Facilitating Marketplace Ministry in a Blue-Collar Context: EvaluationAcademic Paper / Produced by partner of TOW
This chapter contains an evaluation of the 9 – 5 ‘til Kingdom Come field intervention and related project elements. These pages discuss the keys to the project’s effectiveness, keys to the project’s improvement, implications of the project, specific recommendations for local churches in light of this intervention experience, and specific recommendations for further study.
Evaluation of the Project
Keys to Project Effectiveness
This project proved successful on at least two counts. First, the analysis of Discipleship AssessmentTM data confirmed the basic premise of the study itself and the conclusions drawn from the contemporary literature review. Second, the qualitative assessment of the field intervention suggests the process resulted in both transformed attitudes and new behaviors. At least three factors contributed positively toward the effectiveness of this project: Ready participants, pertinent information, and a contextualized presentation.
The twenty-five participants who engaged the intervention process from its initiation through final post-process interviews did so eagerly and energetically. Contributing factors appear to include a clear delineation of expectations during the recruitment process, a sense of affinity with other participants who were also part of the blue-collar sector, the appeal of assisting with a project believed to be significant, and the opportunity to examine a subject of interest in a familiar setting. Regardless of specific motivations, participants readily tackled the study material, schedule commitments, conversational opportunities, and challenges toward transformation this process entailed. Without ready participants, the intervention obviously would not have succeeded.
Every individual participant had good reason to engage the intervention process because he or she was a full-time employee. By implication, the subject matter of the study addressed pertinent information. Not every study a church leader conducts connects so readily with the felt needs of those who engage it. By addressing the topic of work—a subject already significant in the life of each participant—this study avoided one of the most challenging obstacles to effective interaction. Participants found the study relevant and stimulating in part because the subject matter was already significant and germane.
The value of efforts made to connect tangibly with a blue-collar context cannot be overstated. Although room for improvement in this regard still exists, a study that carries insight from Adam the Gardener, Bezalel the Craftsman, and Paul the Tentmaker—all of it rooted in the promise of Jesus the Carpenter—seems especially powerful when challenging people whose work is so often physical and tangible. Compacting the series to four weeks made the opportunity manageable for people who care most about practical application.
Visual representations celebrated the manual and mechanical over the automated and informational. In a culture that often overlooks and even disparages the beauty of basic human labor, celebrating a scriptural perspective on physical work connected powerfully with blue-collar people.
Keys to Project Improvement
While the success of the intervention exceeded my expectations, room for improvement certainly remains for future iterations. Further development of this project should focus on three key areas: layered accessibility, improved illustrations, and expanded assessment.
The 9 – 5 ‘til Kingdom Come intervention introduced some heady theological concepts to workers who, as a rule, are inclined to engage the practical far more than the theoretical. Indeed, people sometimes enter the blue-collar workforce specifically because they do not enjoy the classroom setting and see little value in “book learning.”1 Asking blue- collar workers, then, to sit and discuss the significance of the imago Dei or how their work might serve as “kingdom-signifying deeds of anticipatory transformation”2 requires a substantial mental and sociological leap. Although the participants in this project eagerly embraced the process and its challenges, finding ways to layer the introduction and development of these concepts into more “bite-sized” pieces would improve future efforts. If, for example, I could break down a key thought for the week into five or six questions to ponder, or illustrate these through five or six pithy quotations, I could disseminate these over the course of the week through texts or Facebook posts or email blasts. Participants could then receive daily challenges, but in smaller portions, to consider the implications and opportunities of their work, rather than experiencing something akin to “drinking from a fire hose” once or twice a week.
This suggestion, of course, raises the possibility of extending the intervention and distributing the instruction and interaction over a longer timeframe. It remains my opinion that an extended study series would have significantly less appeal to the typical blue-collar worker. In the local church setting, another alternative might be to divide the material into four (or more) separate studies perhaps accomplished over the course of several months, with each presentation allowing for review of any previous materials covered and a more moderately-paced introduction of new material.
The issue of improved illustrations runs parallel to the concern over layered accessibility but seems substantial enough to warrant its own discussion. In short, this project would improve through better and more copious illustrations serving to connect the theological concepts introduced to the workaday world of the blue-collar laborer.
Illustrations, someone has said, are like the windows of a house—they let in the light. They provide for “aha” moments where the implications of abstract thought are made practical. Especially when instructing and challenging people not always interested in or concerned with the world of ideas, effective illustrations stand essential to the revelation of biblical truth.
This challenge exists in part, perhaps, because the Church has not given enough attention to the eternal value of ordinary labor. Although business owners and entrepreneurs are increasingly reminded that their work matters to God, few people declare that same reality to bus drivers or waitresses. Still, as Christian leaders give more time, thought, and attention to these truths, more anecdotes and illustrations of Kingdom advance through ordinary labor will surface, helping blue-collar laborers better connect biblical truth to time spent on the job. This project, and others like it, will benefit from improved illustrations.
The analysis of available Discipleship AssessmentTM data confirmed the study’s premise regarding distinctive differences between blue-collar and white-collar perceptions. Additionally, the qualitative assessment of the intervention itself suggested noteworthy progress toward a more biblical understanding of work on the part of participants. The intent of the original project design, however, involved measuring participant progress through quantitative assessments at both the beginning and completion of the field project. Although intervention participants were able to complete the Discipleship AssessmentTM prior to the intervention launch, scheduling complications prevented the participants from completing post-field project assessments in a timely manner. Additionally, the Discipleship AssessmentTM data made available for analysis, although national in scope, became a limited sample size when reduced to only full-time blue-collar workers and an equivalent number of white-collar workers.
This project would benefit, then, from upgraded assessment—not in terms of the Discipleship AssessmentTM tool itself, which shows high validity and internal reliability—but in terms of a broader sample size for general analysis and by the opportunity to use the Discipleship AssessmentTM tool as a quantitative post-assessment as part of any future intervention projects. This study needs to be replicated on a larger pool of participants to confirm its findings and improve future interventions.
Implications of the Project
Several implications became apparent as this project moved toward completion. First, the Church has largely ignored the challenges and opportunities of the faith-work relationship in the blue-collar context. Most project participants had never particularly concerned themselves with developing a biblical perspective on work, save some who at least saw their jobs as an occasion to evangelize coworkers. Nor had their spiritual overseers pursued the relationship between faith and work as an instructional priority. Yet “adults employed full time in the U.S. report working an average of 47 hours a week.”3 In order for holistic discipleship to occur, churches and church leaders must more consistently help believers understand the importance of activities that will consume nearly one-third of the typical adult lifetime.
Second, believers seem eager to engage in work-faith related instruction and understand better the role of work in their lives. People are looking for significant purpose in what they already have to do with forty-plus hours of their week. The local church must capitalize on the readiness of Christ followers to understand better their work and its Kingdom significance.
Third, rich and enduring transformation seems sure to result from a workforce shaped and motivated by a biblical understanding of human labor. Believers who comprehend the magnitude of their work as revealed in Scripture—regardless of their job title or description—will work more diligently, purposefully, and joyfully. Apart from the spiritual worth of labor offered in anticipation of Christ’s reward (Col. 3:23), such work holds promise as economically fruitful, socially responsible, morally acceptable, and relationally beneficial—in short, as comprehensively valuable. The worth of a renewed and deepened understanding of work by professing Christians cannot be overstated.
Recommendations for Jefferson Assembly of God and for Other Churches and Church Organizations
Recommendations for Jefferson Assembly of God
In view of the project overall and the field intervention in particular, three recommendations surface for the leadership and congregation of Jefferson Assembly of God. First, this church body must look for ways to weave the subject work more thoroughly into the fabric of the life of the church. Over the course of the intervention, it became clear that people within the congregation who knew each other by name or face still had no idea what type of work others they knew were involved in. For this congregation, the absence of such fundamental information about fellow believers raises significant questions about both the depth of fellowship shared within and across the congregation and how commonly the members of the congregation isolate faith from work. For the project participants in particular, merely conversing about the connections between faith and work in weekly follow-up discussions not only reduced the divide between the two subjects but also appeared to increase the relational intimacy within the groups. People became better friends when they talked together about their jobs.
Second, Jefferson Assembly of God must find ways to more consistently celebrate the ordinary labor of her blue-collar congregants. This fellowship annually acknowledges the teachers, administrators, and staff of the local school district with a back-to-school meal and honors fire fighters, law enforcement, and other emergency personnel as part of an Independence Day celebration. Still, as this study reveals, all legitimate work bears Kingdom value. The labor of construction workers, nurses’ aides, pressmen, cake decorators, and plumbers matters to Christ just as much as any other calling and should be celebrated as such by a church devoted to a biblical understanding of work.
Third, Jefferson Assembly of God should specifically pursue a better understanding of the Christian doctrine of vocation among its congregants. It does appear that many of the workers involved in this project engaged in the jobs they have not out of any awareness of God’s call or divine direction, but for reasons of convenience (“the job was available”), vocational heritage (“it’s what my father did”), or compensation (“I wanted a good retirement plan”). While any of those reasons may have their place, how much healthier it is for individual, community, and Kingdom alike if a person has an understanding of God’s call and gifting for his or her work. While this observation might be especially significant in serving young people just entering the workforce, it holds merit across the entire spectrum of working-age congregants.
Recommendations for Other Churches and Church Organizations
Three recommendations come to mind, as well, for local churches and church organizations in general. First, church leaders must re-establish the biblical foundation regarding the nature, purpose, and worth of human labor. The Christian calling stretches far beyond working hard merely to be a good employee or supply for one’s family, although these priorities no doubt have merit. Rather, all work stands tied to humanity’s original and glorious commission to fill and subdue the earth as God’s representative rulers (Gen. 1:27- 28). More than that, humanity’s work will continue as service to God throughout eternity (Isa. 2:1-4; Rev. 5:10). Outside of eternal redemption itself, no subject carries greater importance.
Second, as was true for Jefferson Assembly of God in particular, churches and church organizations must elevate this biblical message in ways that celebrate not only the businessperson and entrepreneur but also the entire spectrum of human labor. As a rule, churches ignore work in ways that only reinforce the sacred-secular divide. In those contexts where work receives consideration, however, few appear to celebrate the auto mechanic, hotel maid, or short-order cook. By contrast, the Scriptures hold all legitimate work as eternally purposeful in Christ. The church must find ways to do the same consistently.
Third, pastors and denominational leaders should look for opportunities to familiarize themselves with the work environments of the people and communities they serve. Although company policies and security concerns sometimes complicate visits from non-employees, any Christian leader will be better equipped to connect biblical truth with workplace realities if he or she has visited with parishioners and other contacts in the actual workplace during working hours. Based on my experience throughout this project, when pastors and other Christian leaders express interest, people are pleased and eager to share the good and bad of workplace realities.
Recommendations for Future Study
Upon reflection, a broad spectrum of possibilities suggest themselves as subjects for future study in the arena of faith, work, and the blue-collar laborer. First, the culture and worldview of the blue-collar worker merits additional analysis. Although this study drew preliminary conclusions about the typical blue-collar worker and confirmed many of those conclusions through the analysis of relevant data, significant change continues to permeate the blue-collar world. The outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, the explosion of service-sector work, the influx of both legal and illegal immigrants, the ebb and flow of union influence, and the broader relationship between blue-collar and white-collar employment nationally and internationally all continue to shape the American labor force. As diligently as a church might explore a local neighborhood being considered for a potential church plant or investigate a country with an eye on missionary outreach, the changing face of labor in the United States warrants continuing attention.
Second, the nature of work-faith relationships in the blue-collar context should expand far beyond the parameters of this study. David Miller labeled four quadrants of faith- related concern generally identified in work-faith research: ethics, evangelism, experience, and enrichment.4 With its emphasis on the meaning and significance of work, this study overwhelmingly focused on what Miller brands the “experience” quadrant. For whatever additional attention this quadrant ought to receive, each quadrants deserves its own attention in relation to the blue-collar worker.
Third, the Church should give additional attention to new ways of conveying work- faith insights into the world of blue-collar laborers. Although disseminating ancient theological truth or current research insights might most commonly be achieved through the printed word or other written media in a white-collar or academic context, blue-collar workers generally remain practically oriented toward “hands on” experience. Typically, a line worker will not want to read about a new tool; he or she wants to handle it, to use it, to see how it works. Perhaps further research could investigate the job-training methodologies of blue-collar employers or the cognitive processes that tend to distinguish blue-collar and white-collar workers and, in doing so, find more effective ways of sharing eternal truth within the blue-collar context.
A rich opportunity stands before the American Church. A dearth of instruction regarding the nature and purpose of work has left the American working public—and blue- collar workers particularly—uninformed and unchallenged with regard to the import of their daily labor. Still, like parched ground welcomes the rain, workers appear fully receptive to embracing the biblical truth about their work. Transitions within the blue-collar context have opened the door to fresh and deepened understandings even further.
The Scriptures carry a rich and unequaled message of work’s origin, purpose, and promise. The Church must infuse the labor of those who claim the name of Christ with a significance befitting the call of Christ. No arena of life appears to hold greater potential for provoking life-giving transformation within multiple layers of American culture than does the biblically-rooted revitalization of the Christian worker. The opportunity stands for an extreme makeover of eternal significance. Let the work begin.