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Exploring Christians at Work: Dr. Ben Ries on the Barna Group Study

A collaborative partnership between the Barna Group in Ventura, CA and Abilene Christian University has produced a new report titled Christians at Work. The first step in a multi-year initiative focused on vocation, this powerful study examines employed, self-identified Christians in the United States. The goal was to specifically explore vocational attitudes within the respondents’ paid occupations (as differentiated from other valuable yet unpaid forms of vocation, such as volunteering, hobbies, parenting, and homemaking.)

Dr. Ben Ries, associate dean for vocational formation and director of the Center for Vocational Formation at Abilene Christian University in Dallas, was very involved in the study. He notes that ACU Online offers master’s and doctoral degrees in business, marriage and family therapy, education, nursing, and theology.

“My job tries to address the question, ‘How do we help nurses, teachers, therapists, and working professionals have a sense that their work is meaningful? That it matters to the world? That it matters to God?’”

Dr. Ries works with ACU program directors on curriculum development. He also does research and writing “around work and faith and meaning.” His own doctorate is in ministry, and he serves as a consultant for ACU’s Duncum Center Solutions.

The genesis and creation story of Christians at Work

Ben Ries explains that it was ACU that commissioned the study of working Christians with Barna. “It’s through the generosity of The Moriah Foundation that we were able to fund the project and pay Barna to do it,” he adds.

The preliminary conversations began in the summer of 2017. That fall, Barna started developing the survey and the qualitative interview questions. The first set of quantitative online surveys was conducted February 27–March 12, 2018, and the second on April 18–May 8, 2018, using an online panel.

The quantitative survey sample included 1,459 self-identified U.S. Christians “who agree somewhat or strongly that their faith is very important in their life today and are employed.” Employment was defined as:

  • Full-time
  • Part-time
  • Self-employed
  • Performing unpaid work for a family business

The participants were presented with a very extensive survey that contained between 150-200 questions. Ries explains, “They were trying to gauge people’s faith commitment and involvement in a community of faith. They had a lot of these questions around how people understand their own giftedness and passions and longings, and how they understood their faith to be integrated or not in their work.”

In addition, Barna conducted candid qualitative interviews with 33 practitioners representing a range of industries and thought leadership on the subject of faith and work. Researchers used a flexible script exploring respondents’ experiences of calling and career. Some of their responses are included in the Christians at Work report in the “Conversations with Practitioners” feature.

Bridging the sacred and the secular—Barna’s big learnings

After Barna did most of the grouping and weighting of the data, ACU received a summary of the larger findings. When asked what one of the most significant takeaways was, Ries points to four key questions that “people who integrated their work and faith well all responded to positively.”

These respondents, who the researchers found had a consistently demonstrated integrated sense of work and faith, either “strongly agreed” or “agreed” to all four of the following statements:

  • “I can clearly see how the work that I’m doing is serving God or a higher purpose.”
  • “I find purpose and meaning in the work that I do.”
  • “I’m looking to make a difference in the world.”
  • “As a Christian, I believe it’s important to help mold the culture of my workplace.”

Another significant finding Ries points to is that “Christian workers seek (and often find) meaningful, purposeful employment—and that they don’t necessarily think ministry is superior to the marketplace.”

Barna was curious about the perceived importance of a person’s vocational “calling” being a sacred or a secular one. Participants were asked whether it was better for a Christian to become a pastor or missionary, or to represent his or her faith well at work. On its blog, Barna reports:

“In general, Christians are most likely to say that neither one is superior to the other (64%). After all, almost two-thirds of employed Christians (64%) agree on some level that it’s clear to them how their own work serves God or a higher purpose. This indicates Christians are prone to see spiritual value in any working context—or that perhaps the marketplace seems to them as urgent a mission field as any.”

Some surprising findings

When asked if any of the survey results surprised him, Ben Ries points to the discrepancy in gender differences. “Specifically, single men seem to have a lower sense of connection in their work and faith, which was surprising. Also, single men, the data seemed to say, didn’t feel as supported in their work as married men or married women, or even single women. That was surprising, and a little disheartening.”

Barna’s research found that the Christian men and women surveyed “share goals and qualities as collaborators in work and the Kingdom. In general, they are similarly likely to feel ‘called’ to make a difference, to find purpose, and to feel their strengths are put to use, inside and outside the workplace.”

However, when those Christians are parents, while both men and women are relatively gratified in their family relationships, the study shows that working moms (compared with fathers, single men, and single women) “are well behind on all metrics of satisfaction—relational, spiritual, emotional, you name it.”

Additionally, “Even though both mothers and fathers share an equal desire to use their gifts and talents for the good of others (64% and 62%), mothers feel significantly less called to, or made for, their current work than fathers (38% compared to 55%).”
Dr. Ries points to the “mental and emotional load” working mothers still carry for much of the family organization as being a likely influencing factor in these findings.

Barna notes: “Tellingly, the sweet spot for Christian women’s vocational fulfillment—and, inversely, the low point for male respondents—is actually when they have never even been married.”

What on Earth is God up to?

Dr. Ben Ries supports cultivating a broader imagination for what it looks like to participate in the Kingdom of God. He prefers that Christians see all the work of their hands as holy and unique, regardless of job title or pay scale.

Ries notes that this question of “Am I pursuing meaningful work?” is a very recent and rather privileged one. He views it as a “gift” and not necessarily part of everyone’s life experience or frame of reference: “For most of human history, a day was getting enough water and food and not getting eaten by a bear. That was a good day.”

Ries’ personal perspective is that most people have not been given the tools, either by their communities of faith or their upbringing, “to see the very ordinary, mundane, good work that they do, not as disconnected from the life of God, but integral to God’s work in the world.”

He continues, “Most people have a really hard time connecting their work with what God might be up to in the world. I’m not talking about evangelism or prayer or bible studies at work. I’m talking about participating in the world in such a way that it is being a more just, loving, gracious, hospitable, hopeful, joyful kind of world.”

Reis is convinced that if God longs for the world to be a place of human flourishing, to be a place of wholeness and joy and hope and peace and restoration, “then any participation in a moment of hope or moment of joy or moment of peace—a moment of wholeness—is participation in God’s longing for the world.”

“This is part of the good news, I think. That God’s at work whether we’re aware of it or not,” Dr. Ben Ries concludes.

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