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.
Three men - a lawyer, an architect and a politician - were arguing about whose was the oldest profession. Mine is, said the lawyer, for the law was given way back under Moses. No mine is, claimed the architect who referred to the creation of the world by the Great Architect. But the politician had the trump card: "And where were you two when chaos reigned?"!
It seems to many that chaos reigns in the world of work today. One of the first activities by the new Bishop of Guildford on coming to his diocese was to familiarise himself with some of the major workplaces of the area. In organisation after organisation he heard the message "We're surviving in chaos".
To say that the present work scene is in a state of chaos is hardly an exaggeration. A number of factors contribute to the overall picture of chaos. Restructuring and rationalisation are the order of the day, as our organisations find themselves under intense pressure to improve their performance and at the same time reduce costs. A major cost is people, so firms are now operating with as few people as possible. Hence the measures described, in somewhat sinister fashion, as downsizing and delayering (stripping out layers of management to produce flatter organisations) .
The economic background to all this is (a) the recession (not fully over yet) - in the face of which cost reduction is vital to survival - and (b) the global market economy, of which we are inescapably a part and within which we are having to compete not only with the best in the world but with Third World countries where labour costs are a fraction of our own.
The factors I've described are major causes of high unemployment - a chaos experience affecting 3 million people. Many people, fortunately, are managing to get back to work but on less attractive terms, being offered either part-time or short-term contract work. Nor is it just returners who are going on to contract work. In fact, we are fast becoming a contract employment society. The major worry for those in contract work is whether they will be able to keep up their mortgage repayments. Uncertainty about continuity of income and the threat of house repossession are particularly worrying aspects of the chaos experience.
For many, gone are the days when one could look forward to a career. The business journal Management Today recently carried in large letters on its front page the words "No Stability, No Security, No Careers". Regarding careers, it has been said that today "there's no such thing as a career path; there's only crazy paving, and you lay it yourself". Life is therefore chaotic even for those with marketable skills; the prospect is total chaos for the unskilled, who would seem to have no place in the coming "intelligence" society.
The sheer amount of time many are spending at work - and this applies not only to those in senior positions - is another worrying phenomenon. The experience of chaos here is the loss of wholeness or balance in life. Many organisations are adopting the "half-times two-times three" formula: half the number of people, working for twice the pay and three times as hard. For some 6pm is midday. Many work long hours to demonstrate their loyalty, being afraid to leave before mid-evening. I'm told that some people take two jackets to work - one to wear when they go out of their office and the other to put on the back of their chair to indicate they are still on the premises. Many have far too little time for their families or for leisure pursuits. Some indeed speak of the sheer incompatibility of working and family life.
Working life is also characterised by growing inequalities. In some organisations chief executives earn more in one hour than ordinary employees do in an entire week. The chaos in this instance is the loss of agreed ethical norms or communal sense as to what is fair.
Also chaotic is people's loss of bargaining power. Trade unionists complain that hard-won employment rights, worked for over a century, are being progressively eroded. And increasingly people are in no position to do anything about their situation.
These features are sufficiently pervasive for many to claim that "chaos rules" in today's world of work.
This chaos is affecting the church. Clergy can no longer be sure of careers with pensions at the end of them. Many able lay people are too busy to be involved in church life, or even to attend church services. This leaves the running of church organisations even more to the clergy, who are themselves becoming over-worked and stressed.
Is there a Christian message of hope in the face of all this chaos? Can the chaos be overcome? Our thoughts automatically go to the opening verses of the Bible. The Bible's very first statement about God is that he overcomes chaos, turning it into creation. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was a vast waste". Or, as an older translation has it, "without form and void"; literally "formlessness and emptiness" in the original Hebrew. The very picture of chaos! Then God began to bring order out of the chaos. First light, then habitable dry land, and so on.
There are other key points in the Old Testament where God brings creation out of chaos. The idea is applied to God's bringing his people out of slavery in Egypt, the Exodus. Slavery was an experience of chaos, God's deliverance from it was the corresponding act of creation. It is spoken of in these terms in the Psalms and some of the prophetic writings. Psalm 89 celebrates God's mighty act in terms of the slaying of the great chaos monster, Rahab. The event of the Exodus is here being regarded as a replay of the primordial act of creation. The background is the widespread near-Eastern myth of the creation of the world out of the slain monster's body.
In a number of the Psalms and also in Isaiah, it is suggested that the act of creation involves a real struggle on God's part. This contrast with Genesis where creation is achieved instantly and effortlessly by divine fiat. Another contrast to Genesis 1: 1f. is the involvement in the drama of human actors, with Moses as God's main creative partner.
Another Old Testament event regarded as an act of creation-out-of-chaos is the deliverance from exile in Babylon. Here the main human agent is not a hero from God's own people but the foreign king Cyrus, referred to by Isaiah as "the Lord's anointed". (An implication of this will be drawn out later.)
In the New Testament, new creation comes about through Jesus Christ, the Lord's Anointed. In Romans 8 this new creation is very clearly portrayed as a creation out of chaos. Vivid chaos language is used to describe the present world order: it is "subject to frustration", "shackled by mortality", "groaning in all its parts". But chaos is not the end of the story. There is "glory, as yet unrevealed, in store for us" and all the world. There is to be "liberation", the "entering upon the glorious liberty of the children of God". Who will bring this new creation out of chaos? The primary agent will be God in Christ. But ordinary Christians will have a part to play: "The created universe is waiting with eager expectation for God's sons to be revealed". Note the plural: sons - or sons and daughters as we should want to say today.
Now who are these Christians working with God to bring creation out of chaos in the world of work? (for I now want to apply this thinking to our main subject today). The particular Christians to whom this challenge is primarily directed are, of course, those operating in the world of work. There must be hundreds of thousands of Christians out there but at the moment they make little impact, certainly no concerted impact. Possibly that is because they are largely unknown to one another. Yet these people are God's front-line troops. Their task is to set forth a vision of what work could and should be, to underpin their own working life with Christian faith and values and to demonstrate Christian ways to others.
But God has other agents too. First, there are those of other faiths. In particular we should recognise that Buddhist-Shintoist spiritual values have underpinned working life and business practice in Japanese firms, many of whom have set up factories in the UK. We can anticipate their continuing influence.
Then there are people of goodwill generally. There are those of all faiths and none who still adhere to humane values and who are working for a change of direction in the world of work. With the example of Cyrus in mind (referred to earlier), we should not be surprised that God should use such agents.
How will the creative changes happen? God's method is unlikely to be one of sudden, dramatic divine intervention, but rather a gradual sea change, building on the good things and good people in the world of work. For not all, by any means, of what goes on in organisations is anti-people. There is a philosophy called "Total Quality" which includes the idea that people are of intrinsic importance and stresses that organisations should be such that people are proud to work in them. The magazine Management Today, referred to earlier carried in the same issue a piece about the old Quaker firms and their values and spoke of the need to reinstate those values today.
But to return again to the Christian scene. The front-line troops have already been mentioned, but we may expect local churches are their clergy also have a role: the task of the local church is to hear, understand, resource and support its members who are in the world of work. Here are some suggestions which might help local churches do this more effectively.
- A list of congregational members and their occupations
- Regular Sunday intercessions for working lay members of the congregation
- A service (at least annual) on the theme of work
- Occasional sermons on work and work-related issues
- At least one PCC meeting a year with work on the agenda
- A discussion series on work (e.g. in a Lent course)
- Church magazine articles on work (e.g. "A day in the life of...")
- Mutual support groups of working lay people
- Support groups for unemployed people
- Invitations to outside speakers (e.g. industrial chaplain to preach or meet a group)
May I close by inviting you and your church to do all you can to put 'work' issues more centrally on the agenda, and to do whatever you can to resource and support your working members. In so doing you will be playing your part within God's purpose of transforming chaos into creation in the present world of work.
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.