How do our churches begin to be transformed in the ways that we think about work—from meaninglessness to meaningful, rooted in the mission of God? Dorothy Sayers, who wrote brilliantly about work in The Mind of the Maker, in several essays, and even in her detective stories, hit the nail on the head when she said that seeing work as a consequence of the fall saps work of its sacramental value. "The whole of Christian doctrine centers round the great paradox of redemption, which asserts that the very pains and sorrows by which fallen man is encompassed can become instruments of his salvation, if they are accepted and transmuted by love."
What are some practical ways in which the neighborhood ekklesia—local expressions of the household of God—can begin to reclaim work as an expression and instrument of God's shalom? There are too many to list here, and every local gathering of Jesus followers should come up with strategies that arise from their own particular contexts, but here are a few of our ideas to get the conversation going.
1. Help people recognize and prefer good work over bad work.
The most important distinction in our culture isn't between white-collar work and blue-collar work; it's between bad work and good work. (In fact, we think taking good work seriously will remove some of the prejudices against manual labor and the trades.) Bad work is meaningless, stultifying, and exploitive; it puts the system before the person and lays waste to the earth. Good work is good for the community and good for the one doing it. It is modestly scaled, situated, and can be done well.
As has been noted by E. F. Schumacher and Wendell Berry, among others, the metaphysics of materialism is incapable of helping us distinguish good work from bad. The church should come alongside people who are asking questions about vocation and work because notions of work are too closely tied to the ultimate questions that materialism is ill-equipped to answer: Who am I? Who am I with? How did I get here? What am I supposed to do? One of the primary functions of the ekklesia should be to help people discern their gifts, develop those gifts, and exercise those gifts through cooperative work with God—whether that's at home, in the church, in the community, in a job, or as a volunteer.
2. Explore the possibilities (and limitations) of work as worship.
The opening question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, "What is the chief end of man?" The answer: "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever." Work is not the chief end of man. If we want to radically transform our families and communities, there are few better starting points than to acknowledge the truth of that last statement, consider its implications, and adjust our lives accordingly.
At the same time, good work done well can be a form of worship, if we mean it to be. God is radically immanent even in the most mundane tasks. Kathleen Norris points out in her little book The Quotidian Mysteries that our word menial derives from the Latin word meaning "to remain" or "to dwell in a household." It is a word about connections and household ties, she says. Later Norris suggests that what strikes us as "the ludicrous attention to detail in the book of Leviticus, involving God in the minutiae of daily life—all the cooking and cleaning of a people's life—might be revisioned as the very love of God. A God who cares so much as to desire to be present with us in everything we do."