Friday, December 2, 2011

Workaday Christians and the Modern Calling

While many adults often enter ministry after prior careers, most ministers work for the church full time, and a gulf lingers between parish practice and parishioners’ daily lives. Pastor Tom Nelson resolved to bridge the gulf between his Sunday sermons and the brass tacks his flock faced when they ventured back into the world. Despite some minor hiccups, Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work does admirably with that goal.

Traditional Christian narratives emphasize work as an important religious duty. According to Genesis, God placed humans in the Garden to work the soil and care for creation. After the Fall, work changed from our sacred duty to our burden and penance, yet work—and its close cousin, rest—remain some of our most holy charges. How we carry our relationship to God and our neighbor into our work space speaks volumes to our souls and salvation.

Most of us spend more time at work than any other activity. Our families, hobbies, and volunteer commitments may be important, but our day jobs are our largest mission field. As Nelson points out, God created humans to continue God’s work. Yet we often greet work with grim resignation. The cynicism of Dilbert cartoons and “You don’t have to be crazy to work here” t-shirts is a kind of slow spiritual death.

This applies both to leaders, who have a charge to build up their employees and care for those under their authority, and workers, who perform their work as a trust both from their human bosses and from God. We were created in the image of a God who nurtures and builds. Christ Himself made a living with his hands for years before starting His ministry. How we work forms a core of our Christian outreach.

Nelson encourages Christians to embrace work and, in doing so, transform it. When we put our minds on God’s mission and our hands to the plow, we turn our workplaces into mission fields. But to do that, we must see our work as more than a burden. To achieve that goal, Nelson urges us to reclaim an idea that has grown distorted in recent years, the notion of a sacred calling.

Many churches, particularly evangelical congregations, mistakenly divide labors into “higher” work, meaning the pastorate or missions, and “lower” work, done in secular settings. This leads many ordinary parishioners to think they let God down if they stick with their workaday jobs. But Nelson reminds us that the Apostle Paul encouraged Christians to continue their work, and be Christ’s eyes and hands where people actually are.

As Jacques Ellul says in The Presence of the Kingdom, many Christians, especially converts, think they have a call to ministry because that exempts them from life’s tedium. One young man I know thought that, if he became a pastor, he could study the Bible forty hours a week. Ministry’s realities shattered that illusion. Christians are called to work. We are not a rarefied batch of contemplative thinkers; even monks earn their keep by the day.

Yet for all the opportunities work offers Christians, we cannot ignore the challenges. Work can become a form of idolatry. I’ve heard of pastors who have needed to take sabbaticals because they realized they served the pulpit more than God. And work can become a source of profound discouragement, particularly when high Christian ideals conflict with petty workplace politics.

Nelson gets a bit exercised about the risks of sexual impropriety in the workplace, an attitude he takes perhaps to an extreme. While the high tensions of daily labor can cultivate shifting temptations, most workers I know are more threatened by despair or cynicism than lust. I wish Nelson spent more time talking about maintaining God-given hope in the face of daily struggle, because that, not sex, is the biggest obstacle I face.

But even when he follows the occasional cow path, Nelson makes many good points. Church should offer workers encouragement to face our Christian missions with good spirits, despite banal routine; yet many pastors fear to address the workaday world, and Christians fear voicing frustrations to the congregation. This creates a chasm between Sunday sermons and Monday actions, but to Nelson, this is merely an untapped opportunity.

We are all called to a task in this world. God made us to work. When we divide work and worship, we lose some of God’s most profound opportunities. Tom Nelson gives us the encouragement many of us need to reclaim our work for our God.

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