The Story: A new study finds that most Christian workers in America know how their work serves God or a higher purpose. But too many still don’t have a fully biblical view of vocation.
The Background: Barna Group, a religion and social research firm, in partnership with Abilene Christian University, released a new study that sets out to provide a comprehensive look at how working Christians think and feel about their calling and career. Christians at Work is Barna’s first release in a multi-year initiative focused on studying vocation.
According to Barna, five years ago one-third of employed Christians (34 percent) had never even thought about whether they felt “called” to their work. Today, that has dropped to 15 percent.
Many Christians today feel their current employment is also well-matched with their sense of calling. Three-quarters are at least somewhat satisfied with this measure of their career (39 percent “very,” 36 percent “somewhat”). A majority of Christian workers say their unique strengths, talents and abilities are being utilized in their present job (42 percent “strongly” agree, 43 percent “somewhat” agree).
Six in 10 working Christian adults believe they’ve been given certain skills and talents to use for God’s glory (61 percent) or for the good of others (61 percent). However, only four in 10 (40 percent) agree strongly that they are aware of these gifts might be or how they should be applied, and only about one in three (34 percent) wants to know more about how they could serve God through these talents.
Practicing Christians (defined by Barna as those who strongly agree their faith is important to them and attend church at least monthly) are 36 percentage points more likely than their non-practicing peers (81 percent vs. 45 percent) to strongly affirm that they possess God-given gifts, and more than half (52 percent vs. 31 percent) are acutely aware of these gifts. Almost three-quarters (73 percent) of practicing Christians want to use their gifts and talents for the good of others.
The study also finds that most Christian workers don’t see a strict spiritual hierarchy of professions or a divide between “sacred” and “secular” jobs.
Asked whether it is better for a Christian to become a pastor or missionary, or to represent their faith well in their place of work, the majority of respondents (64 percent) said neither is better than the other. Only 12 percent thought it was better to be a pastor or missionary, and twice that many (25 percent) said it was better to represent faith at work.
The majority of Christian workers believe that there is potential for a variety of occupations to be categorized as “callings.” Nevertheless, as Barna notes, there is a “subtle perceived hierarchy in this regard, with ministry-related jobs at the top and more technical jobs at the bottom.”
More than a majority say that being a pastor (69 percent), missionary (67 percent), worship leader (59 percent), or parent (52 percent) is “usually a calling.” Slightly fewer than half believe that being a financial adviser (46 percent), accountant (45 percent), musician (45 percent), athlete (42 percent), military officer (42 percent), pediatrician (42 percent), firefighter (40 percent), or non-pastoral church staff (40 percent) is “sometimes a calling.” Only 3 percent said that being a school janitor is “usually a calling” while 32 percent said it is “sometimes a calling.”
Why It Matters: While it took about 500 years, the Reformation view of vocation is finally catching on.
A vocation is something we are called to by God. It is not something we choose for ourselves. It includes all the roles in which we are called to serve and minister to our neighbors.
While vocation is broader than just our occupation, our jobs are often a primary way we serve our neighbors. As TGC’s Theological Vision for Ministry states, “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.”
Over the past decade, organizations like TGC have helped to show people how to better integrate their faith and work. This new study by Barna confirms that we’re making progress. Unfortunately, it also shows we have much further to go.
My grandfather spent most of his adult life working as a school janitor. I suspect that during his lifetime he never heard another Christian tell him his job could be considered his calling. Even more dispiriting, he’d face the same situation today, as nearly three-fourths of Christians today would be hesitant to say that God called him to such work.
“Even janitors and accountants serve the common good,” says Cory Maxwell-Coghlan, a senior writer at Barna Group. “When we conflate God’s kingdom with the institutional church (i.e., only clergy or missionaries are engaging in full-time sacred work) we restrict the scope of God’s work and kingship.”
What does it say about the church when we dismiss the work of men and women who provide a safe and clean learning environment for our own children as unimportant? What does it say about us when we act as if we don’t believe God could call anyone to such worthy labor? What do such dismissive attitudes reveal about our beliefs, not only of calling and vocation but about God himself?