An Interview with Alistair MacKenzie
by Chris Walker
if it be wrought
As thou wouldst have it done;
And prayer, by thee
inspired and taught,
Itself with work is one.
These words of John Ellerton's nineteenth century hymn speak of a connectedness between the world of work and the world of faith which is rarely seen or talked about in Christian churches today. Much less are these sentiments likely to be expressed in a modern chorus.
To ask a Christian in the late twentieth century about the interaction between their faith and work is to invite at best an enthusiasm for workplace evangelism and at worst a shrug of the shoulders, accompanied by some variation of, "I haven't really thought about it", or "What interaction?".
Many Christians are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with continued separation between their faith and their work and have begun to look for more wholistic approaches. Alistair Mackenzie is one of those who advocate change in the way Christians view work. He is doing so through the Faith at Work project, now well into its fifth year of existence.
Faith at Work Origins
Alistair spent fourteen years as a Baptist pastor in Papatoetoe and Lincoln. Subsequent to this, he spent several years working with Servants to Asia's Urban Poor and teaching the theology of mission at the Christchurch Branch of the Bible College of New Zealand. These experiences caused him to re-examine the missionary role of the Church in New Zealand.
"We live in a post-Christian context where the church needs to understand that this is the mission field and we need to learn to operate as a mission people. The future of the church will not be decided by what a few people called missionaries and ministers do on behalf of the rest of the church, but by the extent to which the whole church is engaged in everyday ministry.
"The largest mission force that the church has is mobilised by God every day of the week meeting the world in the workplace, but the church does very little deliberately to equip and support Christians for their life in the workplace." This understanding is not new. The concept of the whole people of God being engaged in mission, rather than select groups within churches, has been theological orthodoxy for some time now.
However, Alistair maintains that this understanding is not reflected in the priorities and practices of most churches. "Most Christians still think that if they want to be engaged in ministry and mission it will be in church programmes, not something that they engage in with God in the course of their everyday lives and work."
These are not conclusions Alistair has come to hastily. He spent five years working part-time on a Master of Theology thesis exploring Christian understandings of vocation and the theology of work and how these influence the shape of Christian life. At the same time, his role as a staffworker with the Tertiary Students Christian Fellowship raised several related questions such as: "How do we best equip young people who are graduating to survive the transition into the workplace? We were largely equipping people to live as Christian students, but were less focussed on the importance of living as Christians for life. If we took a long-term view, we might prioritise some other things."
At the end of his tenure with TSCF and with his thesis still unfinished, Alistair was approached by a group of friends who were in business, with whom he had talked about faith at work issues for some time. They offered to provide funding for him to work half-time for two years, exploring practical ways of addressing work issues. The Faith at Work project was born.
The Interviews: A Question of Connectedness
Alistair began this work in the first six months of 1996 by conducting in-depth interviews with over a hundred Christian people about their faith and working lives. His intention was to identify the issues that Christians face in their work, to determine if it was worthwhile developing new training courses to address the issues of faith and work.
Alistair says that Christians' views of work "didn't take me by surprise so much, but underlined my dismay, in that I found that there were certain categories of people who really struggled to see that their work mattered from God's perspective at all, or that there was a serious faith component that could be applied to their work. I ended up thinking that there is something of a crisis of confidence among many Christians because they have little sense that God is impacting on the world in any significant way through them.
"This wasn't across the board - certain categories of people certainly struggle more. It is quite plain that people who are involved in more direct, person-to-person, service kind of jobs feel that their work counts from God's perspective. Social workers, doctors, nurses, teachers - somehow the church affirms that their work is ministry. To some extent that's also true for parents who are working at home and who devote large chunks of their time to their families. The church seems to affirm that this kind of work also has a ministry or service component to it."
The flip side of the church's affirmation of those in service jobs is that those whose work lacks this sense of direct service feel that the church has no encouragement to give them in their careers. Alistair says those who struggle in connecting their work to their faith are usually "factory workers, manufacturers, many business people and those involved in commercial or industrial work; those who feel somewhat removed from meeting people at their particular point of need.
"Many of these people also feel embroiled in a harshly competitive environment. A similar struggle is experienced by people who are involved in primarily technical jobs, where they are utilising practical skills rather than being in direct contact with other people. People often feel somewhat disconnected from God while they're performing those kind of functions." It was those who struggled to see connections between their working and Christian lives that Alistair began to target through the development of Faith at Work courses.
The Courses: Developing Theory and Practice
Having spent six months interviewing Christians about their work, Alistair then began work on seminars and courses that would address the issues he had uncovered. He came up with four broad categories of concern, which then became four Bible College courses, first offered in 1997 They were: God's Work and Our Work; Everyday Spirituality; Ethics for the Marketplace; Life and Career Planning.
Alistair has attempted to keep his teaching of these courses informal and interactive. His rationale for this approach lies in a need to overcome some negative connotations surrounding 'theology'.
"One of the things that concerns me is that most Christian people say to you, 'Theology - that's something that academics do or people who go to Bible College. I'm not a theologian, I don't think about theology, I never read theology, it's kind of boring stuff'. That dismays me, because I think that every Christian is a theologian.
"Anybody who engages in any form of reflection about God is engaging in their own theologising, but they don't recognise it as such. Theology has become associated with long words and sentences that are incomprehensible to ordinary mortals, and I suppose one of my concerns is to try and bring some of this stuff down to earth.
"What I found people articulating on the ground I have tried to keep related to the course content that I've developed. I've also tried to maintain an interactive approach, so that participants force the teacher to stay connected to reality and to avoid use of too much theological jargon, which can become a barrier."
God's Work and Our Work
"[The Bible] begins with a description of God as a worker, something that many people just haven't thought about. We are workers made in the image of God the worker. This course looks at different aspects of the creative, redemptive and sustaining work of God. As each of these is considered, students are encouraged to explore how their own work offers opportunities to participate in the different dimensions of the ongoing work of God.
"The effects of sin and the fall on life in the workplace are examined, to understand why the world of work is such a mixed blessing now and demands so much struggle. The aim is to help participants review the adequacy of their worldview and to give greater incentive through the realisation that God is at work in the world and to nurture life as God's partners in the workplace."
"The Everyday Spirituality course really grew out of a sense that we've trained people to recognise God at work in the church but not in the wider world. This grows out of a missionary question - do we, as Christians, take God with us into the non-Christian world, or is God already present and at work in the world and we go to join God in the work that he has already begun?
"I subscribe more to the second approach than the first. Which means that God is not only present in the workplace when somebody speaks about God, but God is present and at work there all the time. So Everyday Spirituality is really about trying to expand people's vision of God and inviting them to explore the question: How can we work to gain a greater sense of connectedness to the God who is present everywhere in every circumstance?
It is also about prayer in the fast lane and how we nurture our faith in the midst of constant activity. How can we practise the presence of God in the modern marketplace?"
Career and Life Planning
Career and Life Planning seeks to address the confusion that many Christians feel about where they fit in God's purposes, by introducing students to a number of tools that are designed to help them understand the gifts, skills, interests and passions that they have been given and what these suggest about the work that God has prepared them to do.
Alistair's interviews revealed that such issues are usually of more intense interest to those at transition points, particularly those leaving school or tertiary education, those facing a crisis in their work, people at mid-life, and those approaching retirement. "These are questions that most people don't stop to think about until something provokes it, and then they start searching."
Ethics for the Marketplace
"For many Christians, there is a growing sense that the marketplace has changed. That the evolution of a more aggressively competitive marketplace, combined with the erosion of many traditional Christian values, has left people confused about the foundations for ethics in the marketplace."
The Ethics course employs case studies to reveal the issues that students are facing or have faced in their working lives, before attempting to define more general principles and perspectives. "The aim is to ensure that the theory is pressed to connect with reality, so that biblical truth remains lived truth."
The Future of Faith and Work
The Faith at Work Project has undergone several changes. The four fourteen-week courses originally offered in 1997 were revised in 1998 to become five seven-week courses; an attempt to attract more of the busy people who make up much of Alistair's target audience. A Faith at Work web site has been constructed (www.faithatwork.org.nz), which aims to supply resources and links for those who live out of Christchurch, or who are unable to attend the night courses at the Christchurch BCNZ.
Alistair says the feedback from the courses has been "very positive", but he feels a tension exists between offering longer, more fully developed (but possibly less well attended courses) and shorter, one-off seminars. "There are a lot of people who have expressed interest in the courses who have said, 'Well, I'd come to a one-day seminar, but I can't do this', which highlights the pressures many people are living with.
"At the same time, people who have taken part in the courses often say that it took them quite a long time to come to terms with the issues we were dealing with and it was only two-thirds of the way through that things really started to click. So there's a suggestion that what you do in a one-off seminar is insufficient to actually bring about the kind of understanding that is needed - that it takes time for most people to really start feeling that their everyday lives count in terms of mission and ministry from God's perspective."
Alistair is keen to see these issues getting more of an airing in churches, since his research has revealed that preaching and teaching on everyday work is very rare in most churches. He sees a number of options for churches who wish to redress the balance.
"I think it's something that needs fostering on a number of levels. If everyday work realities aren't talked about in Sunday services then they often don't get talked about in home groups either. One thing is to have a lot of different people participating in services, speaking about their everyday experiences, so a variety of perspectives are shared. Are these issues ever addressed in the prayers that are prayed, or in the songs that are sung? (It is the songs that people take away from church, perhaps more than the words of the sermon.) The small groups also need to be given resources that help them to address these issues."
As to the life of the church outside of Sunday: "I think encouraging people to meet during the week to share the realities of their everyday lives is an important thing, and that can be done quite informally - a couple of people get together - or more formally in small groups. I wonder if it doesn't happen better in the midst of everyday work. People meeting together in a lunch hour in the city during the week may be more likely to reflect on the realities that have been part of their day there than people who have left the city and moved into another mode of existence in the evening."
Alistair is keen to promote wider discussion of these issues and to receive feedback from readers. For his address and listings of resources that may be useful for those wanting more information on faith and work, visit the Faith at Work website at www.faithatwork.org.nz