One topic that continually comes up among faith and work leaders is this: should we create more vocation-specific materials? That is, instead of creating resources broadly about, say, work, Sabbath, calling, or caring for the poor, should we create experiences, books or small group studies specifically for those in, say, law, business, architecture or nursing?
The topic came up at the Faith & Work Summit, where we asked the question about going from 101 “introduction to faith and work” activities to 201 or 301 activities – hosting specific conversations on retail, manufacturing or education, and the cultural challenges believers face in those sectors. It also came up when talking with my friend Alistair Mackenzie at the Theology of Work Project, as they noodle on next steps after creating an incredible biblical commentary and set of resources for pastors, laypeople and scholars on work.
The question is tough for at least two reasons.
First, there are many of us inside the faith and work movement that are suspicious (or at least wary) of Kuyperian transformationalism and its attendant idea that each sphere of human social activity (i.e., field of work) is directly responsible to be lived out coram Deo, before the face of God. Clearly, Christ is Lord. But the grand project of “this is what all of law or finance ought to look like in God’s economy” is a slippery target.
Fields like law and finance are not static, and neither are the Christians within them who desire to honor God with their work. Writing a 10-volume set on a comprehensive theology of law may be (1) pressing the Scriptures for questions they weren’t meant to directly answer for our cultural moment, and (2) woefully out of date by the time of publication, since law – and all of culture – is constantly changing. Fields of work and arenas of cultural activity are less like light bulbs, clearly defined and illuminated, than they are like lava lamps, in constant motion.
On the other hand, the pastor in me says we absolutely must speak to specific circumstances in people’s lives. The reason, for example, Alistair got into the Theology of Work Project is because as a pastor, his younger congregants would ask tough, honest questions about what it meant to be a Christian when faced with the day-to-day challenges of living and working in a secular age. I fully agree: in the past three years I’ve heard stories from electricians, investors, artists, entrepreneurs, public school superintendents and general contractors. And I can honestly say that my work at Denver Institute for Faith & Work is the most pastoral work I’ve ever done. Abstractions don’t fly when doing this work on the ground. People are longing for answers to real questions, solutions to real problems, and resolutions to real tensions.
So can we speak to the specifics of people’s industries without either trying to give a dizzying, comprehensive theology for a specific sector norignoring the real-life experiences of the people we’re called to serve? Or coming at it from another angle: how can we continually engage a larger percentage of the population in the faith and work movement when “faith at work 101” is starting to lose its luster?
Here’s what I think is the solution to this quandary: start with individual stories. Here’s what I mean. For the past couple of years, my friend Chris Horst and I have been writing profiles of Christians serving God and their communities through their work for Christianity Today. Mica May, founder of May Designs, a notebook company; Cathy Mathews, owner of a pay-what-you-can restaurant; Bill Kurtz, the CEO of a high performing charter school network; Jim Howey, the business development officer at a small manufacturing company in Denver; Dave Collins, who emerged from addiction and homelessness to serve travelers as a housekeeper at a Marriott. In each case, their stories illustrate the complexity of human life, and how important it is think broadly about our work in vocational discipleship.
Take the story of Karla Nugent of Weifield Group Electrical Contracting. I profiled her originally intending to write about the work of her apprentice program, which is employing men coming out of addiction or incarceration as electricians. Simple enough, right? Wrong. The “faith and work” topics covered ranged widely when we pay attention to the specifics of her life. For example, they included:
- Workplace evangelism. Two of her co-founders, and numerous employees, have come to faith through her gentle, humble witness over the past 15 years.
- Social justice. Her apprentice program is a pioneer in Denver’s workforce development community, providing good jobs and a new narrative of hope that would make our friends at the Chalmers Center drool.
- Generosity. Weifield Group is a leader in corporate philanthropy, and gives money and employee volunteer hours to serve the less fortunate, women & children, veterans, and heads of household in the Denver metro area.
- Workplace culture. Weifield is continually ranked as a top place to work in Denver, due largely to the workplace culture that gives opportunities for advancement, engages employees in community service, and does the best electrical work in town, including the new Union Station that the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado.
- The dignity and intrinsic value of work. Many of her electricians see their work not just as wires, but as art. They feel proud of what they do, and see its intrinsic value beyond even what they’re paid to do the job.
- Sabbath. Being one of Denver’s most networked women, Karla has to stay aggressive with turning off all media on Sundays – but she does so to the great benefit of her family and co-workers.
- Women and leadership. As a woman in an almost-all-male field, Karla embraces her role as a woman, and uses it as an opportunity to have honest conversations with peers and employees that would be hard to get to in a “tough guy” culture. She’s also honest about the challenges between raising children and caring for her “work” family, too.
I could go on. But here’s the point. Would a “theology of electrical engineering” help Karla? Maybe a little. But my guess is that it would end up on the bottom of a pile of papers on her desk. What would help is to provide the emotional and relational context to speak about the real issues she faces in the context of Christian faith, in all of its wonderful variety and life-giving diversity.
So, should we create more vocation specific resources? Well, it’s worth mentioning that hundreds of these vocation-specific resources already exist written by laity in their fields. It might be that pastors and biblical scholars are not the best socially-placed to write these resources.
Here’s what the church can do to encourage vocation-specific conversations:
- Convene men and women around the workplace challenges and contemporary issues we face in the complexities of modern culture. We learn first through imitation. Gathering people in similar lines of work (and thus cultural worlds) has born tremendous fruit for us at DIFW in the last three years.
- Do a lot more story-telling. In so doing we’ll be able to touch on the topics surrounding the faith and work conversation in a way that is relevant, honest, and beautiful. We are shaped by the stories we believe and cherish. If we can do more storytelling – and do it well – we may even be so lucky as to contribute to the formation of men and women into the image of Christ, Redeemer…and carpenter.
This post first appeared at the Green Room Blog.
I’ve begun to feel recently that your Next Step #1 is the real punchline here! I usually come at this conversation from a slightly different angle, i.e. how the church can bring generations together and have great mentorship around profession/vocation. A gut hunch has been that rather than having the top-down specific resources like you’re wrestling with in this article, the organic process of local groups discussing their faith and specific work in their specific place could be really interesting! I agree! So your work is an encouragement, Jeff, glad to be following…