One of my continual shortcomings as the executive director of Denver Institute for Faith & Work is that I’ve rarely framed our mission so we’re clearly understood – especially by pastors.
More than once, my initial enthusiasm for all things “faith and work” is seen by good, godly pastoral leaders as a niche-y ministry that will likely soon, like chaff, be blown away by the winds of evangelical enthusiasm.
Here’s what I mean: Almost inevitably, the first time I meet with a pastor over coffee and start a conversation about Christianity and work, I can sense two questions behind an ever-gentle, shepherding smile: (1) What is this guy saying? and (2) Of all the ministries that need my attention, why should I focus my attention here?
“Are you with some kind of career ministry? Do you help people discover their talents to serve in a ministry of their own? Do you meet with business men – and help give them a sense of meaning?” I’ve heard all of these. And they’re all fair questions. Especially since pastors are so often pulled from one parachurch interest to another – all of which are “central” to the church, or so their elders or local nonprofit leaders assure them.
But I’ve found that we need to refocus conversations about Christianity and work on a new starting point; one that immediately resonates with the core mission of Jesus’ church and the pastors who are her shepherds, overseers, and leaders.
After years of conversational dead ends, fits and starts, and fumbling introductions, when meeting with pastors I’ve decided not to start the faith and work conversation with:
(1) The sacred/secular divide.
Yes, since the Enlightenment it’s true that fact and value, public life and private life, science and religion have been separated into different spheres. Folks like Schaeffer, Pearcey, and Colson have made this abundantly clear. And yes, so many business leaders feel like their work is less valuable than “ministry” work – and wonder what role supply chains, value creation, or marketing plans play in the Kingdom. BUT, I’ve found that when I lead with the sacred/secular divide, the conversation tends to denigrate either pastors or business people.
An older generation tended to see the holiest kind of work as a pastor or missionary, to the deprecation of the “mere” business person. But today, we’ve over corrected, and in stressing that “all work can be a ministry” those in the faith and work movement tend to down play becoming a pastor, and have often crowned the work of the entrepreneur as the holiest of work. Entrepreneurs are expected to alleviate global poverty, fuel a lagging economy, and create new businesses that can impact dozens, hundreds – even thousands – of lives.
Let it be known: I love both pastors and entrepreneurs. Both are beautiful callings, and both have their particular pitfalls and challenges. But when I sit down with pastors, the last thing I want to do is downplay the call to become an overseer of God’s people, which is clearly biblical and clearly good (1 Tim. 3:1, 1 Peter 5:2). The pendulum has swung too far to one side of this debate – which means this is not usually the best way to start the conversation with pastors.
(2) Calling or vocation.
This is a much better starting point. Protestants have a category for calling. To most, it sounds like bringing a deeper sense of meaning to one’s work. However, to many others I’ve found it sounds like, (1) I’m trying to help people find their ideal jobs (Actually, this has happened so many times I thought about starting a professional recruitment firm on the side.) Or (2) I’d like to give people gift inventories that helps them either find a good place to volunteer at the church, or…find their ideal jobs.
For years I’ve tried to save language of calling and vocation from the “vocation=my ideal job = my ideal me” equation, and follow sages like Steve Garber who winsomely argue for calling to be an entire life lived in response to the voice of God. But alas, starting here has gotten me into many a murky water – waters best left to explore after we’ve set out on a common journey together.
(3) Theology of work.
Whether I’m speaking to pastors, business leaders, nurses, teachers, or cashiers, this phrase almost immediately sounds narrow or niche-y – like I joined the wrong Google+ group of academics.
The problem here is not the phrase. After all, I lead an organization with the term “faith and work” in the title. This phrase can be saved with ample conversation about the theme of work in the Bible and the obvious reality of our lives, which is consumed almost entirely by sleep, family, and work.
But I’m convinced that we need a much larger story that leads to theology for work, calling, and culture – but doesn’t necessarily start there.
I always say, if my aunt can’t understand what my job is, I have a serious branding issue.
(4) “Transforming the culture.”
For many of us, James Davison Hunter has permanently buried this phrase. But I’d still say that for most Christian institutions doing this kind of work – whether they be higher ed., para church, or church – talk of transforming the culture or changing the world is still commonplace. (After all, we have money to raise.)
The problem? It’s triumphalistic. As I look at the broad sweep of Western culture today, I’m not sure that broad cultural transformation should be a goal. I’ve become skeptical even of terms like “cultural renewal.” Yes, we can certainly renew aspects of culture – the values of tech development teams, a mutual fund with an overtly theological mission, hiring formerly incarcerated men to become electricians – but transforming “the culture?” Like, the whole thing? Apart from Christ returning, I have no idea what that means.
(5) Political stances or platforms.
As we’re seeing with this election, it’s so easy for those of us who care deeply about what Christianity means for work, the economy, and our respective sub-cultures to get co-opted by the political ideologies of the day.
This is not to say we shouldn’t be political. No, I think man is inherently a political creature. We can’t help but organize ourselves into a polis and ask questions about a good society.
But far more often than not, the church and her attendant institutions, can get absorbed into the caustic right/left, conservative/liberal debates of our day, as happened to one respected systematic theologian this past week.
Today’s wisest leaders– like Tim Keller or John Piper – preach the wide, good and beautiful gospel, and allow men and women in their stations of life to make logical political conclusions from Christian doctrine. But they don’t get pulled in too deep into the dogfight lest their Christian witness and Kingdom distinctiveness become compromised.
So what, then, is a better starting point for the conversation about Christian faith and our work in the world? I’m sure many will disagree with me, but for what it’s worth, here’s where I stand: Jesus’ death and resurrection begins the redemption of all of creation.
Explaining why I believe that this simple phrase is the best starting point will take one more blog post…
Featured image is "City Building" by Thomas Hart Benton from www.metmuseum.org