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."
Work is hard. It can be taxing. And it is always there. But even in the midst of the daily grind, we can offer our work back to God for God's glory. At that point, false distinctions between "secular" work and "sacred" work begin to crumble.
3. Champion work-related justice.
It's remarkable how many of today's most urgent social injustices are related to work. According to the International Labor Organization, there are more than 215 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 in the workforce worldwide. About half of those kids are working full-time to help support their impoverished families. Approximately 126 million children are subject to the worst forms of child labor, including slavery or other forms of force labor, drug trafficking, prostitution, involvement in armed conflict, and work in hazardous environments. Needless to say, these are children who, in a different context, would look very much like our own sons and daughters, our younger brothers and sisters, our neighbors.
Not for Sale, an organization dedicated to fighting human trafficking around the world, estimates that there are more than 30 million slaves in the world today, more than at any other point in human history. And human trafficking is not just happening halfway around the world. It's happening in our own cities and towns. Portland, Oregon, for example, is frequently cited as one of the most progressive and livable cities in the nation, but it has been confronted in recent years with evidence that it has become a regional hub for sex trafficking. The community is starting to respond.
Communities of faith can initiate weeks-long projects that help educate their people about the ways in which the issues of child labor and human trafficking hit home. (Mark Scandrette describes one such project in Practicing the Way of Jesus.) Churches can also help prevent work-related injustices by providing services to local runaway and homeless teenagers, refugees, and undocumented workers, speaking out in town hall meetings and at the local chamber of commerce, and using media and the arts to tell the stories of real people harmed by abusive labor. Churches can also help hold corporations accountable. The site free2work.org tells "the tale of the barcode," providing customers with information on how companies are or are not addressing forced and child labor. Anti-Slavery International, a British charity founded in 1839, has an interactive map that depicts slavery in the supply chain.
4. Recognize the human resources within our congregations and leverage them in the reconciling work of the kingdom.
The scriptural story emphasizes that God is reconciling all things in creation. Having been called into this work as church communities, every member of the body of Christ has skills that can be leveraged. Educators in all kinds of schools, from daycare centers to graduate schools, can help us create learning environments that are beneficial to the well-being of our places. Builders, electricians, and plumbers all have trades that can be utilized to help our places flourish. People with business and financial skills can help create needed jobs and can pursue financing needed for kingdom work. Doctors and nurses have knowledge and skills that can help us live more healthfully. Even lawyers can be beneficial to help our churches navigate the legal landscape with the shrewdness of serpents and the innocence of doves.
What if our churches become clearinghouses for good work in our neighborhoods, facilitating connections between employers looking for good workers and good workers looking for good jobs? What if our church communities became incubators of small businesses, nonprofits, and volunteer associations built on the assets that are already in our community, waiting to be nurtured and to grow?
In her challenging book Kingdom Calling, Amy Sherman describes the movement of local churches orchestrating the skills and talents of their members for the reconciling work of the kingdom in their particular places as "vocational stewardship." Sherman urges churches to equip their members to recognize and use the broad range of their skills and talents (not just a limited range of "spiritual gifts") in helping their places to mature and flourish into healthy communities. At my (Chris's) church, vocational stewardship has meant starting businesses around the beneficial skills of its members, including my experiences in publishing/bookselling. It has also meant connecting people in the congregation with other neighborhood nonprofit and for-profit groups that could use their skills. With the assumption that everyone has talents that God wants to use for the kingdom, we get to know our members and their God-given gifts and then watch for opportunities for them to use and deepen their skills in ways that benefit the common good of our neighborhoods.
—Taken from Slow Church by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. Copyright 2014 by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.