The march of technology is relentless, and it is always both creating and destroying jobs. It brings many blessings—spiritual and material—but also great costs. For example, seven of Fast Company’s “Ten Most Endangered Jobs of 2014” are classic blue-collar jobs—mail carriers, meter readers, drill press operators, and so on. I’m surprised they left out restaurant workers, who will soon be facing widespread replacement by touch-screen ordering and kitchen automation.
On the whole, technology creates more jobs than it destroys. That’s why global markets have lifted a billion people out of extreme poverty. Nobody’s suggesting we abolish farm equipment so millions of people can return to back-breaking labor in the fields, all day every day, starting in early childhood and continuing without interruption until death. But that is cold comfort to those who wind up unemployed—or to those who haven’t yet lost their jobs, but are vulnerable to the anxiety that they may soon lose them.
The church, though, has something to offer these people. It is a place where those left behind by technological change can find gospel-centered identity, wisdom, and equipping for the hard roads they are called to walk. After all, Jesus gives us clear marching orders to love—that is, actively promote the good of—all our neighbors, with special care for the poor. So we ought to be paying attention and making plans. Here are a few things the church can be for those whose jobs are eliminated or endangered by technological change.
The church can be a place where people find their true identity. Job loss almost always creates an identity crisis. People are indeed made for work; Genesis 1-2 explains that our calling to work and make the world a better place is at the core of who we are created to be. Because of the fall, though, we are constantly building identities in ourselves through our occupations (our jobs) rather than in God through our vocations (our calling to follow God in all we do). The church can be a place where people who have lost their occupation discover their vocation to an identity in Christ—an identity that doesn't depend on the coming and going of any given job.
The church can be a place where people find healing. In the modern world, public institutions are becoming more and more specialized. Each organization—business, school, government, and so on—exists only to serve its particular function. If you have a problem that isn’t directly related to their function, they won’t help you. Where can people turn to find a place where the whole human being is cared for? In God’s plan, that’s primarily the home and the church. As public institutions become increasingly specialized, the home and the church will need to step up even more as centers of general caregiving. Since the home is not exactly in great shape right now, that's all the more need for churches to be places of care and healing for the distressed.
The church can be a place where people find wisdom and vision. Over and over in Scripture, we are admonished to pursue and treasure wisdom. Consider Proverbs, or Job’s discourse on wisdom, or the admonitions to growth and maturity in the epistles. When people come into the pastor’s office after losing their jobs, a few canned bullet points on theology of work are not enough. People want to know: Why is this happening? Is God at work in this mysterious and seemingly chaotic process of technological change? What am I supposed to do?
Pastors aren’t professional economists; no one expects them to be. But they can help people interpret the meaning of their lives and respond in morally right ways to complex and ambiguous challenges. A broad vision of what God is doing in the world and a mature understanding of economic wisdom can go a long way in helping them discover how they are equipped to do work that creates value for others, and how they can recover from job loss and find new opportunities for productive work.
The church can be a place of cultural entrepreneurship. Helping people one at a time is essential, but we can do more. According to Genesis 1 and Revelation 22, human beings are made to be social, cultural creatures. The gospel cannot transform every aspect of our lives if the church doesn’t have something to say, and something to do, in every domain of culture. We shouldn’t march out and try to take control of the levers of worldly power, but we can find opportunities to do things in our own God-given spheres of influence that manifest our faith.
Admittedly, big challenges like technological change can seem overwhelming, but there’s plenty that churches can be doing. Many churches are discovering ways they can encourage and support job-creating entrepreneurship in their communities, because the gospel leads them to do so. Existing church ministries that serve the poor can be reformed so they help people connect to work.
Education is another major opportunity for the church. People are ill-equipped to endure job loss in large part because of the catastrophic failure of our school system. We can come alongside public schools to help young people get ready for life, and we can also create accessible alternatives to the government monopoly system. Every child should be nurtured in the virtues of honesty, diligence, self-control, and generosity. As Os Guinness has put it, all people should strive to be “entrepreneurs of life.”
Of course, no one is suggesting that pastors are going to do all these things. The body has many members with diverse gifts, and the pastor is only one. But the people perish without a vision. Part of the pastor’s job is to cast a vision for how the diverse members of Christ’s body can come together to live as a body, in the way the head says the body is supposed to live. Casting a vision for how the whole church can engage in cultural entrepreneurship will, in the long run, mobilize the entire body to come alongside the pastor rather than leave every challenge on the pastor’s desk.
The church can be a place where the poor flourish. The gospel means reconciliation with the God who is love, so a gospel-transformed person views others as made in God’s image for flourishing in right relationship with God and others. This applies to our relations with everyone, but the acid test is whether we apply it to the poor.
Do you think that gospel love for the poor only means preaching the Word to them? That helping them bounce back from job loss and find a way to pursue their vocation in daily work is someone else’s problem? Hear the words of James and John:
If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:15-17)
But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:17-18)
By all means, our ministry to those in economic need must be grounded in the word. But as John so pointedly says, love is not love if it is only love “in word.” To love our neighbors in deed, the church must be a place where those who have lost their livings can find life, and find it abundantly.