whole-life disciple-making church”, which back then was unbelievably rare. And still is. The population in New York is very mobile, so there was huge turnover of people in the congregation, folks arriving and moving away all the time. So their vision wasn’t to start lots of new ministries; but to do the very best for people who might only be there for a short period of time and to send them out, encouraged and stronger in The Lord, wherever they were going.

So, I was discipled by a ‘lay’ member of the Navigators, not on the staff but totally committed to their disciple-making vision. He was a lawyer and he taught me everything from how to read the Bible, to how to pray, to how to lead a Bible study or share my faith. In other words, the basics of the Christian life. Then my church noticed that I was doing ‘workplace ministry’ which I didn’t even know was a category! I was just doing what I thought I was supposed to do. But they asked me to teach an adult Sunday school series on workplace ministry and I learnt a huge amount from that. People came to that class from all kinds of workplaces, trades and professions and every week people would share what The Lord was doing through them. In fact, I quickly had to limit the sharing time because so much was going on! And I learnt that God can work through anybody in any place. After that class I got asked to speak about workplace ministry in various places around the city for different ministries and churches.

I then came back to England to study theology – not because I was called to pastoral ministry – but just because I wanted to study the Bible more deeply. And I realised that in the church here almost nobody was talking about work. It was actually deeply tragic because people were having their ministry withheld from them. And, perhaps even sadder, the opportunity to have a dynamic relationship with Jesus in their everyday life was closed down to them because of a diminished view of the richness of the call of God on all aspects of their lives.

Of course, it’s not just about work. The same principles apply if you find yourself at a bowls club, the supermarket or at the school gate.  The question is, ‘are you walking with God in everything?’ because that is what He wants. One pastor’s wife summed it up like this, “Some people die without ever discovering the ministry that God had for them’. Sometimes people do great things but they just don’t get to enjoy them with Jesus, because of the misapprehension that he is not interested in those things! The Spirit of God is in His people – and good things still happen, but so often people miss out on the joy of realising God’s pleasure in it. And so I still have a sense of outrage and pain about what has been missed out on by so many.

So, in response I wrote “Thank God It’s Monday” and I have been amazed at how God has used to impact so many people. One of them, Nicola Marfleet is now governor of HMP Woodhill, and she wrote the foreword for the fifth edition. It’s not a complicated book, it’s a simple book containing lots of stories about how people have worked out how to live with Jesus in their workplaces. And the reason that it has had that impact is because most Christians have had very little teaching at all on work. d never heard a sermon on work. That means that there are huge numbers of people who have no idea why their work matters to God. Have they been given a credible way to witness in the workplace? Probably not. Do many Christians feel disempowered, guilty, or ashamed? Yes they do. This came home to me when we ran a programme called “Executive Toolbox” with executives from all spheres of work. They are usually members of good Bible-teaching churches, but they’d often lived with a sharp “sacred-secular divide” and had not been helped to see the connections between what they knew of the Bible and their daily work. Sales of Christian books about work are very, very low – which reflects the fact that it is still a low priority in the church. After all, people buy books to get better at things they think are important.

GJM: You raised the idea of a “sacred-secular divide”. Is that still a problem, and how we do address it?

Mark Greene: It is a problem – of startling intensity! In 2012 when we started mentoring young Christians who we anticipated would write, speak and advocate for discipleship in the workplace for their generation, we soon realised that none of them thought they were being fruitful for God. One had completely turned round two struggling schools – which was an incredible achievement which had positively impacted two communities. But these folks had only three criteria for assessing ‘fruitfulness’ which were: volunteering in the local church, direct social action, and evangelistic conversations. Now each of those three things are unreservedly good and to be commended and encouraged. But if that’s all we measure, then someone who has set up an NHS call centre to handle emergencies can think they have wasted their time if they haven’t had an evangelistic conversation that week! So we need to show people that there are all kinds of ways of being fruitful for God – without ever compromising the desire to share the gospel in conversation. When people see that God is already working through them in all kinds of ways, it builds their confidence. So, instead of only looking at those three criteria, if you also ask people, “Did you manage to model godly character at all last week?” They might say “I held onto my temper with that client” – or “I told the truth when it was not welcome”. Then what happened was that as people’s confidence in what God was already doing through them grew, it actually helped them in evangelism. They had testimonies other than how they became a Christian. This is all explored in the book, Fruitfulness on the Frontline”.

But perhaps to answer your question more directly… I had a big shock when I was asked to speak at the Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) conference, because I am not a medical ethicist. So, I asked them why they’d invited me and they replied, “Because most doctors don’t think that their work is significant to God.” Surely, you’d think that of all the people who wouldn’t need to be told that their work matters to God it’s doctors! And while if you asked them, “Does God care about your whole life?” they’d nod their heads and says “yes”; in their hearts they actually believed all the things in church life which communicate the opposite. These include who we pray for and why. Who is up at the front of church and who isn’t, where sermon illustrations and applications are drawn from and applied to, as well as which topics are addressed. So, a lot of churches run Marriage Preparation. That’s good, it shows that marriage matters, that God is interested in it, and that we want to help people to do it well. But which churches run a Work Preparation Course?

In 2003 I wrote an essay called “Imagine how we can reach the UK’. It argued that unless we can change the core culture of the church into a disciple-making culture, we won’t liberate all God’s people. This a bigger issue that just work. The underlying issue is “what is the gospel?” If the gospel is just about getting saved, then discipleship is at best narrow and at worst irrelevant. So when people were trained to share the gospel, they were trained just to share the plan of salvation (or the 4 spiritual laws) to help someone who wanted to become a Christian actually do that. But too often the critical issue of how to live everyday for Christ and with Christ, was strangely absent.

GJM: So you’ve been working in this field for over twenty years, how has the workplace changed in that time? And how has that affected being a Christian in that changing scenery?

Mark Greene: it’s an interesting question, because there are all sorts of things going on depending on which sector you work in, what age you are, how technology has affected your role and so on. But one major trend has been the way in which people have become more disconnected from the organisations they work for through ‘outsourcing’. Take the NHS as a significant example in which it used to be said that you could start as a porter and end up as a manager. However, if you don’t work for the NHS directly but for an outsourcing company, you don’t develop those connections and there is no way up. Likewise the gig-economy is a grim and anxiety-inducing phenomenon. And while (like zero-hours contracts) it can suit some people wanting a little extra income, it is not a comfortable place to be for many, many people seeking a stable income. At the bottom of the employment spectrum, the phrase “the precariat” (which has come to the fore in the last decade), describes an awful reality for a large number of people.

The dynamics of the workplace have also changed – in ways which have directly affected Christian witness. Until perhaps the 1980s it was common for staff to have a common lunch break which might even last an hour, but that largely disappeared a long time ago; along with the social interactions that went with it.

There have been some positives though. The workplace is much more egalitarian than it used to be. There’s still a gender pay-gap, a similar problem with race – issues of unconscious bias and so forth; but it is a great deal better than it was.

Post-modernism is still having an influence too, in that it allows people to choose their own truths and identities, which means that the whole idea of “be who you are” or “bring your whole self to work”, actually facilitates some things for us as Christians. So does ‘equality and diversity’ now that Christians are a minority. Some workplaces are now funding Christians to hold their meetings, as they qualify under the equality and diversity criteria. I recently spoke for a Christian group in a government department who paid for me to come, because the group qualified for diversity funding.

So some things are easier – it’s really not an even picture. Then reading almost all your Frontlines interviews, I was struck by how similar those people sound (in the way they are going about their work and witness) to the people I was writing about in the 90s and 00s. And again and again people are saying that relationships are the most important thing. You don’t go to work to preach sermons, but to work well, and develop relationships – because human nature hasn’t changed even when the circumstances in which people operate have. On the other hand, in your interview with the soldier, he observed that the younger recruits know a lot less about the Christian faith than his contemporaries do. And that is a pattern we are observing; that there is a generation who have not been turned off by the gospel, because they have never really heard it.

It was also often nastier in the workplace twenty years ago for Christians than it is today. Again I noticed that amongst your interviewees, how few of them said that they had been mistreated for being a Christian. People disagreed with them, some got angry with God, but very few said people had been nasty to them because of their faith. Of course, that isn’t everyone’s experience and there have been some tough court cases.

So, there are positives and negatives in the current picture. But we are living in a degenerating culture, and in a degenerating culture things we take for granted in terms of people’s behaviour might not always be there. I know one young woman working in recruitment where the workplace culture was so sexually abusive, and the HR department so unwilling to address it- that she left. So – a very mixed picture.

GJM: So what effect do you think the ‘working from home’ phenomenon that is still going on post-lockdown, has had on Christians seeking to live for Christ in the workplace?

Mark Greene: It’s complex, and we don’t really have adequate data on this yet – just in terms of how Covid has changed people’s sense of comfort in relating to people anymore. Social interaction in live settings can still be awkward for some people- and many people don’t want to go to parties where there are lots of people present. We have rings of relationships, with those closest to us at the centre; but for many folks those outer rings of relationships have been jettisoned.

Some people are saying that they are finding it easier to talk about more difficult or personal things, because Zoom meetings have sort-of brought people into their homes, their personal-space where they can see what books are on your shelf, or pictures on your wall. And then their child cries in the background or their dog wanders into view… so for some people things have got more personal! Again, an uneven picture, because for others home-working is isolating and impersonal.

GJM: One of my observations in the interviews I have done is that power seems to be significant in the workplace in terms of Christian witness – I wonder what your thoughts and observations are about that?

Mark Greene: Again, it’s difficult to make generalisations. Every workplace is different and they are all a foreign country. I think bad experiences tend to get amplified, lots of people have been told it’s really difficult, and it isn’t always the case. The framework for evangelism many people have, aggravates that sense that it is going to be difficult too. They are told to make a quick, bold, stand for the gospel in a way that can just look rude. We have emphasised sharing the gospel as just passing on information rather than through building relationships, which hasn’t helped this.

So, while the picture is mixed, the messaging is “bring your whole self to work”, which postmodernism says is OK. But ‘cancel-culture’ is creating a new dynamic. Christians fear that someone might ask them what they think about homosexuality, transgenderism or any of the other intersectionality issues. So there is some fear there and a sense of vulnerability. But as ever what is proving to be most helpful is when Christians build relationships with people. What is not helpful is when we act like hunters waiting for an opportunity to emerge from our hides to blast people with both barrels of the gospel, whenever we get a clear shot! But when Christians’ posture is that they approach their work as something they have been given to do by the King of the Universe who has filled them with His Spirit and placed them there amongst people He has called them to love, it’s more helpful. So instead of just looking for weaknesses in their arguments or ways in which they are sinning it means asking, ‘how can I celebrate these people and serve them through the work I do, and become a person who they trust?’ Sometimes the posture we have asked Christians to take has not been Spirit-led, but sounds as if it is driven by a ‘salvation by works’ attitude

We can learn an awful lot about everyday evangelism from the persecuted church actually. One North Korean woman was called by God to share the gospel in the re-education camp she had been sent to by the regime. That is an extremely dangerous thing to do, and she questioned God on it as indeed Ananias questioned God when he sent him to the church-persecuting Saul. And God replied, “I will show you who, and I will show you how.” And in the end they met in the latrines, the one place in the camp that so disgusting that the guards wouldn’t go there. So what if we prayed in the workplace, “Lord show me who and show me how” and then looked for the Spirit’s leading, because he changes everything. We need to allow people to rest confidently in the Spirit, and to be intentional about growing relationships with people in depth. Asking questions is a great way to grow relationships. Even asking people, “what are your three favourite films” enables people to get to know each other just slightly more deeply. You are not saying “what is your worldview?” but it might be very apparent in their answer. So, relational intentionality is key.

The other thing that is significant is around the dynamics of the workplace. Thinking about your own Frontline Interviewees, if you asked the pilot to do what the nurse did (or vice versa) neither would do well – because they are each operating in a completely different set of relational dynamics. So in the workplace there are times when it is busy and times when it is less busy, there are places where people go to chat – and places they don’t, times of the year when there are parties, times when there are not. One friend of mine realised that in the culture where she lived, importance was presented as busyness; so people walked fast and rushed everywhere – even on the school run. She decided to walk slowly, in order to communicate availability – and as a result managed to begin to develop relationships with people in her community. So I told that story of “missional adjustment” to a friend who works for a major publishing company. She reflected that in her workplace they have launch parties for new publications, with authors and prosecco – but that most people never go to them. But she decided that she was going to go, because in the rhythms of her workplace, that was somewhere she could talk to people. Other people deliberately arrive at meetings five minutes early, so that they have a little time for people before the agenda begins.

The reason these simple things work is because they all provide ways to build relationships with people.

One of the things I am now looking at in more depth is how to help Christians to find ways to grow in the fruitfulness of their witness by exploring three pathways: a relational pathway – how, over time, can I build a relationship of trust with someone; a skills pathway – how can we help people grow in their ability to talk naturally about the difference Jesus makes in their lives; and a knowledge pathway – how over time  can we grow in our ability to respond to the questions that ‘my’ particular person has

Take the skills pathway for a moment. Here’s an example of something simple. Some churches in Southall had done ‘Faithfulness on the Frontline” and invited me to a deanery celebration service. It was a beautifully racially diverse congregation wonderfully reflecting Southall. A seven-year old girl was interviewed by the vicar who asked her how she talks about Jesus at her culturally diverse school. She replied, “Well I ask my friends what they like about their god, and then I tell them what I like about mine”. So we use that story in our evangelism training and say to people, “Find someone in the room you are not sitting next to and tell them what you like about Jesus. You have sixty seconds each”. Most people have never done that, but time and again they feel equipped just by trying it. Some of the answers that come out are amazing by the way. One man said, ‘As the husband of one wife and the father of three girls, I just love the way Jesus treats women’. Someone in politics said they loved how radical Jesus was. All sorts of people honoured different things they saw in Jesus. The point is they practiced talking about Jesus in a safe place and that we trusted helped them to do it when they were in a more challenging environment.

GJM: So what are your hopes and prayers for Christians in the workplace going forward?

Mark Greene: Jesus gave us a mission strategy and it was ‘as you go, make disciples’, not converts, members, programme volunteers but people learning to walk with him in their contexts at this time. And we will not see serious numbers of Christians equipped for the workplace unless churches become whole-life disciple-making communities, that is communities committed to helping one another grow and be fruitful in whatever context they find themselves. Over the last decade we at LICC have seen that it is possible to create whole-life disciple making churches and we have also seen a radical shift in denominations embracing the centrality of making whole-life disciples. The Church of England for example. It’s the same in other churches like Elim, PCI and others, in which whole-life discipleship is part of the conversation. We are praying that it becomes embedded in the culture. I remain hopeful however. And I am encouraged, because I now know of many churches who are ‘whole-life disciple making’ churches – who were not doing that twenty years ago. So, I am hopeful – God is at work! And I am encouraged too because hardly a week goes by without someone telling me something about how God is at work in their workplace.

GJM: Thanks Mark – there’s so much in there.

Mark Greene: Thanks for speaking to me – and for your Frontline interviews too.