Reconnecting Work and Church

A renewed emphasis on what I call "vocational stewardship" could go far in wooing the exiles and the nomads back.

December 26th, 2011

You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith by David Kinnaman. Baker Academic, 2011. 256pp.

Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work by Tom Nelson. Crossway, 2011. 224pp.



Last weekend I led a retreat for about 100 recent college graduates. I told them stories about some of my latest heroes—individuals I'd discovered in the course of researching a new book on faith/work integration. Many of my new heroes are in their 60s or above. They don't wear hip clothes or listen to (or sound like) Bono. But the twenty-something Christians ate them up.

I told them about Perry Bigelow, a Christian real-estate developer. Perry has spent years studying what Scripture teaches about the values of the Kingdom of God so that he could create communities that offered foretastes of "the city whose architect and builder is God." To that end, he has sought koinonia; beauty; safe, child-friendly communities; and creation care.

Perry intentionally designs neighbourhoods that feature diversely sized and priced homes. This creates heterogeneous communities that combine singles, families, and empty-nesters of varying income brackets. This non-typical approach enables him to accomplish much social good. Suburban neighbourhoods characteristically sport large, single-family homes on big lots. This reinforces our cultural idolization of privacy. It is not the most environmentally friendly approach, and it limits the number of property tax paying units in the land tract. By contrast, Perry's compact development style makes possible expansive, common green spaces that promote beauty and neighbourly interaction. He also fits more tax-paying units per square foot into his neighbourhoods. The diverse demographics mean that not every house contains school-age kids. This means Bigelow communities enhance the coffers of local government while decreasing strain on local public schools. Bigelow Homes' signature development, HomeTown Aurora, won the prestigious Builder of the Year Award in 2005.

I told them about Cynthia Leibrock, an interior designer who's become a leading national expert in the field of universal design. After designing a residential facility for the physically disabled many years ago, Cynthia's passion for her work reached new heights. For the past couple of decades she's been expressing her Christian faith through her vocation by creating spaces that enable maximum mobility and accessibility for the elderly and disabled.

I told them about Tom Hill, former CEO of Kimray, Inc. in Oklahoma City. The firm manufactures valves and controls for the oil and gas industry. Given the volatile nature of his industry, Tom has pursued the "Joseph strategy" of saving up during the boom years in order to have reserves on hand for the bust years. During one recession, Kimray's orders dried up and he lacked work for some ninety employees. Instead of laying them off, Tom designed a partnership with then-mayor Ron Norrick to lend his people out. His talented workers took on jobs at public utilities, nonprofits, and other local companies—and Tom paid their salaries for 18 months—until Kimray's orders returned to normal levels.

It was great fun watching how well these anecdotes landed with my audience. There they were—the generation often described as jaded, ironic, and blasé—downright enthusiastic and eager to hear more.

Their reaction reveals a hunger that David Kinnaman, President of the Barna Research Group, highlights in his recent book, You Lost Me. It focuses on eighteen to twenty-nine year olds who have "dropped out" from their faith—by his estimate, some 5 million individuals in the U.S. Most have not completely abandoned the faith but "are putting their involvement in church on hold." And one of the most important reasons why, he found, was that they couldn't connect Sunday to Monday. "One the most recurring themes" in his research with dropouts, Kinnaman reports,

is the idea that [the Christianity they've been taught] does not have much, if anything, to say about their chosen profession or field . . . It is a modern tragedy. Despite years of church-based experiences and countless hours of Bible-centered teaching, millions of next generation Christians have no idea that their faith connects to their life's work.

Kinnaman describes three broad groups of dropouts: nomads ("who walk away from church engagement but still consider themselves Christians"); prodigals (who lose their faith and describe themselves as "no longer Christian"); and exiles (those "still invested in their Christian faith but feel stuck between culture and the church"). Thankfully, the prodigals are the smallest group. And, as researchers at Baylor University have been quick to note when reviewing the Barna Group's research, previous generations have also shown similar dips in church participation during their twenties. Often, the Baylor scholars emphasize, these wanderers return to the fold once they marry and have kids. So we need not sensationalize the problem. But it's also inappropriate to do nothing but sit back and wait until these 5 million sheep come home.

One of the big things Kinnaman wants church leaders to do is engage these young adults in meaningful dialogue about their callings and gifts and the ways these can deployed in the mission of God in the world. Such a renewed emphasis on what I call "vocational stewardship" could go far in wooing the exiles and the nomads back. These twenty-somethings want their marketplace vocations affirmed, but instead hear theologically misguided teaching that "spiritual" work is superior to "secular" labour. They desire guidance and equipping on what it means to bring their faith to work, and how to renew culture through it. Instead, in their congregations they have faced suspicion for their choice to work in fields like science, fashion, and film. Coddled by overprotective parents and churches, they've also been warned to eschew the world and deploy their artistic talents only inside the church, where things are safe.

But, Kinnaman notes, these young adults "want to be culture-makers, not culture avoiders." Their churches have dismayed them with simplistic black-and-white answers that don't match the complexity they sense in their world. Their faith communities have offered them only a shallow faith that is not helping them deal with the life issues they face. In short, Kinnaman sums up, these young adults have not been discipled well.

Indeed, Kinnaman rightly emphasizes that at its core, the dropout problem is a disciple-making problem: "The church is not adequately preparing the next generation to follow Christ faithfully in a rapidly changing culture."

With the release of Tom Nelson's new book, Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work, church leaders have a very helpful new resource to draw upon to change that. Nelson, veteran pastor of Christ Community Church in Leawood, Kansas (near Kansas City), admits it has taken him many years to preach and teach correctly on vocation. He reports he lived personally for years with a "sizable Sunday-to-Monday gap" and "perpetuated this faith-and-work gap" through his teaching and leadership. Through God's grace, rigorous study of Scripture and the Reformers, and wise counsel from fellow believers, over the past decade Nelson has "come to a more integral understanding in my thinking about work itself as well as the centrality of vocation in a local church's gospel mission."

Work Matters starts, appropriately, in Genesis. Nelson spends considerable time on a basic theology of vocation that draws on both the cultural mandate and the implications of the Fall. Work itself is good. God is a worker, and made in His image we enjoy the high calling of labour that enables us to be contributors in God's society. Against contemporary ideas of work as simply economic exchange or a way of making money, Nelson explains the beautiful, multidimensional Hebrew concept of avodah: work as worship and service. Work isn't about personal choice; it's about divine call and initiative. We serve God and love our neighbours through faithful labour. Idealism about that high calling can come to a screeching halt, though, in the midst of the frustrations faced in the work-a-day world. Some Christians don't just watch The Office; they live it 9-5. They face hostile co-workers, stressful schedules, backstabbing competitors, and mind-numbing monotony. Work is toilsome. But Nelson reminds us that this must not surprise us. After all, we inhabit a sin-cursed world where our labour is fraught with thorns and thistles. We need hopeful realism about our work, not a naive view. "A perfect job or career is not only unrealistic," Nelson warns, "it is theologically untenable."

The good news is that through Christ's transforming power, our workplaces can be redeemed. God's Spirit can change us so that we can proclaim and incarnate the gospel in our vocations. We can receive the Spirit's help in navigating muddy ethical waters at work and His grace to extend to annoying customers. Moreover, our deepest Christian hopes—the full consummation of Christ's kingdom and the New Heavens coming down to earth—can fill us with wonder and zeal over the connections between our labours today and our lives in the age to come. A Biblically accurate view of our future reward, Nelson writes, shows us that we will have "joyful intimacy with God" and we will "be given greater work to do in the future. In many ways we are training now for reigning later with Jesus." Our work matters, Nelson insists, and it lasts.

A robust theology of work both now and in the future brings fresh perspective to our lives. Our vocational callings become rich with meaning. Our attitude toward work is transformed. A new creativity and diligence emerge. A sense of anticipation of a glorious future in the new heavens and new earth fills our souls.

When discipleship unfolds in ways that inculcate a robust understanding of the doctrine of vocation, our faith can help us recognize and celebrate the deep meaning and purpose inherent in our work. That is certainly what I found in interviewing dozens of Christians who are practicing vocational stewardship. Nelson's book also testifies to this reality.

One particularly pleasing feature of Work Matters is its inclusion of short, first-person accounts of living missionally at work by Christ Community congregants from a variety of vocations. These stories offer solid evidence of the profound influences that good discipleship on vocation can have on parishioners' daily lives. (Importantly, this discipleship at Christ Community has involved not only wise preaching but also intentional celebrations of marketplace vocations, vigorous policing of language to avoid any hint of a "sacred/secular" divide, and vocationally based small groups that gather individuals from similar fields to discern together what faithful presence in their particular industries can look like.) Jay, an attorney who has benefitted from Nelson's biblically rich teaching on vocation, has found deep meaning in recognizing that his vocation is part of his calling to bear God's image and "to repair a broken and fallen world." He continues:

As a business transaction lawyer, I am called to improve how people make promises to each other, to help people honour their promises, to help people understand their obligations, to help people resolve conflicts, and to help people realize the best of their dreams and aspirations.

Similarly, David, an architect, reports that Nelson's teaching has greatly deepened his own integration of faith and work. He now understands that his calling is to redeem architecture—"to design buildings that contribute to human flourishing." He asks important questions about his work, such as whether his designs "create a sense of shelter or vulnerability" and whether they "promote healthy behaviours like walking and using stairs instead of the use of cars and elevators." And Dave and Demi, business owners who once thought the purpose of their company was simply to make money they could give away once a year to support missions, now see faith/work integration as a daily focus. Their commitment to Jesus shapes every contract; every relationship with employees, suppliers, vendors, and customers; and even the ways they have designed the firm's office space.

Work Matters extends the faith/work conversation beyond its traditional parameters—discussion about ethics and evangelism in the workplace. Nelson recognizes the influence Christians can have within their workplaces, their industries, and the various sectors of society. He highlights the biblical stories of Joseph, Daniel, Nehemiah, and Esther to showcase how God has used His people in remarkable ways in redemptive history. He calls Christian workers to focus on advancing the common good, by which he means "all the various aspects of contemporary life that contribute positively to human flourishing both as individuals and communities." In this section of the book he helpfully reminds us of John Calvin's wonderful commentary on work:

It is not enough when one can say, "Oh, I work, I have my trade, I set my pace." This is not enough; for one must be concerned whether it is good and profitable to the community and if it is able to serve our neighbours.

Nelson also references Jeremiah 29's call for believers to seek the shalom of their cities, and encourages us to consider how the church accomplishes that as congregants go out into all realms of the city to do their work as agents of salt and light.

I have found Proverbs 11:10 to offer a particularly arresting picture of this kind of vocation-as-mission. The text says, "When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices." Rev. Tim Keller from Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City (which hosts the nation's premier faith/work discipleship arm, the Redeemer Center for Faith & Work) explains that the key to the verse is the definition of "the righteous." The text should strike us initially as counterintuitive. Here we have a city, and one group in it is prospering—and that fact makes everyone happy. Isn't it more plausible to imagine a scenario marked by jealously and resentment, where the people at the bottom are disgruntled by the good fortunes of those at the top? Keller explains that the "righteous" are the tsaddiqim, the doers of justice who steward their prosperity for the common good. The righteous regard every blessing they've received—their power, wealth, talents, influence, networks—as means for blessing others. If the people who are prospering act like this, then everyone benefits from their prosperity—and thus, the whole city rejoices.

A further key to this little text is that very word "rejoice." It's a Hebrew term used only one other time in the Old Testament and it carries almost military connotations. It denotes the kind of rejoicing that marks one who had been oppressed and now God has liberated and lifted up. When we see "rejoice" in Proverbs 11:10, we should envision people dancing in the streets of Paris on VE-Day. This indicates that the tsaddiqim are stewarding their blessings in ways that are bringing about profound social transformation—for only substantial, remarkable changes could prompt this level of rejoicing.

King Jesus is on His mission, bringing this sort of transformation as He advances His kingdom. We get to be vital coworkers in that mission as we steward the vocational gifts and talents He has endowed us with in ways that advance foretastes of shalom.

This offers believers a vision of vocational stewardship for the common good that is deeply moving. It is an inspiring enough understanding of Christian discipleship to attract those roaming exiles and nomads that Kinnaman describes—and the even more numerous older believers sitting in their office cubicles and wondering what the purpose of their work is.

 

Dr. Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute, where she directs the Center on Faith in Communities. The Center acts as a "minister to ministries," providing tools and training to community practitioners to advance shalom in their neighborhoods. She is the author of several books and 80-some articles in a variety of religious and secular publications. She authored Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (InterVarsity Press, 2011).

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