Work Makes the World
Note: The following is a speech I gave at the January 13, 2017 fundraiser “Work Makes the World.” To make a donation to Denver Institute, go to our give page.
Thank you for coming tonight. Thanks for Jim Howey and Steve Hill hosting us at Blender Products, and thank you to Cañon Catering for the delightful meal. And thank you to our table sponsors.
And in case I don’t get another chance: a huge thank you to Joanna Meyer, our Program Director at DIFW, for organizing this tonight. Incredible work.
I’m often asked by friends and donors why I started Denver Institute for Faith & Work (DIFW) in 2013. Seems like a strange thing to do in the evenings while working a full-time job that barely paid the bills!
I’d like to share with you tonight three reasons why I started DIFW back in 2013.
I want to camp on the question of why because What we do is easier to explain: we’re a Denver nonprofit that provides theological education on issues of work, calling and culture. Or put in other terms: through our programming we provide a continuing Christian liberal arts education for business leaders, doctors, engineers, pastors, lawyers, creatives, craftsmen, and other professionals in the day-to-day challenges of their careers.
But why grow and build an institution committed solely committed to Christian faith and what it means for our work? Why invest in such an endeavor?
When asked that question, I generally respond that “I started Denver Institute because of three growing convictions in my heart about: (1) the mission of the church, (2) Christian cultural involvement, and (3) the transformative effects of responding to God’s call.”
Conviction #1: Work is critical to the church’s mission in the 21st century.
About 10 years ago I went to seminary. This means I learned how to diagram sentences of Greek grammar, defend the doctrine of the hypostatic union, and play Frisbee golf. I also learned, especially in the years after seminary, that the best theology lessons usually happen at Jake’s Brew Pub in Littleton, Colorado.
In some of these conversations with my friends, I began to digest theologians like Lesslie Newbigin, N.T. Wright, C.S Lewis, and Dorothy Sayers. I came to believe that our daily work was essential – not tangential — to the mission of the church.
Take for example, John Stott. He was an Anglican priest and many see him as the leader of the Evangelical movement in the latter half of the 20th Century. I picked up his book Christian Mission in the Modern World, written in the 1970s. What, he asks, is the mission of the church?
Earlier in his life, he would have pointed only to the Great Commission: Go, make disciples, baptize. But later in his life he came to believe that just as Jesus was sent into the world as a servant, it’s the church’s mission not only to proclaim the gospel but also to serve the needs of the world.
Here’s what he says: “Jesus Christ calls all his disciples to ‘ministry,’ that is, to service. This much is certain: if we are Christians we must spend our lives in the service of God and man. The only difference between us lies in the nature of the service we are called to render.” Some will be pastors. Beautiful. Others commerce, law, education, medicine, manufacturing or farming, government, or homemaking. This is their form of service, their part in God’s mission.
In the years after seminary, this solved a puzzle for me. I felt a strong desire to serve God, but I failed gloriously at being a pastor – every church I applied to rejected my application. A being a lifelong overseas missionary never felt right. Had I missed something? Since I wasn’t in “ministry”, had I failed? I’ve had this conversation with hundreds of men and women: Aren’t I supposed to be doing something more spiritual than this job?
As is, most of us in the the church today see mission merely as a two week trip overseas or a volunteer activity downtown.
But what if mission included these things, but touched a much broader swath of human life?
I started to ask, what if the church was sent out into all of creation, including fields like manufacturing, retail, the trades, business or health care? What if work was at the heart of all-of-life discipleship; to bringing the good news of Jesus to every area of our secular culture; and to humbly serving the needs of our world, from providing good paying jobs to America’s working class to caring for terminally-ill patients?
My first conviction that led to the founding of Denver Institute was that a renewed focus on work was necessary to carry out a broader understanding of the gospel, one that sees the death and resurrection of Jesus renewing every corner of the world.
This is core to the church’s own mission – yet so often overlooked. In the words of Steve Reinemund, former Pepsi CEO and Dean of the Wake Forest Business School, “The workplace is the greatest mission field there is.”
Conviction #2: Work is at the heart of Christian cultural engagement.
The values we bring to work and the products and services we make at work form the unspoken heart of our civilization. As go our businesses, hospitals, government institutions, schools and workplaces, so goes our world.
Let me give you an example. In December, I had the privilege of profiling Robin John, the founder of a mutual fund company called Eventide Funds, for Christianity Today. One of his first jobs after graduating from college took him from Boston back to India, the land of his birth, to train new employees. One day, staying in the guest house of an Indian firm, he asked the housekeepers where they slept. He discovered that in the four-bedroom house, they slept in a closet behind the kitchen on the concrete floor, with just a mat and rags for a pillow. Outraged, he notified his company of the housekeepers living conditions – but the two men begged him not to pursue the the matter or they’d lose their jobs and be back in the slums.
When Robin returned to the US, the air of his bank’s home office was also heavy with tension. Outsourcing to India meant cutting jobs in the US. Now his American co-workers would also plea with them: “If my job is going to India, you have to let me know. I’ve got a family.”
Robin had an “Aha” moment. “I started realizing that work is not just work. People’s lives are being impacted.” Work was shaping the culture around him – and shaping people’s lives.
Today, we gather together at Blender Products, a local metal manufacturer, to say “Work Makes the World.” Work makes our buildings, our schools, our clinics, our laws, our art, our policies, and our wealth.
And Christians have been at it for centuries: Fourth century Bishop Basil of Caesarea created the first public hospital; Italian merchants set the foundations for capitalism in the 12th century; Bach wrote symphonies, signing them Soli Deo Gloria; Ministers created the majority of American universities in the early republic well before they secularized in the late 19th and early 20th century; Martin Luther King led the civil rights movement as a Baptist preacher and Francis Perkins advocated for labor rights. Work not only makes the world, it makes – or breaks – civilizations.
Yet it stands today, and really for the last half century or so, many Christians have felt that the only way to influence culture is through electing the right political leaders in Washington. As we can see in a fractured republic, this has not worked out well for us. Our witness has been comprised by aligning ourselves with political ideologies, and the church has less influence than ever in America history. Washington is important, but it cannot solve the great moral crises of our day. We cannot pass the buck any longer; it is our responsibility to care for our neighbors.
There’s a better way: No need to wait until the next election to influence culture – the chance to shape culture is staring us in the face every Monday morning. The choices we make daily in health care, finance, philanthropy, science, education, raising families — this is where we can best shape culture.
Conviction #3: Men and women who respond to God’s call in their professional lives have a transformative impact on those around them.
When I began to see this, the phrase “Faith and work” for me became synonymous with St Irenaeus famous statement: “The glory of God is man fully alive.”
Example abounded. Bill Kurtz, spurred by a sense of God’s call, founded Denver Schools of Science and Technology over a decade ago, whose students now perform in the top 5% of DPS schools, and 100% of whom have been accepted to a 4-year college. One of our guests tonight, Barry Rowan, financially turns around a publicly-traded company, saving hundreds of jobs – and doing so as a response to the Holy Spirit’s prompting. Two of our Fellows, whom you’ll hear from tonight – Banks Benitez and Rachel Moran – start social enterprises around the world and defend racial minorities in court from systemic discrimination.
The historic response of Protestants to God’s call on their lives and work laid the foundations for global capital markets, the spread of literacy, and better health care, and higher volunteer involvement in nongovernmental institutions throughout the world.
University of Virginia professor James Davison Hunter, “In short, fidelity to the highest practices of vocation before God is consecrated and in itself transformational in its effects.”
As it is today, though, we have two enormous problems facing us at work. One one side, we undervalue work. Gallup polls show that only 13 percent of employees worldwide are “engaged” in their jobs — that is, they are consistently emotionally invested in, and focused on creating value for, their organizations. 63 percent are not engaged and 24 percent are actively disengaged.
Perhaps even more concerning is that the labor participation rate in America has steadily been dropping for the past 50 years. Today, about 10 million prime age men (25-54) are either unemployed or have dropped out of the workforce altogether — not even looking for work. Our attitudes about work have drifted significantly from historic ideas about calling.
On the other side, many of the upwardly mobile nearly worship their work. It becomes our primary source of meaning and value – until one day our hearts tell us the pursuit of mere career success has left us spiritually empty.
But there’s a middle way between undervaluing or overvaluing our work. For those who see their work as a gift from God and chance to serve their neighbor – that is, as a vocation – social, economic, and cultural ripple effects leaven entire communities. Tonight, we’ll have the chance to hear one of those stories right here in Denver, that of Karla Nugent, co-founder of Weifield Group Electrical Contracting.
Those were my three convictions that led to the founding of Denver Institute: the mission of the church, Christian cultural involvement, and the power of responding to God’s call.
Yet as I’ve been doing this work for the past four years now, a fourth reason has emerged. It’s invisible, yet it’s become the most important one for me.
Let me tell you a story about the Haanen family dinner table. I think we were arguing about asparagus. I had just sat down to dinner with my wife and daughters and amidst the noise and food flying to plates, I started to eat. I love asparagus. I really do. But when I waited until half way through the meal to put in on my plate, my wife made a comment, I retorted, and before I knew it, we were arguing about asparagus.
It had been a long week. She went downstairs and I started clearing the table, bewildered at what just had happened. My three girls were silent. So, in a vain attempt at humble confession, I said to our 6 year-old, “Sierra, there’s sin in the world. One day Jesus will come and wipe away all of our sin. You know what sin is, right Sierra?”
She replied. “Oh yeah dad. Like when you put Denver Institute in the place of God.”
I froze. In the weeks prior, I realized I had made work an idol. I realized at that point something critical: Because of my own sin, I might be causing just as many problems at DIFW as I’m solving. I need to change, grow, and mature – and I find this incredibly hard to do.
In 1910, a London newspaper sent out a question to their readers: “What’s the biggest problem in the world?” As you can imagine, they got a wide variety of responses: war, poverty, lack of education, access to health care, corruption. GK Chesterton, the famous author, wrote back a short response to the question “What’s the biggest problem in the world today?” He wrote to the editors, “Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely Yours, G.K. Chesterton.”
He knew we can’t solve the world’s problems and forget the central problem: the sin in our own hearts. Christians have what Immanuel Kant called “a crooked timber” view of humanity. We’re bent to the side. Sin shows up even in our best efforts to serve the world.
The challenge: we live in an age of what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “exclusive humanism,” the view that we humans can solve whatever problems we have without need of God. And we’ve all seen this. We’ve been to fundraisers for every social issue under the sun and read daily about new technologies or companies that will make us live longer, happier, and healthier. It feels like our culture has said that God is unnecessary for our public life.
But as I take a look at even myself in the last week, the times I lost patience with my kids or was short with a co-worker, I haven’t even lived up to my own standards. I am bent. I am often overwhelmed, and filled with anxiety. I can’t even fix myself! I need God.
I need a community that can help me to find and serve God in my working life. That is what I hope Denver Institute for Faith & Work will become.
When I think of the future, I’m filled with hope and gratitude.
We at DIFW can’t solve all of our city’s problems. But because, as the old hymn says, “Our hope is built, on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness”, I have a deep hope for what God might do through us in the coming years. And so I dream.
What might it look like to build a gathering of business leaders in Colorado committed to a deep walk with Christ, strong theological thinking about wealth creation and business practices, and to serving the key social needs of our state? What might it look like to leverage the power of the internet to equip the global church in the area of faith, work and culture? What might it look like in 10 years, when the 5280 Fellows are leading in industries across Colorado, and do so with a deep humility?
I’m grateful you’ve come tonight to join us on the journey. You have my deep gratitude. I hope you enjoy the evening we have planned.