Editors’ note: 

This article has been adapted and updated from “Reconnecting Work and Church” by Amy L. Sherman, which appeared in Comment Magazine: www.cardus.ca/comment. Copyright © 2011. Used by permission of the author and Comment.

A few years ago, I led a retreat for about 100 recent college graduates. I told them stories about some amazing people I’d discovered while researching my book, Kingdom Calling. Most of these amazing people were in their 60s or above. They didn’t wear hip clothes or listen to Bono. But the twenty-something Christians ate them up.

I told them about Perry Bigelow, a Christian real-estate developer. Perry has spent years studying what Scripture teaches about the values of the Kingdom of God so that he could create communities that offer foretastes of “the city whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). To that end, he has sought koinonia; beauty; safe, child-friendly communities; and creation care.

I told them about Cynthia Leibrock, an interior designer who’s become a leading national expert in the field of universal design. After designing a residential facility for the physically disabled many years ago, Cynthia’s passion for her work reached new heights. For the past couple of decades, she’s been expressing her Christian faith through her vocation by creating spaces that enable maximum mobility and accessibility for the elderly and disabled.

I told them about Tom Hill, former CEO of Kimray, which manufactures valves and controls for the oil and gas industry. Given the volatile nature of his industry, Tom has pursued the “Joseph strategy” of saving up during boom years in order to have reserves on hand for the bust years. During one recession, Kimray’s orders dried up and he lacked work for some 90 employees. Instead of laying them off, Tom designed a partnership with his mayor to lend his people out. His talented workers took on jobs at public utilities, nonprofits, and other local companies—and Tom paid their salaries for 18 months—until Kimray’s orders returned to normal levels.

Five Million Young Adult Sheep

It was great fun watching how well these anecdotes landed with my audience. There they were—the generation often described as jaded, ironic, and blasé—downright enthusiastic and eager to hear more.

Their reaction reveals a hunger that David Kinnaman, President of the Barna Research Group, highlights in You Lost Me. He focuses on 18-21 year olds who have “dropped out” from their faith—by his estimate, some 5 million individuals in the U.S. Most have not completely abandoned the faith but “are putting their involvement in church on hold.” And one of the most important reasons why, he found, was that they couldn’t connect Sunday to Monday.” A recurring theme in his research with dropouts

“is the idea that [the Christianity they’ve been taught] does not have much, if anything, to say about their chosen profession or field … It is a modern tragedy. Despite years of church-based experiences and countless hours of Bible-centered teaching, millions of next generation Christians have no idea that their faith connects to their life’s work.”

Often these wanderers return to the fold once they marry and have kids. So we need not sensationalize the problem. But it’s also inappropriate to do nothing but sit back and wait until these 5 million sheep come home.

Kinnaman wants church leaders to engage these young adults in meaningful dialogue about how their callings and gifts can be deployed in the mission of God in the world. Such a renewed emphasis on what I call “vocational stewardship” could go far in wooing the dropouts back.

Work Matters and It Lasts

At its core, though, the dropout problem is a disciple-making problem. “The church is not adequately preparing the next generation to follow Christ faithfully in a rapidly changing culture,” Kinnaman suggests. Yet Tom Nelson’s book, Work Matters, can change that.

Nelson, a TGC Council Member and pastor of Christ Community Church in Leawood, Kansas, admits it has taken him years to preach and teach correctly on vocation. Work Matters starts, appropriately, in Genesis. Nelson spends considerable time on a basic theology of vocation that draws on both the cultural mandate and the implications of the Fall. Work itself is good. God is a worker, and made in his image, we enjoy the high calling of labor that enables us to be contributors to God’s society.

Idealism can come to a screeching halt, though, in the midst of the frustrations faced in the work-a-day world. Some Christians don’t just watch The Office; they live it 9-5. They face hostile co-workers, stressful schedules, backstabbing competitors, and mind-numbing monotony. Work is toilsome. But Nelson reminds us that this must not surprise us: “A perfect job or career is not only unrealistic, it is theologically untenable.”

The good news is that through Christ’s transforming power, our workplaces can be redeemed. God’s Spirit can change us so that we can proclaim and incarnate the gospel in our vocations. We can receive the Spirit’s help in navigating muddy ethical waters at work and his grace to extend to annoying customers. Moreover, our deepest Christian hopes—the full consummation of Christ’s kingdom and the new heavens coming down to earth—can fill us with wonder and zeal over the connections between our labors today and our lives in the age to come. A Biblically accurate view of our future reward, Nelson writes, shows us that we will have “joyful intimacy with God” and we will “be given greater work to do in the future. In many ways we are training now for reigning later with Jesus.” Our work matters, Nelson insists, and it lasts.

Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good

When discipleship unfolds in ways that inculcate a robust understanding of the doctrine of vocation, our faith can help us recognize and celebrate the deep meaning and purpose inherent in our work. That is certainly what I found in interviewing dozens of Christians who are practicing vocational stewardship. Nelson’s book also testifies to this reality.

King Jesus is on his mission, bringing this sort of transformation as he advances his kingdom. We get to be vital coworkers in that mission as we steward the vocational gifts and talents he has endowed us with in ways that advance foretastes of shalom.

This offers believers a deeply moving vision of vocational stewardship for the common good, which Nelson defines as “all various aspects of contemporary life that contribute positively to human flourishing both as individuals and communities.” It is an inspiring enough understanding of Christian discipleship to attract those roaming dropouts that Kinnaman describes—and the even more numerous older believers sitting in their office cubicles and wondering what the purpose of their work is.