Part XIV: Four recent books on Faith and Work: Nelson & Sharman

In Work Matters, Tom Nelson, Kansas pastor and author on vocational issues states: “the often unsettling truth is that while we shape our work, our work shapes us and the world around us.”  This can lead to many people developing unhealthy attitudes to work (workaholism, sloth, or a dualistic sacred/secular divide) and seeing the workplace as somewhere to be endured rather than redeemed and enjoyed. Nelson sees this as spiritually cancerous. He warns that “to not walk in the Spirit in the workplace where God has called you is to live a life of spiritual impotence and carnality.”

Such attitudes are often due to a faulty theology that sees work as an intrinsic part of the fallenness of the world, and therefore one of those things that will be destroyed in the end. Nelson, however, drawing on Jesus’s parable of the talents and other Scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 3, makes a case for work being something which is intrinsic to who we are and which will continue (albeit in a perfected state) into the eternal kingdom.

Seeing it this way will have transforming implications for our daily lives: “When we begin to grasp the transforming truth that the future destiny of our work and our world is not complete annihilation but radical healing, it changes how we view our daily work. If we believe that the earth – everything about it and everything we do on it – is simply going to one day be abolished and disappear, then the logical conclusion is that our work is virtually meaningless…. But if our daily work, done for the glory of God and the common good of others, in some way carries over to the new heavens and new earth, then our present work itself is overflowing with immeasurable value and eternal significance.”

The book aims to close the “Sunday – Monday Gap”, by helping believers develop a robust theology of vocation and understand the positive transforming potential of work from a Kingdom perspective. Nelson believes that moving people to this level of understanding does not happen overnight but requires a disciplined intentionality on the part of church leadership; a reorientation of traditional ministry expectations that goes beyond preaching and teaching and “must become a vital part of the spiritual formation pathways” of the local church.  Nelson’s book is a helpful primer for pastors to consider issues of vocation and begin to weave a strong “vocational thread into the fabric of [their] local congregation.”

Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good   [KINGDOM CALLING] [Paperback]

While Nelson’s book did touch on some of the implications of this for wider society, in Kingdom Calling, published the same year, Amy Sherman further develops the wider implications and looks at how “vocational stewardship” can transform not only the local church but cities and cultures. She admits that churches and evangelicalism in general have been remiss in ignoring this challenge: “churches need to take vocation much more seriously.”  Drawing on research by David Miller of Princeton’s Faith and Work Inititative she highlights the dearth of sermons and articles on the subject, and the tendency of virtually every existing evangelical workplace ministry to concentrate on individualistic concerns (personal ethical decisions affecting individual conscience, or evangelistic conversations) rather than a more holistic integrated approach. Such an approach would view work as having intrinsic meaning and worth, aim to make the workplace an enriching environment and help workers deal with the diversity of issues raised by their vocations.

Miller and Sherman’s statistics are based on many years of sermons, over 200 periodical articles and over 1200 workplace ministries. Miller tellingly refers to the less than 10% of regular churchgoers who ever heard a sermon on work, and those that were preached were “critical and hostile” towards the workplace.

While Sherman does have a concern that leaders “do a better job of inspiring [their] members about the role they can play in the mission of God and equipping them to live missionally through their vocations,” her main burden is not just the transformation of the local church but the renewal of society as believers follow Christ in the work he came to do in “pushing back the kingdom of darkness and pushing in the kingdom of light… offering foretastes of the coming kingdom’s shalom”.

Sherman presents a gracious critique, but hers is nonetheless a depressing diagnosis of the problem within traditional evangelicalism, including a too-narrow gospel, inadequate discipleship and problematic worship music. Some of her comments on the Missio Dei are reflective of Christopher Wright, as she encourages individuals and churches to become agents of renewal in a fragmented and broken world. She outlines several healing pathways to a more biblical and rounded Gospel-life.  Key to this is her understanding of “vocational power” – a synthesis of several factors including skills, knowledge, networks and influence – that will enable believers reflect on their vocation and its potential for kingdom effectiveness.

One of the most helpful things about such a vocational emphasis within churches is that this need not be extra work for pastors or congregations, rather it is a case of harnessing what is already there, where it is already situated: what Sherman calls “blooming where you are planted”.

 

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2 comments

  1. I wanted to leave a comment yesterday, but to be honest I get seriously depressed when I read something like ‘less than 10% of regular churchgoers who ever heard a sermon on work’. How can that be? Work is what we’re doing for most of the week. Washing the dishes or even helping with the youth club is work never mind work that someone gets paid for. We should nearly be hearing about work every sermon and what God is saying to us about it. Yet that is less than 1 in 10 church goers who have ever heard one about work. When I read something like that it makes me wonder if Christianity has an connection to what is going on in the real world.
    I read an article that Kevin had sent me from your man Volf and really liked what he said about work mainly because it is one of the few times (maybe the only time) that I’ve read a theologian saying things that seemed to make sense about work as i know it.

  2. Yeah, it is depressing. WHile I think the low stat has to account for people not recognising some clear applications to the work context (ie the sermon may not have been explicitly on “Faith and your work” but probably did have a lot of cross-over application) nevertheless, the reality is that it is a damning indictment on pastors and the church for not making the value of work clearer in their sermons. There will be more on this in future serialisations

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