Note: This article is excerpted from Kingdom Calling.
To inspire their flock about their daily work, congregational leaders need to start with the vital truth that work preceded the Fall. This truth is foundational for faithful vocational stewardship. Work is not a result of humankind's fall into sin. Work is central in Genesis 1 and 2. There it is—right in the midst of paradise, right in the picture of God's intentions for how things ought to be. Work is a gift from God. Work is something we were built for, something our loving Creator intends for our good. Work is not evil, nor is it a side effect of sin. This truth can be hard for congregants to trust when they are frustrated in their jobs or unfulfilled in their careers. It's certainly true that the curse of Genesis 3 brought toil and futility into work. Ever since, our experience of work involves pain as well as pleasure. But work itself is good. It has intrinsic value.
Labor's Intrinsic Value: How We Participate in God's Own Work
Human beings are made in the image of God, and God is a worker. Human labor has intrinsic value because in it we "image," or reflect, our Creator. In Faith Goes to Work, author Robert Banks discusses God as our "vocational model," describing the various sorts of work he does and how myriad human vocations give expression to these aspects of God's work. Banks's model is very helpful for teaching congregants the intrinsic value of work. Leaders can explain the various ways in which God is a worker, and then encourage people to identify where their own labors fit. God's labors include the following:
- Redemptive work (God's saving and reconciling actions). Humans participate in this kind of work, for example, as evangelists, pastors, counselors, and peacemakers. So do writers, artists, producers, songwriters, poets, and actors who incorporate redemptive elements in their stories, novels, songs, films, performances, and other works.
- Creative work (God's fashioning of the physical and human world). God gives humans creativity. People in the arts (sculptors, actors, painters, musicians, poets, and so on) display this, as do a wide range of craftspeople (such as potters, weavers, and seamstresses, as well as interior designers, metalworkers, carpenters, builders, fashion designers, architects, novelists, urban planners, and more).
- Providential work (God's provision for and sustaining of humans and the creation). "The work of divine providence includes all that God does to maintain the universe and human life in an orderly and beneficial fashion," Banks writes. "This includes conserving, sustaining, and replenishing, in addition to creating and redeeming the world." Thus, innumerable individuals—bureaucrats, public utility workers, public policymakers, shopkeepers, career counselors, shipbuilders, farmers, firemen, repairmen, printers, transport workers, IT specialists, entrepreneurs, bankers, brokers, meteorologists, research technicians, civil servants, business school professors, mechanics, engineers, building inspectors, machinists, statisticians, plumbers, welders, janitors, and all who help keep the economic and political order working smoothly—reflect this aspect of God's labor.
- Justice work (God's maintenance of justice). Judges, lawyers, paralegals, government regulators, legal secretaries, city managers, prison wardens and guards, policy researchers and advocates, law professors, diplomats, supervisors, administrators, and law enforcement personnel participate in God's work of maintaining justice.
- Compassionate work (God's involvement in comforting, healing, guiding, and shepherding). Doctors, nurses, paramedics, psychologists, therapists, social workers, pharmacists, community workers, nonprofit directors, emergency medical technicians, counselors, and welfare agents all reflect this aspect of God's labor.
- Revelatory work (God's work to enlighten with truth). Preachers, scientists, educators, journalists, scholars, and writers are all involved in this sort of work.
In all these various ways, God the Father continues his creative, sustaining, and redeeming work through our human labor. This gives our work great dignity and purpose. Vocational stewardship starts with celebrating the work itself and recognizing that God cares about it and is accomplishing his purposes through it.
It is worth lingering on this point because much teaching on the integration of faith and work neglects the inherent value of work. Church leaders should indeed teach and preach on becoming certain types of workers—honest workers, ethical workers, caring workers, faithful workers, and salt-and-light workers. But such teaching is biblically insufficient if there's never any mention of the inherent value of the work itself. As my brilliant friend Ken Myers likes to say, we should seek to be more than "adverbial Christians."
Our Work Lasts
A further reason why our work truly matters is because it lasts. Work—pleasurable, fruitful, meaningful work—will be an eternal reality. Passages about life in the consummated kingdom, such as Isaiah 60, depict humans bringing all manner of culture making, craftsmanship, and economic production into the new age. Revelation 21:24 describes how "the kings of the earth will bring their splendor" into the New Jerusalem. It is good for leaders to remind people of this grand truth, because believers sometimes get discouraged by the seeming futility of their labors. Consider Lesslie Newbigin's profound insight:
Every faithful act of service, every honest labor to make the world a better place, which seemed to have been forever lost and forgotten in the rubble of history, will be seen on that day [at the final resurrection] to have contributed to the perfect fellowship of God's kingdom …. All who committed their work in faithfulness to God will be by him raised up to share in the new age, and will find that their labor was not lost, but that it has found its place in the completed kingdom.
Countering False Ideas About Work
Leaders need also to be aware that sin and our fallen culture have twisted many Christians' views on work. As church leaders teach the goodness of work, they also need to unmask and reject our secular culture's false understandings of work.
Because we are fallen, we sometimes act as though success at work equates to a successful life. It doesn't. Sometimes we make an idol of our careers. We need to repent. Sometimes we make decisions about jobs as though the ultimate purpose of work were self-fulfillment. It's not. Sometimes we judge people's worth based on their career position or status. We should seek God's forgiveness. Sometimes we allow work—which is just one dimension of our lives—to crowd out family or worship or relationships or play or Sabbath. We must resist.
False ideas about work emerge not just from the secular culture but also from poor theology. Therefore, church leaders must guard zealously against sacred/secular dualism that can produce an exaltation of the soul over the body (and thus of the so-called spiritual over the material) and/or a hierarchy favoring the work of clergy over that of the laity. Pastor Tom Nelson from Christ Community Church—who has been teaching his members about the redemptive value of work for ten years—takes this very seriously. "We're language police around here," he says. "We try very hard as a team to help each other avoid that dichotomist thinking and language."
Church leaders also need to address the fuzzy thinking some of their parishioners may have regarding work satisfaction. We've seen that for Christ-followers, the primary motivation for work is not self-fulfillment, self-enrichment, or self-promotion. That cuts directly across our secular culture's claims. Christianity insists that our lives—including our work—are all about God and his work, his mission. This should be inspirational because it provides profound meaning to our labor.
Leaders who begin teaching more on work may find that people have some misplaced fears: Does the fact that their work is not "all about them" mean that God intends for labor to be only drudgery? Is he indifferent to our joy? Does he call us to work that we loathe? Are we only in the center of his vocational call if our work is miserable, painful, and unfulfilling? No, no, no, and no again!
Church leaders must help their people recognize that Satan delights in distorting our understanding of the Father and his loving purposes. Even believers who have walked for years with God can get tangled up by the enemy of our souls, feeling guilty when they engage in work they love—as though that is a sign that the work must be selfish. It's not.
Dying to self in the context of our work does not mean that we must search for and take on the job we think we'd most dislike. God creates us each with passions and talents. He then endows his followers with spiritual gifts. He sovereignly arranges our circumstances and experiences. He forms us with unique personalities and designs. He puts in us the capacity to find deep joy and purpose by serving him through work that draws on our unique, God-given combination of natural and spiritual gifts. We serve him as we serve others through our work, because he has called us to be his hands and feet in the midst of our beautiful but broken planet. That work is often difficult and may be draining, but it also can bring rich satisfaction and reward. As author Frederick Buechner says in his pithy definition of vocation, "the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."