Watch Your Language: Part Three

The Work Bunk.jpg

When I was young, we kids had a ready-made comeback when hit with a nasty put-down: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” In the title of her new book, Joyce Schneider puts a fresh twist on that old saying: Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones: But Words Can Kill My Spirit.

A Pair of Spirit-Killing Words: Secular Work

In response to a short blog on so-called secular work, one reader wrote: “I personally struggle with this right now as a Christian, because I have a hard time seeing anything good about detailing and driving cars for a living or of what importance it has to me or to others I'm involved in. I keep seeing myself as a failure with a bachelor’s degree when I think about work right now.” Words from a spirit deeply wounded.

And no wonder. Secular work carries the implied meaning of being second-rate compared with ministry (see previous blog) or full-time Christian service. To define secular, dictionaries use words like “worldly rather than spiritual.” “Not having any connection with religion.” “Earthly.” “Profane.” “Irreligious.” The Oxford Living Dictionaries dubs secular as “Denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis. Contrasted with sacred.”

This Language Lives On

I’d like to think we Christians have gotten beyond talking of secular work. But the words are very much alive and well among us. From a blog: “I strongly felt, however, the call to something greater than just secular work.” Or, “One of the most troubled periods of my life came when I left the ministry of Youth for Christ and went into secular work.” And, “At times I was tempted to give up the ministry and go into secular work.”

Yes, sticks and stones bruise. But for those in non-church jobs who are serious about following Jesus, the secular-work dart poisons. It can make it seem as if those 80- to 100-thousand lifetime hours invested in the workplace add up to a spiritual zero. Yet Scripture never describes any work as secular. Why? The reasons reach all the way to God’s own activities and purposes.

God’s Work Becomes Our Work

In his activity, God has revealed himself in his work as Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, and Restorer. It follows, then, that his purposes extend into all of these. By making us in his likeness, God gave us dignity by delegating to us much of his work on his planet. We workers, made in the image of the Worker, have the great honor of reflecting him in our daily work.

Garbage Collection. Our garbage-pickup driver comes every Tuesday. His job, according to the world’s value system, lies near the bottom of the occupational pecking order. That kind of work seems to have “no religious or spiritual basis.” Yet God himself engages in the cleanup business. His wind and rain cleanse the air. His sunlight disinfects. Garbage collectors are doing God’s work when they remove the debris from our homes and neighborhoods, waste that would kill us if left to putrefy. When garbage crews went on a two-day strike in Phnom Penh, 5,000 tons of rubbish piled up in the streets. It took 5 days and the intervention of military police to clear away the trash and end the stench.

Food Service. Are waitresses and waiters doing secular work? After all, in their jobs they serve merely physical (not spiritual) food to hungry, earthly bodies. But wait. God sent ravens to feed Elijah’s earthly body. He provided manna to sustain the bodies of the Israelites in the desert. Jesus fed thousands. “I do not want to send them away hungry,” he said, “or they may collapse on the way” (Mt. 15:32). So next time someone on a wait staff places that steak on your table, thank God that she or he is carrying out one of God’s purposes on earth. How can that be merely secular work?

Government Work. Surely working for an anything-but-godly government qualifies as secular work, right? Not so fast. God governs. “Dominion,” says David, “belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations” (Ps. 22:28). Joseph worked as prime minister of the pagan government in Egypt. Yet, he told his brothers it was to that very place that “God sent me” (Gen. 45:5). As a young man, Daniel went to work for the ungodly Babylonian government—and served God in that work for perhaps 70 years. Because they are carrying out God’s purposes, government authorities, says Paul, “are God’s servants" (Rom. 13:6). So is it right to call what they do secular work? Does it really have no spiritual basis?

Gathered-Church Work. Those who do what often gets called ministry or spiritual work are also carrying out God’s purposes. God rescues. He “redeems your life from the pit” (Ps. 103:4). “Our God is a God who saves” (Ps. 68:20). So those, too, who serve God and others by proclaiming and explaining the Good News are doing what God himself has been doing all along.

Church or Kingdom Perspective?

In light of who God is and what he does—and our being made in his likeness—what, then, keeps feeding this unbiblical concept of secular work? Could it be that we have allowed our practice of “church” to dwarf the far larger biblical theme of God’s Kingdom? As already quoted, “God rules over the nations.” When Jesus began teaching, he did not say the Church had arrived. Instead, his good news was that the Kingdom of God had come near. In The Other Six Days, R. Paul Stevens says, “Kingdom ministry has been almost totally eclipsed by church ministry.”

As King, with all authority in heaven and on earth, Jesus cares about the well-being of both his original Creation and his New Creation. He sends people to work in both arenas to carry out his Kingdom purposes. The Church—in both its gathered and scattered modes—is here to announce and to demonstrate the presence of the King and his Kingdom.

To a church-program mindset, managing a bank, sweeping floors, or designing a building may seem irrelevant except as a means for evangelizing or making money to support “the ministry.” Which makes it so telling how the Collins English Dictionary defines secular: “not within the control of the Church.”

Kingdom work--carrying out  our Father's business--takes the labor of both the gathered and the scattered church. Making a higher-lower distinction between so-called secular and sacred work disables shared church.

School Interview Points to Need for Shared Church

In Mark Greene's "Sacred Secular Divide" video, a public school teacher describes the lack of prayer support for her work.

A few days ago—in the interest of shared church—I interviewed the principal and assistant principal of a local elementary school. The edited, five-minute video will be shown during the main congregational meetings of our church. I asked the principal and her assistant:

  • How does your administrative work in a public school carry on God’s purposes for life on earth?
  • What unique opportunities does your work provide for you as a Christian?
  • What challenges do you face in these roles?
  • What opportunities exist for retired people to serve as volunteers in your school?
  • How can our church pray for you and for your school?

Public School as a Calling

As I listened to the responses of these two school officials, the enthusiasm of both for their work poured out. They do what they do, day in and day out, because they know God has sent them to serve him and others in this context. For example:

  • “This work is the mission that I’ve been put on this planet to do.”
  • “We are on the front lines fighting for kids every single day.”
  • “Pretty much every kid in the country is funneled through public education, and that’s a huge opportunity.”

The assistant told about his earlier transition from working in a Christian school to serving in a public school. During the hiring interview, the prospective new boss wondered whether he understood what he would encounter in the public school environment: “You know,” he said, “there are kids here who do drugs and have sex. Are you really sure you want to be here?” To which the interviewee replied: “Yeah—I think that’s really why I want to be here.”

A Felt Need for Prayer

The interview also made it clear that these two want the prayer-backing of other Christ-followers. But others cannot pray if unaware of needs. This makes practicing shared church all that much more vital. When I asked how the church could pray for them, they responded with more requests than I was able to fit into a five-minute video. A few examples:

  • “Knowing that many children will return to homes with major dysfunctions, we both ‘take kids home’ every day.”
  • “Pray for the kids. Some of their stories are really normal and some of their stories are heartbreaking.”
  • “Pray for the staff. There’s a point where compassion fatigue enters. Sometimes kids show that they’re hurting and struggling by lashing out at the people who care about them the most. That happens—a lot.”
  • “It’s a challenge to balance work and family life every day.”
  • “We look at each other pretty much daily and say, ‘I don’t know what else to try.’”

UK Teacher Tells of Missing Prayer Support

Too often those called to work in public schools lack the prayer underpinning they need from fellow believers. In his YouTube video, “Sacred-Secular Divide,” UK-based Mark Greene includes a clip from a teacher who tells how she experienced this lack of prayer support:

“I teach Sunday School once a week for 45 minutes, and my church asks me to come up front so they can pray for me. For the rest of the week, I’m a full-time teacher, and yet as far as I can remember, no one has ever offered to pray for the work I do in school.   It’s as if they want to support half my profession and not the other half. It’s difficult, because no one would say that teaching Sunday School is more important than the work I do the rest of the week. But that feels like the message that I get. And if you look at it this way, I’ve got 45 minutes once a week with children who are generally open to the gospel with parents who are supportive of the faith—or 45 hours a week with kids who have very little knowledge of Christianity and parents who are either as ignorant or hostile to the faith.”

Where Christians Cross Paths with Non-Christians

In our neighborhoods and workplaces—in this case a school—the paths of Christians intersect most often and most relationally with those who do not know Christ. Only in a shared-church context can a congregation become aware of the opportunities and challenges their fellow believers face in their scattered-church roles.

The two school officials I interviewed lead a team of teachers and staff of 120 who are responsible for the safety of 765 children. They create the environment in which these children learn to read, write, do basic math, and live in community. The principal and her assistant also deal with hundreds of parents. Clearly, the opportunity to shine the light of Christ and live out his love is enormous.

Lesslie Newbigin, in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, wrote: “It is in the ordinary business of the world that the sacrifices of love and obedience are to be offered to God. It is in the context of secular affairs that the mighty power released into the world through the work of Christ is to be manifested. . . . It is, of course, also true that individual Christians will be weakened in their efforts to live out the gospel in secular engagements if what they are doing does not have the support of the church as a whole.”

Regularly gathering in "audience mode" works against whole-church support. Only in shared-church mode can we get to know what others do during the other six days of the week. Only in shared church can we learn how to pray for the scattered church.