The Cutting Edge of Marketplace Ministries
Image: Chris Cone

With all the twists and turns that led to his vocation, Chuck Proudfit might never have gotten there without the quest for more efficient toilet paper.

He was fresh out of college working for Procter & Gamble at the time. The company had scooped up the gifted entrepreneur after he graduated from Harvard. Proudfit had already launched a laser-printing business when he was a sophomore, selling it to Harvard upon graduation. Now he was on the fast track in the Cincinnati headquarters of Procter & Gamble. And one of his first jobs was to oversee a project whose objective was to fit fewer sheets on a toilet paper roll.

And then, he says, he had "a meltdown." Surely, he thought, there was more to life.

He pursued that "more" while he advanced in the business world over the next decade. That journey included running a large division of the Gallo wine empire on the West Coast, then returning to Ohio as a high-level manager for LensCrafters. All the while, he was reading voraciously about the major religions, searching for the truth.

He finally discovered it, he says, in Christ. Proudfit says he was eager to "apply my new faith to every area of my life, including my work." But when he looked to his church for guidance, he was stymied.

"The local church doesn't deal much with everyday realities for the working people in the pews," he laments. So, "more out of exasperation than inspiration," Proudfit founded the Cincinnati-based marketplace ministry At Work on Purpose (AWOP).

That AWOP formed independently of the church is common, says Princeton University scholar David W. Miller. Author of God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement, Miller notes that most marketplace ministries "have formed outside the authority, involvement, or impetus of the church." What is uncommon is AWOP's holistic approach to integrating faith and work among its 5,000-plus members in the Cincinnati metro area. It's moving past a narrow focus on workplace evangelism to include ethics, social responsibility, and citywide engagement—a model that more marketplace ministries are embracing across the nation.

More Than Cubicle Evangelism

According to Miller, most marketplace ministries since the 1980s have focused on personal integration. And most model one of four ways of integrating faith and work, what he calls the four Es:

Evangelism, training members in sharing their faith with co-workers, launching Bible studies, or bringing in Christian chaplains for the company.

Ethics, providing encouragement and accountability to businesspeople to help them maintain biblical standards of behavior. A few go beyond this to addressing broader ethical issues at the "mezzo" or corporate level and the "macro" or societal level.

Enrichment, including "healing, prayer, meditation, consciousness, transformation, and self-actualization."

Experience, in which groups tackle questions of vocation, calling, meaning, and purpose, and help members explore both the intrinsic and extrinsic value of work.

But one weakness of today's faith and work movement, says Miller, is that not enough ministries provide a robust, comprehensive integration that incorporates all four Es.

AWOP is trying to. It is ahead of many marketplace ministries in its size and focus on everything from evangelism to advancing positive reforms in industrial sectors to mobilizing marketplace leaders for citywide transformation. According to researcher Jason Benedict, strategist at Regent University's Center for Entrepreneurship in Virginia Beach, Virginia, AWOP "provides one of the nation's most comprehensive approaches to marketplace ministry." Portland, Little Rock, and Jacksonville have similar initiatives, Benedict reports, but these "don't seem to be as large or as well-organized as Cincinnati."

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The Cutting Edge of Marketplace Ministries