Though some work may seem useless, Christians understand that all work is God’s work. Our work only seems insignificant because we fail to grasp the big picture. This is what economists refer to as the “knowledge problem.” The knowledge problem means we can’t always see the big picture because knowledge is dispersed among many people; no one person knows everything. In the vocational sense, this means we may not understand how our work is part of a much larger economic dynamic. If we can’t easily see how our work contributes to the common good, we may understate the effect of what we do.
Some positions make it difficult for workers to see the end product, but that certainly does not mean that their work is insignificant. Just because a factory worker doesn’t receive the instant gratification of seeing the final product that he helped to create doesn’t change the reality that his effort contributed to that product…
… It’s important to remember that the value of our work may never be fully realized in our lifetime. In medieval times, it could take hundreds of years to build a single cathedral. The laborer laying the cornerstone might never live to see the top of the steeple. (more…)
Recent news reports on unemployment, underemployment, and the high level of dissatisfaction among those with full-time work are an opportunity for the church, says Michael Jahr. People are looking for meaning, fulfillment, opportunity – and the church has answers that no one else can provide.
At a 2013 Oikonomia Network seminary faulty retreat, Pastor Dan Scott, author of “The Emerging American Church,” said, “American workers are having an increasingly difficult time competing with their Polish, English, Spanish, Russian, Indian, Korean, and Brazilian counterparts in a globalized economy. … The solution is a spiritual one, although at present few of our churches are offering it because too many of them are focused on lesser things.”
A dualism that neglects to address the workplace – where most Christians spend the bulk of their waking hours – is at odds with the theology of vocation. As British theologian and author Lesslie Newbigin wrote, “The congregation has to be a place where its members are trained, supported, and nourished in the exercise of their parts of the priestly ministry in the world. The preaching and teaching of the local church has to be such that it enables members to think out the problems that face them in their secular work in light of their Christian faith.”
When it comes to integrating family and vocation, modernity has introduced plenty of opportunity. But it has also produced its own set of challenges. Though our newfound array of choices can help further our callings and empower our contributions to society, it can also distract us away from the universe beyond ourselves.
Thus far, I’ve limited my wariness on such matters to the more philosophical and theological realms — those areas where our culture of choice threatens to pollute our thinking about marriage, weaken our obligations to the family, and limit our view of Christian discipleship and vocation in the process.
In his new book, Home Economics: The Consequences of Changing Family Structure, Nick Schulz provides firmer support to these concerns, focusing on the more tangible economic outcomes we can expect from key shifts in the modern American family, namely: declines in marriage, increases in divorce, and spikes in out-of-wedlock childbearing.
Avoiding the deeper debate about whether these developments are “right” or “wrong” in a moral or theological sense, Schulz seeks instead to analyze the data as an economist, identifying which economic outcomes we can expect from which changes in the American family, along with some intriguing social speculation as to the why.
Schulz begins by pointing to an widely discussed study from the Brookings Institution, which found that “if young people finish high school, get a job, and get married before they have children, they have about a 2 percent chance of falling into poverty and nearly a 75 percent chance of joining the middle class by earning $50,000 or more per year.” Another study, referenced in a book by Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, found that “adolescents who have lived apart from one of their parents during some period of childhood are twice as likely to drop out of high school, twice as likely to have a child before age twenty, and one and a half times as likely to be ‘idle’—out of school and out of work—in their late teens and early twenties.”
The research rolls on, and Schulz wields the scalpel nicely, explaining how children raised without a mom and a dad are at much higher risk of failure across a variety of areas. (more…)
The Washington Post has an interesting story on young people who feel their vocation is “earning to give”—making as much money as possible in order to give away as much as possible to worthy causes. An example is Jason Trigg, an MIT computer science graduate who works as a programmer for a high-frequency trading firm:
Over at Think Christian, John Van Sloten puts forth something similar, focusing on our efforts to work for the common good— something not altogether separate from vocation:
There’s a lot of talk in faith/work circles about the idea of working for the common good – for the good of your neighbor, city, company, classmate, family member, environment and world.
It’s a good idea and an integral part of a balanced vocational worldview. But I think it falls short. And it’s not all that work is meant to be. In fact, sometimes it gets in the way.
Sometimes working for the common good is an impediment to what is work’s primary purpose: a real-time knowing and experience of God. Sometimes working for the common good becomes a works-based means of vocational salvation. And life with God becomes something that’s based on what we do for God as opposed to who we are before Him…
…Work must first be a gratitude-based response to a grace-filled encounter with our co-working God. It must be a place where we experience the presence of, are swept away by the creativity of, are enthralled by the beauty of, are humbled by the service of and are blown away by the mind of … God. (more…)
With the expansion of economic freedom and the resulting material prosperity, we’ve reached an unprecedented position of personal reflection and vocation-seeking. This is a welcome development, to be sure, but as I’ve written recently, it also has its risks. Unless we continue to seek God first and neighbor second, such reflection can quickly descend into self-absorbed and unproductive naval-gazing.
Thus far, I’ve limited my discussion to the ways in which privilege and prosperity can impact our views about work outside of the home, but we needn’t forget the side effects that modernity might foster in an area that often consumes the rest of our daily lives: the family.
Just as most of our ancestors had few choices about where they glorified God in business (toiling for the feudal landowner), they also had few choices when it came to raising families (who they married, how many children they had, etc.). Whether due to lack of contraception, more practical material/financial concerns, or any number of other factors, for most families, children were simply a given.
Today, much like in our approaches to job-seeking, child-bearing has come to involve a significant degree of choice, and the overriding choice of the day seems definitive. As Jonathan Last points out in his book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster, birthrates in the Western world are in a free fall, with more and more adults opting for fewer and fewer kids, if any at all. Last offers plenty of nuances as to why this is happening, pointing to a “complex constellation of factors, operating independently, with both foreseeable and unintended consequences.” But on the whole, he concludes that “there is something about modernity itself that tends toward fewer children.” (more…)
Most of us have spent at least a little time working in jobs we weren’t thrilled about. For me, it peaked with McDonald’s (no offense, Ronald).
For Trevin Wax, it was Cracker Barrel:
I never wanted to work at Cracker Barrel. I had business experience as an office manager, plus five years of international missions experience tucked under my belt.
But none of that mattered when the most pressing question was, How will you provide for your wife and son this week? Like many before and after me, I did whatever was necessary.
In the past, I’ve referred to such work as “needs-based” — an adjective that would seem highly redundant to most of our ancestors, not to mention plenty of today’s poor. Our now-widespread discussions and contemplations about vocation and personal calling are somewhat new, and we should be careful to recognize why exactly we have the reactions we do about working at reliable, air-conditioned joints like Cracker Barrel.
Each new wave of economic progress and individual empowerment has brought more opportunity to look upward and onward, beyond meeting our own needs and toward something bigger and brighter and so on. This is a marvelous thing, but with such opportunity and privilege also comes a temptation to look inward when it’s convenient — to rejoice in ourselves when we succeed and get grumpy when we wind up sniffing grease at Cracker Barrel.
Wax, however, looks back on his experience as much more than a pay-the-bills moment. Rather, the 18 months he spent at Cracker Barrel serves as “a reminder of the Lord’s faithfulness to us during a difficult, sometimes frustrating, season of life.” Pointing out that “there are hidden blessings in unwelcome work,” Wax proceeds to offer four reminders for those who find themselves in work situations that don’t seem to fit the mission. (more…)
Discussions about faith-work integration are on the rise, with an ever-increasing number of related books, sermons, and blog posts (ahem) appearing with every passing day.
Just a cursory glance around the faith and work landscape, and you’ll find a bunch of middle class white men (with the occasional woman or Asian). So what’s going on here? Does integrating your faith and work only matter for white professionals and not African-Americans or Latinos? (For the sake of this post, you’ll have to excuse some generalizations.)
After offering a brief history of 20th-century American prosperity and the widespread self-actualization that followed, Haanen offers his hypothesis:
Twentieth century America did not bless all ethnic groups evenly with wealth and comfort. African Americans lived under the thumb of institutionalized racism even years after the civil rights movement, and struggled for years to acquire the kind of jobs, and thus material comfort, that their white counterparts did. Today, it’s mostly Latinos who occupy the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder; they make even less than blacks per capita across age groups.
All that to say this: while white guys were wondering about their purpose in life, blacks and Latinos were just trying to survive. When I was a pastor of a Latino congregation, it wasn’t terribly surprising that questions of existential despair or vocational fit never arose. Dignity and providing for the family trumped “fulfilling the cultural mandate.” Getting a job and paying rent was a bit higher on the hierarchy of needs.
Haanen’s point about disparate shifts in the makeup and distribution of work is an important one. The minimum-wage McDonald’s worker will likely face a host of spiritual challenges distinct from those faced by the white-collar executive. Likewise, the differences in time and comfort outside of that work will play no small part in defining that struggle. As Haanen also indicates, “intangible” factors like racism are bound to transform these struggles further, even among workers in the same job type and industry.
But having recognized all of this, it’s also important to recognize that just because a worker hasn’t the time, resources, or energy for armchair theologizing on “vocational fit,” it doesn’t mean that meaning, purpose, and transcendent activity isn’t taking place amid the strenuous circumstances. Whether or not we are actively thinking and talking about “cultural mandate,” the basic dignity of our work and the basic activity of serving society and providing for one’s family is an integral part of fulfilling that mandate. At a certain level, “needs-based” work has a forceful way of tempering our individualistic inclinations, and at that level, I think we need to seriously reconsider how closely we’re aligning “vocation” with our own personal preferences or our end-game goals. Does God not also call us to that initial job or task that begins a longer trajectory filled with other more “fulfilling” things? (more…)
Being made in the image of God, says Art Lindsley, is a powerful concept for finding our vocations and living a purposeful life.
While the image of God remains after the Fall, it is certainly marred and defaced. As we are redeemed, what will we look like when the process is completed?
As God restores us, our unique design in the image of God will shine even more brightly, and our gifts will reach their full potential. We will also look like Christ. Romans 8:29 reminds us that we are being “conformed to the image of his Son.” Jesus is the perfect representative of the image of God, and we are being made like him.
Being made in the image of God provides the basis for our work and vocation. If we are made in the image of God, we share his characteristics. For example, because God is creative, we can be creative in our work. Knowing the basis for our dignity and worth helps us understand we have gifts and talents to employ. I have conducted hundreds of vocational profiles with people who hadn’t discovered their calling because they didn’t think they had anything to offer. Often, traumatic events from their past have defined their identity and kept them from recognizing their dignity, worth, and God-given creativity.
One of the major focuses of On Call in Culture is to remind Christians that discipleship doesn’t end when Sunday service concludes. Yet in going about our daily work, we should also be careful that we don’t neglect the important role the church can fill when it comes to matters of vocational stewardship and daily cultural engagement.
Over at (re)integrate, Dr. Amy Sherman, author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good, offers ten suggestions for how the church might encourage whole-life discipleship and vocational stewardship:
1. During corporate worship services, pray for members by vocation. This could take a variety of expressions:
- pray aloud for a different occupational group (e.g., educators or businesspeople) each week
- invite congregants who are facing difficulties on the job to come forward during or after the service for prayer
- pray for individual members by name and vocation
2. Visit church members at their places of work.
3. Recognize vocational achievements and awards of congregants in the church’s newsletter or on its website.
4. Offer an adult education class that helps participants discern the dimensions of their vocational power (skills, networks, etc.) and gets them talking about how to deploy that power to advance Kingdom foretastes in and through their work.
5. Encourage the church’s small groups to incorporate regular times of discussion and prayer focused on members’ work lives.
Read the rest of her suggestions here.