Should We Create More Vocation-Specific Faith and Work Resources?

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One topic that continually comes up among faith and work leaders is this: should we create more vocation-specific materials? That is, instead of creating resources broadly about, say, work, Sabbath, calling, or caring for the poor, should we create experiences, books or small group studies specifically for those in, say, law, business, architecture or nursing?

The topic came up at the Faith & Work Summit, where we asked the question about going from 101 “introduction to faith and work” activities to 201 or 301 activities –  hosting specific conversations on retail, manufacturing or education, and the cultural challenges believers face in those sectors. It also came up when talking with my friend Alistair Mackenzie at the Theology of Work Project, as they noodle on next steps after creating an incredible biblical commentary and set of resources for pastors, laypeople and scholars on work.

The question is tough for at least two reasons.

First, there are many of us inside the faith and work movement that are suspicious (or at least wary) of Kuyperian transformationalism and its attendant idea that each sphere of human social activity (i.e., field of work) is directly responsible to be lived out coram Deo, before the face of God. Clearly, Christ is Lord. But the grand project of “this is what all of law or finance ought to look like in God’s economy” is a slippery target.

Fields like law and finance are not static, and neither are the Christians within them who desire to honor God with their work. Writing a 10-volume set on a comprehensive theology of law may be (1) pressing the Scriptures for questions they weren’t meant to directly answer for our cultural moment, and (2) woefully out of date by the time of publication, since law – and all of culture – is constantly changing. Fields of work and arenas of cultural activity are less like light bulbs, clearly defined and illuminated, than they are like lava lamps, in constant motion.

On the other hand, the pastor in me says we absolutely must speak to specific circumstances in people’s lives. The reason, for example, Alistair got into the Theology of Work Project is because as a pastor, his younger congregants would ask tough, honest questions about what it meant to be a Christian when faced with the day-to-day challenges of living and working in a secular age. I fully agree: in the past three years I’ve heard stories from electricians, investors, artists, entrepreneurs, public school superintendents and general contractors. And I can honestly say that my work at Denver Institute for Faith & Work is the most pastoral work I’ve ever done. Abstractions don’t fly when doing this work on the ground. People are longing for answers to real questions, solutions to real problems, and resolutions to real tensions.

So can we speak to the specifics of people’s industries without either trying to give a dizzying, comprehensive theology for a specific sector nor ignoring the real-life experiences of the people we’re called to serve? Or coming at it from another angle: how can we continually engage a larger percentage of the population in the faith and work movement when “faith at work 101” is starting to lose its luster?

Here’s what I think is the solution to this quandary: start with individual stories. Here’s what I mean. For the past couple of years, my friend Chris Horst and I have been writing profiles of Christians serving God and their communities through their work for Christianity Today. Mica May, founder of May Designs, a notebook company; Cathy Mathews, owner of a pay-what-you-can restaurant; Bill Kurtz, the CEO of a high performing charter school network; Jim Howey, the business development officer at a small manufacturing company in Denver; Dave Collins, who emerged from addiction and homelessness to serve travelers as a housekeeper at a Marriott. In each case, their stories illustrate the complexity of human life, and how important it is think broadly about our work in vocational discipleship.

Take the story of Karla Nugent of Weifield Group Electrical Contracting. I profiled her originally intending to write about the work of her apprentice program, which is employing men coming out of addiction or incarceration as electricians. Simple enough, right? Wrong. The “faith and work” topics covered ranged widely when we pay attention to the specifics of her life. For example, they included:

  • Workplace evangelism. Two of her co-founders, and numerous employees, have come to faith through her gentle, humble witness over the past 15 years.
  • Social justice. Her apprentice program is a pioneer in Denver’s workforce development community, providing good jobs and a new narrative of hope that would make our friends at the Chalmers Center drool.
  • Generosity. Weifield Group is a leader in corporate philanthropy, and gives money and employee volunteer hours to serve the less fortunate, women & children, veterans, and heads of household in the Denver metro area.
  • Workplace culture. Weifield is continually ranked as a top place to work in Denver, due largely to the workplace culture that gives opportunities for advancement, engages employees in community service, and does the best electrical work in town, including the new Union Station that the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado.
  • The dignity and intrinsic value of work. Many of her electricians see their work not just as wires, but as art. They feel proud of what they do, and see its intrinsic value beyond even what they’re paid to do the job.
  • Sabbath. Being one of Denver’s most networked women, Karla has to stay aggressive with turning off all media on Sundays – but she does so to the great benefit of her family and co-workers.
  • Women and leadership. As a woman in an almost-all-male field, Karla embraces her role as a woman, and uses it as an opportunity to have honest conversations with peers and employees that would be hard to get to in a “tough guy” culture. She’s also honest about the challenges between raising children and caring for her “work” family, too.

I could go on. But here’s the point. Would a “theology of electrical engineering” help Karla? Maybe a little. But my guess is that it would end up on the bottom of a pile of papers on her desk. What would help is to provide the emotional and relational context to speak about the real issues she faces in the context of Christian faith, in all of its wonderful variety and life-giving diversity.

So, should we create more vocation specific resources? Well, it’s worth mentioning that hundreds of these vocation-specific resources already exist written by laity in their fields. It might be that pastors and biblical scholars are not the best socially-placed to write these resources.  

Here’s what the church can do to encourage vocation-specific conversations:

  1. Convene men and women around the workplace challenges and contemporary issues we face in the complexities of modern culture. We learn first through imitation. Gathering people in similar lines of work (and thus cultural worlds) has born tremendous fruit for us at DIFW in the last three years.
  2. Do a lot more story-telling. In so doing we’ll be able to touch on the topics surrounding the faith and work conversation in a way that is relevant, honest, and beautiful. We are shaped by the stories we believe and cherish. If we can do more storytelling – and do it well – we may even be so lucky as to contribute to the formation of men and women into the image of Christ, Redeemer…and carpenter.

Image: Shutterstock.

  One thought on “Should We Create More Vocation-Specific Faith and Work Resources?

  1. David Gill
    December 7, 2016 at 9:09 pm

    Jeff I appreciate your concerns but challenging and assisting history teachers, lawyers, artists, landscapers, child care-givers, et al . . . to seek God’s guidance for their specific tasks (and not just for generic work and rest) does not mean pretending to write the ultimate, transhistorical ten-volume work, nor does it commit us to Kuyperian sphere-theory, etc.. Look at church work: we are all disciples but can’t we have a focused study for those in pastoral care? for evangelists? Same for vocations in the marketplace. Of course all such efforts are temporary in a changing work world. So specific stories are great as you suggest as they get at the particularities of our callings. Humility should mark all of our efforts. But I never want to forget that it is God’s story that stands above our stories — and God doesn’t just speak in generalities but to the specifics of dealing with money, land, law and justice, etc etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • December 9, 2016 at 5:57 pm

      Great thoughts, David. Thanks for the comment. Agreed – God can surely speak to the specifics of our work, even in our postmodern context. And yes, I was creating a bit of a Kuyperian straw man. But my point: stories are a way to draw people into this conversation (and it’s urgency for the real lives of people in our conversations) that abstractions can’t. I’ve become more and more convinced that the way to start these conversations are around story – which, as you point out, can lead us to seeing THE story.

      Like

  2. William Messenger
    December 9, 2016 at 3:10 pm

    A really thought-provoking piece Jeff. Agreed that a comprehensive theology of law, education, landscaping, or any other occupation is not a good aim.

    But perhaps occupation-specific, robust collections of theological resources could be useful. Such a collection could include biblical passages with particular relevance to the occupation, commentaries on those passages, stories of Christians trying to live faithfully in the work of the occupation, and attempts at theological engagement of specific questions in the occupation. I wouldn’t have much hope for a comprehensive theology of law, for example. But I’d be interested in seeing people use biblical/theological resources to address the question, “Should Christian lawyers aim primarily at obtaining justice or at following due process?” and then seeing whether discussing the question is helpful to Christian lawyers. Or maybe even that question is too generic. Maybe fruitful questions would have to be more like: “If I recognize that a proposed contract would put my client at an unjust advantage over the other party, should I encourage my client to alert the other party of this and/or change the contract to make it more just?”

    No doubt that members of the occupation, not theologians and academics, would have to choose the questions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • December 9, 2016 at 6:04 pm

      Agreed! Thanks for the idea, Will. Solid.

      My point at the end is that I think many of the specifics are discerned by the Spirit in community. I like the idea of more specific resources, for sure. (I hope our little project blesses many!). Yet I’ve been in countless conversations that took a left turn and then a 180 – and ended up exactly where that community needed to be focusing. (and nowhere near the interesting questions I wanted them to talk about!)

      So, due process or justice? A good question – maybe. But it could be that a lawyer’s marriage is falling apart – that this is what needs attention.

      So, of course I agree. Let’s move into vocation specific resources. But let’s figure out how to draw in all these irrational, emotional, beautiful creatures we’re surrounded by as well…. My vision of formation, alas, if very church (community) driven….

      Like

    • byronborger
      March 3, 2017 at 12:44 pm

      This is such a good conversation. Important stuff. Thanks, Jeff — I actually think you are on to something helpful, here, and am glad for this piece. But, still, I’ve been holding off for weeks responding, as something else just needed to be said, I thought. And I pick up concerns in these few responses here.

      I wonder, though, why, as one comment put it, “a comprehensive theology of..” (any given vocation) isn’t a good aim? As a bookseller who has spent 35 years advocating for reading widely in one’s field — not very successfully, I might admit — I am baffled by this. Merely knowing intellectually about the principles holding within a field is not sufficient, of course. But knowing what we believe about something and why we believe it certainly is important. It is my sense that in any given area there are God-given structures and sin-ravished deformities, in both our ideas about the work area in question and the mores and habits and standards practiced within it. (See Al Wolter’s chapter on “structure and direction” in “Creation Regained”, just for one exploration of this or the process of “thinking Christianly” outlined in John Piper’s “Think” where he says that one of several things that distinguish the human calling to work from animals work — say a beaver building a dam — is that we use our God-given minds to study the structures and ordinances of God that hold for any given field of endeavor.) Jeff is surely correct in saying that this is a “slippery target” but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth pursuing. Do those who Jeff says are “suspicious” of this project think that God doesn’t care about the nature of this or that job, the theories that have shaped this field or that institution or the principles that inform any given workplace?

      For us to hear stories of working saints and be inspired by practitioners who live out their faith boldly in their careers is helpful, of course, but I am not so sure that most who are living out their faith have thought very carefully about the fundamental nature of their field, how idols and bad ideas have deformed the structures and practices within those fields, or, really, what we ought to be looking for if we are seeking a God-glorying, historically fruitful reformation of various spheres of culture. (I have heard a few too many inspiring talks with good rhetoric but little seriously Christian reflection on the realities of working “in but not of” the given career area and know people who actually go out and give workshops on Christian service in their jobs who are not even aware that there are hotly contested matters in their fields because they haven’t read a single Christian book about their job areas; this, I suggest, doesn’t serve our growing movement well.)

      If one wants to bear witness to the realities of God’s Kingdom breaking into each and every career, job, or calling, we have to know what it is we are to do in those fields once we “get there” ready to serve God, neighbor, and the common good within those institutions and among the current practices in that field — all which have been shaped, for good or ill, by ideas about those fields. (And, yes, yes, by other things as well, not only ideas.) Good intentions and even Godly intuitions about what it looks like to be faithful in a job simply aren’t enough, in my estimation. People need to buckle down and discern the Word of God that comes to us in creation (think of the farmer in Isaiah who studies that land and it is said that God taught him how to plant) by not only being attentive to the craft and practices in their field, but also by reading those who have plumbed those arenas before us, perhaps the secular cultural critics and perhaps the Christian thinkers who have given theories and ideas for us workers to apply. Could you imagine a soldier in the battlefield saying I don’t want to hear about the research of the military intelligence, I only want to hear stories about the valor of heroes? A football player who doesn’t want to study the playbook, but only watch the inspiring reels of the best plays?

      As a bookseller, I’m keen on book learning and I know not everybody studies in the same way, and not all of us will grapple comprehensively with a Christian perspective in this or that field. But my goodness, I hope we aren’t sending people out without some equipment, some thoughtful principles about law or medicine, media or business, craftsmanship or teaching, engineering or urban planning. Christians have written wisely about these fields and to not do everything in our power to have Christian leaders reading and conversing and refining the theories that have consequences in this topics seems to me to be a woeful short-cut. So, yes, lets keep the imaginative stories and the passionate examples coming, and by all means lets do this in community (as you’ve shown us well.) But lets make sure we also work harder in getting the best bibliographies out there, books used, debated, refined and reformed, so we might “take every theory captive” for Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5) and not be “taken captive” by worldly ideologies (Colossians 2:8) about this or that career and job-site. We not only need to learn from one another as we tell our stories, such as they are, but from the best thinkers who have worked equally hard to tell in book form their stories of their considered views of what Biblical fidelity requires of us as butcher, baker, and candlestick maker.

      Liked by 1 person

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