I just spent a week in Manila, Philippines, with 850 Christians from 109 countries. If you’d been there, you might have thought you were in a church meeting. A praise band played. We sang from words projected on a screen. Speakers delivered messages. Prayers were offered. Yet those Manila gatherings included something church meetings typically avoid. We zeroed in on what most Christians do on Mondays. We talked about . . . work.
Each of us went to Manila to take part in the 2019 Lausanne Global Workplace Forum. Back in the 1970s, Billy Graham and John Stott launched the Lausanne Committee for Global Evangelization. Graham said: “"I believe one of the next great moves of God is going to be through believers in the workplace."
From those roots has grown the Global Workplace Forum. All week long there in Manila we explored our daily work and its role in God’s Kingdom agenda—the subject we seldom hear about in church.
A Question Full of Questions
Most people in the typical church congregation scatter on Monday into those places where they work: shops, homes, offices, fields, factories. Over a lifetime, each will spend around 90,000 hours working. Why, then, on Sunday, do we rarely hear God’s heart on what they invest their lives in during those other six days?
For years, I’ve puzzled over the answer to that. My search has left me asking even more questions:
Do we keep work and worship in separate boxes because of the Fourth Commandment—the one about working six days but avoiding work on the seventh? Does it seem to us that work-talk would somehow soil our rest-day, Sunday?
Do we keep work and worship apart because we know “works-righteousness” can never put us right with God? Has our right understanding of faith-not-works given the word “work” a black eye? Do we mistakenly leap to a worship-versus-work conclusion?
In short, have our perceptions of Old and New Testament truths led us to suspect God has little regard for our work/works? And, if so, have such misgivings largely kept work off the Sunday radar?
Are Work and Worship at Odds?
But wait, someone might object, “Weekdays are for work, Sundays are for worship. After all, in their meetings New Testament Christians heard teaching about Jesus, the Gospel, sin, salvation, and so on—not about work.”
Let’s fact-check that one. Letters to first-century churches were read to the whole congregation. Did those letters contain teaching on the daily work of those present? Well—truth be told—they did. Let’s comb through some examples of what New Testament Christians heard in their church meetings about their regular employment;
Demonstrate the Gospel in the way you treat your employers:
Respect their authority (Eph. 6:5).
Don’t goof around or slack off when they aren’t watching (Col. 3:22).
Don’t bad-mouth them. Put up with it if they treat you unfairly (Tit. 2:9).
Go to work with motives worthy of the Gospel:
Earn what you need through honest work (Eph. 4:28).
Avoid being a leech; work to support yourself (I Thess. 4:12).
Work to earn not just to meet your own needs but also to have enough to share with others (Eph. 4:28).
Let the light of Christ shine through the way you work:
Be fully engaged—bring not just your body to work but mind and heart as well (Col. 3:23).
Do your work so well others will find the gospel attractive (Titus 2:10).
Trust God to reward you for what you accomplish on the job (Eph. 6:8).
If you’re the boss:
Never manipulate employees with threats or intimidation (Eph. 6:9).
Don’t play favorites by being lenient with some and tough on others (Eph. 6:9).
Do right by your employees, treating them fairly (Col. 4:1).
Clearly, the New Testament supports bringing issues from workdays into Sunday gatherings. Imagine yourself sitting in one of those early-church meetings. Someone who is able reads the letter out loud to everyone. As you hear this or that point made by the letter-writer, something strikes you about the situation in your own workplace. This is, after all, a participatory, shared-church meeting (see I Cor. 14). So you chime in with your own comment before the reader moves on to the next sentence. Or if what you have heard raises a question, you ask it, and a discussion follows in which several others join in.
When Work-Talk Goes Missing
What has the absence of work-talk in today’s church meetings cost God’s Kingdom agenda? I’ll mention just three unfortunate results:
Disabling Traditions Grow Unchecked. First, this Sunday silence about work has let false traditions about our daily work multiply like weeds. Because I teach what the Bible says about work, I hear students give voice to many of these hurtful ideas. For example, some struggle under the idea that work came from God’s curse (Gen. 3). No way! God gave work to humanity in Gen. 2 as one of his good gifts. God is a Worker. That’s why we, made in his image, are workers. By working, we mirror our Maker!
Another example: many Christians have grown up thinking some work is “sacred” (that of pastors and missionaries) and other work is “secular” (what engineers, accountants, pilots, hairdressers, and plumbers do). This life-zapping notion has zero biblical support, but it still persists among believers. A companion idea holds that God calls people into those “sacred” roles but not into “secular” pursuits like law, government work, software development, or farming.
The Discipleship Deficit Continues. Second, not talking about work in church meetings has left the world with a shortage of Christ-reflecting disciples. Many Christians get up and go to work simply to pay the bills, give to the church, support missions—and save for retirement. Some have been led to believe they are there just to evangelize coworkers. That often leads to forced, ready-or-not “witnessing” among fellow employees—or to a guilt-ridden silence when sensitive Christians recoil from such tactics as pushy.
A blogger from Down Under says, “. . . the evangelical church in Australia at least, has an extremely thin theology of work. It is ill-prepared to counsel its own people on the meaning of work, the ways to navigate the space of work, and how to do anything other than use their work as a means of evangelism and earning money for ministry.” Not just in Australia.
Far too many believers have no clear idea of God’s many other reasons for sending them into the world’s workplaces:
Offering him their work as an act of worship.
Responsibly caring for his good creation—planet, plants, animals, and people.
Finding, encouraging, and praying for fellow Christ-followers among coworkers, customers, clients, vendors, students, patients, and so on.
Experiencing workplace stresses as gifts of God that produce spiritual maturity. (In Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Eugene Peterson wrote, “I’m prepared to contend that the primary location for spiritual formation is the workplace.”)
And, yes, to represent King Jesus there and to pay the bills as well.
Jesus’ Sending Gets Short-Circuited. Jesus sends his followers into the world. Employment places them by the millions in that very world—the world of work. Employers and governments—rather than churches or mission boards—actually pick up the tab for workers being in the very places to which Jesus sends them. And yet, far too many Christians in so-called “secular” jobs see their work as a burden to escape rather than as a gift to transform into a vehicle for carrying out the purposes of Christ and his Kingdom. If Christians are to have the biblical vision of their daily work, where else—other than in their local churches—will they be nurtured and sustained in such vision?
In Manila, one of the women speakers challenged us with this question: “When was the last time you and your home group or your church prayer group really wrestled with challenges of the workplace?”
How would you answer her?