5 Bad Starting Points for the Faith and Work Conversation

One of my continual shortcomings as executive director of the Denver Institute for Faith and Work is that I rarely frame our mission so that we’re clearly understood—especially by pastors.

More than once, my initial enthusiasm for all things “faith and work” is seen by good, godly pastoral leaders as a niche ministry that will soon, like chaff, be blown away by the winds of evangelical enthusiasm.

When I first meet with a pastor over coffee and start a conversation about Christianity and work, I can usually sense two questions behind an ever-gentle, shepherding smile. First, what is this guy saying? Second, of all the ministries that need my attention, why should I focus here?

After years of conversational dead ends, fits and starts, and fumbling introductions, I’ve discovered that we need to refocus conversations about Christianity and work on a new starting point, one that immediately resonates with the core mission of Jesus’s church and the pastors who are her shepherds, overseers, and leaders.

So, when meeting with pastors, here are five places I don’t start:

1. The sacred/secular divide. 

Yes, fact and value, public life and private life, and science and religion have been separated into different spheres ever since the Enlightenment. Folks like Francis Schaeffer, Nancy Pearcey, and Chuck Colson have made this point abundantly clear. And yes, many business leaders feel their work is less valuable than “ministry” work—and wonder what role supply chains, value creation, and marketing plans play in God’s kingdom. But I’ve found that when I lead with the sacred/secular divide, the conversation tends to denigrate either pastors or business people.

An older generation tended to see the holiest kind of work as a pastor or a missionary—to the deprecation of the “mere” business person. But today we’ve overcorrected. In stressing that “all work can be a ministry,” those in the faith and work movement have tended to crown the work of the entrepreneur as the holiest of labors—alleviating global poverty, fueling a lagging economy, or creating a new business that will affect thousands.

The result is that we’ve downplayed becoming a pastor.

Don’t get me wrong. I love both pastors and entrepreneurs. Both are beautiful callings, and both have their particular pitfalls and challenges. But when I sit down with pastors, the last thing I want to do is downplay their call to shepherd of God’s people, which is clearly biblical and good (1 Tim. 3:1; 1 Pet. 5:2).

Since the pendulum has swung too far to one side of this debate, this isn’t usually the best way to start the conversation with pastors.

2. Calling or vocation.

This is a much better starting point. Protestants, after all, have a category for calling. To most, it sounds like bringing a deeper sense of meaning to one’s work. To others, though, I’ve found it sounds like I’m either trying to help people find their ideal jobs (this has happened so many times I’ve thought about starting a professional recruitment firm on the side!) or trying to provide gift inventories that help them find good places to volunteer at their church or . . . find their ideal jobs.

Sigh.

For years, I’ve tried to rescue the language of calling and vocation from the “vocation = my ideal job = my ideal me” equation, and follow sages, like Steve Garber, who winsomely argue for calling being an entire life lived in response to the voice of God. But alas, starting here has gotten me into murky waters—waters best left to explore after we’ve set out on a common journey together.

3. Theology of work.

Whether I’m speaking with pastors, business leaders, nurses, teachers, or cashiers, the phrase “theology of work” almost immediately sounds narrow or niche—like I joined the wrong Google+ group of academics. If my aunt can’t understand what my job is, I have a serious branding issue.

The problem here is not the phrase. After all, I lead an organization with the term “faith and work” in the title. This phrase can be rescued through ample conversation about the theme of work in the Bible and the obvious reality of our lives—which are consumed almost entirely by sleep, family, and work.

But I’m convinced we need a much larger story that leads to a theology for work, calling, and culture, but doesn’t necessarily start here.

4. ‘Transforming the culture.’

For many of us, James Davison Hunter has permanently buried this phrase. Yet in many Christian institutions doing this kind of work—whether higher ed, parachurch, or church—talk of “transforming the culture” or “changing the world” is commonplace.

The problem? It’s triumphalistic. As I survey the broad sweep of Western culture today, I’m not sure that broad cultural transformation should be a goal. I’ve become skeptical even of terms like “cultural renewal.” Yes, we can certainly renew aspects of culture—the values of tech development team, a mutual fund with an overtly theological mission, hiring formerly incarcerated men to become electricians—but transforming “the culture”? Like, the whole thing? Apart from Jesus returning, I have no idea what that means.

5. Political stances or platforms. 

As we’re seeing with this presidential election, it’s so easy for those of us who care so deeply about what Christianity means for work, the economy, and our respective subcultures to get co-opted by the political ideologies of day.

This is not to say we shouldn’t be political. Humans are inherently political creatures; we can’t help but organize ourselves into a polis and ask questions about a good society.

But far more often than not, the church and her attendant institutions can get absorbed into the caustic right/left, conservative/liberal debates of our day.

Today’s wisest leaders preach the wide, good, and beautiful gospel, and allow men and women in their stations of life to make logical political conclusions from Christian doctrine. But they don’t get pulled too deep into the dogfight, lest their Christian witness and kingdom distinctiveness become compromised.

Better Starting Point

So what, then, is a better starting point for the conversation about Christian faith and our work in the world? Some may disagree with me, but for what it’s worth, here’s where I stand: Jesus’s death and resurrection begins the redemption of all of creation (Col. 1:20)
 
At the dawn of the first day, the risen Christ was beginning creation afresh. Through the power of the resurrection, the Spirit-filled church is called to live in the reality of the new creation (2 Cor. 5:7, Gal. 6:15) in all areas of life—our hearts, our relationships, our neighborhoods, our professions, our cities, and forming of the physical world itself through our daily work. 
 
The death and resurrection of Jesus, and the far-reaching effects of salvation “as far as the curse is found,” is the best place to start the conversation about faith and work. 

Editors’ note: A version of this article appeared at The Green Room. To dive more deeply into faith and work (or the redemption of all creation), check out a new resource that TGC, The Good Book Company, and TGC Council member Tom Nelson partnered to create: Gospel Shaped Work.

TGC’s Theological Vision of Ministry says one of the things that marks a church’s gospel-centered ministry is its integration of faith and work:

The good news of the Bible is not only individual forgiveness but the renewal of the whole creation. God put humanity in the garden to cultivate the material world for his own glory and for the flourishing of nature and the human community. The Spirit of God not only converts individuals (e.g., John 16:8) but also renews and cultivates the face of the earth (e.g., Gen 1:2; Ps. 104:30). Therefore Christians glorify God not only through the ministry of the Word, but also through their vocations of agriculture, art, business, government, scholarship—all for God’s glory and the furtherance of the public good. Too many Christians have learned to seal off their faith–beliefs from the way they work in their vocation. The gospel is seen as a means of finding individual peace and not as the foundation of a worldview—a comprehensive interpretation of reality affecting all that we do. But we have a vision for a church that equips its people to think out the implications of the gospel on how we do carpentry, plumbing, data–entry, nursing, art, business, government, journalism, entertainment, and scholarship. Such a church will not only support Christians’ engagement with culture, but will also help them work with distinctiveness, excellence, and accountability in their trades and professions. Developing humane yet creative and excellent business environments out of our understanding of the gospel is part of the work of bringing a measure of healing to God’s creation in the power of the Spirit. Bringing Christian joy, hope, and truth to embodiment in the arts is also part of this work. We do all of this because the gospel of God leads us to it, even while we recognize that the ultimate restoration of all things awaits the personal and bodily return of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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