In the past several years, interest in faith and work ministry has flourished. Conferences are springing up across America, new books are multiplying, and fervent online articles declaring “all work matters to God” checker cyberspace. Yet we still lack church-based small groups that help laity integrate their faith and work—the very habitual behaviors necessary to prevent this revival from quickly becoming yet another evangelical fad. Much of the heat produced by conferences and books runs the risk of being wasted if churches don’t discover a way to form congregational habits that support teaching on vocation in the context of ongoing discipleship.
Vocational groups are just such a habit. British missionary and theologian Lesslie Newbigin wrote in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society,
The congregation has to be a place where its members are trained, supported, and nourished in the exercise of their parts of the priestly ministry in the world. . . . There is need for “frontier-groups,” groups of Christians working the same sectors of public life, meeting to thrash out the controversial issues of their business or profession in the light of their faith.
Newbigin understood that in order to bridge the gaping public/private divide, we can’t rely on one-time conferences alone, nor can we afford to hand off faith and work ministry to parachurch organizations, often divorced from the local congregation. Equipping laity to unite their Christian commitments to their daily working lives needs to be a foundational purpose of the church. We need “frontier groups”—Christians gathering with others in their field to seek illumination from the gospel for their secular work.
Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business gives insight into why such groups are essential. In the book Duhigg unfolds “the habit loop”—a rhythm of cue, routine, and reward that can be reshaped to overcome nasty habits or form new ones. As it turns out, small groups are the key to making new habits last. “There’s something really powerful in groups and shared experiences,” says Lee Ann Kaskutas, a researcher on the effectiveness of one of the world’s most powerful small group movements, Alcoholics Anonymous. “People might be skeptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. A community creates belief.”
Vocational groups can be just such communities of belief. Not only do their regular rhythms form habits, but they can also start to convince laity in otherwise daunting work situations that change is indeed possible.
Forming Vocation Groups in Your Church
Here is some counsel for pastors interested in forming vocational groups.
1. Visit church members at their work.
When you consider forming vocation groups, the best place to start is by listening. Visit five to ten people at work, see their craft, and hear of their triumphs and challenges over lunch. Not only will this communicate that you value their work, it will also convince laity you’re serious about helping them integrate faith and work. I recently visited one of Denver’s most successful businessmen at his office. Over coffee he lamented, “I’ve been on the board of my church for more than 30 years, and my pastor has never come to my office.” Don’t let this happen to you. Vocation groups begin with a well-informed pastor who understands the real difficulties of where his congregation spends the majority of their waking hours.
2. After a sermon series or class on faith and work, organize vocation groups.
Following intentional teaching on the subject, or even a conference, make the effort to organize vocational groups. Here are some tips:
- Find a group leader. Pray for God to raise up a contractor, lawyer, health care worker, or another lay leader to lead the group. Vocation groups need to be led by laity themselves. They are best suited and positioned to influence others at work. As Jesus commanded his disciples to find a “person of peace” (Luke 10:5), you first need to find the right leader who God will use to bring the gospel to their work and field.
- Make the groups vocation-specific. Some vocation groups include people from a variety of careers. Occasionally this cross-pollination can be good. (One example is The Forge, a diverse group in Denver that gathers monthly to visit Christian leaders in their work environment and then discuss the experience over dinner.) However, most vocation groups are specific to one line of work. Teachers speak the same language as other teachers and apply the gospel in a more specific way when gathered together. The Center for Faith and Work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City is a great model for career-specific vocation groups.
- If you attend, commit to listening, not leading. The role of pastors in these groups is not to lead but to ask questions and shepherd the group leader outside the gathering. Share your insight but be “quick to listen and slow to speak” as James counsels. Lay leaders might just surprise you with their wisdom.
- Encourage groups to meet at work, not at church or home. Location is key. Make it a conference room, a local pub for lunch, or an art studio. Locating the groups at work will tell the group, “Yes, the gospel belongs here, too.”
- Seek partnerships with other churches or organizations. Most churches are too small to have a group for engineers and another for entrepreneurs. Use this opportunity to partner with other churches or local nonprofits to find other Christians working in the same field.
- Center the group’s structure around the gospel. Though group structures vary, key elements typically include learning, food, discussion, prayer, and a commitment to action. Yet whatever issues are raised, make sure to continually come back to the Christian story and key doctrines. Without this commitment, discussions tend to devolve into mere ethics (how to be nicer at work), and possibly only a networking event.
3. Commit to resourcing your vocation groups.
Small groups have a way of petering out. The workbook or DVD series ends, and everybody goes back to their lives. But in order to make vocation groups a real, lasting habit, you will have to resource them. Meet with group leaders. Give them books. Share articles. Sponsor their conference registration fee. Pray for them. Connect them to a mutual friend in their field. Help them pull off a new idea. If possible, hire a part-time staff person to oversee this equipping and organizing.
But whatever you do, don’t abandon them. The role of pastoral ministry is “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may built up” (Eph 4:12). Equipping your congregation for works of service through their vocation is a non-negotiable part of pastoral ministry. Speak to your elder board or executive pastor and ask for the time and resources to infuse new life into your vocational group leaders. The long-term health of vocational groups will require time and money—but ultimately it’s a matter of discipleship and mission.
The early church created liturgies—weekly habits of word and ritual—to shape the hearts and minds of parishioners. Today, we need, as author James K. A. Smith has argued, “cultural liturgies” that will shape the imaginations of Christians in their cultural work. Vocation groups can serve as these cultural liturgies by gathering Christians in their fields who will bring the gospel to every corner of creation.