My Faith and Work Journey (Part 1)

By Alistair Mackenzie (see our interview with Alistair here)

I have been involved in deliberately exploring the relationship between faith and work since 1993. There are a number of contributing factors that got me started on this journey. One element was reading some words from North American Mennonite Calvin Redekop that have haunted me ever since: 

“Most of us spend almost 40% of our waking time at work. In contrast the average Christian spends less than 2% at church during their working years. Yet the church puts most of its energy into that 2%; almost nothing into the world of work”.   (Calvin Redekop)

I think the reason that I found these words so haunting in the first place was because they helped to crystallize some nagging thoughts that had been bouncing around in my brain for a long time without taking any clear shape.

And it might seem strange for me to say this, because for 23 years I was a Baptist pastor in New Zealand while at the same time teaching missiology part-time at a Bible College. Also for twelve years I was involved in the leadership of an overseas mission and development agency called Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor. My children used laugh at me attempting to address faith and work issues from the point of view of someone who had never had a “normal job”! (I drove a timber truck before I became a pastor, but they didn’t know me then.)

What Redekop said hit me at a time when I was trying untangle a number of threads of experience including:

Pastoral Experience: As a pastor I had gradually, but also increasingly become self-conscious about the way my gaze became more and more narrowly focused on creating an event on Sunday that might keep on attracting more and more people, but in a way that was no longer so concerned with how this was connected with Monday to Saturday realities for most people.

Yet at the same time I could see Christians struggling to know how to respond in a world of rapidly changing work patterns and changing values in an increasingly aggressive and competitive and pluralistic marketplace. Meanwhile church growth, in terms of growing my local congregation, had replaced my vision for growing the kingdom of God. And as I woke up to that fact I started to feel disturbed.

Theology of Mission: Being involved in heading up a mission agency and teaching the theology of mission caused me to become more and more concerned that we were failing to address the mission challenges at home because we were failing to apply the same mission principles and practice to the way we went about being church there.  Church at home was in come mode. But in other contexts you know you have to go and connect with people where they are in their language and largely on their terms. You can’t wait for them to come and connect with you on your territory.

I also became more and more self–conscious about the fact that my teaching was concentrating on equipping and supporting the few people who would become career ministers or missionaries while God’s largest mission force was already mobilized every day of the week and interfacing with the world in the workplace. But we were not intentionally resourcing the grass roots of the church for this missionary encounter. In fact it seemed to me that very few people even saw it as such, nor realized how much what happens there will decide the face of the future for the church in our land.

And I certainly hadn’t really developed or promoted a theology of mission and ministry which was connected to a theology of the laity. Nor had that been a significant part of my theological education. So I decided to do some post-graduate study to try catch myself up on this.

Intervarsity (TSCF in New Zealand): While doing my post-grad work I also worked on the staff of TSCF. Once again I found myself disturbed, but this time by the fact that, although we were trying to equip students to live as Christian students, we did not really operate out of a longer term view equipping young people to live as Christians for life, and particularly life in the world of work. Nor did we give them much help to think creatively and Christianly about career choices, or business ethics and other things in order to help them better integrate their faith with their working lives. In fact we discovered that some of our finest leaders were dropping out of church life when they disconnected from their Christian peer group. Growing dependence on a Christian group was obviously not the same as growing dependence on God.

I started doing research for a Master’s thesis primarily as a basis for my own education. I traced historical developments in the theology of work and the Christian understanding of vocation, and also explored practical ways churches can work to see their members better equipped and supported for their daily work in the world. Along the way I noticed a number of things, which I’ll address in subsequent posts.

Alistair Mackenzie is a Teaching Fellow at Laidlaw College – Christchurch, New Zealand and has also worked part-time with the Theology of Work Project.  He is the author of Where’s God on Monday?, SoulPurpose: Making a Difference in Life and Work and Just Decisions: Christians Ethics Go to Work, and the founding director of Faith at Work (NZ).

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