By Alistair Mackenzie (see our interview with Alistair here)
In my continuing series of lessons gleaned from study and work in the faith and work movement, I want to talk today about two things: dangers in emphasizing a theology of work and opportunities worth pursuing.
When you start to elevate the significance of our work from God’s perspective it can easily seem to suggest that this is how we earn or confirm our salvation. This is a problem. So is the danger of suggesting that this work is primarily about our paid employment. Our Western culture has already done a good job of idolizing employment and careers.
What is that key question we ask when we meet someone and they’ve just given us their name? “What do you do?” Because then we know where someone fits in our world. It is this question that is so killing for someone who is unemployed, and also for pastors who want a conversation without the awkwardness of people who just don’t know what to say if you answer, “Well I’m a Baptist pastor!” It is so easy to just end up reinforcing that Western idolization of employment that encourages us to find our identity, status, significance and security in a job.
As Christians we need to find our identity and status in our relationship with God first. This is our primary calling. We are called to belong and to be in relationship with God through Jesus first and then called to do in a way that is also defined by Jesus as we learn to follow him in all of life. So it is a vocation that is centered on Jesus and not the work that we do. And we must get that right.
But neither is this discipleship divorced from the work that we do, because this vocation as followers of Jesus is worked out through our daily activities, all of which are of significance to God; domestic work, voluntary work and church work as well as employment. It is about our whole life’s work.
And so the Bible is full of these twin messages about work. It is not how we earn our salvation. But it is the primary way we live out our discipleship. But I believe that the second part of this is not a message that most Christians have understood yet, as my survey work has shown.
While there have been significant advances in our theologies of ministry and mission and the laity, advances that recognize the many ways that daily work in the world does count from God’s perspective, this is seldom reflected in the way we do church. Our theology has run way past our practice.
Many academic conversations about spirituality in the workplace are now being initiated by non-Christians, especially Western Buddhists and New-Age believers. We need to be better prepared to understand what is happening and to address the issues that are being raised. It disappoints me that, at least where I come from, Christians haven’t been more involved in these discussions.
A course on Spirituality at Work developed in the school of management at Canterbury University in New Zealand was pioneered by a woman who is Baha’i, a man who is a Mormon elder and another man who follows an Indian guru. Where are the orthodox Christians in these conversations? Often there is a real spiritual interest among people who are not Christians. And they are not looking to us for help. We need to ask “Why not?”
The experience of women in the workforce has been different from that of men and their voices have raised some challenging questions for us. I have described some of these challenges from New Zealand women outside the church in my thesis. How much are we listening to the experiences and questions of women?
Also, where in academic discussions in Christian circles are the voices of blue-collar workers to be heard these days? Their work experiences are typically very different from those of more educated middle class people who usually initiate most discussion in our churches. The faith at work movement, began out of industrial mission, where mostly ordained males of a more liberal persuasion tried to get alongside blue collar workers and to act as support people and advocates for them. It has now changed to become more of a pastoral support ministry for white collar workers and people from more evangelical or Pentecostal backgrounds, without the same strong social ethic and blue collar involvement. Will this just become a repeat of the way the Methodist movement lost touch with the working classes? This is a huge challenge for middle class churches today.
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).