Epilogue: Why We Wrote This BookBook / Produced by Individual TOW Project member
In the first chapter of this book we quoted Calvin Redekop, a Canadian Mennonite, who wrote: “The truth is that the average Christian spends less than 2 percent of his or her waking time at church and most of their time working. Yet the church puts most of its energy and resources into that 2 percent and very little into the world of daily work.”
When I first read Redekop’s words, many years ago, they haunted me. As a pastor I felt very challenged. The largest mission force the church has is mobilized in the world every day of the week, when Christians go about their daily work, but I was doing very little to intentionally resource and support people for this missionary encounter. In fact, I was not sure that most of my congregation even saw things that way.
As a result of my disquiet I began doing a lot of reading on the subject. However, it occurred to me that nothing could compare with actually talking face-to-face with Christians about how they understood their faith connected to their work.
As a result, I spent six months conducting one hundred in-depth interviews with individuals from predominantly evangelical, charismatic, and pentecostal church backgrounds, along with a number of discussion groups, seminars, and numerous less-formal encounters. The results of this survey changed my understanding – and my life!
Here’s what I discovered:
Work is for Evangelism and Money
Most people interviewed assumed that I wanted to talk with them about how they were doing in evangelizing their workmates. In fact, most said (in a way that made both of us feel uncomfortable) that they weren’t very good at it. The fact that this was their immediate assumption betrayed significant discomfort with some assumptions and expectations about evangelism as it is popularly understood. It also became obvious that the majority of interviewees assumed their church really only valued their employment for the purposes of evangelism, and earning money – so it could be given to support the church and para-church ministries.
Two Distinct Groups
At the same time, there did appear to be two distinct groups when it came to how people felt God viewed their work. On the one hand, there were those in what we might label the “helping professions” – doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers, counselors etc. These folk were generally happy to use the word “ministry” of their work in some sense. They could generally see some ways their “people-helping” work counted from God’s perspective and felt the church affirmed the worth of these roles.
However, the other group consisted of people involved as factory workers, manufacturers, businesspersons, desk-bound office workers, computer programmers, engineers, and other commercial or industrial workers. These people seldom talked about their work as a form of ministry – unless it concerned talking to people about their faith. They struggled to find specific ways to connect their work to their faith, particularly the less their work had to do with people.
Hierarchy of value
Underlying many of the comments I received was a powerful hierarchy of value. While there was a general acceptance that all Christians were equal, clearly some were more equal than others. Those assumed to be of most value to God (and the church) were missionaries and pastors, followed by other “fulltime Christian workers”, then elders, and deacons. Then there were those involved as volunteers in church activities. At the bottom of the pile were those Christians solely involved in fulltime “secular” work. Although many interviewees didn’t think it should be like this, most thought that in practice this was how it was – even in their own minds.
Absence of connection between church and work
Glaringly obvious in these interviews, was the inability of people to recall any significant connecting points between their church experience and their work. In particular:
- Most people could not remember ever hearing a sermon or teaching on work.
- Only a couple of people could identify any songs sung in church that referred to work.
- Few were able to recall any prayers being prayed specifically about work – with the exception of ones referring to evangelism. (There were a few Episcopalians and Catholics who thought there might have been some reference to work in the intercessory portion of their liturgies, though they couldn’t remember the details.)
- Only rarely did work come up as a topic in church small group discussions or studies – although most pastors felt this was where people did actually talk about their work.
- People’s perception was that their church leader/s were not interested in their work. Most had never been visited by a church leader at work. Additionally, most business people felt their church leaders had a predominantly negative view of business, because they only used negative examples of business ethics in their preaching.
- Hardly any person was able to think of a particular Christian role-model engaged in the marketplace (apart from sports stars, pop stars, or one or two politicians (mainly William Wilberforce).
- Most had never read a book or attended any course that talked about faith and work issues.
- Most people felt that church was competing with work and family in a way they didn’t feel good about. This left me with the feeling that faith had become associated with another set of time commitments, rather than part of the essential glue helping people integrate complex and pressured lives.
- Increasingly, people were experiencing more ethical dilemmas in a more pluralistic marketplace.
- Many interviewees said they would also appreciate help with career and life-planning decisions.
The problem of other Christians at work
Then there was the issue we noted in Chapter 9 (Work as Worship). In answer to the question, “What is the most difficult thing you experience as a Christian at work?”, many interviewees replied, “The other Christians I work with.” When I inquired why, their reasons ranged from the embarrassment of super-spiritual workmates who were excessively zealous in their talk about their faith and attempts to evangelize, but not so serious about their work, through to the sub-Christian behavior of those who publicly identified themselves as believers. This negative feedback didn’t just relate employees, either. The poor ethics of some so-called “Christian” firms and employers was cited as a major source of embarrassment and shame in some industries. The major issue was not whether a person identified themself as Christian, but what kind of Christian they were.
The overwhelming impression I gained was that most Christians felt resigned to the fact that church life did not really relate to what they spent the majority of their week involved in. The majority weren’t motivated enough to do something about this without assistance. Neither did they feel that church leaders understood the kinds of work pressures and demands they experienced. Of course, people would have loved it to be different. In fact, there was a real yearning for encouragement and help, and the longer I chatted with many, the more animated they became as they realized I was serious about exploring the wider implications of faith for their work.
I concluded that in order for Christians to gain and nurture an ongoing sense of vocation (or SoulPurpose, as I came to call it), there were five important ingredients:
Understanding that our work and God’s work are connected. Gaining a sense that we are participating in something of ultimate significance, that imparts purpose to our lives. Involving both a biblical view that affirms the worth of our work (theology) and discovering ways we can nurture a sense of the presence of God in our work (spirituality).
Feeling that the person we are fits the work we are doing. This is partly about understanding how our giftedness (abilities, talents, passions, personality) makes us unique and should help to define the kind of work we are best fitted for. But it also involves an ethical fit – so that we not only work well but also believe in the worth of what we are doing and are able to see how it fits with our Christian calling and values.
Christians are not happy in the long term just to be serving themselves. We need to be able to see how our work is making a worthwhile investment in God’s wider purposes and the lives of other people. We want to help create a better world.
Establishing a healthy balance in our lives that enables us to express our vocation through a healthy mix of unpaid domestic and voluntary work, rest and leisure, as well as paid employment. Finding a sense of meaning and integration in the whole of our lives. And being able to renegotiate this balance at different stages of life.
Having the support and encouragement of a community of committed companions, which might include family, friends, and mentors, but which needs to also include our faith community.
While it’s nearly twenty years since I conducted this survey, I can still recall many of the conversations. They have helped set the course for much of what I have put my hand to since. This book is one of the outcomes – along with two other books Wayne and I have written together:
SoulPurpose: making a difference in life and work
Just Decisions: Christian ethics go to work