Avodah: Work? Worship?

I was privileged to attend the Avodah Summit this past week at Trinity International University. The purpose of this conference was to give pastors and leaders theological vision and practical tools to help believers connect their faith to their daily work and the flourishing of their communities. The conference speakers included Skye Jethani, Steve Garber, Katelyn Beaty, Greg Forster, Jimmy Lee, Aaron Niequist, and Vincent Bacote.

Steve Garber gave a plenary address titled Integral, Not Incidental: Reframing Vocation for the Sake of the Church in the World on this important Hebrew word based on his study of it and its impact and influences on his life. Avodah is often translated work, but can be translated for both work as well as worship.

Steve’s address included a view through a few different windows to see how avodah is being lived out in different spheres of society.

First, Steve reflected on his relationship with and things he learned from the late John Stott. Stott stated “If we understand the mission of Christ rightly, then we will first rethink what we teach about vocation.” Stott taught him the importance of connecting missiology and anthropology, reframing what we understand about vocation. Garber is often quoted as saying, “Vocation is integral, not incidental to the missio Dei.”

If we understand the mission of Christ rightly, then we will first rethink what we teach about vocation.

-John Stott

People of faith should be represented in all vocations demonstrating foretastes of the coming Kingdom in the here and now. Garber noted that meaningful work exists in non-profit as well as for-profit and public sectors.

All of this meaningful work should be done through a commitment to the biblical vision of life and labor, money, and the marketplace. This commitment must be simultaneously seamless and sacramental. Such a philosophy may not necessarily be popular with staff and stakeholders, but to the degree that it incorporates both strength and vulnerability, this should result in the organization’s flourishing.

Vocation is integral, not incidental to the missio Dei.

-Steve Garber

Next, Garber spoke about a woodworker named Lawrence Sheffield of Magic City Woodworks in Birmingham, Alabama. Magic City Woodworks exists to help young men, including those recently released from incarceration, bridge the intimidating gap between unemployment and meaningful employment. Sheffield emphasizes the importance of both character and craft with the goal of the renewal of a healthy social economy. For Sheffield, as well as Garber, it is important for image bearers embodying avodah to see themselves as implicated in the way the world is as well as the way the world ought to be and someday will be.

One final window into avodah centered around the story of the life of the late Howard E. Butt. Howard was a successful entrepreneur whose family operates the HEB grocery stores throughout Texas. He had a passion to help the body of Christ think through and live out a comprehensive vision of vocation. He started Laity Lodge with the goal of providing a place for people to come, retreat, and wrestle with the very idea of avodah. The importance of contemplation is at the heart of the experience at the Laity Lodge located on the banks of the Frio River in Leakey, TX.

Garber demonstrated the importance of daily avodah through these windows because of the universal disposition toward dualism. This disposition is pervasive regardless of race, creed or country of origin. As a result, all people of faith regardless of vocation to promote the holistic nature of vocation.

Avodah properly defined and understood provides an opportunity to orient our life, labor, learning, and liturgy.

As I reflect on avodah in the context of the broader faith and work movement, I believe there are a few helpful questions for our consideration:

  • How can we demonstrate an increased, more consistent presence of the contemplative life even as we seek to live out avodah?
  • How do we better serve underrepresented groups, such as blue collar workers, in the current faith and work movement?
  • How do we get avodah more fully integrated into the life of the local church?
  • What about teaching avodah to kids and youth?

He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8 (ESV)

Ora et labora

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