My Faith and Work Journey (Part 5)

By Alistair Mackenzie (see our interview with Alistair here)

Previous posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4

Theses are by their nature pretty academic documents and it wasn’t long before some friends of mine who were mostly business people started to say to me, “Hey Alistair are you ever going to bring some of these high-flown ideas down to earth?”

Naturally, I responded a bit defensively saying “But I thought that was your job”.

But they said “We need some help.”

To which I said “Well I’d like to help, but really I’m not an expert and I don’t have the time, nor the money.”

To which their response was, “Well, if we put up the money will you make the time?”

You need to be careful what you set yourself up for when you start floating your ideas past people who really want to see things happen and have the resources to help make it happen. Because more than likely they’ll choose you to get it going!

This wasn’t how I planned to spend my life, but it seemed that God had other ideas.

And so starting in 1996 we set up, in partnership with Laidlaw College in Christchurch New Zealand the Faith At Work Project, a research and training program exploring the connections between faith and work.

I began with a 6 month intensive survey questioning Christians about ways they saw their faith connected to their approach to work and asking, “Are there any ways in which you might appreciate more help from us or the church?” (This involved 100 in-depth individual interviews, plus a number of discussion groups and seminars and numerous less formal encounters).

This exercise ended up shaping most of my teaching and research and writing since then. It highlighted a number of issues that we still need to address in our classrooms. These include:

Work is for Evangelism: Most people began by assuming that I wanted to talk with them about how they were evangelizing their workmates. Most said (many self-consciously in a way that made both of us feel uncomfortable) that they weren’t very good at that. Many wondered if I should really be talking to them for this reason. This does seem to be the main way that most people think that God (or at least the church) values so called “secular” employment, a term often used by people in these conversations, although personally I think it betrays a sub-Christian understanding of the fact that for Christians no sphere is secular but every activity takes place in sacred space where God is involved.

Work is for Evangelism and Money: For most Christians the church is seen to value employment primarily for what it means in terms of evangelism first and money second. Work expands our circle of contact with non-Christians and it provides money for the support of our families and the church and parachurch ministries. I believe this is a woefully inadequate understanding, whether we intend to convey it or not. What is clear is that most Christians do not feel that what they do most of the time really matters to God.

Helping Professions and Others: At the same time it is also important to note that Christians do clearly fall into two distinct groups when it comes to talking about how they feel God views their work. And here I distinguish between people involved in what might be broadly identified as the helping professions and those involved in other jobs. Those in the helping professions, which include doctors, nurses, social workers, counsellors and teachers were generally happy to use the word ‘ministry” in connection with at least some of their work. They see their work itself as ministry in some sense.

It is plain that people who are involved in more direct, person-to-person, service kinds of jobs feel that their work counts from God’s perspective and that somehow the church affirms that this work is ministry. To some extent this is also true for parents who are working at home and who devote large chunks of their time to their families. Historically churches have affirmed that parenting work has a ministry or service component to it, although many stay-at-home parents I talked to felt that this view of the value of their work was diminishing.

The flip side of the church’s affirmation of those in service jobs is that those whose work lacks this sense of direct person-to-person service feel that their work is not in itself of value to God or the church and is not ministry. People who struggle to connect their work to their faith include factory workers, manufacturers, accountants, desk-bound office workers, many business people and those involved in commercial or industrial work; those who feel somewhat removed from meeting people at their particular point of need. These people seldom talk about their work in itself as ministry. Rather they look for ministry opportunities in the relationships that their work opens up for them.

People who are involved primarily in technical jobs, where they are utilizing practical skills rather than being in direct contact with other people, like engineers and computer programmers, often feel disconnected from God while they’re performing these kinds of functions, and struggle to find specific ways to nurture their faith and sense of God in their work.

In my next post, I’ll talk about some more faith-related responses I found in my surveys.

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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