“I just wish I got to do what you—get paid to serve Jesus,” he said to me, with eyes betraying the wariness of facing another Monday under the hot sun. This longtime church member, who owned his own landscaping business, loved talking theology but could not see the connection between our worship and teaching on Sunday and his work in the trenches on Monday.
I wish I could say this attitude was rare among so-called “lay Christians,” but it is not, sadly. My years of ministry experience tell me that most still feel that the work they do with their hands during the week is inferior to the work of people whose paycheck comes from a Christian 501(c)3.
Why is this? I think there are several reasons:
First, we’ve lost a robust view of calling somewhere in the twentieth century, creating a dichotomy between the secular and sacred that we are only now recovering, thanks to the emerging faith and work movement.
Second, pastors, I believe, have failed to preach faithfully, holistically, and robustly on the integration of work and worship.
Third, those of us who have theological training and are the “professionals” of the Church have too highly valued our own position and have subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly devalued the vocational worth of the average working man and woman.
So how do we recover this? I think it begins at the local church level with pastors who intentionally affirm the worth of the work their people do every day. I think there are three ways we do this:
1. We avoid a discipleship reductionism that destroys a doctrine of vocation.
That’s a mouthful, I’ll admit, but I believe some of the reason church members have poor attitudes about their work is because pastors devalue it, even in well-meaning ways. For instance, how often do we say, either in our missions’ appeals or even as we are (rightly) pointing our people toward singular devotion to God: “This is all that matters. Nothing else in your life and in your world matters.”
Now I know what the pastor means when he says that because I said those phrases myself. What we mean is that work, ambition, money, power—these things are all unworthy idols. They are cheap substitutes for worship, worship that should be singularly focused on Christ. Only he satisfies those deep longings in our hearts.
But guess what the working man, hands still dirty from digging ditches, hears when he hears you say “Nothing else matters.” He hears you say: “Your job on Monday doesn’t really matter. Yeah, it gives you money to help with missions and provides opportunities for evangelism but what we do here on Sunday is all that matters.” So he goes to work on Monday feeling a bit like he’s on the Christian Junior Varsity team. If only God would allow him, one day, to really serve Jesus on the front lines.
In some sense, we are communicating a truncated gospel, that faith in Christ is only about personal piety and has no distinct mark on the way we work our vocations. What’s more, we do damage to the Creation mandate, redeemed by Christ (Ephesians 2:10) that empowers us to create as we were created to do. Our work not only is a means to an end. It’s a form of worship to the Creator of all things. It’s a way we contribute to the human flourishing of our neighbor. And while our work should not replace Christ as an object of worship, it does, indeed matter.
Pastors, we need to use clear, unambiguous language, to hold both the call to sacrifice for the sake of missions and maintain a healthy, robust doctrine of vocation and doctrine of creation.
2. We don’t overvalue our own positions as pastors or ministry leaders.
Growing up, it was an axiom in our household and our church that the hardest job on earth was the job of the pastor. He had the most pressure, the hardest decisions, and the most strenuous tasks. This may be true, at times. The job of the pastor is a high and holy calling; one that James reminds us we dare not take lightly (James 3:1). However, we should not so flatter ourselves as to create a martyr complex and diminish the difficulty our church members face in faithfully living out their vocations in fallen world. Sometimes the job of pastor is the most difficult in the culture. Sometimes it isn’t.
We should not be so focused, in our preaching and in our conversations, about our own difficulties that we cannot empathize with the struggles and hardships others face. Some are forced to work long, hard hours just to make a basic living and support their families. Some go to work every day on edge, wondering if they will lose their jobs. Some face pressures that you and I may never face.
In many ways, pastors live in an unnatural bubble, surrounded daily by Christians while the average church member goes to work in a marketplace where being a Christian makes him a distinct minority. They are the real evangelists, who must embody the gospel in the ways they interact with people whose values might be very different than theirs. The pressures to cheat, to lie, to cut corners are very real. They are the real foot soldiers.
Pastors can affirm the value of the work their people do by simply entering into the daily work struggles of the people they pastor and by inquiring, often, about new ways to pray.
3. Seed your sermons with real-world, on-the-job, applications.
Put away the illustration books with the cheesy one-liners that make your people groan. The best illustrations in preaching are from real life and not just your real life, either. They may not relate to that time in the coffee shop when you were surrounded by your theology books and a secularist college student questioned you about Nietzsche. Sure, add in your own examples of good and bad, pepper your preaching with foibles from family life, talk openly about conflicts you face. But you might also, when applying the Scriptures to real life, speak of the types of situations your parishioners might face in the workplace.
This assumes, of course, that you are active among your people as a pastor and not just a preacher. It assumes that you are interested in curious about the way they work in their vocations, what constitutes success and a job well done. It assumes you leave your Christian thought bubble and are in the marketplace aware of the conversations in your community.
And when you apply applications to the workplace, don’t reduce them to evangelism opportunities, but other situations like relational conflicts, difficulties with hard bosses, leadership principles, and the value of the work they are required to perform. Be diverse in your application, so that the hotel maid feels as much worth in her work as the corporate executive and the blue-collar worker is as affirmed in what he creates as the local artist.
This doesn’t have to be contrived or canned. In fact, your people will know, by the way you preach and talk and relate, if you are really in touch with their everyday reality. Most importantly, they’ll start to get the message that Sunday is not the only day that matters to the God they worship. The gospel of Christ also affects what they do on Monday.