Where is the Water Cooler in a Virtual Work Environment?

(Note: This article was posted on the Coram Deo blog and the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics blog.)

Saturday, I got a phone call out of the blue from an old friend that I hadn’t seen for 20 years.  Matt was one of the high school ministry volunteers when I was a church youth director in the mid-80s.

The radio station where he works as a producer had recently undergone some restructuring.  He was given an exciting new role, to work virtually with a group of people he has not met from around the country.  He was no longer going to be around the folks he has worked with for over thirty years. 

My good friend had a theology of work related question for me.  He wanted to know, “How do I glorify God and make Christ known when I only have contact with people via phone and video?”

Interpersonal communication around the water cooler

Back in the day, there was a water cooler in a central location in an office space.  There was a big clear jug full of purified water that sat upside down on a stand that had a blue lever used to fill a paper cup that was provided in a silver tube attached to the side.  This was before everyone started bringing their own water bottles to work.  It was a place of social interaction as workers took a short break from their duties.  It was where we caught up with what was going on in people’s lives.

Those in other career fields who do not work in an office environment have often found similar places to take a break such as the back of a pickup truck, at the lunch room, or sitting under a tree.

For the Christian, this place of informal communication provides an opportunity to get a glimpse into a coworker’s struggles at home.  It is there, when the boss isn’t around and we can just freely chat for a bit, that we learn about their marriage difficulties, their child’s cancer, or financial woes.  This then becomes a chance to love our neighbor by listening to them and offering to pray for them.

Loving our neighbor virtually

How do we do this when we work from home, and our co-workers are across the country?

I have to admit.  As I have teleworked myself off and on for seven of the past twelve months, it is much harder for me to find a moment to ask people how they are doing and to give them the time needed to listen as they open up, showing genuine compassion and concern as we are called to do.

Jesus said that what He wants from us is just two things: love God, and love our neighbor.  And so, we have to be intentional to pursue relationships with those that God has placed in our midst, even if they are 1,000 miles away, and our interactions are limited to phone calls, emails, or video chats.

My friend provided a great illustration of recent video chat with a client who was a young mother.  When he contacted her to answer some technical questions about a project she was working on, he found her with a restless two-year old on her lap.  She desperately tried to focus on the issues at hand, but it was too difficult.  At that point, all my friend could do was to offer some understanding as a father himself about the needs of toddlers and speak compassionate words to her as a Christian.

Even without the proverbial water cooler, there will always be opportunities to minister to our co-workers, customers, and supervisors in a virtual environment.  We just have to open our eyes.

Tackling projects as unto the Lord

In most jobs, you can place responsibilities into two bins: people and projects.  Some workers deal with one more than the other, but most of us do a little of both.  In the same way that our ministry with people is still a priority, although the way we do it is different in a virtual environment, the projects we are given are also top priorities, although the way that we do them may be different.

In Matt’s case, I emphasized that even though his responsibilities were going to change in many ways in his isolated virtual office space, I believe there are still just as many opportunities to “work as unto the Lord” on behind-the-scenes projects as there was in an actual office.  In his case, his client base has been expanded exponentially.  He was producing radio advertisements for his local station.  In his new job, he will be coordinating creative production efforts on a national scale.

Doing projects from a home office has its own rewards and challenges.  On the one hand, you are away from the distractions of people popping in to your office occasionally.  On the other hand, it can be more difficult to get the guidance you need from superiors and help from subordinates.

The apostles as virtual workers

In previous articles I have written on teleworking (click here and here), it never occurred to me to highlight the work of the Apostle Paul.  He spent much of his ministry as a New Testament epistle writer in a virtual work environment.  He was not physically with those churches.  He wrote his letters to church leaders while he was in prison, teaching his clients and coworkers via snail mail. 

The Apostle John, another writer of NT epistles, expresses some of his internal conflict with being limited to virtual means of communication.  He wrote, “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink.  Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12).  I totally get it.  There is just no substitute for physically being there.

Closing challenge

So, how can we glorify God in a purely virtual environment?  We do it in the same manner we have always done it.  We keep looking for ways to love our neighbor and work heartily as unto the Lord.

About the author:

Robin_McMurry_Photography_Fort_Leonard_Wood__Missouri_Professional_Imaging_Russ_Gerlein-7161-Edit-Edit

Russell E. Gehrlein (Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 40 years, father of three, grandfather of four, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He is an ordinary man who is passionate about helping other ordinary people experience God’s presence and integrate their Christian faith at work. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. More than 50 articles posted on this blog have been published 110 times on numerous Christian organization’s websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.

A Message of Hope in the Midst of the Daily Grind

I am a Christian writer.  In the articles that I write and post regularly on my blog, I mostly focus on teaching Christians how to integrate their faith at work, and how God is present in every aspect of it.

It occurred to me recently that this message of encouragement and hope that is founded on eternal biblical truths that have helped believers for thousands of years might also be helpful for those who have not yet come to fully accepting the truths of Christianity.  Perhaps, if I could share a bit of what I have learned about God’s presence in every aspect of my work, it might help someone who may be seeking for something more to find the God who loves them in the midst of the daily grind at work.

There are three simple, yet relevant messages that I want to address here that I invite you to consider:

  • The way the world normally looks at work misses the mark by leaving God out of the picture
  • The God who created the universe created you to be a coworker with Him in this world
  • Experiencing God’s presence at work provides a sense of purpose the world cannot provide

Most people fail to recognize that work is a gift of God

I have found that there are two prevalent views on work from when God is taken out of the picture.

One view states that work has no lasting value in and of itself.  The purpose of work to just to feed the family and pay the bills.  It is a pretty depressing view.  No wonder most people live for the weekend and are so thankful for Fridays.  (Unfortunately, some Christians also have this view.) 

The second view exalts work.  The purpose of work is merely to further yourself, find success, and be the master of your own fate; the captain of your ship.  Success in life means success in work.  This is the attitude says you gotta do whatever it takes to get the job done, no matter how many marriages you have to burn through or no matter how many friends you have to cheat.  When you try to find ultimate meaning and purpose in life through your work alone, it will always leave you disappointed.

What I have discovered from studying the Bible is that work is a valuable gift from God Himself. 

God created humans to be coworkers with Him to sustain His creation

The first thing I see in the creation story is that God is a worker.  Since God is a worker, then all workers have value.  All legitimate work (defined as jobs that make life better for others) is of value.  

I also see that God created humans as His coworkers to sustain His creation.  The world was perfect, yet it was incomplete.  There were gardens that needed tending.  Eventually, cities needed to be built, children needed to be taught, inventions needed to be developed, and books needed to be written.

And so, work has meaning, but not absolute meaning.  Success at work will not completely satisfy. 

God’s presence at work provides meaning and purpose you will not find elsewhere

What I have personally experienced over many years of living out these truths is that God is present with His children all the time.  I can truly sense God’s presence in the everyday moments, not just in church or on a mountaintop watching the sun go down.  I have come to understand that there is a very real connection between God’s presence and human work.  God works with us, in us, and through us in order to meet the needs of people everywhere; people He loved enough to send His Son to die for.

How do I experience God’s presence at work?  As I head from the parking lot to my building, I pray that God will lead me and give me wisdom.  Sometimes I pray audibly when I am alone in my office or I shoot up a quick silent prayer in a meeting when my temper starts to rise.  I confess my sins as soon as I notice them.  I recall a favorite Bible verse when needed.  I pray that God will change the way I see challenges at work and I praise Him when He enables me to accomplish a difficult task.  

A closing challenge

I realize that I did not present any kind of clear message about how you can enter in to a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ.  My intent was not to lay out convincing proofs of God’s existence, discuss how the claims of Jesus uniquely stand out above all other religions, or take any of the usual approaches that evangelists or preachers use to move people to make a decision.

My intent, as an ordinary worker myself, was simply to engage other ordinary men and women who spend the majority of their waking hours at work just trying to make it through the day for 40 to 50 years to consider that there might be something more to life that would give them a little bit of hope. 

Jesus made this amazing statement that is found in the New Testament book of John, chapter 8, verses 31-32.  Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  I share this quote often, because it sheds light on the fact that faith in Christ transforms our minds, which significantly improves the quality of our lives. 

Isn’t that what we all want; to be set free from the things that hold us back, drag us down, and enslave us?  Knowing these truths about God’s purposes for work make the burdens in my life a lot lighter.

I know that I have a greater purpose in my work, to be a coworker with God to sustain His creation.  In the midst of the daily grind and all the struggles that I face due to my own sins and the sins of my bosses, coworkers, and customers, there are new abilities to change, overcome, and grow through them.  I also know full well that when I experience God’s presence at work, there is an unexplainable joy, a peace that passes all understanding, and full confidence that what I do all day really matters.

I trust that you will give these concepts some thoughtful consideration.  If you are interested, I invite you to reach out to a Christian you know to discuss these eternal truths on a more personal level.  God has graciously scattered believers in every field of work to be able to share what they know.

About the author:

Robin_McMurry_Photography_Fort_Leonard_Wood__Missouri_Professional_Imaging_Russ_Gerlein-7161-Edit-Edit

Russell E. Gehrlein (Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 40 years, father of three, grandfather of four, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He is an ordinary man who is passionate about helping other ordinary people experience God’s presence and integrate their Christian faith at work. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. More than 50 articles posted on this blog have been published 110 times on numerous Christian organization’s websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.

Our Identity in Christ (Lesson 8)

This was the last Sunday School lesson of an eight-week series that I taught a few years ago in our former church.  (See previous session here.)  Inexplicably, I neglected to finish my notes and post it.  In this session, we discussed the age-old battle between flesh and spirit.  I invite you to explore with me who we are in Christ.  For a deeper dive into this critical topic, see the article I wrote and posted on my blog here

Summary:

What have we been studying and discussing, as we looked at a theology of our identity in Christ?:

  • With few exceptions, the Bible does not refer to believers as sinners; although we do sin
  • To fully understand who we are as believers, it is good to know who we were before Christ
  • To know who we are in Christ, we must understand the blessings of the new covenant
  • By faith in Jesus, certain things became true of us “positionally”: justified, forgiven, and righteous
  • There is an irreversible radical transformation that happens to every believer; it begins at the very moment of salvation when one is born again, by grace through faith in Jesus Christ
  • Those radical changes affect everything about us: our minds, thoughts, feelings, attitudes, desires, abilities, and relationships

Introduction:

All along, we have been talking about who we are now as believers.  We are not the people we used to be, either in God’s eyes (He sees us through Christ’s finished work on the cross), or in our own experience (we are becoming Christ-like).  However, there are many times that our old sinful nature attempts to influence us and impede our progress in becoming the new creatures we already are in Christ.  What happens when old meets new?  Is there hope?  What are some of the keys to success?

Book:

1) Read Romans 7:14 – 8:17.  (Break it down by sections.) 

    a) What describes those who live in “the flesh” (the sinful nature) vs. those who live in the Spirit? 

    b) What is the answer to the problem of this constant internal spiritual battle?

    c) Discuss the penalty, the power, and the presence of sin.  When are we set free from each?

(Teacher notes: Paul is describing the internal battle between his flesh and his new nature in Christ.  All of us can identify with his frustration: “I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (v. 15).  He has this sinful flesh that he cannot totally escape in this life: “nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (v. 18).  The fact that he want to do what is good (vv. 18 and 21), does not want to do evil (v. 19), and delights in God’s Word (v. 22) tells me that he is indeed a new creature in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).  He describes this internal battle between flesh and spirit as “waging war” (v. 23).  He exclaims, “What a wretched man I am!” (v. 24).  Paul asks, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (v. 24).  The answer, of course, is Jesus Christ.  I love how he starts chapter 8, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).  Despite our constant struggles with the flesh, if we are in Christ, we have been set free from the penalty of sin, we have victory over the power of sin, and when Jesus returns and we receive our new resurrection body like His, we will finally be set free from the presence of sin forever.  Hallelujah!)

2) Read Gal. 5:13-26; 6:7-10.

    a) What actions/attitudes characterize the sinful nature vs. the actions/attitudes of those in the Spirit?

    b) What is the secret to spiritual growth?

(Teacher notes: I see this section as an expansion of what Paul described in Romans 7.  In the NIV, we read the term “sinful nature”, where other translations use the word, “flesh” (Gal. 5:13, 16, 17, and 19).  Paul exhorts the church to “live by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16 and 25), which is in direct contrast with living in the flesh.  Those who are in Christ should be led by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:18).  Jesus said to His disciples that the Holy Spirit would be with us and in us (John 14:17).  We have been indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:11).  We can be consistently filled with (or controlled by) the Spirit (Eph. 5:18).) 

3) Read 1 John 1:5 – 2:2.

    a) Paul contrasts the flesh versus the Holy Spirit.  John, however, chooses to use the analogy of darkness vs. light.  What is true of those who live (walk) in the light? 

    b) Why would those who walk in the light need to be purified from sin?

   c) What is the purpose of confession?  What is actually involved?  Are we asking, or are we accepting?

(Teacher notes: Those who humbly submit to God’s authority, are followers of Jesus, and live in the power of the Holy Spirit will live godly lives – in the light, not in darkness.  When we walk with God in holiness and truth, we not only have fellowship with Him, but with fellow believers in Jesus Christ.  His blood, which cleanses us from past sins, also cleanses us from present sin (v. 7).  When we confess our sins, it does not earn our forgiveness; it is already ours.  It does restore our fellowship with God.

Look

Where and when do we struggle most with sin?  Are you quick to confess these sins and submit yourself under the control of the Holy Spirit?  If so, over time, the supernatural becomes natural.

Took

Make an effort to remember who you are in Christ.  Focus less on what you are doing (or not doing) and more on what He has already done AND is doing in your life to make you more like Him.

About the author:

Robin_McMurry_Photography_Fort_Leonard_Wood__Missouri_Professional_Imaging_Russ_Gerlein-7161-Edit-Edit

Russell E. Gehrlein (Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 40 years, father of three, grandfather of four, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He is an ordinary man who is passionate about helping other ordinary people experience God’s presence and integrate their Christian faith at work. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. More than 50 articles posted on this blog have been published 100 times on numerous Christian organization’s websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.