Few things have contributed to the devaluing or misunderstanding of the work of the home like the Industrial Revolution. While we might not see how it has affected us directly, we live with its effects every day.
Before the Industrial Revolution, the bulk of work happened in the home. Men and women weren’t sharply divided in their work, and the home was a necessary component to the flourishing of society.
As work moved out of the home, however, things got a little muddy. Plus, with the rise of time-saving home devices and opportunities—like washers and dryers, vacuums, and buying groceries at a store (rather than growing produce, slaughtering your meat for dinner, and making all your own soap and bread)—the home was no longer a place of production. With an abundance of discretionary time, it became a place to display nice things, show you’d arrived, and consume all you’d bought. This shift led to an identity crisis in at-home work, leading many to wonder if at-home work mattered at all.
In their book The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home, Carolyn McCulley and Nora Shank document this shift in detail, showing that the Industrial Revolution led to a complete revamping of how we understand work, home, and where women fit in both places. If we don’t understand the history of this shift from productivity to consumption, they argue, then we will miss the biblical notion of work (and women) altogether.
Some think we should solve this problem by returning to the productivity of years gone by. If we simply recover productivity in the home, the reasoning goes, we can show the world how vital this work is. If we simply produce more, the home regains its purpose.
But I believe this is the wrong route to take. A throwback to pre-industrial America is no more our answer than endless amounts of consumption.
Productivity Is Not the Standard
If we make productivity our standard, then we have simply traded one idol for another. Sure, we might reject the idea that the home is a place for endless leisure and showing off nice stuff, but productivity never saved anyone. In a pre-Industrial America, productivity was the only option for most people (much like elsewhere in the world today). It was a means of survival. So if we embrace productivity simply as a means of rejecting consumption, we have missed the point.
Instead, we must look to Scripture and understand that God doesn’t measure our value by our productivity. He looks at our heart (1 Sam. 16:7). Productivity in the home is about faithfulness, not meeting a quota. More importantly, it is about working hard as divine image-bearers (Gen. 1:26–28; Col. 3:23). We should want to work hard and be productive because God created us to work and because work brings him glory. He, not our output, is our standard.
Don’t Miss the People
Overemphasizing either productivity or consumption misses the point of our work as a whole. You can be so productive that you miss the fact that tasks are for people. You can also be so focused on leisure and consumption that you miss the opportunity to work hard to love your neighbor. God gave us work as a means of serving the world he made. Our neighbors—both family members and those outside our homes—are part of this world, and we glorify him and love them when we work hard wherever he has us.
We don’t need to recover the productivity of the home for the sake of a completed to-do list. We need to recover the productivity and contribution of the home for the good of the world and the people our work serves.
Productivity versus consumption in the home will look different based on different capacities and different life seasons, just like other forms of work. But one way of thinking about making the home a place of productivity is to view it as an arena for neighbor love. Home is for the people you serve. Consumption, on the other hand, makes the home about me, not those the home is meant to serve.
Our Productive Savior
Apart from Christ, we are tempted to make an idol of both productivity and consumption. Christ, though, calls us to be productive on behalf of others with whom we can enjoy his gifts. After all, he viewed his work as important (John 5:17), but his work was for the good of others—his people.
In the final days before his death, he was working to accomplish salvation for us, and the work served those for whom he came to die (Matt. 21:1–4). Even now, he is preparing a place for us—a home—where we will not only work, but also feast (John 14:2–3; Rev. 19:6–9). Everything Jesus does in his work for his people is producing something for us and in us. We are the beneficiaries of his productivity—and this is how and why we can be productive as well. We produce in order to bless those who consume, because we have been given so much in the One who does it all perfectly.