A majority of Americans can't find full-time work. And more than two-thirds of those who are employed full time hate their jobs or consider themselves disengaged from their duties. These are startling numbers, but they represent an opportunity—and an obligation—for the church.
Unemployment and underemployment are widespread. There are 11.8 million unemployed Americans, according to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The United States experienced 54 straight months with the unemployment rate at 7.5 percent or higher, the longest stretch of unemployment at or above that rate since the BLS started keeping such data.
But those numbers don't paint the full picture. According to the BLS, just 47 percent of adult civilians have full-time jobs. There are more than 8.2 million Americans who want full-time work but can only find part-time jobs, according to the The Wall Street Journal. More than 1 million "discouraged workers" have stopped looking for employment. The American Enterprise Institute reports that a full 30 percent of adult American men are neither working nor seeking work.
Miserable at Work
Given this environment, you might expect those with full-time work to feel fortunate, even ecstatic. Two more studies reveal otherwise. In June, The Los Angeles Times reported on a Gallup survey that found a staggering 70 percent of American workers—roughly 70 million people—are disengaged at work or outright hate their jobs. In addition to the emotional and spiritual toll these numbers represent, Gallup notes that this malaise is a "problem that has significant implications for the economy and the individual performance of American companies."
A new study from the London School of Economics confirms this widespread dissatisfaction in the workplace. When respondents considered a range of activities—such as dancing, dressing, and conducting household chores—work edged out only one option: illness. According to the researchers, "paid work is ranked lower than any of the other 39 activities individuals engage in, with the exception of being sick in bed." A Wall Street Journal headline summed up the findings: "Work Makes People Miserable."
The magnitude of these numbers indicates that Christians and non-Christians alike are struggling with workplace and economic issues. Unfortunately the church often overlooks this problem. Pastor Tom Nelson, author of Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work, writes:
God designed the local church to be a transformed people scattered in their various vocational callings throughout the week. One of the highest stewardships for local church leadership is to encourage and equip apprentices of Jesus for their work. Yet this stewardship rarely gets the attention and commitment it requires.
At a 2013 Oikonomia Network seminary faulty retreat, pastor Dan Scott, author of The Emerging American Church, echoed that sentiment. "American workers are having an increasingly difficult time competing with their Polish, English, Spanish, Russian, Indian, Korean, and Brazilian counterparts in a globalized economy," Scott noted. "The solution is a spiritual one, although at present few of our churches are offering it because too many of them are focused on lesser things."
A dualism that neglects to address the workplace—where most Christians spend the bulk of their waking hours—is at odds with the theology of vocation. As British theologian and author Lesslie Newbigin wrote, "The congregation has to be a place where its members are trained, supported, and nourished in the exercise of their parts of the priestly ministry in the world. The preaching and teaching of the local church has to be such that it enables members to think out the problems that face them in their secular work in light of their Christian faith."
Americans are struggling in the workplace and in the economy. The pandemic nature of these economic maladies cries out for church engagement. Financial challenges, family strife, depression, contentment, effective witnessing, and myriad other areas are affected by these realities. Fortunately, the church is in a unique place to explain Christ's restoration of work, the meaning of suffering, and the hope and peace that result from putting our trust in him.
How Churches Can Help
Here are three things church leaders can do:
1. Teach and affirm a theology that recognizes that:
- work is an integral part of God's plan from Genesis to Revelation;
- God uses workplace challenges to shape our character and increase our faith;
- our labor, no matter how menial, serves others; and
- Christians' response to work-related circumstances can be a witness—or turnoff—to those around us.
2. Be intentional about understanding the struggles of your congregants.
Nelson, in the short video below, describes his own efforts to ascertain the vocational and economic well-being of those in his pews. Pastors should listen, care, and support, while affirming the intrinsic (not just instrumental) value of work in the context of Christian hope.
3. Assess how effectively your church or parachurch organization is ministering to the unemployed and underemployed within your congregation and community.
Examine whether you are providing encouragement, dignity, and accountability, or merely engaging in what long-time urban ministry leader Bob Lupton describes as "toxic charity." Look for ways to foster entrepreneurship to creatively meet human need, add value, and further the common good. Engage business people in finding solutions to joblessness and poverty.
When the emptiness and futility of worldly approaches are exposed, people are open to new answers. When material security is threatened, people seek new sources of stability and hope. The church has the message and resources necessary to revive the broken spirit and restore the downtrodden. The question is whether the church will discern this opportunity and take action.