Chapter 10 - Work as Mission: Laboring for the Kingdom

Book / Produced by Individual TOW Project member
For the kingdom

Alistair has been haunted for a number of years by a statement made by William Diehl, sales manager for Bethlehem Steel:

In the almost thirty years of my professional career, my church has never once suggested that there be any type of accounting of my on-the-job ministry to others. My church has never once offered to improve those skills which could make me a better minister, nor has it ever asked if I needed any kind of support in what I was doing. There has never been an inquiry into the types of ethical decisions I must face, or whether I seek to communicate my faith to my co-workers. I have never been in a congregation where there was any type of public affirmation of a ministry in my career. In short, I must conclude that my church really doesn’t have the least interest in whether or how I minister in my daily work.[1]

Does this sense of frustration and disappointment resonate with you? It certainly does with us. When we start to gain a vision for our work being a part of our calling and an expression of our worship, it’s to be expected that we look to our faith community for support, encouragement, and resourcing, so we can serve God well in our work.

In fact, Diehl hints that he would dearly love to be related to in the same way his church relates to cross-cultural missionaries or pastors. His cry is to be recognized and supported as a marketplace missionary.

But we are aware that those two words don’t quite seem to fit together, do they? Marketplace missionary? In fact, the phrase borders on the oxymoronic. For the idea that mission can take place in our places of paid or unpaid work, is not something that too many Christians would consider normal.

Put more bluntly, it doesn’t quite seem right that we would commission an engineer or a sales rep as a missionary in his/her weekly employment.

Why Not?

Why is this the case? Partly, it’s because mission has often been associated with the work that a select few believers called “missionaries” do in exotic and remote places. Closer to home, if we do recognize the missionary role of believers in our own community, it is generally limited to a few particular tasks such as evangelism and church planting and perhaps some social service ministries.

We don’t dispute the need for evangelism in the marketplace. Without work expanding our circle of contact with non-Christians in a very natural way we might otherwise develop very few significant relationships with unbelievers. Although, even when it comes to evangelism, we think a lot of Christians live with far too much fear and self-consciousness about what is required. One of the best evangelists Alistair knows is a Christian who struggles with all sorts of questions about his faith (and the fact that we would think of him as an evangelist would horrify him!). But his colleagues love the questions he asks as a fellow searcher and the fact that he doesn’t pretend to have it all together. His questions invite their participation without fear of being set upon. He has a gift for whetting people’s appetite to know more. The best evangelists aren’t pumped up. They are just themselves, admitting honestly how it is for them.

But is mission in the workplace only about evangelism? We don’t believe so. You see, mission is really God’s work of bringing about his kingdom in this world. It’s the work of transformation we looked at in Chapter 5. Everything that contributes to this is important. God’s kingdom impacts every area of human life and endeavor. This includes evangelism, which is the center or heart of mission. The missiologist David Bosch puts it in perspective when he writes, “Evangelism is calling people to become followers of Jesus. It is enlisting people for mission – a mission as comprehensive as that of Jesus.” So, mission is the wider concept, incorporating all that God intends to transform in this world.

We are all missionaries

A significant change has taken place in Christian understanding recently that recognizes mission as the task of the whole people of God – not just those who are traditionally labeled “missionaries”. It sees that the whole church is called to live the whole gospel in the whole of life, in a way that will impact on the whole world.

Mission literally means, “sending”. It refers to what God sends Christians into the world to be and to do. The “whole church” means that mission is a task for the data entry worker, mother, policy analyst, neighbor, lawyer, volunteer club member, and advertising exec. It’s a task for all who follow Jesus.

The “whole gospel” means that mission involves much more than just getting people to follow Jesus – though that’s certainly an important part of mission. It has to do with God’s vision for us and for the world. A vision for all of creation to be whole again – complete and perfect. It’s the bringing about of shalom. Complete harmony and wholeness. Between God and us. Between us and other people – particularly those who we struggle to get along with. Between us and the rest of God’s creation. And also living at-one within ourselves. In other words, the whole gamut of transformation we have talked about in previous chapters.

It is the picture of the fulfillment of this dream that we meet in Revelation chapter 21 as heaven meets earth and shalom is realized in the establishment of a redeemed city, the New Jerusalem. So even now, our work is an act of eager anticipation. We live according to the values of a community that is still to come. When Jesus said, "Do not be anxious about material concerns, but seek first the Kingdom", he implied that our preoccupation is more important than our occupation. The way we go about our work is a reflection of what our hearts and minds are set on. It is a vision of the "Kingdom come" that directs and inspires our work.

We are invited to become part of the answer to the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. God invites us to personalize this challenge in our work so that this prayer becomes, “Your will be done Lord, starting with me. And starting right now.” This may involve sharing our faith sometimes. It will definitely mean attempting to live with integrity. It will also involve creating and pursuing what is good and resisting what is bad; unself-conscious service; healing and restoring relationships; stewarding creation; working for justice and exercising mercy; helping people to become all God created them to be; developing loving, caring and unified communities. And much more.

The “whole of life” means that mission is a task encompassing and transforming our homes and our neighborhoods, our organizations and relationships, our environment, our politics and our everyday “sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life” (Rom 12:1 The Message). And it definitely includes our places of work – the industries and professions we labor in much of the week.

The “whole world” means that mission is not just for those who labor over the oceans. It’s also very definitely for those of us who labor down the street, in the city, on the farm, in the classroom and in the kitchen.

The whole church living the whole gospel in the whole of life, impacting on the whole world. This is Mission.

God’s mission; Our commission

If this seems like too big a commission for us, it is. Which is why another profoundly important truth that needs recapturing is that mission doesn’t start with what we do in the world. Mission begins with what God is doing in the world and the part we have to play in God’s mission. To put it another way: it is not about what we do for God, but what we do with God. We are invited to do what we can, but in response to God’s initiative. For it is first and foremost, God’s mission. We are sent by God into our places of work, to be his agents.

This is why we like the word “commission”. If we break it down into two, we see that the “co” or “com” is a prefix for “with”, or “alongside”, or “together”. The word assumes that mission is done with someone. That someone is God (and in a lesser sense, with each other). Being “com-missioned” involves working alongside God in God’s mission to the world. Another way of putting this is how Charles Ringma defines mission – joining God in God’s caring, sustaining, and transforming activity on earth.

Without this critical truth, we can easily try to do what only God can do – and that is impossible. For we’re on dangerous ground if we start with an exalted view of the significance of what we are doing and a diminished view of what God is doing. This makes our God out to be much too small – and us much too big.

One of the implications of viewing ourselves as getting involved in God’s already existing mission is that it assumes that God is already on the job in our places of work. We don’t turn up to our office, or classroom, or workshop, or retail shop, bringing God with us. God is already there – at work among our colleagues, customers, students, organizations, businesses and industries. Our starting point is to look for where God is already working to bring transformation, and then seek to co-mission with God.

Eugene Peterson reminds us that …“as Christians do the jobs and tasks assigned to them in what the world calls work, we learn to pay attention to and practice what God is doing in love and justice, in helping and healing, in liberating and cheering...The Bible insists on a perspective in which our effort is at the edge and God’s work is at the center.” [2]

The Challenge

We believe the future of the church will be determined by the extent to which it is able to get all its members mobilized and resourced and supported for mission all the time. What a tragedy that many Christians continue to think that what they do most of the time doesn’t matter to God. This is an outrageous lie and sadly it is obstructing them from pursuing God’s mission through their work.

However, emphasizing the importance of mission in the marketplace is not done by exalting the significance of the marketplace in itself, the way our consumerist culture does. Rather, it does so because whole-of-life discipleship must include the marketplace. Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton write that:

The problem isn't that the Christian community is lacking in doctors, farmers, business people and musicians. The problem is that there are so few Christian doctors, farmers, business people and musicians. Most of us are Christians and something else; we do not engage in our daily tasks integrally as Christians ... Well-meaning Christians are merely adding faith to their vocation rather than letting faith transform their vocation.[3]

We think that’s spot on. If we have a truncated view of Christian mission that only becomes associated with what we do with our spare time, then our faith is really just an optional extra, leisure time pursuit, no longer integral to all that we do. Or it becomes only associated with those particular moments when we feel more directly involved in evangelism at work.

The truth is that getting involved in God’s mission in the marketplace is potentially thrilling, on-the-edge, challenging stuff. We love the way Steve Brinn expresses it:

Why shouldn’t Christians be up to their ears in tough stuff – and aren’t most of our reasons for shying away from it shallow or false? From the time I entered business, more than 22 years ago, Christ to me has been a model of engagement. Dangerous engagement in life, where there was high exposure with questionable people and complicated issues, entailing prospects for great conflict and trouble. Christ’s invitation to be like him led me, in the business context, from safe harbors to open water. [4]

Are you up to the challenge?

(In Chapter 12 you can read about how Wayne has sought to work this out.)

Up Close and Personal

  1. What has been your understanding of “mission”? Where/who have you gained this from?
  2. Think about your own place/s of work. Try to identify where and how you have seen God already at work. What indications might you look for that God is working?
  1. Discuss the implications for viewing yourself as a marketplace missionary.
  2. What do you find most challenging or hard in sharing your faith in your work context/s? Why do you think that is?
  3. Share your own perception of how your faith community/church understands your work. What would be most helpful to you in feeling that they support, encourage, and resource you?

If you’re studying this book in a group, you may like to finish this session by praying the following prayer together:

Prayer of Commission

We are your people Lord, called to follow, serve and love you.

We acknowledge afresh our dependence on you.

We want to be co-workers in your mission to this world.

Empower us by your Spirit we ask.

Give us vision to see what you want us to do.

Give us insight to see what you are already doing.

Give us humility to serve without complaint, in whatever tasks are before us.

Give us courage to testify to your goodness and faithfulness.

Give us patience and endurance in the race you have set before us.

Give us hope to believe that ultimately you will reign in all places and all hearts.

Transform us, we ask.

May your kingdom come, here on earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.