By David Gill, reprinted from Workplace 313.
In her recent book, Work, Pray, Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley (Princeton, 2022), UC Berkeley sociologist Carolyn Chen showed how work has become, in effect, a replacement religion for many tech workers. Church attendance is down and what takes its place is work as religion, the source of meaning and purpose, and the idol to whom sacrifices of time (and more) are made. Not the true God but the company is treated as the creator and sustainer, the source of wisdom and values, the savior, lord, and god. No doubt at all that Chen is describing a reality – at least for a large percentage of Silicon Valley-types. She is not, of course, describing the masses for whom work is often more like a hell of boredom, meaninglessness, uncertainty and exploitation – hardly a religion.
Good arguments can be made that God’s main competition today is the self – Me, Myself and I. If not race, nation, politics, wealth, education, or technology, work may have become, for many today, the chief source of personal identity and purpose, taking the place of God – who establishes our primary identity as sons and daughters in God’s family, made in God’s image and likeness, called and equipped to carry out his work in his world.
There has always been a human temptation to turn work into an idol and accompanying religion displacing the true God. Nazis (“Arbeit macht frei!) and Marxists come close – although nation and race (Nazis), and social and economic class (Marxism), are even stronger anchors in their ideology. Capitalism is if anything more prone to place a central god-like focus on work, free enterprise, economic profit and material wealth. This will not be the first era when church (and family and community) are neglected in favor of career and work. Lacking a sense of identity as a child of God, people turn to other sources, and work is a tempting alternative. Chen shows how many of today’s companies play on their employees’ spiritual, intellectual, and relational hungers in order to have happy, contented, productive workers. Chen is simply noting the latest version of the temptation to violate the first two commandments: “no other gods” and “no idols.”
Chen’s report is well-researched and rings true as far as it goes: church is in decline, career obsession is ascendent – in Silicon Valley and beyond. Less living sacrifice to Lord and church, more living sacrifice to company and career. Chen notes the huge costs not just in the arrested personal development of the worshippers of work, but to churches, neighborhoods, communities and civic life as the time and attention of work-worshippers is sucked up by employers. What to do? Pray and hope that churches (and other non-work organizations) once again increase their “magnetic” power and draw at least a piece of the worker’s soul back to them outside the workplace?
My view is that what we need is not to flee to God outside the workplace – but to bring the true, living God into the workplace (or more accurately, recognize that God is already there). We need to develop a robust, biblical workplace theology and discipleship that does not worship work but “salts and lights” our workplaces and companies, our attitude and our performance. We definitely want to see the living God at work – not pretend that work is itself our god or find God only outside the workplace.