Is the faith and work movement just for white guys? This question has been a mystery to me for some time. 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.)
I think Maslow might be able to help explain this quandary.
Anybody who’s taken an introduction to psychology course will have heard of Abraham Maslow (b. 1908). He’s famous for proposing a hierarchy of needs that explains human motivation, organized into a neat little pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid are the most basic physiological needs: food, water, oxygen, sex. One layer higher is the need for safety from, for example, illness or danger. Above that came needs for self-esteem, love, intellectual stimulation, and beauty. At Maslow’s apex is “self-actualization” – the need to engage your skills and talents to reach your highest potential.
After World War II, Americans became the wealthiest people in human history. In the 1950s and 60s, satisfying the needs for food and shelter became almost universal. The expectation of comfort became the norm. In the late 20th century, millions were “liberated” to pursue self-actualization. And work was where self-actualization was primarily sought. As early as 1962, Maslow said,
“All human beings prefer meaningful work to meaningless work. If work is meaningless, then life comes close to being meaningless.”
As we approached the 21st century, more people rejected being “Organization Man monoliths,” as Daniel Pink has pointed out in his book Free Agent Nation: How America’s New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live. They sought to venture out for themselves in record numbers, starting new businesses and organizations, hoping to find that their “true self” through meaningful work.
For the time being, let’s bracket the inherently idolatrous nature of looking to work to find your sense of purpose (perhaps the topic of another blog post). Instead, let’ s bring the issue of race into the picture. 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.
To be fair, faith and work ministry exists globally in the form of business as mission (BAM). The reason business is so important is because buying and selling provides human needs like food and shelter. The Lausanne Movement has a thriving BAM arm and is comprised of people from every race under the sun.
Historically speaking, it’s no wonder that faith and work ministry looks like a project that’s “just for white guys.” It’s not tough to see how history produced different motivations for work among different ethnic groups. It would be wise to remember Maslow when teaching about faith and work to those from different cultural or social backgrounds.
But I believe the “just for white guys” stereotype will soon be a thing of the past. The middle class in Latin America has been growing for decades, and China now has a thriving, middle and upper middle class workforce. There are even signs of hope for Africa’s economic prospects. In a world that becomes wealthier yet more isolated from a sense overarching public purpose, the question of meaning will continue to bubble to the surface – for Latinos, Asians, Blacks , and even white guys.
Photo by kay ef
Discussion question: So, am I right or not? Is the faith and work movement just for white guys?
Jeff–I think this is a great point. I have wondered the same thing. And the self-actualization issue does seem to arise when you are out of the stress of trying to meet basic needs. With that said, I will also acknowledge that the faith-based NGO that I work for, Food for the Hungry, works with people who are living below “the poverty line” to help them see work as a gift from God. In many situations work can been seen as a curse. Additionally, people don’t think they have any ability to change their circumstances. To quote a man from one of the communities where FH serves: “we were born like dogs and we will die like dogs.” Introducing the idea of work as a good thing, coming from God, intended by God, can be a game changer. So, in a sense I agree with the assessment above, but I think there is more to be discussed in terms of the relevance of faith and work and impact on a person’s life and society. Thanks for bringing this up! Eileen
Thanks for your thoughtful feedback. I couldn’t agree more about the “relevance of faith and work and impact on a person’s life and society.” That’s actually why I started this blog. My purpose with this short article was simply to make us aware that the faith and work movement has been, perhaps, too influenced by one narrow sector of the population. I’d love to hear more about your work at FFH (we support two kids in Uganda through FFH), and especially how they respond to some core teachings about the original good intent for work (Gen 1-2).
You describe me am my husband when you wrote this :
“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.”
Your post reminds me of the debate in the 80’s that swirled in some xtian circles about sacred versus secular. Can secular work be meaningful and beneficial for God’s kingdom in this world?
As a woman who has worked blue collar jobs most of my adult life, and married to a man who is the same, I tend to now consider the pursuit of a meaningful life rooted in family and friendships rather than vocation.
As for your question, yes, I do think it is centered in White Guy Ville. I can tell you that the myriad of immigrants I work with that this kind of self-evaluation does not come up in measuring a fulfilled life. Instead, my coworkers and I are grateful for the wages we earn that help provide for our families and help bridge opportunities for our children.
I have long been fascinated with the dialog about how people find meaning in life and how work plays into that picture. At this stage of life (I’m almost 49) I am developing the POV that folks who are blessed with family and friends have much to be grateful for. As you pointed out so eloquently I’m your post, there is dignity (and much meaningfulness) in simply providing for one’s family through the honest labor. God’s good presence is found among the factory workers, the cab drivers as well as the missionaries and the church worker. In the kingdom of God, there is no hierarchy, no slave as well as no free person, no positions of power to preserve and use as measures of success or meaning. I find great comfort and meaning in the ways of Jesus who, at the end of the road, met with his friends on the byways and highways of everyday life.
Thanks for your post. I need to follow your blog !!
(Forgive typos—IPhone !!!!)
Thanks for your thoughtful response! Let me reply to a couple of ideas. (1) Yes, I think that dignity and provision is indeed an overlooked part of the faith and work movement. The more I’ve studied this stuff, I think work is one of the prime ways we express our dignity as God’s image-bearers. (2) I would like to hear more about your “blue collar job.” What do you do? I also lament that F&W circles haven’t done more to speak to “blue collar” jobs. I think there are areas of truth yet to be discovered here. I think that when we do, we’ll find that family, friends AND our work can be meaningful. (3) Regarding “White Guy Ville.” : Yes, this is my suspicion as well. We’ll need to see this issue through a more global lens (which immigrants can help with) if this movement will last.
Jeff these are some great points. I am involved in the Faith/Work discussion in Richmond, VA, and I also pastor an inner city congregation in which sometimes these Faith/Work conversations seem irrelevant. However, one aspect that has been helpful for folks in my congregation is talking about the pure dignity of work. For example I have preached before on Ephesians 6:5-9 and have pointed out that Paul instructs the servants of the households to “render their service as unto the Lord.” They were in a “survivor” position more than a “cultural influencer” position, yet Paul encouraged them to see their work as inherently dignified and infused with worth as they worked unto the Lord. So while I think some of the cultural fulfillment themes in the faith/work discussions might be less immediately relevant to those who lack cultural power, I think there are other themes in the faith/work conversation that connect.
Corey, thanks for your thoughts on this. I really appreciate you pointing the key theme of dignity, which the Scriptures mention in conjunction with work. This is worthy of an article by itself…