Reinventing Church to Support Christians at Work

Article / Produced by Individual TOW Project member
Reinventing church 2

“Most of us spend almost 40% of our waking time at work. In contrast the average Christian spends less than 2% at church during their working years. Yet the church puts most of its energy into that 2%; almost nothing into the world of work". (Calvin Redekop)

1. Introduction

I have been haunted for a number of years by this quote from Calvin Redekop. It helped to crystallise some nagging thoughts that had been bouncing around in my brain for a long time without taking any clear shape.

It might seem strange for me to say this because for most of the last 30 years I have been a pastor in 3 Baptist churches in New Zealand and the rest of the time headed up an overseas mission and development agency and taught the theology of mission. However in 1993 I decided that the largest mission force the church has is mobilized every day of the week interacting with the world in the workplace and the shape of the future for the church is most likely to be decided by what happens there. Yet still we seem to be doing very little to resource Christian people for this missionary encounter in the marketplace. I decided that I needed to do something, initially by doing some post-graduate study and then by conducting a survey.

2. Faith At Work Survey

We began with a 6 month intensive survey questioning Christians on the ground about ways they saw their faith connected to their approach to work and asking, “Are there any ways in which you might appreciate more help from the church?” This survey involved 100 in-depth individual interviews, plus a number of discussion groups and seminars and numerous less formal encounters. A group of business people paid for me to spend 60% of my time for 2 years on this project and to develop training strategies relevant to the needs expressed.

3. The Results:

1. Most people began by assuming that I wanted to talk with them about how they were getting on evangelising their workmates. Most said (many self-consciously in a way that made both of us feel uncomfortable) that they weren’t very good at this. Many wondered if I should really be talking to them for this reason. This does seem to be the main way that most people think that God (or the church) values so called “secular” employment, a term often used by people in these conversations although personally I think it betrays a sub-Christian understanding of the fact that for Christians no sphere is secular but every activity takes place in sacred space where God is involved.

But for most Christians the church is seen to value employment primarily for what it means in terms of evangelism and money

Work expands our circle of contact with non-Christians and it provides money for the support of our families and the church and parachurch ministries. And I believe this is a woefully inadequate understanding whether we intend to convey it or not.

2. Christians clearly fall into two distinct groups when it comes to talking about how they feel God views their work. And here I distinguish between people involved in what might be broadly identified as the helping professions and those involved in other jobs.

Those in the helping professions, which includes doctors, nurses, social workers, counsellors and teachers were generally happy to use the word ministry in connection with their work. They see their work in itself as ministry in some sense. It is plain that people who are involved in more direct, person-to-person, service kinds of jobs feel that their work counts from God's perspective and that somehow the church affirms that their work is ministry. To some extent this is also true for parents who are working at home and who devote large chunks of their time to their families. The church seems to affirm that this kind of work also has a ministry or service component to it, although some mothers I talked to felt that this view of their work was diminishing.

The flip side of the church's affirmation of those in service jobs is that those whose work lacks this sense of direct person-to-person service feel that their work is not in itself of value to God or the church and is not ministry. People who struggle to connect their work to their faith include factory workers, manufacturers, accountants, desk-bound office workers, many business people and those involved in commercial or industrial work; those who feel somewhat removed from meeting people at their particular point of need. These people seldom talk about their work in itself as ministry. Rather they look for ministry opportunities in the relationships that their work opens up for them. A similar struggle is experienced by people who are involved in primarily technical jobs, where they are utilising practical skills rather than being in direct contact with other people eg. engineers, computer programmers. People often feel somewhat disconnected from God while they're performing these kinds of functions and struggle to find specific ways to nurture their faith and sense of God in their work. Many of these people have also found themselves embroiled in an increasingly harsh and competitive environment in which they feel increasingly uncomfortable.

3. Some clear differences exist between the experiences of white collar workers and blue collar workers and between people involved in small enterprises and those in larger enterprises and between those involved in the private sector and those involved as public servants

Also between women and men, and pakeha (white New Zealanders) and Maori (indigenous people) and Pacific Island immigrants.

Some of these issues had to do with

  • how interesting and challenging people found their work
  • how much control and freedom people felt they had in shaping their approach to their job
  • how valuable they felt their work was
  • what sort of relationships surrounded them in their work

4. More specifically faith-related responses that surfaced most frequently included:

  1. Comments about all Christians being equal, but “full-time” Christians being somehow more equal. Most people feel that there is still a hierarchy of significance in terms of ministry, with missionaries and pastors at the top, then other “full-time” Christian workers, then part-time pastoral staff, then elders, then deacons, then other volunteer workers in church activites, then those who are solely involved in full-time “secular” work And although very few people believed that it should be like this in theory, most thought that it is still this way in practice.
  2. Most people could not remember ever hearing a sermon on work
  3. Most had never heard any teaching about where work fits in God’s purposes.
  4. Almost none could identify any church songs that refer to work
  5. Most could not remember any prayers being prayed specifically about work, except with reference to evangelism. Some Anglicans and Catholics thought there might be some reference to daily work in the intercessory portion of their liturgy, but couldn’t remember the details.
  6. Only rarely did work come up as a topic in small group discussions, Pastors generally think that small groups are where people talk about work concerns. My conclusion is that what happens in church shapes the climate in which other things happen, unless deliberately driven by small group leaders with a different perspective.
  7. Church leaders seldom express much interest in people’s work and most people had never been visited by church leaders at work.
  8. Most people had now grown accustomed (or “resigned”, some used this word) to the fact that church was not likely to address their work realities and no longer expected this, although most said they would appreciate it if it happened. (A few said that they came to church to get away from the world of work and didn’t want these issues intruding into church. A few others said that, although they were still believers, they had given up on church now because it failed to address real-life issues for them.)
  9. Most had not read any book or attended any course that talked about faith and work issues.
  10. I was surprised how many times I was told that one of the most difficult things about being a Christian at work was the behaviour of other Christians. This included both the superspiritual attitudes and utterances of excessively zealous believers and the sub-Christian behaviour of those who have publicly identified themselves as believers. The poor ethics of some so-called “Christian” firms was cited as a major source of embarrassment in some industries.

Overall, I concluded that many Christians do feel uncomfortable that the church does not often address issues that relate to the events that most of their lives are invested in. But mostly this is a vague discomfort that has never been clearly articulated by them, nor even for them by others yet in a way that they have been able to say a clear “Yes” to. Mostly they are still looking for help to name the nature of that discomfort and identify the issues that it stems from. But I did notice how many people started to get hooked into our conversation as it progressed and become more animated as they realised I was serious about exploring the wider implications of faith for their work. And mostly they were keen to go further exploring the issues than just my interview allowed.

4. Conclusions

What did I conclude about the faith issues that need to be addressed by churches?

  1. Christian witness seems to have become too narrowly associated just with talking about Jesus and a few selected gospel themes and to underestimate the significance of our attitudes and actions and other words at work as part of our witness.
  2. We need to clarify some realistic expectations and approaches to evangelism. It seems that we need to find a way of discovering a more everyday faith that we can wear more naturally and comfortably in the marketplace
  3. Most Christians (especially those outside the helping professions, although I think they also need help to expand their view) need help to see how our work and God’s work are connected much more that we’ve usually thought by expanding our view of God and of God’s work
  4. Can church on Sunday become better connected with work on Monday? We need to explore practical ways churches can act to overcome the Sunday/Monday gap and the serious divide that many people feel exists between churches’ spiritual activities and what they talk about happening in the “real world”.
  5. When will the church start regularly singing songs and praying prayers and celebrating festivals that pick up on daily work and other important parts of our lives?
  6. People need more help to understand how we experience God’s guidance and how Christians should approach career and life planning
  7. What do involvement in ministry and mission mean?- especially when most Christians feel that there is still a hierarchy of value placed on different ministries in the church and what we call “ministry” and “mission” activities certainly implies higher value. We seldom ever recognise the roles that people play outside the church in formal ways, or specifically work to equip them for these, or ordain people to them, or intentionally support them in them. We could, couldn’t we?
  8. How do we balance competing time demands, especially in this increasingly competitive environment in which it seems the pressures are forever on the increase? Is church helping in this, or does church just represent another set of expectations and pressures heaped on an already very demanding life? Do churches need to revise expectations and structural demands?
  9. How do we personally nurture faith in this sort of pressured and chaotic environment? What does prayer look like in the fast lane?. Can we practise the presence of God in the modern marketplace, or is this just an impossible dream? What does an everyday spirituality look like? Can it be practiced in ways that don’t demand week long retreats and physical escape?
  10. What about Christian ethics in the modern marketplace? How can we live out Christian values in this new pluralistic setting and in an increasingly aggressive and competitive environment where there are all sorts of temptations to give truth new twists and to take ethically dubious shortcuts to make quicker progress? What are the core values a Christian ought to concentrate on nurturing? How do we use the Bible when even Christians can’t agree about so many issues? Can we promote a more helpful discussion about faith and economics in the church?

questions for Pastors to consider:

  1. Go back through the article and highlight what you consider to be the most important observations and insights.

  2. What concerns expressed here have particular relevance for you and your church?

  3. Is there anything Alistair talks about that you disagree with?

  4. How true is Calvin Redekop’s statement at the beginning of this article? What can we do about this?

  5. What practical strategies do you think might help to bridge the Sunday-Monday gap? Do you have any specific examples of what or others have done?

  6. Are there any resources you have found helpful in addressing these issues?