Are You Wasting Your Life in a Retail Job?

When was the last time you saw a late night commercial touting the benefits of a rewarding career in retail? “You too can work with rude customers in exchange for poor pay and limited opportunities for advancement!” Not recently? Me neither.

While retail is America's most common profession, it is also one of the most disliked. Customers can be a joy – or treat you like a slave. Flexible hours give you the freedom to pursue education but also mean working when friends and family are not.

Yet perhaps the most difficult aspect of working in retail is the nagging suspicion that you are wasting your life. If you listen in to conversations in the stock room, in between the gossiping about customers and bosses, you would hear that most workers are plotting a way out of retail and on to something else. Many of their hopes for the future are founded on doing something better after their stint in retail.

As a retail worker myself, I have no objections to working in retail for a while and then moving on. I actually think this is healthy for most people, and – in all honestly – I’m trying to get out of retail, too. But in the meantime, how do we make sense of the time spent working in retail? Are these throw-away years mostly good for just paying the bills until something better comes along?

I would argue that working in retail for any amount of time does indeed have meaning beyond its modest utility.

We all work “unto” something. In generations past, we worked “unto” our company or our country, and the value of our work was determined by its contribution to the greater good. In today’s culture, most of us work “unto” ourselves, seeking self-expression and self-actualization. In this view, work has meaning when it allows us to use our gifts and education to become our best selves. In the Christian sub-culture, we work “unto” the kingdom of God, and our jobs are valuable inasmuch as they bring about God’s will in the office and in our cities as it is in heaven.

While our work ideally contributes to society, allows us to use our gifts, and bears some resemblance to the Kingdom of God, the question is how? I propose the concepts of hiddenness and witness as useful for understanding a Christian vision of a field like retail (and any other field where it is difficult to see the value of your work).

When I was in college, I wanted to “impact the culture” and “light the world on fire” with my faith. Yet Christ reminds us again and again that the work of the kingdom is slow and often hardly perceptible. Lives of true righteousness lie hidden in a closet, just as saplings start as seeds, and roots take hold underground and away from watchful eyes.  Indeed, Paul’s words against slavery took hundreds of years to cause noticeable change to that industry. But change did come, after thousands of small acts of faithfulness and generosity.

So how do you spot a distinctly Christian cashier or stock clerk? In truth, it probably won’t be easy. But if you look closely, you might see someone who genuinely listens to customers and co-workers, and who gives respect to managers even when they are not around. If you could read their thoughts, you might see someone who longs to show grace to difficult customers, rather than judgement. If you could overhear their prayers, you might hear them praying for overbearing executives rather than cursing them. You might see a faithful contentment that neither despairs in the lack of a fulfilling career nor denies the possibility of meaning and joy at work.

In these and other small and slow ways, we can bear witness to the presence and coming of God’s kingdom, even in the mundane shuffle of boxes and receipts.