Faith in the Work Place
It's serious stuff when Christian writers tell us the western church is dying. In my idealistic 20s I believed that most Christians dropped out of church due to 'money, sex or power'. Although there is undoubtedly some truth in this, ten years on and having seen a swag of people in their 30s become disenchanted with church and leave, I'm not sure it's the full story.
A recent New Zealand survey of 108 leavers from evangelical, Pentecostal or charismatic churches found that the most common reason they left was because they found church irrelevant to faith and life. Going to church did not connect with their work, family, world concerns or their personal spiritual walk.1 Taken at face value, this is pretty sobering stuff.
What interests me is the perceived lack of connection between church and work. The average Christian spends less than two percent of their waking time at church. Yet the church puts most of its energy and resources into that two percent and very little into the world of daily work.2
Most of us are Christian and something else - retail worker, homemaker, mechanic - rather than an integrated whole. I have struggled for 15 years to incorporate my secular engineering work and Christianity into an integrated whole. Why is this?
Why Are People Leaving the Church?
It would appear that many Monday-to-Friday secular employed Christians do not retain a sense of 'belonging and significance' after a number of years of faithful involvement with the church. Could this be due to a non-biblical view of the relationship between church, the kingdom of God and work?
The non-biblical view - that the main purpose of life is to grow the church, and people only really go to secular work to witness for Jesus - raises the question: Does working life have no significant value to God apart from witnessing, and is the actual work just filling in time from Monday to Friday?
The secular worker who perceives this to be so and feels disenchanted has two options: either leave the church or leave work. It would seem that many have chosen to quit church.
But if, on the other hand, the main purpose of life is seen as extending God's kingdom, a whole raft of activities - loving God, loving people, witnessing, building community, seeking justice, feeding the hungry, caring for creation, working with others to produce goods and services for all to use, doing good works and of course building the church - are all seen as valid parts of life. In such a scenario secular workers feel a sense of 'belonging and significance' within the church and will stay with both the church and their secular work. 'Both/and' usually works a lot better than 'either/or'.
To put this another way: Jesus didn't just say "Go and make disciples". He said "Go and make disciples . . . teaching them to obey everything I have commanded."3 This is a crucial difference. The first approach can lead to a Christianity focused primarily on the church. The second approach leads to a Christianity which is concerned with 'all of life' including the church. Jesus wants us to be 'salt and light' in all places, at all times.4
It All Depends on Your View of Work
What is your view of work? Here are some commonly held views:
* It helps to pass the time.
* It is a necessary evil. Something we do so we can earn money and then 'really do God's work'.
* Work is brought about by sin and is punishment for it. The drudgery, bitterness and hassle of our workday lives are the consequence of our rebellion against God.
A survey of the Christian view of work over the centuries uncovers the following destructive consequences in play at various times:
The world of the marketplace is seen as secular and depraved, compared with the world of church, which is spiritual and divine. There are two unconnected worlds (an idea based on Greek dualism): the world, the physical, the 'now' equates to evil. The heavens, the spiritual, the 'other world' of the unseen equates to divine.
Christian vs Secular
Paid Christian ministry and missionary service is elevated above the secular working life. Paradoxically 'full time Christian work' can have a higher status than 'full time Christian witness'. A friend of mine said "if you're not a full time Christian worker or an overseas missionary, you're a nobody in the church". Such ideas create pressure for people to pursue full time Christian service even if they don't fit the job description.
The Protestant work ethic
Stewardship, service and thrift, when corrupted, can become unbridled capitalism. As a result extremes of capitalism and 'worship of high economic growth' consumes our lives, while unemployment - and the resulting poverty - destroys our communities.
Clearly we need a biblical view of work and faith in the workplace if we are to rectify these errors.
Does the Bible Provide any Clues about Work?
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.5 God is the original worker in the Bible. Genesis 1 describes how God created water, light, darkness, sky, land, vegetation, stars, sun, moon, fish, birds, livestock, wild animals and finally humanity in his image. Over the large expanse of time God worked, developed, shaped, fashioned, built, engineered and moulded.
Six times in Genesis 1 God saw that physical creation and work was good. In fact he saw it was very good.6 This is an utter rejection of the Greek idea that the physical material world is somehow evil. The physical realm, including the secular workplace and unpaid voluntary work, has value. Neither God nor Christianity require a dualism between the spiritual and the physical.
Genesis 2 describes the creation again, in narrative form, with emphasis on God creating humans, the garden and animals. God is portrayed as a potter - Adam is described as being formed from the dust, similarly the animals were formed from the ground. God is also the gardener, planting the garden in Eden.7
God continues to work today and is not a 'deist' letting the world wind down. God governs and actively - and providentially - preserves the world. Paul says "all things are held together in Christ".8 Jesus says "seek first God's kingdom and God will help provide life's necessities".9 "God works together for good all things for those called to him."10 God is the original worker and continues to work.
'Added Value Work' by Humans
Only humans are created in the image of God - what a privilege, but Oh! what a responsibility.11 We are to rule over the fish, birds and animals, be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, subdue and rule over all of creation. The words for ruling and subduing are not negative and exploitative in the Genesis 1 context, rather a better understanding is 'responsible dominion'.
Our work then is to understand, control, develop, protect, use, care for, nurture and sustainably manage the earth for God and ourselves. Our work is to partner with God in caring for and utilising the earth. God's plan has us working with his creation. "It is good, very good." Being fruitful, increasing in number and filling the earth describes homemaking, human relationships and voluntary domestic work as being of value to God. Part of being human is to work, contributing to society with dignity.
Genesis 2 describes people co-working with God in the Garden of Eden - growing plants, working the ground, studying and naming the animals, and gathering food. And so we see that our secular work (paid or unpaid) has value to God.
What about the fall in Genesis 3? It is true, our work has been cursed or marred by sin and changed to toil.12 However, it is also true that God is doing a new redeeming work in Christians through Jesus. Paul says "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things passed away; behold new things have come".13 Surely this includes renewing our attitude to work and reclaiming the culture of work.
"Whether we live or die, we do it for God"14 also includes work. Within the difficult context of slaves and masters, we are told that whatever we do, "work at it with all your heart for the Lord".15 We are also reminded that in helping, or working with, a poor friend "we work for God".16
* Work is an activity that allows us to continue God's work of creation.
* Work is an important part of being human and is a right for all. When meaningful work is not offered to people they lose their humanity and become powerless.
* Work is something we do to show the image of God in us. It is one way that the creative side of our nature expresses itself.
* Work is not God's punishment for sin. Rather sin has distorted work. When Christ makes us a new creation, he also wants to make the workplace part of that new creation. He wants our work to become part of the purpose of his Kingdom.
The Missing Link
How many sermons have you heard on work? The topic of work has not been high on the agenda of the various churches I have worshipped at over my 15 years as a Christian. This may be a natural consequence of most preachers being in full time Christian ministry, rather than the secular work force. As a result, sermons on the meaning, value and ethical challenges of secular working life are not common.
We need to create an environment in the church where we can gain a better understanding of each other's working world - and the culture, stresses and challenges involved. Perhaps holding small discussion groups for a few weeks would create an opportunity for both 'paid professionals' and 'laity' to share their respective life experiences and views on the church.
Including a mixture of full time Christian workers and secular workers on the preaching roster is also something to consider. It gives a breadth of theology and life experience to the preaching.
Observations about Work and Sense of Calling
How does our work fit into God's plan? Often people in inter-personal, relational work (such as teachers, doctors, nurses and counsellors) feel their work is their ministry. This is excellent. However, people in non inter-personal work (such as engineers, accountants and truck drivers) feel their work is not really serving God. This is not so great.
I have observed, for example, in my own work as an engineer, that very few engineers serve on the overseas mission field as engineers, whereas doctors and nurses often serve as doctors and nurses. Surely the provision of clean water and better waste control by engineers as part of a Christian mission's community public health programme can be a 'kingdom of God' activity and contribute to evangelical witness in a similar way to providing medical care?
Homemakers and child caregivers can feel they are not being used for God, because their work doesn't involve obvious up-front church ministry.
Again we see a dualism between the perceived spiritual and secular which is not helpful to either individual self esteem or the overall cause of God's kingdom.
Opportunities at Work
In addition to co-working with God, work allows so many exciting opportunities including:
Witness and Mission
Every Monday morning a great mission work force goes off to the secular workplace. Does the church need any more local mission strategy than this? If we support and nurture Christians in secular work - and they remain in the church - we will have local mission workers in full time Christian witness.
"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 whole membership of the church living out the Gospel in the world every day." 20
The question to be asked, however, is: When was the last time any of us verbally witnessed at work? There are of course 'times and seasons'. In my own work place I have had more significant discussions about God, Jesus, good and evil, heaven, hell and creation stewardship in the last 12 months than in the last 5 years.
Ethics and Justice
Work gives us opportunities to outwork our Christianity, to make ethical and just decisions. Is the job we do appropriate for a Christian? Could Jesus do the work we do? James tells us "the exploited workers and their unpaid wages are crying out to the Lord God against us".21 Watch out if you exploit people!
In Luke we read, "give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's".22 There comes a time in our work to stand up, be counted and say and do what is right. What would Jesus do in our situation?
Micah speaks of "acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God".23 Does our work contribute to justice, mercy and God's values, or are we involved in bad business practices, hurting people, or contributing to extreme economic efficiency thereby rationalising the need for large numbers of unemployed?
I made a decision not to be involved in projects which required 'bars' (for alcohol) to be built when I first started engineering 15 years ago. This may or may not be my decision now, but in the framework of my Christian understanding at the time it was an ethical decision.
Paul's tent-making work supported his church-planting ministry.24 Corinthians tells us Paul was able to self finance his church work. What a great model. Think of the contacts he made for his church work and witness. Is God calling some of us into this model of work and ministry? Perhaps to be more effective and allow time for church work - which requires planning and preparation - the 'part time secular work/part time church work' model is the way to go.
This model will increasingly be used in overseas missions as western giving to mission dries up. However, overseas 'tent-making' shouldn't simply provide a means to get into a country, the tent making work itself should also contribute to that country's well being.
Church and Mission Support
Having well paid work allows us to support God's work in mission, both in New Zealand and overseas. One of the big problems in the New Zealand church is not a lack of people to take the gospel to the unevangelised, or be involved in development work with the poor of the world, but a lack of supporters prepared to finance them.
Most church mission budgets for overseas mission work would be less than $2 per member per week. The challenge is, will we use our work to help finance mission to the unevangelised and the poor of this world?
SOmetime in the next seven days it's going to be Monday morning, the start of another week of paid or unpaid work and involvement in the world. Following Jesus by taking our faith into the workplace is going to involve:
* partnering with God in our work
* caring for and developing God's creation
* witnessing to non-believers
* making ethical and just decisions to help the downtrodden
* 'tent-making' to support ourselves and our witness
* raising money for evangelism and development.
After the 'wake up' alarm goes off, say a prayer and thank God it's Monday!
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance provided by Alistair Mackenzie. http://www.faithatwork.org.nz
started working as a civil/structural engineer in 1983 for 6 years.
He completed a Bachelor of Ministries at BCNZ in 1992, followed by a
stint of engineering development with a Christian mission in Cambodia.
For the last 5 years he has worked in Solid Waste Management for the
Dunedin City Council and worships at the Mornington congregation of
Dunedin City Baptist Church.