In his book Work: The Meaning of Your Life, Lester de Koster observes, “Work is the chief place where we love our neighbors as ourselves.” De Koster means paid labor, but if we add the unpaid labor of raising children or volunteering, the statement is even truer.
Work is also a chief place of service to the Lord, as we both serve people and, we hope, present the claims of Christ. At work, we fulfill our call to be a royal priesthood (Exod. 19:6; 1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:6). As kings, we govern God’s creation for him and under him. As priests, we “act on behalf of men in relation to God” (Heb. 5:1).
Believers often wonder how they can serve God and neighbor at work, and often doubt the value of their work. But pastors can help, and the strategic sermon illustration is a leading tool in our arsenal. A good illustration is like a parable, presenting a case that is both particular and universal, specific and common.
Work for Others, Not Myself
Consider my daughter, Abby, who landed a job with a large corporation right out of college. She spent all day cooped up in a tiny, windowless office, crunching numbers to set price points for a line of women’s clothing that seemed frumpy to her. Her work seemed both unpleasant and also meaningless.
Then one day she visited one of her company’s stores and overheard two women talking about the sweaters she despised. “I could wear this to our party this weekend,” one said. “I’d buy three of these if I could afford it,” the other replied. “You can see that this is well-made.”
This was an epiphany. “It hit me,” Abby said. “These are quality sweaters at a fair price. It isn’t my job to get women to buy what I would like. Who am I to judge what styles should please them? I realized my work made life a little better for these women, if I helped them buy quality sweaters they liked.” Abby realized she was loving these “neighbors” at work.
Abby is a thoughtful, dedicated disciple of Jesus. If she struggles to connect her faith and her work, anyone can.
Pastorally, I find that offering concrete illustrations about faith at work is one of the best ways to help people. It’s essential for pastors to address the array of jobs people have, not just the go-to occupations like nurses and teachers.
Serving God at Work, Not Just After Work
Consider Lisa and Ryan. Lisa is a cashier. She likes work despite its repetitive nature, and wonders if she should aim higher. She also wonders if a machine will replace her one day and, if so, how she would earn a living. Ryan drives a truck. Sometimes he delivers food, other times portable bathrooms. He knows his work makes construction projects, parades, and concerts possible, but it feels insignificant.
They both have honest jobs, but, they say, their pastor doesn’t help them live as God’s priest-kings. Their pastor talks about work, but it’s always doctors, engineers, farmers—not people like them. One recent Sunday, they watched a video about stewardship urging them to serve the Lord in the church nursery, through hospital visits, or by hosting a home Bible study.
The video bothered Lisa and Ryan a bit. Each has a tiny apartment, no children, and no experience in hospitals. Above all, they want to put their faith into practice at work, not in volunteer activities after work. They know they should work faithfully and be ready to share their faith, but they believe there must be more. Lisa should see herself as the face of her grocery store. She needs to see each customer as a human, perhaps lonely or frazzled. Ryan needs to realize that the driver who transports food is as essential to the food chain as the farmer who grows it or the mother who prepares it. Their stories effectively apply the message to people with roughly similar jobs.
Challenges and Moral Dilemmas at Work
Work constantly creates challenges and moral dilemmas. Pastors must lay out principles for integrity at work, but principles gain life when applied to real-life situations. Take Kyle, a young financial planner who loves to help people with their decisions. He has a new client, a childless couple with substantial net worth. In his second consultation with them, he learned they wanted to donate most of their estate to Planned Parenthood, a leading provider of abortion services.
This stunned Kyle, who is a life-affirming Christian. He asked: “How can I, in good conscience, build the wealth of a client who plans to give it to a cause I consider immoral?” His work rules, though, forbid him to say, “I can’t help you with that.” Must he hand the client off? How does that help? After consulting two pastors, Kyle decided to ask his clients why they want to give to Planned Parenthood. By exploring their values, he can, within his work rules, find other causes that fit their values without promoting abortion: education, women’s rights, and sex trafficking.
This illustration makes points that people will feel more viscerally than a set of principles. The illustration show: (1) workers face dilemmas that seem impossible; (2) they can and should consult spiritual advisers, particularly elders in their church; and (3) those counselors can help them find a path to integrity.
Where to Find Illustrations
In recent years, the most common occupations in America include retail sales assistant, food preparer, cashier, and driver. Persons in these fields can doubt the value of their work. Actually, everyone has doubts. Teachers wonder if students listen, and physicians worry that patients won’t take their medications. So how does a pastor assure his people that their work is meaningful? Through illustrations!
Pastors should find it easy to discover illustrations from the work of their friends, especially the leaders of their church. It’s not hard to gather illustrations—just ask people how they spend their days or how their work is going, and ask follow-up questions. Since pastors are highly educated, they must be alert to stories from people in ordinary jobs. Again, listening is the key, as is wide reading.
Consider the fast-food worker in the drive-thru window who wonders, Do people know how much salt and fat is in this meal? Would it be better if we closed? Pastor, tell the story of the time you were driving along a lonely road, late at night, praying, “Lord help me find some food for the last stretch of this journey.” Then we saw that friendly sign, when fast-food workers answered the prayer, “Father, give us this day our daily bread.”
Work is indeed the chief place where we love our neighbors. At work we have concentrated resources, training, and time. As pastors, we help people see that and live that when we illustrate our teaching with stories that connect principles to daily life.