This sermon by David Welbourn is part of "Work in Worship," a collection of material for work-themed services compiled by David Welbourn. For more sermons, prayers, songs, and readings about work, click on the table of contents to the right.
The title of this address is All Work in His Service. Perhaps you are thinking there ought to be a question- mark at the end of that phrase. Is ALL work in God's service? Do all kinds of work contribute to his purpose? Is all work 'Christian work'?
Let me tell you about a man who was convinced that his work wasn't. A young man came to his manager one day and announced: "I intend to give up my job in industry in order to do Christian work". Now what was he minded to do? Probably he was thinking of becoming a clergyman or a teacher, or some other sort of "career".
Many Christian people would seem to characterise work as follows. They conceive of a sort of "premier league" of Christian work - in which they would place jobs such as those of the minister of religion, or missionary doctor, or Christian bookseller - by which they mean seller of Christian books. Then there's a "first division" - jobs not directly concerned with spreading the Gospel or to do with the life of the institutional Church but "Christian-approved" jobs just the same: and they would have in mind teachers, doctors, nurses, social worker - the so-called caring professions.
In which division would you place your job? Premier league, first, second, third division. Perhaps you are wondering whether your job is even Vauxhall Conference!
If we want to decide what sort of job qualifies as "Christian", we can do no better than consider the work and ministry of Jesus. He was quite sure he was doing God's work. "My Father works and I work" he declared in John chapter 5. Thus Jesus could speak of his Father's work and his own work in one breath.
We notice how Jesus in his work met the whole range of human needs. First, bodily needs. When people were hungry he provided them with food; when their bodies required healing he provided that. He also met the needs of people's minds - as a great teacher, for example. Finally, he met the deepest needs of the human spirit - by bringing people to the experience of the love and forgiveness of God within the life of the God's kingdom.
A parallel may be drawn between the work of Jesus in meeting the needs of body, mind and spirit and ordinary human work. Some jobs meet the needs of the body, for example the baker. Some jobs meet the needs of the mind - teachers, broadcasters, journalists. Others meet the needs of the spirit - counsellors, psychiatrists, plus those who enrich human culture through art, music and the like.
Provided they genuinely meet need, all types of work can be affirmed by Christians, all can qualify as "Christian work". Well, practically all! There are some exceptions. There cannot be Christian prostitutes, or drug pushers. And there may be some occupations of a borderline kind. But these are very much exceptions.
I should want to claim that any job, occupation or profession is Christian, contributes to the purpose of God if it (1) meets any kind of human need, or (2) contributes to the life of, or preserves, or heals the fabric of society, or (3) develops or preserves the life of the planet.
All these three categories are referred to in scripture. In the case of (1) there are scores of biblical passages about service, about loving our neighbour. In relation to (2) I will cite that wonderful passage in Ecclesiasticus 38, which speaks of herdsmen, smiths, potters and the like as "those who maintain the fabric of this world". With regard to (3) we may mention Genesis 1, which speaks of human beings created in God's image to have "dominion" (i.e. managership, stewardship) over the earth; and Genesis 2, in which human beings are enjoined to "till and keep the garden" of this world. These thoughts are repeated in Psalm 8, Romans 8 and Hebrews 2.
A thought may be bothering some of you. You may feel that I have done a whitewash job on human work by speaking in such positive terms about it. The reality of work as you know it might feel rather different. I am aware, however, that work has its shadow side.
Our work is meant to meet the needs of people and promote the well-being of society and the planet. Much actual work falls short. Sometimes industry produces shoddy goods. Occasionally the focus is on creating artificial needs rather than on meeting real ones. There are instances of dishonest marketing. In many workplaces people are badly used. Often profits are put before people. Much industrial output pollutes the planet. Examples could be multiplied.
Other dark features include the effects of recession. Businesses fail. People may become unemployed, fall into debt, have their houses repossessed. Those still in employment often work over-long hours, suffer stress, feel insecure about the future, experience problems of conscience.
These dark features of the world of work are found not just in the realms of industry and commerce. They are experienced in the world of work generally. They are present in the so-called caring professions. They are found also in the life of the church.
A distinction needs to be drawn between God's purpose for all types of work, and our actual performance in whatever occupation we happen to find ourselves. In other words, the distinction is not between some professions which are by nature godly and others which are not, but between God's purpose for them all and the failure of all adequately to carry out that purpose. All work is both Christian and less than Christian.
All are called to make their work more Christian; all are called to work in God's service. All therefore may be said to have a vocation. The idea of vocation should not be limited to the clerical and caring professions, but should include bankers, factory workers, planners, engineers, accountants.
People are called where they are, in their present job. But doesn't God sometimes call people out of one job into another? Yes, he does - sometimes. But when he does, it does not entail a divine judgement about what is higher or more Christian. Rather, God is saying to a particular individual: this, given your experience, talents and opportunities, is what I want you to do for me now.
Referring again to the young man who wanted to transfer to "Christian work", I am glad to tell you that he was persuaded by his manager to stay where he was and to fulfil his Christian vocation in industry.
May I close by suggesting something for you to go away and think about. Reflect on, and complete the following sentence: "My work is Christian because..."
Thanks to everyone who has invested in the Theology of Work Project! Thanks to your generosity, we were able to meet all our needs for 2017! We ask that you continue to keep us in your prayers and charitable giving in 2018 as we equip Christians to connect to God's purposes for work.