Book Review: The Church and Work: Ecclesiological Grounding of Good Work

What does one say about yet another book in the never ending sea of books that discuss the integration of faith and work? Well, The Church and Work: The Ecclesiological Grounding of Good Work is distinctive for a few reasons.

The book was written by Joshua Sweeden, dean of the faculty and associate professor of Church and Society at Nazarene Theological Seminary. Previously, he was assistant professor of theology and Richard B. Parker co-chair in Wesleyan Theology at George Fox Evangelical Seminary.

Dr. Sweeden is a graduate of the Boston University School of Theology,  Nazarene Theological Seminary, and Point Loma Nazarene University. He is an ordained Elder in the Church of the Nazarene and has served in various ministerial capacities in local churches and in Nazarene higher education, as well as through Global Mission and Nazarene Compassionate Ministries.

Broadly speaking, this book seeks to determine the role of the church in the formation of good work. Sweeden names a deficit in scholarship connecting the theology of work to the church:

Can theologies of work fully propose transformations of good work aside from concrete communities of practice? Can the church be understood as generative for both the theology and practice of good work?

There are two main reasons why I think this book is unique. The first is that in the enormity of publications encouraging readers to integrate faith into work and other parts of life, very few make the connection between work and ecclesial life. Quoting from the book’s back cover:

This needed ecclesiological development takes seriously the role of context in the ongoing discernment of good work and specifically explores how ecclesial life and practice shape and inform good work. Christian understandings of good work are inconceivable without the church. Accordingly, the church is not simply the recipient and a dispenser of a theology of work, but the locus of its development.

The second reason I think this book is important and distinctive is Sweeden’s intentionality in making sure voices from different Christian traditions are represented, as well as voices that critique the church: Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Max Weber, St. John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Miroslav Volf, Karl Barth, John Wesley, Alexander Schmemann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Darrell Cosden, Martin Luther, Alasdair MacIntyre, John Howard Yoder, Dorothy Sayers, and many others. This book is much richer and a more rounded resource because of the diversity of voices.

Dean Blevins, professor of practical theology and Christian discipleship and director of Master of Arts program in Christian Formation and Discipleship at Nazarene Theological Seminary, wrote about the book:

Rather than abandoning work to the marketplace, Sweden offers a theologically sound, congregationally sensitive treatment of work central to the Christian life. While providing a sound introduction to classic and contemporary definitions of work, Sweeden’s unique contribution rests with his articulating work as a form of ecclesial practice, a compelling view that makes the book a necessary read.

There are people of faith who continue to relegate work to the marketplace, rather than realizing that people of faith are doing work in all vocations, whether paid or not, for the glory of God and for societal flourishing. The faith and work movement’s work is not done: such concepts may seem foundational to those of us swim in this stream often, but there are many who continue to unknowingly live in a hopeless dualism. We have a “gospel” message to share with them.

Michael Cartwright, vice president for university mission and associate professor of philosophy & religion at the University of Indianapolis, states in his foreword to the book:

I strongly suspect that many Christians – Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox alike – are haunted by such discontinuities of faith and practice just as most of us feel alienated by our daily work and talk as if ‘good work’ only exists in our nostalgic memories..This is a remarkable study by a Christian scholar who embraces the challenge of trying to ground Christian ethics in the ordinary practices of the church.

Sweeden builds on The Biblical Doctrine of Work by Anglican priest Alan Richardson to make an interesting three-fold proposal of how work is used in Scriptures. Work is described as God’s work in creation and redemption, work which God has called His people to (this is also referred to as vocation), and work of daily life such as farming, building, and cleaning.

The following are a few great quotes from the book designed to further whet your appetite:

The church’s transformative influence on work, its exhibition of God’s redemption of work, or so I will argue, is demonstrated through its communal life, social patterns, habits, and practices.

Needed in theologies of work is a substantive ecclesiology that addresses the significance of the church and its practices as a starting point for the recovery of good work; an exploration of how work might be re-imagined communally and practically.

Theology is sometimes construed as theoretical or practical; the former concerned with right thinking, the latter with right action. Theology is also concerned with the interrelatedness of theory and action, or more specifically, the way theory and action are mutually informative and dependent. From this perspective, theology must engage the ordinary and commonplace practices of everyday life.

From the simple tasks of self-care to professional management, work is a daily reality faced equally by the underemployed and over-employed, by the poor and the wealthy, or by those who commute and those who stay home.

As a result of my reading and reviewing Liturgy Of the Ordinary here, I’m pleased to see Sweeden’s reference to the significance of liturgy and good work.

Not only do liturgical practices shape and inform Christian ethics, but liturgy as the ‘work of the people’ is a reminder that good work corresponds to the vocation or calling of the church.

If, like me, your interest is piqued to explore these ideas further, you can review Sweeden’s dissertation from Boston University School of Theology here.  This book is a hidden gem in the very large sea of books that discuss the integration of faith, work, and life.

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