A Preacher’s Perspective on Reading the Bible with Workplace Eyes by Haddon Robinson

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When the Sermon Goes to Work

Does selling insurance, running a laundromat, driving a cab, or delivering mail matter to God? Judging by our preaching, the answer is “not much.” In one survey 90 percent of Christians said they had never heard a sermon that applied biblical theology to work. Yet Christians may spend between 40 and 75 percent of their lives in work-related tasks. Unfortunately, they have reason to suspect that, as far as God is concerned, their work-life is a vast wasteland.

Several years ago I had breakfast with a group of Christian businessmen. Perhaps because I was there, they began talking about their pastors. They respected their ministers and appreciated their dedication, but they also felt their pastors were out of touch with them. Their preachers had visited them or members of their families when they were in the hospital, and a couple of the ministers had visited two of the men in their homes. Two others reported that their preachers had played golf with them. Yet, none of the clergymen had ever spent a day with them at work or even visited them at their place of employment. As one of the men put it, “I enter his world once or twice a week, but he doesn’t bother much about mine.”

If ministers do preach about the workplace, they may speak of it solely as a platform for evangelism. The idea here is that the dock worker or the tailor should find significance in their labor by sharing the gospel with fellow-workers.

Some Christians have bought into this attitude. “I earn my living as an accountant,” they say, “but my real work is telling people about Jesus Christ.” Is it? Does God care nothing about how the books are kept?

Would it be out of line for pastors to ordain men and women to the work of the ministry in the marketplace? Would it be sacrilegious to send them out not simply as evangelists but as witnesses who honor Jesus Christ by the way they do their jobs? Whom do we honor? When someone leaves the workplace to go to the mission field, have they always made a more godly choice? Or suppose a pastor leaves the church to run the jewelry store. Is it possible that he hasn’t really left the ministry at all?

Remember the Workday

Read again the passages in the New Testament directed to slaves. Paul affirms them. They are doing the will of God; they are serving their Master, Jesus, and they will receive their reward from him for what they do in their work. Don’t those passages alone challenge our silence about labor?

The line of penetration should be from the pulpit to the pew to the pavement. We need to break down the wall between the sacred and the secular. We must help those who are Christ followers to “remember the workday to keep it holy.”

The World of the Bottom Line

When one of the executives in that Bible study commented that in all the years he had been in business his pastor had never visited him at his office, another man said, “It’s just as well. A minister would feel out of place in my office.” Since I consider myself a minister, I pressed him to explain.

“Most ministers I know come across best visiting the hospital or working in the church environs. That’s their turf.” He went on to say he saw the world of the pastor and the world of business people as very different: “The pastor is used to working alone or with a small staff, and his interest is relationships. The world of business is a more impersonal atmosphere dominated by people who emphasize the bottom line.

“Pastors do pretty well with issues of grief and loneliness and interpersonal ethics—not stealing, coveting, fornicating, and so on,” he said. “But I don’t know too many pastors who address the problems of the individual’s conflicting loyalties in groups and organizations.”

Another man, who helps run a large construction corporation, agreed and offered an example: “A fellow owed us $500,000 when he died. He and his wife owned a house worth $150,000. The question is, do we sue the estate for the money we’re due, even if it costs the woman her house as part of the payment for her husband’s debt?”

He continued, “If you own the company, you can make a compassionate decision if you want to. But when you are responsible to stockholders and your job is to collect bad debts, where is your higher loyalty? Now, you might argue, ‘$150,000 isn’t worth it.’ But suppose the house is worth $500,000; now do you go after it? Or a million? Is it ethical to go after a $500,000 house but unethical to go after a $150,000 house?”

The businessmen agreed—rarely in church do they hear anybody even mention these kinds of issues. Yet that is the common stuff of life. Tough, morally ambiguous issues are where some business people have to live out their faith. “While the preacher talks about absolutes of right and wrong,” one man said, “most of us deal with gray situations.”

Another said, “My pastor talks about ‘the good being an enemy of God’s best,’ but people in my world aren’t dealing with first or second moral choices. They’re down to the twelfth or thirteenth choices.

“As much as I appreciate my pastor and enjoy his sermons,” the businessman concluded, “it’s not often that he speaks about my world.”

I was dismayed by the conversation. Not everyone would agree with these businessmen; some people attend church expecting their minister to say something that will help them understand the broad issues of life a little better. But not many expect the preacher to be able to speak with insight to the particular world in which many of them live.

Sermons That Talk About the Hard Questions

Let’s face it. Life is complex. But we sometimes preach as though it were not. Here’s an example from one of my sermons. One time after I had preached a sermon on love, a man came up and said, “You said that love means always seeking other people’s highest good.” “Yes.” “That’s fine, but my business puts me in competition with another man in this congregation. I run an efficient operation that lets me sell my product cheaper than his. What’s the loving thing to do—underprice him and take some of his customers? Or should I keep my prices roughly equal?”

Before I could respond, he went on.

“But that’s not the toughest part. A large corporation has just moved into town selling the same product. I’m going to have to scramble to stay in business myself. I may have to cut prices so drastically it will drive my fellow church member into bankruptcy.

“I want to love this man. We’re in the same Sunday school class. I coach his kids in Little League. I want to do what’s best for him. But the name of the game out there is survival,” he said. “Why don’t preachers talk about these kinds of things when they talk about love?”

For us to communicate with authority, we’ve got to step into the shoes of those Christians who are in the home and marketplace. No matter how gray the issues, we’ve got to be willing to say, “As a pastor, I must talk about the hard questions.” In our preaching, we must recognize the complexity of the issues. How do we do that?

First, it’s helpful simply to admit the tension and point it out. All truth exists in tension. God’s love exists in tension with his holiness. Skillfully applying love and justice is not easy.

I believe God honors an honest try. People need to know that. Sometimes I’ll point out that we will make a wrong decision with the right motive, which is different from making a right decision out of a wrong motive. As far as I know, the Bible never calls any action, in itself, right. No action is right apart from its motive. Obviously there are some acts the Bible calls wrong: murder, lying, adultery. But it’s not as easy to classify right behavior.

For example, Jesus talks about two men who went to the temple to pray—which sounds like a good religious act. But only one was justified, the other was not. Jesus talks about people giving—and that’s a good thing—except some give to be seen by others. That’s not good.

So in God’s economy, motive is a key factor. One of the things we preachers can say to people, with authority, is: “In these situations, it’s important to handle life skillfully, to make the right decisions. But the prior and more important decision is What’s motivating you? Are you willing to be God’s representative in this situation? Sometimes those decisions are confusing. We need wisdom. That’s what Christian friends and Christian counsel give you.”

When the Sermon Goes to Work by Haddon Robinson comes from The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching edited by Haddon Robinson and Craig Brian Larson Chapter 190 (pp677-679) Zondervan 2005. It is used by permission from Christianity Today International who first published this article.