Part XV: Four Recent Books on Faith and Work: Keller & Hudson

 

For years, Tim Keller has preached on how believers can help redeem their cities not just through words and acts of mercy (evangelism and social concern), but also in how they work. Every Good Endeavour was written to enable Christians not just to make sense of their work, but to chart their way through the various attempts (as noted by Sherman) that Christians have made to give a theological perspective on work. He wants to show how, while many of those theological streams are complementary, there can be an over-arching vision for our work which can be gained from the way the Christian gospel changes us as people.

Having outlined the Divine purposefor work, and the curses of fruitlessness, pointlessness, selfishness and idolatry that occur when work is divorced from this gospel understanding, Keller comes to his transforming vision: “Becoming a Christian… gives us a new perspective on every culture, every worldview, every field of work… but it takes time to grasp and incorporate this new information into how we live and pursue our vocations.”  Keller wants to give believers what he calls “a new compass for work” that points to the transforming nature of the gospel, even for their work. He writes: “Theological and ethical reflection on our field of work is not easy. It is easier by far to focus on your own job and merely seek to work with personal integrity, skill and a joyful heart.”  While this is good, Keller’s vision is broader: “Christians are to think persistently and deeply about the shape of work in their field and whether (in biblical terms) it accords as well as possible with human well-being and with justice.”

He also wants to give readers an alternative conception of work to the dualism that can pervade much Christian reflection on this issue – and which pervades some of the literature on vocation and bivocational ministry in particular:  “The integration of faith and work is the opposite of dualism… Our thick view of sin will remind us that even explicitly Christian work and culture will always have some idolatrous discourse within it. Our thick view of common grace will remind us that even explicitly non-Christian work and culture will always have some witness to God’s truth in it… Ultimately, a grasp of the gospel and of biblical teaching on cultural engagement should lead Christians to be the most appreciative of the hands of God behind the work of our colleagues and neighbors.”

This critique of dualism, is also a feature of the fourth book. The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC) has for many years sought to train people in “whole-life discipleship” and equip them in vocational faithfulness “on their frontline”.  In 2012 they published Neil Hudson’s Imagine Church as part of their UK-wide Imagine project, building on some earlier work by LICC Director Mark Greene. Hudson, following Stevens, differentiates between the church gathered and the church scattered and proposes that throughout most of evangelical church history an imbalance has existed with most of the money, time and energy of believers being concentrated on the former.

He believes that in order for the church to be truly effective several subtle changes of emphasis need to be in place. These include a greater understanding of the implications of the Lordship of Christ; a focus on the church scattered; a change of church culture; and a series of small but recognizable changes (“one-degree shifts”) in the church’s methodology. The gathered church, he believes, has monopolized the minds of members and often reduced their vision to an ABC of Attendance, Buildings and Cash.  Leaders need to be challenged about the extent to which they have communicated, by word and action, that the church subscribes to a belief in the sacred/secular divide.

The reality is that many in congregations are sitting uneasily with such a paradigm as they try to make sense of their two worlds of work and faith. Hudson says that whenever his vision of whole-life discipleship is shared in congregations a “light-bulb moment” occurs: “It’s not so much that it was a new vision; rather the ideas were presented in ways that articulated what they had intuitively been thinking”.  He advocates a variety of strategies whereby leaders can minister to people on their “frontline”, including commuting with them, visiting them at work, sharing their stories in the worship services and through the church’s various media. But the climax of his argument is his final step in the change process. He emphasizes that all this needs to lead to a change in culture and that, in particular, the contract between pastor and people needs to be renegotiated.

Most churches, he explains, function with a pastoral care contract with the accompanying expectations (often unwritten and unspoken) of what the pastor – and only the pastor – can do. There needs to be a move towards a pastoral equipping contract, and the psychology of the relationship between pastor and people needs to undergo a profound change. The pastoral care contract means that the pastor’s time is spent disproportionately with people in obvious crisis and with others who have leadership responsibilities in the gathered church.

Hudson observes: “It’s not difficult to understand how sermons are shaped, even if subconsciously, by the conversations that have taken most of the preacher’s time during a week. It is therefore no surprise that the application of most reaching or preaching has been either pastorally focused or directed to the internal life of the church. But what about the rest of the people, indeed the majority of the church?… There are a myriad contexts that people are dealing with every day where their discipleship is being tested and stretched and lived out with authenticity. Leaders are missing out on the conversations about these places because they are too busy, and because their people don’t think they are interested.”

Pastor and people must not only talk about partnership in mission, but also enact it and embed it in the culture of the church. Not just the budget but everything from the noticeboard to the coffee rota must communicate to members and visitors that what they do for most of their week, remunerated or not, matters to God and matters to the church. Otherwise, churches will revert to the default position of being self-serving and self-perpetuating and any flirtation with whole-life discipleship will have been nothing but an “interesting interlude”.

He concludes: “Cultures are notoriously difficult to change, but they can change and they do change. The statement ‘Nothing will ever change here’ is always the mark of a toxic despair”.

Hudson’s and Greene’s works, emerging as they do out of an ongoing strategy to reach the UK through frontline discipleship, and based on their experiences of accompanying churches through change, are indicative of an important and significant shift that is currently discernible among an increasing number of congregations, in the UK at least. They have complemented the reflections of Volf, Stevens, Nelson, Sherman and Keller, all of whom have contributed helpfully to a growing body of literature on vocation which has implications for ministry, both in terms of the type of churches we plant and develop and the fluidity and interplay of vocations inside and outside the gathered church.

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