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.”


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?

Shared Church Cultivates Critical Thinking (Part Two)

Lie Detector.jpg

In the previous blog (Part One), I said church meetings should provide a context for developing critical thinking skills in adults and young people. Shared church can help us fine-tune our lie detectors.

In my experience, many Christians have received little if any encouragement or instruction in such thinking. During online classes, I see this in students who have learned largely by rote. When asked to evaluate course material in, say, a journal entry, they can recap and restate what they have heard and read. But they struggle with seeing underlying assumptions and evaluating whether the material is persuasive, complete, applicable, and biblical. Doing so,  of course, requires critical thinking.

Here in Part Two, I’ll follow up with a question that rarely gets asked about church meetings. 

Can Unbelievers Help Us Learn How to Think?

Sometimes, hearing from those who lack a Christian perspective can help to nurture the ability to sift and evaluate. While writing Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I interviewed Trevor Withers, Network Church, St. Albans, UK. In his account, he tells how he invited “Rachel,” an unbeliever, to visit their weekly gathering and state up front her questions about the Christian life. Some of those in the congregation thought Withers had gone too far. Others welcomed the opportunity to hear her.

Rachel had often come for Network’s Sunday lunches but only rarely for their services. Having grown up in a home in which both parents were atheists, she had begun serious questioning when she was in her late teen years. “I am clearly seeking something,” she told the congregation, “but I am not finding it.” Her first thought-provoking question had to do with human sinfulness. Why would an all-powerful, holy God, she wondered, need a relationship with us if we are sinful? The session with Rachel lasted more than half an hour, with helpful dialogue between her and several in the congregation.

Imagine for a moment that you had been a part of that gathering on that day. What kinds of fruitful heart-and-mind work was likely going on among those present?

  • Mature Christians, some of whom in the past had struggled in a similar way, recalling how God had found them and drawn them to follow Jesus.
  • Newcomers, unaccustomed to witnessing such candid sharing in a church gathering, deciding to make Network Church their home—or never to return.
  • Young people hearing something authentic—honest words from a soul describing the ache of a search for truth that had, until then, proved unsuccessful.
  • All present participating in the give-and-take as members of Christ’s body wrestled with questions they normally would not have heard from each other in church.

How Will Young People Learn to Think?

Church meetings can project an aura of unreality. Not because the teaching is untrue, but because it seems so distant from the actual questions that vex people. According to a Barna Group report, 36 percent of the Millennials surveyed said part of their problem with the church is the inability “to ask my most pressing life questions in church.” If not in church gatherings, where are these young people—or their parents—going to learn to think critically about their faith and messages coming at them from their culture?

In her book, Finding Truth, Nancy Pearcey reminds us that, “In today’s pluralistic, multicultural society, teens have to navigate their way through a complex web of competing worldview claims. . . . Yet church youth groups rarely teach apologetics, majoring instead on games and goodies. . . . Parents are rightly concerned about the risk involved in exposing their children to nonbiblical perspectives. But there is also a risk in raising children who think the only way they can test their mettle is by breaking away from their family and church.”

Colossians 2:8 warns, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” But how many church young people have learned how to avoid being taken in by such deceptions? Suppose a college professor tells them, “God did not reveal what is in the Bible. It is just an obsolete book written by many people over thousands of years.” If not equipped with thinking tools, how will they cope with misleading statements in a university classroom, a workplace, a science textbook, a blog, a movie, or a television commercial?

Shared Church Pools Insights

Shared church means meeting together in a format that includes opportunity for anyone to ask a question, contribute an understanding, challenge an interpretation, or test a teaching. It offers a way to stimulate and mature the ability to think critically about our faith. While each of us individually should heed the following words, Paul originally addressed them to corporate gatherings of believers: 

  • “You are reasonable people. Decide for yourselves if what I am saying is true.” (I Cor. 10:15, NLT).
  •  “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best . . . .” (Phil. 1:9-10).
  • “Don't be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only what's good. Throw out anything tainted with evil.” (I Thess. 5:21-22, MSG).

These and other texts leave no doubt that God wants us to be prepared to evaluate false teaching, fake news, and whatever else fails to line up with the truth. In the verses just listed--calling for deciding, discerning, checking things out--Paul wrote in the second-person plural. The closest American English can come to that is “you-all.” And if our meeting formats permit a shared-church experience, those gatherings can provide one of the best opportunities for training ourselves and our young ones in critical thinking.

What do you think? Have you encountered Christians who resist the idea of critical thinking? If so, how  best can you help them understand its importance?

The Faith-Voice Divide

A friend phoned this morning to say that someone close to him, a believer, had died a few days ago. My friend had been called on to offer some words of comfort at the memorial. “Could you,” he asked me, “help me find some Bible verses that would be appropriate for the occasion?”

Of course I was happy to do so and responded with three different passages he might want to consider. When I did so, he made a comment that left me sad and pondering. This man, probably around 60 years old, said, “I’ve attended church all my life, but still can’t find Scriptures when I need them.”

My friend is a Christian, but when a moment of opportunity comes, he is unable to locate or vocalize Scripture. His faith and his voice remain disconnected. This is one of the disabling symptoms of Sunday spectatoritis. In his decades of church attendance, no one has expected him to become an apprentice or student of Jesus and his words—in other words, a disciple.

In his book, Preaching as Dialogue, Jeremy Thomson says, “it is as people have the opportunity to put their own words together that they become conscious of their thoughts and realize new paths of behavior.”

Paul noted that the disciples in the Roman church were “competent to instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14). He wrote that the Colossian believers were to “teach and admonish one another” (Col. 3:16). Instructing, teaching, admonishing—those all require a linkage of faith with voice. And if the meeting formats in those churches followed the pattern of the church at Corinth (I Cor. 14:26), everyone had opportunities to develop and practice using that faith-voice connection when they gathered.

 What do you think? How might the meeting format of your church be modified so that Christians like my friend could practice connecting their faith with their voices?