On the Absence of Sunday Work-Talk

VIDEO SUMMARY of The Global Workplace Forum held from 25-29 June 2019 in Manila, Philippines brought together participants from around the world to consider how best Lausanne's vision for kingdom impact in every sphere of society could be fulfilled.

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.”

Really?

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?

Watch Your Language: Part Six

Going to Church.jpg

Flash back in memory to when you were nine years old. It’s Saturday night. Mom tells you and your sister and brother, “Pick out what you will wear tomorrow when we go to church.” Next morning, early, a friend phones and invites you to join their family for a day at the beach. “I can’t,” you say, “because we’ll go to church later this morning. And sure enough, at 9:30 a.m., Dad calls you from your room: “Hurry up! It’s time to go to church.”

A Phrase Enshrined in Tradition

What pictures did those words, “go to church,” etch in your nine-year-old mind? Probably the same ones that come up today if you google on the phrase “going to church” and click on the image icon. Most of the pictures show people either walking toward or sitting inside a church building. “The words “go to church” have become so deep-rooted in our Christian lingo, it may seem absurd for me to add them to this series on watching our language.

“Okay,” some may be thinking, “this guy has lost it completely. I’ve been ‘going to church’ since before I could walk. Going to church is good for us. God expects Christians to go to church.” Yes, I understand. Those words are part of my native language, too. That phrase slips easily off my lips. Christian leaders constantly urge us to “go to church.” In fact, countless articles online press us to do just that. Within a few minutes I found lists of 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 12, and 13 “reasons to go to church.” In spite of all that, one writer insisted, “there is only ONE reason to go to church.”

So please bear with me while I explain why I believe the words “go to church” can blur our vision. The first two words, “go to,” work perfectly in other contexts. Saying, “I’m going to the store,” accurately tells where I’m heading. We rightly talk about going to all sorts of places and events—to theaters, to the mountains, to baseball games, and to piano recitals. Muslims properly speak of “going to mosque,” because the mosque is a place.

New Covenant? Or Old?

But here’s the rub: the Body of Christ, is neither a place nor an event.

Instead, it is people—people who have come to God through faith in Jesus. As someone has said, you cannot go to who you are. If your last name is Smith, you don’t “go to Smith.” Leaving work, you may go to your house for dinner or a nap. But you and the other Smiths who live there are a family. You are neither a place nor an event.

True, in Old Covenant days, God’s people did go to a place to offer their animal sacrifices and their tithes. First the Tabernacle, then the Temple, became the go-to places for the Israelites to maintain their relationship with God. For some of them, going to the Temple in Jerusalem amounted to a trek that took days. The Samaritans thought Mt. Gerizim was the place where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac. So they made that their go-to place for meeting God.

But when Jesus had his long talk with the Samaritan woman at the well, he did away with the idea that getting with God required going to some special place. As he said to her: “A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain [Mt. Gerizim] nor in Jerusalem. . . . Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (John 4:21, 23). New Covenant worship, then, is no longer tied to a place.

So how did this go-to-church tradition get started? We read in Matt. 16:18 that Jesus says, “I will build my church.” Except he didn’t actually say that. Instead, he said, “I will build my ekklesia [Greek for assembly].” The word church came to us not from the Greek but later through Anglo-Saxon. It meant “of the Lord” and in time came to mean “house of the Lord,” meaning a building. In William Tyndale’s 1525 translation of the Bible, he refused to translate ekklesia as church. In his version, Matt. 16:18—in now-obsolete English—reads like this: “And I saye also vnto the that thou arte Peter: and apon this rocke I wyll bylde my congregacion.”

Three Reasons to Stop Saying “Go to Church”

  1. It Blocks Our View. Because “going to church” signals heading for a building or event, the words encourage us to see ourselves as an audience. They make it more difficult to view ourselves as a family and as the Body of Christ. So those words distract us from the need to share, encourage, build up, and strengthen one another. Those words work against life together as shared church.
  2. It's Not Used for Other Church Gatherings. How often do you hear someone say they are “going to church” to describe getting together with fellow believers in a home group? I can’t recall ever hearing the words used that way. If teaching, fellowship, eating together, and prayer (Acts 2:42) are happening in a home group, why do we never refer to it as “going to church”? Most likely because the meeting does not take place in a “church building.” (The Anglo-Saxon meaning again.)
  3. It Implies Detachment. The words “go to church” suggest that we are somehow separated from it, so we must drive or walk somewhere to reach where it is. If I can “go to church,” I can also “go from church.” Is there a time when I disconnect from the Body of Christ? In Acts 8:1, we read that “a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered.” When scattered, did those Christians cease being the church? Or did they simply begin operating in scattered-church mode—just as your blood gathers in the lungs and scatters to your arms, legs, and feet?

Other Words Serve Us Better

The Anglo-Saxon word church entered our English language centuries ago. Virtually all our Bibles today use the term. So that ship has sailed. We can’t communicate clearly without the word church.  But we don’t have to say “go to church.” Plenty of other words convey the right idea clearly enough.  Instead, why not say we’re going to meet—or gather or get together or assemble—with other Christians?

That said, I still may slip up and say I'm “going to church.” If I do, please call me out!