In 2012, two friends and I launched an initiative called the Vocation Infusion Learning Community (VILC). The aim was to gather congregational leaders from around the country in a series of four retreats focused on faith and work. Over the next few years we took over 40 church teams through the program. Today, a similar initiative continues through Made to Flourish in the form of city-focused learning communities.
My main hope, given my own personal background in urban ministry, was that a focus on vocation would lead our churches to a more robust community engagement. So I’ve been delighted to witness how the VILC experience has, in fact, led many of the participants into deeper and more thoughtful outreach. A participating church from Grand Rapids, for example, started a summer job training program for kids. A megachurch in Atlanta is launching a major, multi-church cultural renewal center. And an affluent, predominantly Korean church in the DC area that was very inward-focused has begun the process of learning how it can leverage the professional talents of its members in new works of community development.
As I’ve followed our VILC alumni, I’ve learned that the experience has not only nurtured more and better outreach, but also revitalization inside the four walls of the church.
It’s not surprising Here’s what one of our VILC alumni, who now leads her congregation’s faith and work ministry, told me:
The church cannot help but be more vital when the congregant’s worldview is verified by understanding and giving voice to each person’s reason for being and purpose for living…both of which are answered and defined by faith and work integration. These are the central questions in each person’s mind… People long to have a reason for being and for knowing that the work they are doing matters. The Scriptural tenets of vocation infusion are deeply rooted in the essence of Christianity: the Imago Dei and the Missio Dei.
As I heard from other alumni, it was clear that their increased emphasis on teaching a Biblical theology of work and engaging in practices that affirmed their people in their daily labors had led to at least three positive marks of church revitalization.
- Bonds are being strengthened between pastors and congregants
Every team that has participated in the VILC has noted the importance of bringing pastors and marketplace lay leaders together in teams to share in the Learning Community experience. This approach strengthened relational bonds; deepened the lay leaders’ commitment to helping with implementation of new ideas “back home;” and in some instances caused pastors to rethink their ideas about how that implementation could unfold most effectively.
Bonds between shepherds and their flocks have also been strengthened as our alumni pastors have started visiting members at their workplaces, using more work-based illustrations, and spending more time listening to their people and understanding their work-related questions and struggles. Several of our alumni have specifically noted an uptick in interest and participation by men in their congregations.
- Sacramental life is deepening
In the vocation learning communities, we teach congregational leaders to adopt new liturgical practices aimed at overcoming the sacred-secular divide and affirming all work. Many of the alumni now do some form of regular, Sunday morning interviews with individual congregants that affords members the opportunity to tell in their own words how they are living out their faith in their daily jobs. Presbyterian pastor Steve Froehlich reports this practice, alongside the commissioning and public blessing of members from different vocational sectors, has “enriched the church’s sacramental life.” Thinking publically about the connection between faith, work, vocation, and mission, he says, has become a devotional practice. Parishioners on the receiving end of public commissionings have a newfound sense that at work, they are “standing on holy ground.”
Rev. Kent Duncan, pastor of a small, Midwestern, largely blue-collar church, taught a special four-part sermon series on work. At its conclusion, he brought forward the 30+ congregants who’d participated in all the accompanying activities (special small groups that dug deeper into the ideas presented in the sermons and sought to apply those to their jobs). The elders laid hands on these members and the entire congregation prayed that they would flourish in their callings. At the end of the prayer, one female member said, “That was the most significant prayer anybody ever prayed for me.”
- Millennials are Coming…and Staying
Research by David Kinnaman from Barna has shown that one of the most important reasons why Millennials are dropping out of church is that they do not find there a connection between Sunday and Monday. “One the most recurring themes” in his research with dropouts, Kinnaman reports in his book, You Lost Me,
is the idea that [the Christianity they’ve been taught] does not have much, if anything, to say about their chosen profession or field….It is a modern tragedy. Despite years of church-based experiences and countless hours of Bible-centered teaching, millions of next generation Christians have no idea that their faith connects to their life’s work.
By contrast, Boston pastor Larry Ward from Abundant Life Church reports that, “When I started talking about faith and work and economics, I started to attract Millennials.” Surveys from the Barna Group confirm his experience. Barna found young adults who engage regularly with a local church are four times more likely to say, “My church teaches me how the Bible relates to my career.”
Pastor J.D. Larson from Minneapolis co-leads an urban church predominantly populated by an under-40 crowd. He says he is “absolutely convinced” of a connection between an invigorated emphasis by the church on vocation and that church’s vitality. “A large segment of our people are those who are coming back to church. They are undergoing a revitalization of their faith,” Larson describes. “I would say an understanding of work as a space [where] they can partner in God’s mission is integral to that revitalization.”
Larson reports that many of his congregants felt that the Church had undervalued their work for years. So, “part of their renewal and engagement with the church is to rediscover the value of their vocation in the kingdom. Doing so opens a new basis for relationship with a God who they previously thought could care less about their vocation, other than possibly being disappointed they weren’t a missionary.”
Barna’s research indicates that 70 percent of American churchgoers don’t “see how their work serves God’s purposes,” and 78 percent “see their work as less important than the work of a pastor or priest.” So there’s plenty more congregational leaders must do. Hopefully, as clergy realize that infusing an emphasis on vocation in their churches can lead to both invigorated mission and internal revitalization, more will turn their attention to teaching on faith and work.
Dr. Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute and author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (IVP).