Blue Collar Work: Contemporary Literature ReviewAcademic Paper / Produced by partner of TOW
This project exists to develop materials and processes enabling the blue-collar and pink-collar1 worker to integrate more effectively personal Christian faith into the daily challenges of work. This requires not only a biblical theology of work as outlined in chapter 2, but likewise a definition for and understanding of the blue-collar worker, a knowledge of the historical development of the blue-collar labor sector, an awareness of both historical and current efforts toward integrating faith and work for the employed non-professional, and a working knowledge of the current best practices in facilitating marketplace ministry. This chapter will examine these topics, focusing on the themes and emphases of current related literature.
The Challenge of Defining the “Blue-Collar” Worker
Traditionally, three key variables define blue-collar work: physical labor, an hourly rate of pay, and limited educational requirements. Usually, blue-collar jobs stand in contrast to white-collar employment—jobs normally characterized by a focus on mental acumen, a salaried compensation structure, and specific requirements regarding higher levels of formal education. For their categories, The U.S. Department of Labor groups blue-collar and service occupations together, specifying blue-collar employment as work in “precision production, craft, and repair occupations; machine operators and inspectors; transportation and moving occupations; handlers, equipment cleaners, helpers, and laborers; and service occupations.”2 Within the relevant literature, the term “blue-collar” appears somewhat more loosely applied and even often used interchangeably with the label “working-class.” This study will focus on these kinds of jobs and workers.
Although entrepreneurial blue-collar workers exist, the majority function in the employ of others, often with limited workplace autonomy. Much of the current marketplace ministry material addresses the white-collar environment generally and executive-level jobs and entrepreneurial business owners specifically. Such individuals often have liberty to offer significant direction to their businesses in view of Kingdom priorities. The blue-collar worker, by contrast, generally punches a time card and accomplishes the tasks assigned to him or her by someone else. “Decision latitude”3 appears rare. This study will consider particularly the unique parameters of market-place ministry for the employee with limited workplace autonomy.
The use of pink-collar as a label for labor-intensive work typically done by women originated during World War II but ultimately gained popularity via Louise Kapp Howe’s 1977 book Pink Collar Workers: Inside the World of Women’s Work.4 Howe adopted the nomenclature in her argument for women’s equality within the workplace. More recently, the designation speaks without prejudice of any non-professional job predominantly held by women.5
An Historical Context for Current Realities
Historically, the distinction between blue- and white-collar workers finds its roots in the transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy and, more significantly, in the corresponding implementation of mass production techniques. The work of Frederick Taylor helped both create and define this line of demarcation between the two labor categories. In the early twentieth century, Taylor conducted time-motion studies of factory workers to determine “exactly what they did, how they did it, and how they could do it faster.”6 Eventually, through Taylor’s analysis, workers’ jobs were broken down into simple and separate tasks, and they received only one or two tasks to do, over and over again. The division of labor began.
Specialized but monotonous work assignments resulted from Taylor’s analysis, all eventually as part of a larger mass-production process. Managers were expected to think and workers were expected to labor. Indeed, Taylor designed the assigned tasks to require as little thought as possible, famously telling a congressional committee in 1912 that “the science of handling pig-iron is so great that the man who is ... physically able to handle pig-iron and is sufficiently phlegmatic and stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron.”7 Clearly, brawn trumped brains for the tasks Taylor identified. In such a context, the utilitarian nature of employment evoked the label “factory hands,”8 as if no other part of the employee mattered and laborers were as interchangeable as wrenches and lunch pails.
The labor-intensive nature of such work meant employees wore more industrial- friendly attire—durable canvas or cotton clothing in darker colors that would hide dirt and grime and hold up better to wear and tear. White-collar workers, typically working in office environments with no call for physical on-the-job exertion or reason to think they might get their hands dirty or clothing soiled during working hours, dressed in white or in lighter and more colorful garb. While never a hard and fast rule, the dissimilarity in workplace apparel both led to the terminology and solidified in the American psyche the division between those who work with their minds and those who work with their hands.
In reality, distinctions in the current blue-collar environment have blurred. Many stereotypical presumptions regarding blue-collar employment match current realities. For example, in spite of computerization and automation, blue-collar work often still involves significant manual labor. As was true a century ago, workers continue to cluster toward the lower socioeconomic classes. In spite of waning union influence nationally, many blue-collar workers still proudly carry membership cards and value their union connections highly.
Not everything remains unchanged, however. Today, work regularly consists of something other than simple and repetitive assembly-line tasks. “Now,” reports David Francis, “manufacturing jobs require—at the very least—familiarity with technology, advanced math, and computer skills.”9 New materials and processes demand specialized and advanced training, although not necessarily in the form of a college degree. “The new economy,” explains David Kusnet, “is creating a new kind of skilled worker, with expertise in emerging technologies and vast opportunities for advancement but usually without a degree from a four-year college”10 Ralph Whitehead describes these laborers as “new collar workers,”11 while Tom Janowski labels them “semi-engineers.”12 These technically challenging job opportunities continue to expand. For blue-collar workers, employment looks appreciably different heading into the twenty-first century.
Even as opportunities expand on some fronts, however, they diminish on others. In recent years, American companies have outsourced significant numbers of well-paying manufacturing jobs, disproportionately ballooning the percentage of low-paying, service industry-related jobs within the blue-collar sector. More easily than in white-collar professions, blue-collar employers sometimes circumvent regulations designed to protect and benefit full-time workers by hiring help through “temp” agencies or outsourcing entire categories of workers. A new employer may offer displaced employees their same jobs back but as new employees with no or limited job protection. “After working here for fifteen years,” said one displaced worker, “I would have had to start out as a ‘new employee’”13 For those able to secure necessary training and acquire the required skills, opportunities exist within the blue-collar job sector. For those with more limited resources, a difficult job market looms.
The Blue-Collar Worker: Three Qualities, Three Concerns
Contemporary literature reveals three unique cultural qualities consistent among blue- collar workers and three commonly-held and abiding concerns. This section will highlight each of these characteristics in an effort to paint a picture of key elements within the blue- collar worker’s world. Unique cultural qualities include direct communication, close-knit loyalties, and hands-on practicality. Concerns include job security, financial stability, and questions of personal identity.
Qualities of the Blue-Collar Culture
Direct Communication—“Say What You Mean”
Blue-collar people speak directly and candidly, significantly more so than other social classes. They tend to say what they think without much subtlety or nuance, avoiding “self- censorship [and] hidden agendas.”14 Like many other blue-collar qualities, this inclination toward direct speech shows up most clearly in its contrast to patterns of communication within white-collar circles.
While president of Haverford College, John Coleman invested a two-month sabbatical in working a series of entry-level jobs incognito. He interrupted his work as a ditch digger in Atlanta by returning to Philadelphia to conduct a meeting in his role as chairman of the Board of Directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. No one at that meeting knew he had spent the past two weeks digging ditches in Atlanta.
The meeting itself centered on a weighty report from examiners with the Federal Reserve System in Washington, D.C. Coleman’s lasting impression of the meeting involved the difference in conversation between the working-class ditch diggers in Atlanta and the white-collar accountants from Washington:
I was struck by how little we communicated to one another in simple, unambiguous ways. Whatever I learned beyond a few surface impressions was more often in well- guarded response to my questions than as a result of the examiners’ independent offerings. … When they had something critical to say, they did so in such a circuitous way that I probably missed much of it, and I replied in kind. Whatever happened, I learned that ditch English has a power to communicate that bank English lacks.15
Tex Sample, from the other end of a white-collar, blue-collar exchange, arrived at a similar conclusion. His articulate and wide-ranging response when questioned about the veracity of the Virgin Birth was summarily dismissed by the working-class laborer who had asked the question:
For him, thinking and knowing seemed to have too much of an indecisive quality about them, an entertainment of options that avoided conviction. He was thoroughly suspicious of the balancing act of college-trained people who could go on and on about their opinions, but who then got lost in their fancy talk and delayed, when not avoided, commitments and action.16
Blue-collar people have little use for lengthy discourse, valuing direct communication and tangible action.
As a result, verbal fluency within the working class is somewhat rare and often even discouraged. According to Charles Sackrey, the number of words spoken in a white-collar household in a day is, on average, three times greater than the number spoken in a blue-collar home—most of the difference attributable to a lack of interaction between parents and kids.17 Education-related studies reveal how early these differences begin to impact the communicative patterns of children of working-class parents. In a study of lexical naming strategies involving children as young as two years old, research revealed that “middle class parents focused on including more descriptive information about objects when discussing them with children, while the working-class parents were more concerned with naming the objects.”18 The study’s author, Jennifer Bloomquist, explains: “In shaping their children’s language development, the working-class parents put more emphasis on providing the right answer rather than on the development of expression [while] the middle-class parents encouraged their children to experiment linguistically through description and elaboration.”19 Working-class parents and children alike were more likely than their middle-class counterparts to clarify with the researcher whether or not more descriptive labels were even allowed, wanting better lucidity regarding expectations. Middle-class participants took that expressive liberty for granted.20
The practice of direct communication sometimes puts blue-collar workers at a disadvantage interacting across social classes. Dan Croteau, raised in a working-class family, describes his employment challenge: “In working-class life, people tell you things directly, they’re not subtle. At [Northfield Mount Hermon Prep School], I didn’t get how they did things.”21 Analyzing interaction within a yacht club consisting of both blue-collar and white- collar members, Alfred Aversa, Jr., notes how the structure of formal meetings left the blue- collar members disadvantaged:
Their unfamiliarity with parliamentary procedure and public speaking … make it difficult for them to be effective participants. Faced with the necessity of having to propose motions and debate them in an orderly fashion, few of them are willing to risk humiliating themselves by revealing their ignorance of the procedure and the idiom of polite debate.22
Raised in an atmosphere of clear expectations and more direct communication, blue-collar workers often struggle in environments marked by understated speech and subtle conversational clues.
Close-knit Loyalties—“Stick with Your Kind”
Within the blue-collar environment, loyalty runs deep—particularly toward entities that are geographically and ideologically close. Loyalty to family stands as the most obvious priority in such environments. “You don’t break up the family;” writes author Alfred
Lubrano, “you orbit close to your kind.”23 Whereas the middle-class family encourages and celebrates the individual achievements of its members, in the working-class world such accomplishments have a place only when family relationships remain intact and unscathed. In Lubrano’s book, Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams, the reader gets a taste of the strength of those loyal bonds when Lubrano—raised in a working-class home— participates in a strike as an adult, white-collar professional. Although he expresses confusion over the reasons for the strike and any justification for his place in it, he concludes, “But I never scabbed.”24
This loyalty stretches even to relationships perhaps more perceived than real. An analysis of working-class support for George W. Bush in the 2004 U.S. presidential election shows that, while Bush and his opponent, John Kerry, had both amassed significant wealth, working-class voters perceived George W. Bush’s attitudes about wealth to match their own more consistently—attitudes that had nothing to do with positions on policy issues or even traditional values, but rather to do with coming by wealth honestly and remaining a down-to- earth person in spite of wealth. Although many argue that logic suggests a different candidate would have better served their interests, this study reveals that working-class voters made a loyal choice for George W. Bush rooted in their conviction that “morals are more important than money.”25 Note that this decision grew from their perception of the differences between two multi-millionaire candidates, both much more like each other than like any working- class citizen anywhere.
Like direct patterns of communication, strong local loyalties often negatively impact the upward mobility of working-class citizens. A 2012 study, for example, highlights a mismatch between the middle-class cultural norms of a typical college environment and the cultural norms usually present in working-class students. Middle-class norms produce an “independent model of self [that] assumes that the normatively appropriate person should influence the context, be separate or distinct from other people, and act freely based on personal motives, goals, and preferences.”26 Working-class norms reflect the opposite—an “interdependent model of self [that] assumes that the normatively appropriate person should adjust to the conditions of the context, be connected to others, and respond to the needs, preferences, and interests of others.”27 The study’s first concern lies with mediating the negative influences of such cultural mismatches, but here reinforces the assertions made that “working-class realities often promote socialization practices that encourage children to recognize their place in the social hierarchy, to follow the rules and social norms, and to be responsive to others’ needs”28—in short, to exhibit a loyal conformity to localized relationships.29
Hands-on Practicality—“If It Works, It Isn’t Stupid”
Blue-collar workers have little time for abstract theory. “The blue-collar world is built on tangibles, not symbols, as the middle-class world is.”30 The thought of sitting in an office all day, attending meetings, and shuffling papers holds no appeal. As a twenty-six-year-old concrete laborer puts it, “I just appreciate that God gave me a body and I don’t think it was meant to sit on a chair.”31 Moreover, blue-collar workers see the results of their labor as something tangible and enduring. “Like if you were to write a paper or something, it’s great,” says a thirty-year-old masonry laborer, “and it may last hundreds of years or not, but concrete walls, unless somebody knocks it down or bulldozes it, it’s usually going to be there.”32 This attitude of intense practicality permeates the blue-collar world, impacting choices in transportation, attire,33 recreation, homes and even spouses.
This propensity for valuing hands-on practicality sometimes results in workplace tension when blue-collar employees must implement less-than-perfect white-collar plans. Workers “often feel resentment toward ignorant managers who give orders without knowledge of what the job entails.”34 A sense of contempt may result. More positively, blue- collar workers recognize, regardless of organizational hierarchy, they, in fact, hold the power to see a job gets done right. “White-collar management has theoretical authority, but the worker decides how a job will be done, through both his knowledge and discretion.”35 Blue- collar workers take pride in their capacities and often even adopt a personal sense of superiority for being able to accomplish an assigned task regardless of management’s failure to grasp what the job requires.
Three unique qualities, then, shape blue-collar culture. Particularly in comparison to other social groups, blue-collar workers (1) practice direct communication, (2) value close- knit loyalties, and (3) appreciate hands-on practicality. These characteristics merit attention when developing any curriculum or other tools for helping link faith to work.
An equal number of concerns persistently arise in the lives of working-class people: job security, financial stability, and issues of personal identity. The paragraphs that follow will examine these challenges and explore the unique influence they bear within the blue- collar environment.
Concerns of the Blue-Collar Worker
In recent decades, perhaps no segment of the job market in the United States has experienced more job loss than the manufacturing sector. Timothy Egan reports this mainstay source of blue-collar employment within the American economy “has shed six million manufacturing jobs over the last three decades.”36 Janny Scott and David Leonhardt concur, describing how “globalization and technological change have shuttered factories, killing jobs
that were once stepping-stones to the middle class.”37 Even where new jobs are being created, they do not match the quality of lost jobs. A recent report by the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment notes that employment losses from the recession that began in 2008 were “concentrated in mid-wage occupations with median hourly wages between $13.84 and $21.13.”38 Recovery growth, however, has been concentrated in “lower- wage occupations—jobs paying a median hourly [income] between $7.69 and $13.83.”39 These jobs accounted for only 21 percent of jobs lost during the recession but now account for 58 percent of recovery growth. Such statistics prompt concerns over job security, then, not only with regard to a worker being able to keep an existing job, but also with regard to the elimination of better-paying jobs and the lower-wage jobs replacing them.
Concern over job security impacts the mental health of the blue-collar worker more severely than with other job types. A recent study by Leigh Ann Simmons and Jennifer E. Swanberg revealed that while job-related factors negatively impacted the mental health of every worker, with regard to the working poor in particular, “job insecurity was the single significant correlate of depressive symptoms after controlling for other demographic and work environment variables.”40 Even in situations where other correlates contributing to mental health issues were mediated, a sense of job insecurity continued to promote depressive symptoms.
Changes within the work environment itself magnify employment concerns. Kusnet describes two “social contracts” deteriorating within the American workplace for the blue- collar worker. The first, he says, “involves things that can easily be measured and grasped: a job that lasts a lifetime, regular raises every year, health insurance for your family, and a pension waiting for you when you retire. [In short,] … security in return for loyalty.”41 The second involves an unexpressed understanding that “if you poured your energy and intelligence into your work, then your employer had better show you some gratitude and allow you some discretion to do your job the best way you knew how”42—something Kusnet describes as “trading commitment for respect.”43 The blue-collar worker sees both of these unwritten agreements disappearing. Indeed, Kusnet describes how employees wonder whether their commitment to their job is misplaced altogether. He describes “an increasing conflict between workers’ commitment to their occupations and employers and their sense that their employers do not share their dedication.”44 Rank and file workers fear they often carry more commitment to the success of their employer’s business than the level of commitment they see evidenced in the business owners and members of management themselves. Specifically, they see priorities that would facilitate business longevity sacrificed by business leaders for short-term financial gains. As a result, concerns over job security continue to fester.
Of course, concerns over job security only intensify concerns regarding money. While some highly skilled workers earn significant income, many low and unskilled workers survive on little more than subsistence wages. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics wage estimates from May of 2013, workers such as janitors, grounds maintenance workers, and auto mechanics, earned median hourly wages ranging from $10.86 per hour to $19.17 per hour. This compares with wages for occupations such as claims adjusters, database and systems managers, and marketing and sales managers where wages ranged from $29.43 per hour to $54.61 per hour.45 Even across social classes, people understand this concern impacts blue-collar workers more significantly. “For middle or upper class women with high levels of education,” for example, “work is generally considered a career aspiration, a choice based on self-fulfillment motives.”46 The presumed motive for lower class women with less than a college degree remains financial survival.
Understandably, hourly employees like these not only struggle to survive, but often resent the wages sometimes paid corporate CEOs. “In 1974,” writes Darren Wood, “the ratio of a corporate CEO to the pay of their average worker was 34 to 1; today it is 531 to 1.”47 Such inequity only multiplies blue-collar frustrations regarding money.
Working class attitudes about money factor in, as well. Ruby Payne writes about the “hidden rules”48 that shape how various economic classes view money. Where a member of the middle class typically views money as a resource to manage, and a member of the upper class views it as something to conserve and invest, members of the working class—especially those surviving on subsistence wages—view money as a resource to use. The difference is subtle but significant. For the working poor especially, they often see the intentional management of financial resources as fruitless because of the incessant demands made on such a limited supply. A child of working-class parents, Angela Witiker notes how, unlike those she eventually came to know in middle-class circles, “she had never had enough money or [any] reason to save”49 and consistently ignored things like late fees and interest rates “because she couldn’t pay the bills anyway.”50
Additionally, in many working class environments, the community almost views money as communal property with a concurrent expectation that anyone among them with unspent cash or an unexpected windfall should share his or her good fortune with everyone. Payne illustrates this propensity with the fictional scenario of a working class woman who receives a Christmas bonus. When she testifies to her blessing at church, she’s approached by three different people: “one asks for $50 to have the electricity turned on; one asks for $100 to feed her brother’s family, one asks for $60 to replace a pair of broken glasses.”51 While a firm “No, I have other plans for this money” may, for a member of the middle class, seem the
obvious response to such requests, the culture of the working poor pressures its members toward a different conclusion. Such circumstances by no means serve as characteristic of every blue-collar worker, but many in low-paying jobs do consistently struggle to stay afloat financially in a cultural context that views money differently than its middle- or upper-class counterparts.
Personal identity stands as a third concern of blue-collar workers. This challenge appears fueled by two competing realities: first, the negative experience of life as a sometimes-demeaning battle of survival, and second, the positive experience of satisfaction found in blue-collar work generally and in the completion of work well done, particularly.
Job insecurities and financial constraints certainly feed the collective sense of life as a battle. Particularly in contrast to white-collar, career-minded workers, blue-collar people tend to view life less as an opportunity to achieve and more as a struggle to survive. Leslie Rubin captures the sentiment, summarizing the childhood memories of working-class adults she interviewed:
They recall parents who worked hard, yet never quite made it; homes that were overcrowded; siblings or selves who got into “trouble”; a preoccupation with the daily struggle for survival that precluded planning for a future. Whether they recall angry, discontented, drunken parents, or quiet, steady, “always-there” parents, the dominant theme is struggle and trouble. These realities not only reflect the past, but dominate the present.52
Lubrano, noting that blue-collar workers often view life’s challenges as key to personal development, describes struggle as “central to blue-collar life and the chief architect of character.”53 Working-class occupants intuitively perceive their disadvantages: “We blue collars grew up understanding at an early age that it’s who you know. … And we didn’t know anybody.”54 Some embrace a fatalistic attitude regarding the future. “God doesn’t close one door,” says one, “without slamming your fingers in another.”55 Of course, not every blue-collar worker sees life in such a dim light. Still, understanding life as an ongoing battle and struggle as a constant companion remains widespread within the blue-collar world. In Blue-Collar Ministry, Tex Sample, one of the few writers actually targeting ministry within this specific arena, describes how a forty year-old man from working-class roots but now a multi-millionaire felt compelled to continue “striving for dignity”56 over a passing remark made twenty-five years earlier. Anthony DePalma, writing about an illegal immigrant who quit his job, again, after an argument with his boss, clarifies, “In his mind, preserving his dignity is one of the few liberties he has left.”57 Building a healthy personal identity in the face of constant struggle remains a daunting task.
Were this the only component to a blue-collar sense of personal identity, a consistently bleak outlook would result. These workers, however, often gain a sense of significant value and take great pride in what they accomplish individually and collectively within the workplace. A study by Thomas Gorman shows that “working class respondents differentiated themselves from middle-class respondents by noting they do real work, do more important work, and are more down-to-earth.”58 Jeff Torlina argues that the lower occupational prestige assigned to blue-collar labor may have more to do with arbitrary judgments made by social scientist than with the realities of job satisfaction as experienced by blue-collar workers. “Stratification theory,” he writes, “depends upon a model of the occupational prestige hierarchy in which white-collar occupations are generally recognized as superior to blue-collar occupations. This reflects the standards of the professional class, not the working class.”59 Torlina, that is to say, suggests that white-collar professionals— who understandably celebrate white-collar work—embraced early on a fundamental paradigm for social science research that elevated the status of white-collar jobs and minimized the significance of blue-collar employment. As a result, “consciously or unconsciously, the dominant theories of social inequality promote an inferior identity for working-class people.”60 The framers of paradigms within the social sciences decided without sufficient basis to esteem white-collar employment more highly than blue-collar labor.
Torlina’s research suggests blue-collar workers feel differently about the stature of white-collar professions versus their own: “Blue-collar workers do not equate white-collar occupations with prestige. … Education and income levels are simply not signs of prestige or importance for the sampled working-class men. In fact, they actually see these variables in negative ways.”61 Indeed, many blue-collar workers believe white-collar workers have sold
out, choosing the pursuit of money over the opportunity to do real work. By contrast, they see their own work as more valuable than just money and desirable for reasons intrinsic to the work itself. In an emotional testimony before a Senate panel recently, one West Virginia coal miner spoke for himself and his co-workers, declaring convincingly, “I take pride in being a miner.”62 That brief expression captures the heart of many blue-collar workers who see their jobs as practical, challenging, and essential for the continuing growth and progress of the American economy.
Conflicting realities, then, shape the challenge of personal identity for the typical blue-collar worker. A perception of life as an ongoing struggle and cultural norms that often minimize or dismiss the value of blue-collar labor battle against a more positive and intuitive sense of self-worth fueled by occupational pride and practical on-the-job accomplishments. Job security, financial stability, and personal identity remain ongoing concerns for blue- collar workers.
The Blue-Collar Worker and the Faith at Work Movement
In recent years, the faith at work (FAW) movement has gained remarkable momentum, resulting in hundreds of new books and organizations. This movement seeks to elevate a biblical understanding of the relationship between faith and the marketplace for the working public. Currently, the FAW movement typically targets entrepreneurs and business owners. A century ago, however—long before the utilization of the standardized phrase “faith at work”—church and working-class connections flourished, as well. In multiple
settings on varied levels the church, both through professional clergy and devout non-clergy, brought the influence of Christian faith to bear in the marketplace of the common worker.
Regrettably, the bonds of association between the laborer of faith, his or her work, and the church itself have deteriorated significantly over the second half of the twentieth century. Yet blue-collar workers still matter deeply to Jesus, His Kingdom, and the spiritual health and economic vitality of the United States. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, blue-collar workers still comprise 61 percent of the American work force.63 Given the potential for the kind of economic, social, cultural, and spiritual transformation that would result from a revitalization of faith-integration in the blue-collar environment, the church must recognize, understand, and address this division. This section will begin that process by reviewing historical points of connection between people of faith and the blue- collar environment.
The History of Blue-Collar Faith at Work
Modern production techniques first began to impact the U.S. labor market in the early decades of the 1800s. The creation of goods transitioned from small artisan-operated shops to centrally-located, factory-based production. Attitudes about work and compensation shifted, as well, from an artisan-determined pace and price to the idea of labor purchased at an hourly rate. A producer ethic gave way to a profit ethic, alienating craftsmen from the creative control they once enjoyed over both product and remuneration. In the space of a few decades, “machines replaced hand tools; factories replaced shops; factory workers replaced artisans; large cities replaced small villages; [and] mass-produced goods replaced handicrafts.”64 This shift demanded a re-examination of the implications of Christian faith in the American marketplace. Christians responded in several key cities: Methodist Protestants in Baltimore, Stilwellites in New York City, Congregationalists in Boston, and Quakers in Wilmington, Delaware all gave leadership in support of labor.65 Efforts in Delaware led to the birth of the Association of Working People.
Economic difficultly marked the years immediately following the civil war. Predominantly, church leadership inclined toward continuing support of free-market capitalism, reinforcing “the idea that poverty and failure was equivalent to sin.”66 But by 1900, Darrell Wood argues, the persistent problems of the industrial revolution resulted in the development of four major religious responses. First, a “worker’s expression of Christianity”67 arose, influencing the modern American labor movement principally through the creation of the Christian Labor Union. These pragmatic people identified particularly with Jesus the Carpenter who, for them, “expressed God’s solidarity with the poor”68 and provided an example for subversive activity on behalf of the impoverished. They believed God’s vision of a just society demanded they act on behalf of the oppressed.
The Social Gospel, a second response, grew from the work of middle-class clergy and academic scholars who were “sympathetic to the cause of labor, urban renewal, and prison reform.”69 David Miller offers that by this point in American history “the compartmentalization of faith and work into separate domains or spheres of life became the norm.”70 Within Protestantism, three broad streams of thought resulted. Conservative social Christianity, rooted in premillennial eschatology, limited spirituality to individual conversion and evidenced no real interest in addressing societal concerns.71 Radical social Christianity, tied to postmillennial theology, focused almost exclusively on cultural renewal. The Social Gospel, from Miller’s perspective, most successfully harmonized concern for both the individual soul and society’s unjust structures. Still, Miller admits, “with its perceived labor orientation, the Social Gospel never gained a nationwide or grassroots following in the broader church and found its popularity limited largely to congregations in the more liberal northeastern states.”72 He suggests that may have been so because the Social Gospel’s pro- labor orientation clashed with the priorities of church members residing in higher socioeconomic classes.
Third, Wood writes about well-known evangelists who enthusiastically supported big business and “condemned the poor for creating their own poverty through laziness and immorality.”73 As an example, he quotes D. L. Moody: “I don’t believe a man would have a lazy hair on his head if he was converted to the Lord Jesus Christ.”74 Writing in 1907, Lutheran minister Luther Waring offers a similar declaration: “We hear men complaining that they do not have a chance. Let them but work half as hard as they loaf and half as hard as they complain, and they will make something of themselves.”75 Wood submits that some of these evangelists found solid financial backing in successful business owners and warmly receptive hearts in middle- and upper-class audiences.
Finally, Wood identifies a fourth response in “liberal elite pastors who embraced the new biblical interpretations that questioned the authority of Scripture.”76 These, too, predominantly believed poverty to be the fault of the worker. Wood offers the ostentatious Henry Ward Beecher as his example. Beecher, he reports, “embraced the social application of Darwinism and the ‘great law of subordination’ among social classes.”77 With regard to labor, capitalism, and the American economy, then, it appears that at the opening of the twentieth century, liberals and fundamentalists alike found reasons to adopt positions at every conceivable location along the spectrum.
With the increasing secularization and commercialization of the American economy, however, the need for any religious underpinning in support of labor organization diminished, threatening a vital connection between work and faith. In 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) emerged as an alternative to faith-based labor efforts. The Wobblies, as they were known, saw religion as private, churches as hypocritical, Jesus—the one “who died at the hands of the greedy elite”78—as a friend of the worker, and the IWW as the new religion of American labor. This thoroughly secular vision advanced in spite of overtures extended by the church. As Wood explains, however, the growing separation between the church and labor was neither complete nor final:
Ironically, as the IWW moved farther away from Christianity, church leaders were moving toward an enthusiastic embrace of the cause of labor. A number of Protestant denominations followed the example of the Federal Council of Churches and adopted “Social Creed,” which expressed the main tenets of the Social Gospel’s stances on child labor, governmental reform, and the elimination of poverty. With Pope Leo XIII’s letter Rerum Novarum on labor issues, Catholic leaders actively tried to support and influence the AFL. Official church endorsement of labor’s cause was becoming a reality.79
David Montgomery reports that in 1901, the advisory council of the National Civic Foundation included twenty-three Protestant clergymen and editors, two Catholic editors, and Archbishop John Ireland.80 This newly-formed organization ultimately proved instrumental in “expanding and helping make uniform state laws regarding child labor, workmen’s compensation, and factory safety.”81 In 1912, the American Federation of Labor initiated the Labor Forward movement. In the launch city of Minneapolis, by the campaign’s opening day, “more than twenty-five ministers … had announced that organized labor would be welcome in their meeting houses during the labor revival.”82
A report prepared by the Interchurch World Movement in 1919 showed how biased reporting negatively impacted the efforts of striking steelworkers, occasioning positive governmental action on behalf of labor. In 1932, the Federal Council of Churches established the National Religion and Labor Foundation.83 Still, as two World Wars broke the visionary optimism once so prevalent at the beginning of the “Christian Century,”84 the secularization of the workplace and the divide between the church and the common laborer solidified. In his classic work Your Other Vocation, released in 1952, Elton Trueblood laments the loss:
There are large churches without a single member who also belongs to a labor union. The characteristic supporters of the Christian movement are white-collar workers, managers, professional people and farmers. The gravity of the loss is made vivid by the fact that, in some cities, meetings of labor unions are now held in labor “temples” at eleven o’clock on Sunday mornings.85 In short, the province of labor is so far lost that, far from thinking of itself as a part of the Christian movement, it has set itself up as a genuine rival, in the competition for loyalty.86
Trueblood then notes the labor movement’s Christian roots:
There is no doubt that this loss is very great. The sense of its seriousness is accentuated by the recognition of the degree to which the earlier labor movement was so largely inspired by conscious Christian motivation. Men … became union organizers in an effort to make Christian ideals prevail, but little of this connection now remains.87
Already then, by the 1950s, the common laborer and perhaps, to some degree, the church, had divorced faith from work. While interest in the connection between faith and the marketplace continued to develop among certain business professionals,88 its link within the blue-collar arena faltered. Rather than an integrated understanding of faith and work, Miller concludes that “businesspeople and other churchgoers … found the paradigm of conflict—an unbridgeable chasm between faith and work—to be the only way to make sense of the tension between faith and work.”89 This perspective voided the connection between the two elements, resulting in a compartmentalized worldview—something that ultimately proved not only theologically problematic but pragmatically unworkable.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, Miller explains, the FAW movement gained fresh momentum. This new vitality grew from a renewed appreciation for the possibilities of integration with regard to the conflicted elements of faith and work:
Integration acknowledges the distinctive natures of faith and work, as well as other different spheres of life, while also bringing them together in a reconstructive, dialectical, and holistic fashion. The quest for integration avoids the naïveté of expecting the kingdom of God to be realized here on earth, but it also rejects the alternative extreme of despair and cynicism. The quest for integration seeks to approximate wholeness and balance while recognizing the difficulty of attaining it. It knows the reality of sin, yet it hopes for sanctification and transformation in light of salvation promises, even if these can only be fully realized in an eschatological horizon beyond our present capacities.
Although any movement toward the integration of faith and work seems both significant and positive, the action in this third wave of FAW activity seems to occur almost exclusively in the domain of business professionals. Miller’s language reveals the movement’s bias: “Businesspeople want the ability to bring their whole selves to work … Christian businesspeople and other professionals find common agreement [against] living a bifurcated life …”90 (emphasis added). Carefully chosen gender-neutral verbiage discloses the unintentional oversight of another neglected subgroup: labor.
This study exists to help address that omission. Neither the church as an entity nor its members individually can continue to isolate the richness of Sunday from the realities of Monday. While the business owner or white-collar executive takes full advantage of opportunities to embrace biblical values and express Christian redemption in activities and decisions that set the course for his or her business, the hourly employee—down to the most common laborer—must sense the same richness of opportunity to fulfill God’s purpose and express Kingdom realities in the simplest and even most mundane work assignment. The church has too often fixated on less practical matters. As Miroslav Volf observes, “The number of pages theologians have devoted to the question of transubstantiation—which does or does not take place on Sunday—for instance, would, I suspect, far exceed the number of pages devoted to work that fills our lives Monday through Saturday.”91 If Whelchel is correct, however, at least some of that energy and attention on the part of the church is misplaced. Whelchel concludes, “The most overlooked reason for the failure of the church to influence the culture is the loss of the Biblical doctrine of work.”92
Certainly the challenges have changed from a century ago, when issues like workplace safety, reasonable compensation, and manageable hours demanded immediate attention—although reviewing that list suggests each one may still need consideration even now. Today, however, the blue-collar worker frustrated by monotony on the job, for example, may need help understanding the significance of ordinary labor or perhaps biblical direction on how to improve his or her employment opportunities in a changing market. With the advent of multi-national corporations, questions about ethical activity international in scope may impact the decisions of the person stocking shelves at the discount store. The waitress or custodial staff wounded by society-wide attitudes that place value on a person according to the perceived status of his or her employment may need fresh awareness that, for his first assignment, God handed Adam—formed in His image and for His glory—a garden rake. The church must seize existing opportunities and create new occasions to help laborers understand the intimate connection between faith and work and the value of their work in God’s Kingdom.
Emphases in Current Literature
Four themes arise consistently in the contemporary FAW literature that carry significant implications for the blue-collar worker: The nature of work, the challenge of work, the means of work, and the goal of work. This section will examine each of these themes, highlighting pertinent motifs from current writings.
The Nature of Work: Replication
Current FAW literature carries substantial discussion regarding the nature of work. Fundamentally, the nature of work consists in replication—relating to and acting on this creation as the One who formed all that is has Himself related and acted. As Genesis makes clear, God formed humanity “in His image” (Gen. 1:26-27). Although discussions on the implications of that declaration draw varied conclusions, the FAW movement appears united in its conviction that, through its work, humanity serves as God’s representative on the earth, formed to do the sorts of things God would do, on His behalf and in partnership with Him. Tom Nelson speaks for the movement: “At a very foundational level, we must recognize our image-bearing reveals that God is a creator, a worker,”93 When human beings work, they act in the image of the One who formed them.
More specifically, replicative work carries responsibilities both for preserving what is and creating what ought to be. In Genesis 2, God places Adam in the Garden of Eden with instructions to “work it and keep it” (v. 15). Humanity’s calling, then, involves preserving and extending the creative acts of God described in the previous verses of Genesis. “Our work, whatever it is … is our specific contribution to God’s ongoing creation and to the common good.”94 Andy Crouch compares humanity’s roles to those of the gardener and the artist. “The gardener tends what has gone before, making the most of what is beautiful and weeding out what is distracting or useless. The artist can be more daring: she starts with a blank canvas or a solid piece of stone and gradually brings something out of it that was never there before.”95 Whether cultivating or creating, the one created in the image of God works as God has worked.
Two key qualities characterize work that successfully replicates God’s creative action. First, such work is somehow communal. Efforts that recognize and work in harmony with others replicate the Triune Godhead’s creative activity in Genesis. “In the Garden,” writes Jeff Van Duzer, “work was situated in the context of humankind’s partnership with God, and this relationship gave meaning and direction to the work.”96 That changes with the Fall; work somehow transitions from a gift offered to God as worship to something essential for survival. The replicative worker transitions back toward that place where, in confident assurance that God has already supplied every need by means of His rich grace, all labor functions as a relational gift freely present to God and others.
Second, sustainability characterizes replicative work. “The notion of sustainability,” Van Duzer observes, “was embedded in God’s original design. Human beings … were given seed-bearing fruit to eat so that consumption of the individual items of fruit would not, over the long term, detract from the fruit-producing capacity of the Garden.”97 Humanity’s work must echo that quality, not just in terms of the ecological concerns so prominent today but likewise in terms even of human capital as a sustainable resource. Van Duzer offers this powerful observation to business owners and managers:
With respect to employees, sustainability means that their character as God’s image- bearers cannot be used up. This requires that they be treated as having intrinsic value, not just as a means of production. It requires that their privacy be respected and that they not be required to work in conditions that are unreasonably dangerous or demeaning. Sustainability requires that businesses respect the rhythm of rest and work that God built into the fabric of creation, a rhythm that is necessary to allow for right relations with God and for the full humanity of individuals. A 24/7 demand for workplace availability is not sustainability. The notion of sustainability also undergirds the notion that employees should be paid a living wage. It is not sustainable for a business to use up all of the productive capacity of a person and not give him or her an amount sufficient to live on in return.98
Communal, sustainable work that both preserves and extends God’s creative acts most fully reflects work done as His representatives and in His image. Properly executed, it duplicates the kind of work God did in forming this world and creating humanity in His image as part of it.
The Challenge of Work: Integration
Integration describes the current challenge of work. David Miller portrays the task externally in terms of achieving the correct proportion of concern for both the individual soul and society’s unjust structures. On a more internal level, the challenge of work involves working in a way that navigates successfully both the realities of the Fall and the implications of creation, redemption, and resurrection.
The impact of the Fall seems most easily understood. In the curse of Genesis 3:17-19 “the topography of human work has been altered.”99 As a result, “at this point in redemptive history,” Nelson notes, “our work will not be all we want it to be.”100 Paul Rude suggests the Fall’s influence shows up where humans perceive work as nothing more than a curse to be tolerated. “We live under a curse,” he writes, “so it’s easy to assume that work itself is a curse.”101 Given the parallelism of Genesis 3:17-19, however, consistency demands that any such claim be matched by an assertion that having children is a curse, as well. In spite of the difficulties associated with childbirth, however, “we tend to assume work is a curse, and childbearing is a beautiful experience—a celebrated thing.”102 As a more complete reading of Genesis shows, work itself is no curse. Rather, work stands as God’s gift, however deeply complicated by humanity’s sin.
Rude further suggests that the Fall’s influence appears where people see work as the foundational source of human identity and self-worth. Timothy Keller speaks to Rude’s concern when he observes the progression of work from a place of joyful cultivation in Genesis 1 to a source of human identity in Genesis 11. The people of Babel build a tower as a statement of identity—“let us make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11: 4). Their purpose, Keller asserts, “… was to maximize their power, glory, and autonomy,”103 In so doing, ironically, they “reveal their radical insecurity.”104 Keller suggests the same stands true for the many ambitious workers today who establish their entire sense of personhood in on-the-job accomplishment and career advancement. Today’s worker must not only dismiss the idea of work as merely a curse to tolerate but also discard a reliance on his or her work as the primary source of personal identity.
An integrated understanding that acknowledges the impact of sin while recognizing work’s inherent goodness and value remains the task of the worker. “The challenge that faces the church and society more broadly then,” explains Jordon Ballor, “is to appreciate the spiritual meaningfulness of all kinds of work, to celebrate it, and to exhort us to persevere in our labors amidst the unavoidable troubles that plague work in this fallen world.”105 Each person must mix into his or her perception of work an understanding of the implications of creation, redemption, and resurrection as the biblical narrative declares them. In short, creation declares work is good and remains one of the key ways humanity functions in the image of God. Redemption announces that work is once more purposeful, as the relational context in which it was launched has now been restored through Christ. The resurrection declares that, in some fashion perhaps yet fully understood, work is eternal as part of God’s promised renewal of all creation. These implications will be discussed more fully under the topic of the goal of work, but they provide an essential correction to and even reversal of the impact of sin’s curse and the propensity to elevate work as the foundational source of self- identity.
The Means of Work: Impartation
Essentially, the question of the means of work asks how—by what means—shall work be done. The answer boils down to an understanding of the doctrine of vocation (from vocare, the Latin word for “calling,”106 used in reference to the call of God to partner with Him). In order to replicate the activity of God in creation and integrate a healthy understanding of work as good, purposeful, and eternally redeemable, the worker must function in light of the call of God and in light of the giftings and empowerment that He provides concurrent with that call.
Comprehending labor as a response to God’s invitation and equipping, when raised in the context of the Protestant Reformation nearly five-hundred years ago, transformed the existing culture. This understanding brought a fresh sense of equality for every person because it brought a new sense of dignity to every job. As a result, “the Protestant church enjoyed its greatest cultural influence—in art, literature, music, as well as in social institutions.”107 In a contemporary culture so robustly celebrating uniqueness and individuality, the concept of vocation serves as a powerful point of connection by which the church can honor the distinctive qualities of every individual and influence the use of those qualities for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom. “Church and marketplace leaders willing to revision the doctrine of vocation and apply it within the twenty-first century American culture,” declares Sharon Smith, “will capitalize on a tremendous opportunity to answer the heart-cry of many people and potentially lead multitudes of people to the One who calls.”108 Where so few currently see a clear connection between work and faith, growth in vocational understanding holds rich promise for both greater self-fulfillment and radical cultural transformation.
Os Guinness offers an understanding of vocation rooted first in terms of the believer’s calling by, to, and for Christ. That calling stands as primary before and foundational to a “secondary calling … that everyone, everywhere, and in everything should think, speak, live, and act entirely for him”109 This idea of a progressively layered vocational calling finds expression in Jesus’ designation of twelve disciples as apostles. Mark says Jesus “appointed twelve that they might be with him [their primary calling] and that he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons [their secondary calling]” (Mark 3:14-15). R. Paul Stevens describes this as “being called to Someone before we are called to do something.”110 The primary call establishes and facilitates the secondary.
The secondary calling, Guinness emphasizes, exists only because of the first and stands distorted without it. Malformed understandings surface in at least two ways: First, they show up in those who value the spiritual dimension of life to the neglect or devaluing of the material dimension of life. Medieval Christianity perhaps reflects this error most clearly, as there “the term calling was reserved for priests, monks, and nuns. Everyone else just had ‘work.’”111 But a second distortion appears when any worker ignores the essential necessity of a divine Caller from whom the call extends. In dismissing the Caller Himself, people secularize the calling and sacralize their work. The vocabulary of vocation, then, rather than expressing a life lived in every way as a response to God’s call, becomes nothing more than “a genteel word for lesser paid but sacrificial workers (such as nurses), for the religious (such as missionaries), and for the more practically oriented.”112 When the Caller is dismissed, vocational training exists not as a sacred avenue for learning how best to respond to God’s vocare, but as nothing more than quite secular preparation in a certain set of job skills. The call stands divorced from its source and the work from its purpose.
Correcting these errors demands two remedial actions: “the debunking of the notion of calling without a Caller and the restoring of the primacy of the primary calling.”113 The call of God paired to any particular task, role, or spiritual gift functions rightly only in the larger context of that broader calling. But “when you answer God’s call to use your gifts in work, whether by making clothes, practicing law, tilling the field, mending broken bodies or nurturing children, you are participating in God’s work.”114 The means of work—that impartation evidenced as the equipping of the person whose life is a response to God’s call— begins as humans respond to God’s invitation to partner with him.
Volf takes the matter of calling and impartation a step further, convinced that the classical doctrine of vocation anchors too deeply in protology and not aggressively enough in eschatology: “The Spirit of God should determine the whole life,” he writes, “spiritual as well as secular.”115 The outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as recorded in Acts 2, changes everything, relocating the locus of vocation from its roots in the creation account toward a new focus on the future consummation of all things in Christ. “New creation is the end of all God’s purposes with the universe, and as such, either explicitly or implicitly, is the necessary criterion of all human action that can be considered good.”116 For Volf, the charismata of the Spirit, including even the fluidity and impermanence that sometimes characterizes their distribution, now defines the particulars of Christ’s calling for the believer.
Through empowered workers, the transformative capacity of the Spirit extends into the practical, touchable, and tangible parts of the world. “Gifts in the new creation do not only serve a sacred, invisible realm,” asserts Terry Cross, “but also serve the physical needs of humanity.”117 Stevens affirms the same, declaring, “Spiritual gifts are not just for the edification of believers. They are for the world, for entering into God’s beautiful work of transforming creation, culture, community, and people.”118 The Great Commission demands just such an infusion of Spirit-empowered service, but the church’s reluctance to engage the world in every arena has proven costly. “The church has feared and abdicated the marketplace,” declares Robert Fraser, “lost its vision for marketplace evangelism, and therefore lost the very revival it seeks.”119 Yet only when the church engages the marketplace can the function of the gifts match their work as evidenced in the life and ministry of Jesus, the pattern for every believer. Anyone who values the Scriptural promise that God has now poured out His Spirit upon all flesh (Acts 2:17) and distributed grace-gifts throughout His body (1 Cor. 12:7) must consider the implications of a gift-centered perspective on vocation.
The fullest understanding of vocation, then, recognizes that the means of work consists of the grace imparted when humans respond to God’s call and function in the gifts of His Spirit. Only as believers work in grateful response to that call and in that strength expressed most fully through the charismata will work replicate the activity of God, evidence its inherent goodness, and reflect its eternal purpose.
The Goal of Work: Consummation
The goal of work remains a final dominant thread in much of the contemporary FAW literature. This is perhaps the most significant question regarding work. Certainly no one launches a business or hires an employee without having some purpose in mind. Moreover, any lack of understanding behind the purpose of an assigned task threatens to dishearten even the most motivated worker. But the day-to-day obligations of running a business or the sheer monotony of a predictable but necessary task can easily obscure the ultimate purpose behind the endeavor. For the business owner or the person sweeping the floors at night, no question carries more weight than the question of purpose.
Reflection upon the literature suggests that the goal or purpose of any work-related endeavor might best be seen on two levels. On a more immediate level, businesses exist to provide goods and services that result in human flourishing. Van Duzer makes two significant observations in this regard: First, note the absence of the language of profit from this purpose statement. Always significant, profit exists as the means by which businesses attract the capital needed to accomplish their purpose. However, “the mere fact that a reasonable rate of return for shareholders is a first-order constraint does not convert it into a purpose.”120 In Joy at Work, author Dennis Bakke asks, “Why should enriching shareholders be more important than producing quality products and selling them to customers at fair prices? What logic says that a company should put creating value for shareholders ahead of the economic well-being of its employees?”121 Indeed, the common misperception of profit as a purpose may provide some small portion of the fuel for James’s warning to those who speak of going “to this city or that city … [to] carry on business and make money” (James 4:13). These people, James suggests, should seek to understand and submit to the will of the Lord more completely. Perhaps, beyond presumptuousness, they also lacked clarity of understanding regarding God’s intent for business.
Second, this goal of contributing to human flourishing attaches not only to customers but to employees, as well. Like any capital investment, human capital requires wise and careful stewardship so the One who invested said capital receives the good return He seeks. The many scriptural mandates related to stewardship demand the structuring of businesses in ways that provide opportunities for the flourishing of the business’s employees.122 Notably, the relational engagement that business itself demands of participants helps address the biblical priority that work be somehow communal in nature. So the more immediate goal for any business relates to providing goods and services that result in human flourishing on every level: owner, investor, employee, customer, and even within the host community itself.
A second goal, more visionary and long-term, goes further and holds rich promise for the elevation of even the most ordinary work into something of eternal significance. For the Christian, every resource committed to any business endeavor now exists to express, anticipate, and advance toward the full manifestation of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Ultimately, the goal of all legitimate work stands as the consummation of all things in Christ.
Too often, believers overlook the grand narrative of Scripture. Perhaps this reflects the error of this age, when “fewer and fewer people look to any coherent, linear narrative to give them meaning and fall back on fragmented and idiosyncratic stories and sensations.”123 Regardless, conceptual limitations result, reshaping the Bible’s message and culminating in what Hugh Whelchel describes as a “two-chapter gospel.”124 The sweeping chronicle of Scripture gets reduced to a brief tale of private sin and personal forgiveness. The grandeur of creation, the glory of consummation, and the connection of the people of God with it stand ignored. Absent the full influence of especially the biblical bookends of Genesis and Revelation, the story of God’s redemptive grace survives only as a truncated and diluted gospel.
By way of contrast, Christopher J. H. Wright announces the Scriptures’ panoramic perspective: “The whole Bible renders to us the story of God’s mission through God’s people in their engagement with God’s world for the sake of the whole of God’s creation.”125 In other words, when believers read the entire story, they see the liberating act of God engages the totality of creation (Rom. 8:19-21), that God’s plan involves the whole world, from creation to completion. Only the entire story counteracts and corrects an otherwise incomplete and inadequate gospel.
Likewise, inaccurate understandings of the believer’s eternal destiny generally characterize this partial gospel, pointing the believer toward an eternity centered on heaven and utterly void of earth. Randy Alcorn suggests that the Scriptures offer a different perspective:
Earth was made for people to live on, and people were made to live on Earth. According to the prophets, the apostle Peter, and Christ himself, our destiny is to live forever on a restored and renewed Earth. … God’s Kingdom and dominion are not about what happens in some remote, unearthly place; instead, they are about what happens on the earth, which God created for His glory.126
Indeed, the Scriptures promise that someday Christ’s reign of righteousness on the earth will be without rival, that this globe will experience transformation and inclusion as part of “a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13). Compellingly, however, the Scriptures also testify that, in some measure, this transformation has already begun in the appearing of Jesus the Righteous King and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon His Church, the redeemed. “The Kingdom of God,” David Doty announces, “is wherever God reigns, where His will is carried out and His purposes fulfilled.”127 In Christ and the Spirit, the age to come has invaded the age that is.
Through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, God’s people participate with Him in the present advance of His Kingdom on this earth, even in their work. Van Duzer describes this as “the real wonder of the story … that here and now, this very new creation is already breaking into the world in which we live. As disciples of Jesus we are … invited to share in God’s shalom-restoring work.”128 Volf likewise describes the believer’s work as an “active anticipation of the transformatio mundi”129—the transformation of this world promised at Christ’s appearing. N. T. Wright adds his voice to the chorus, affirming that “Jesus's resurrection is the beginning of God's new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven.”130
No distinctions exist regarding the efficacy of white-collar work over blue-collar or of the entrepreneur versus the night-shift security guard. The biblical revelation of God’s abounding grace testifies that each one enjoys the same abundant measure of God’s equipping Spirit as any other (cf. Acts 2:17-18) and that with it comes the same opportunity to draw eternal realities into this present age through any labor offered “as working for the Lord” (Col. 3:23).
Even working in cooperation with the Spirit, human effort does not produce this new creation. It remains the gift of God. The most ardent premillennialist, then, may embrace convictions regarding the present reality of the Kingdom without falling into a theology suggesting believers somehow will usher in the fullness of the Kingdom apart from Christ’s appearing. Volf clarifies that Christ’s coming Kingdom remains fully His gift while humanity’s work to that end continues as a fitting and biblical response:
The origin and character of the ‘New Jerusalem’ show that the new creation as a whole is fundamentally a gift, and the primary human action in relation to it is not doing but ‘waiting’ (2 Pet. 3:12; cf. Matt. 6:10; Rev. 22:17). But one should not confuse waiting with inactivity. In the New Testament the injunction to wait eagerly for the kingdom is not opposed to the exhortation to work diligently for the kingdom.131
The privilege of every worker, then, and the goal of all labor, remain, facilitating the in-breaking and manifestation of Christ’s reign on the earth through Spirit-empowered endeavors. Restored to relationship with God, humanity returns to the garden, as it were, not merely to maintain it, but as workers formed in the image of God, to cultivate creatively this world toward the consummation of all things in Christ as described in Scripture’s closing chapters.
Any careful reading of Revelation makes clear that a restful return to Eden is not the Creator’s final goal for His creation. “New Jerusalem reminds us that … we are not called to find a way back to the garden. We are called into the complexity, intensity and messiness of the city.”132 Even the results of earthly labors will not be lost,133 but rather redeemed, transformed, and rewarded by the Father with the opportunity for more labor—“ruling over cities, judging angels, wearing crowns, and reigning with Christ.”134
Indeed, throughout eternity work continues as God’s gift to humanity. “The central metaphor for Christian hope in the Book of Revelation is not a lazy pastoral scene, but a renewed city; a place of human work, built by human hands, restored and reclaimed by God’s work.”135 Scott Rae notes the hint of this working future even in the eschatological promise of Isaiah 2:4: “In the ‘kingdom come,’” Rae announces, “we’ll beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks—the implements of work!”136 Human labor today anticipates and expresses that continuing work the redeemed will engage, even when they reign with Christ in His Kingdom come.
Biblically, then, work replicates the activity of God, stewarding entrusted resources in cooperative and sustainable ways. God’s people recognize the impact of sin on work, but understand the inherent goodness of God’s gift of work that even sin cannot eradicate. Still, they understand that relationship with God, not work, remains the source of true identity and personal wholeness. Out of that relationship with God comes an understanding of His calling and empowerment for work, both broadly, in terms of a life’s vocation, and more fluidly in terms of the capacity of the Spirit to empower for whatever task may be at hand. By means of that Spirit, all work becomes an expression and an anticipation of Christ’s coming Kingdom, where the privilege of work will continue in service to His eternal and creation- encompassing reign.
Conclusion on Contemporary Literature on Blue Collar Work
Perhaps no arena of Christian life reflects a greater need for revitalization or holds more promise for initiating meaningful and widespread transformation than the sphere of ordinary human work. Too often, the church readily celebrates a rich sense of calling for those who find their delight in the service of the church gathered, but fails to celebrate, instruct, or encourage the sense of calling for those whose delight is to serve in that place where the church most desperately needs to be alive and engaged. Contemporary studies reveal both the consistent decrease in the amount of time typical believers have to invest in church-related meetings and the consistent increase in the number of hours people spend at work each week. An obvious solution—and perhaps one hinted at when Jesus instructed His followers to “ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Luke 10:2)—must involve instructing, encouraging, and releasing God’s people to understand the significance of their work in light of a comprehensive understanding of the gospel. This remains true regardless of calling, title, or station. From the owner-entrepreneur to the temporary hire making minimum wage, believers must renew and strengthen an understanding of their place as God’s representative workers, anticipating and establishing His Kingdom through faithful labors.