Jeff Haanen

By Jeff Haanen

The following is the cover story for the October 2018 print issue of Christianity Today. To access the full article for free, click the “friends and family” link below. Also, if you’re not a subscriber, please consider subscribing to Christianity Today to support their work. Here’s an excerpt of the story.

Our group was white, college-educated, and passionate about helping people find meaning in their careers. We looked at Josué “Mambo” De León, pastor of a bilingual working-class congregation called Westside Church Internacional, eager to hear his thoughts on a recent “faith and work” conference. 

“For us, work isn’t about thriving,” Mambo said. “It’s about surviving.” 

Between bites of salad, it slowly became clear who the man in a red baseball cap, World Cup T-shirt, and jeans really was: an emissary from another world. 

“You start with the premise that you have a job and that you feel a lack of purpose,” he said. “But that doesn’t resonate with us. How are you supposed to find purpose and flourish when you don’t even have opportunities?” 

On my way home from the office of the nonprofit I run, Denver Institute for Faith & Work, I stewed over Mambo’s comments. They reminded me of a similar conversation I’d had with Nicole Baker Fulgham, president of an educational reform group called The Expectations Project. Baker Fulgham, an African American working with low-income kids, asked me bluntly: “So when do we start talking about faith, work, and life for fast-food employees?” 

In the past decade, the faith and work movement has exploded. Hundreds of new conferences, books, and organizations have sprung up from San Diego to Boston. But there’s a growing anxiety among Christian leaders that our national vocation conversation has a class problem. 

A hundred years ago, partnerships between clergy and labor unions flourished. Yet as the forces of industrialization transformed the trades in the late 19th century, and vocational education and liberal arts schools parted ways, a new mantra for the college-educated took root: “Do what you love.” The late Steve Jobs, in a 2005 Stanford commencement speech, stated, “You’ve got to find what you love. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” Work done out of necessity was devalued, and eventually conversations about Christianity and work applied the word vocation mostly to college kids contemplating work they would most enjoy.

Today, when American evangelical leaders talk about work, the working class—which is two-thirds of the American workforce—is largely absent. What are we missing? 

Daily Meaning or Daily Humiliations?

Years ago, I started Denver Institute after reading Studs Terkel’s 1971 classic Working, an oral history of working-class Americans. Work, Terkel says, “is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” 

Of course! I thought. This fit well with my graduate school angst (and growing boredom with my assignments). I liked the quote so much that I put it in my email signature. 

But somewhere along the way, I forgot that Terkel also believed work was centrally about “violence—to the spirit as well as the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations.” 

This didn’t sound like the workplaces I was used to. But the tension between Terkel’s two statements has started to resonate with me. In the past five years, we in Denver have hosted thousands of doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and other young professionals at our events. But there’s been a conspicuous absence of home care workers, retail sales clerks, landscapers, janitors, or cooks. 

Calvin College philosopher James K. A. Smith—who once pulled 10-hour graveyard shifts on an air filter assembly line—observes, “The bias of the [faith and work] conversation toward professional, ‘creative,’ largely white-collar work means that many people who undertake manual or menial labor simply don’t see themselves as having a voice in this conversation.” 

It may be time to do some soul-searching. Have we, by which I mean myself and presumably many of this magazine’s readers, seen the culture-shaping power of work but been blind to the “daily humiliations” of those whose work we depend on each day? Have we been interpreting Scripture through our own professional class bias and failed to ask how working-class Americans think and feel about their work? 

The Great Divide

“Because hard work was such a high value for our family, it was also demoralizing,” says pastor Jim Mullins of Redemption Church in Tempe, Arizona. “One of the most difficult aspects of growing up was not the lack of money but the shame that would come with not having opportunities. That shame would boil into anger. I think a lot of the drug use and alcohol [use] that we experienced was a sort of numbing of the shame.”

Mullins’s story echoes the stories of millions of working-class Americans who have seen life deteriorate over the past 50 years in nearly every economic and social category. (I use the term “working-class” to mean those without a four-year college degree.)

The growing body of research is astounding…

(Read the rest of the article at Christianity Today.)

  • Mary Lou Erlacher
    11:57 AM, 27 September 2018

    Humbling…the personal thrill of discovery of the Faith and Work ministry area is somewhat dampened by this realization of those we have forgotten (ignored?) in the process. Lord, forgive us and thank you for shedding Light in this darkness.

  • Tom Carter
    3:32 AM, 5 October 2018

    Hi, I have been in blue collar, skilled labor, and “menial” (wow, what an insult!) fields for 25 years. Now one of “you”, an educated pastor, I find your article full of (unintentionally) insulting assumptions about how a generalized other feels.
    The soaring tone of this piece hints at the problem, the educated set have no idea what these “less than” folks they tread on even do.
    Please, please, please, put down the books and go walk with real people (or be lazy and watch undercover boss!) long enough and you will discover that perhaps many of them are quite happy not spending endless hours trying to impress people they don’t know.
    In short, this is why churches are dying in scores while we build churches out of reclaimed pallets and think it is super hip. Would you want to visit a church decorated with old printers and copiers?
    But hey, warehouses are cool right?
    Would you want to go listen to a teacher who happens to run the plant you work at, as he asks for prayer because the builders are behind on his million dollar house? Especially when he just told you Friday in a meeting that things are so bad no one is getting a raise this year!
    I have been told for years by co-workers that they just don’t understand why I would want to worship with people like this. And yes it is just another human excuse to avoid repentance, I know. But frankly, it is also a strong indictment on American Christian culture.
    Not long ago I went to my mini storage unit to get some games. The owner came out to meet us and was shocked that I was wearing a camo shirt and shorts similar to his. It was our first meeting and he said, oh your the preacher, but you just look like a regular guy! I smiled and said that’s because I am. He smiled at me in disbelief. Wow.
    Maybe the blue collar working folk, most anyway, don’t want your help, or your sympathy. What would be really, really nice is if the “creative class” could really just sit down and talk to a person who does work they consider menial, and ask them about something other that work. Or stop talking about the three vacations a year they go on. Bcause, believe it or not, not everyone is envious of such extravagance. But it is quite off putting, and nauseating to endure.
    I really don’t think God is going to sort us by career goals or income levels in heaven. But hey, maybe I’m wrong!
    I think you are really on to something here. Keep digging!

    • Jeff Haanen
      3:32 PM, 16 November 2018

      Hi tom, thanks for your comments.

      First, I didn’t intend to be insulting in any way. Actually, quite the opposite. I deeply admire the work of those I depend on each day. My point was that we have a pretty big (and growing) class divide that makes civil conversations – like what we’re trying to have – quite difficult. And as you aptly point out, management often understands very little about the lives or opinions of their employees, which can be quite “nauseating,” as you put it.

      I pointed out the “dignity” deficit in America, and I think you did a good job proving my point. It’s NOT that the working class is universally unhappy. It IS that the working class often doesn’t feel understood or appreciated, either by pastors or by managers. (I really like your copiers on the worship stage quip. Good stuff!).

      As we try to understand other parts of the Body of Christ, I think we need people who will humbly say “I don’t understand my neighbor and I want to.” Less name calling in American life, more listening.

      Thanks for your comment, Tom. I really appreciate it. Maybe we could find a time to talk on the phone so I can learn from you.


      • Jessica Russo
        9:25 PM, 17 May 2019

        Tom and Jeff –

        I’m just jumping into to affirm that this is a needed conversation for the church, and I’m glad to see it being discussed somewhere!

        After getting a bachelors (because, you know, everyone has to have one these days), some years of working within vocational ministry, almost graduating (GCTS) seminary, and buying into the “only do what you love,” I became a mom and then went back to school for nursing. I now work nights, and see a whole other side of life and work.

        Honestly, after 8 years of academia and a few white-collar positions, it was really humbling. I saw my inner elitist and it was not pretty. I realized I thought I was “special” and somehow extra-favored by God, and therefore I shouldn’t have to work like these other people.

        Don’t get me wrong, I love parts of my job and sense I’m fulfilling part of God’s call during every shift, but I’m not sure any nurse feels particularly ecstatic while charting urine output and and bowel movements.

        Speaking for myself and many other nurses I know, our main “work” is being a parent. Part of the appeal of this career is I can work 2 night shifts a week, nearly double our income, and be with our kids a lot.

        We can also now host weekly bible studies and I have time to pursue the people God’s called me to disciple and bless.

        Being disciple-makers, of our kids and others is our first calling as Christians!

        In sum, I think faith/work theology needs more tweaking when it comes to occupational choices and family/work/mission balance.

        I think if our focus becomes personal fulfillment at a job, we are missing our calling as Christians. How can we work a job, whether as a janitor or business owner, that contributes to the general good and also free us up to actively share the gospel?

        As a side note, I would also be interested in discussing how the rise of NWM businesses intersects with the current theology of work…especially as it relates to moms desperate for more time with their kids while also needing to contribute to the family income.

        PS – I wrote this after 3 nights of working in a row – sorry if there’s grammatical errors!

        • jhaanen
          3:54 AM, 11 June 2019

          Wonderful insights. Thanks, Jessica.

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