Most people spend 40 to 50 percent of their time at work. The marketplace is primarily where Christians have the opportunity to be salt and light and help people know Jesus. And yet the church rarely preaches or teaches on the value of our vocations in fulfilling the Great Commission.
Amy Sherman, author of Kingdom Calling and a researcher at the Sagamore Institute, gave a keynote address at a Leadership Journal Live event in Chicago in March 2014 titled "Why Vocation Really Matters." I met with Amy after her talk to continue the conversation on why our jobs matter, and how our work can be redeemed. Here's what she had to say:
As Christians, why does what we do matter?
Jesus told us to go and make disciples. But discipleship that doesn't address 40 percent of life (the amount of time most people spend working) isn't properly discipling people. Recent research shows that fewer than 10 percent of congregants can recall when their pastor preached on work. Two-thirds of the people Barna surveyed say it's been at least three years since they heard a sermon on work and career. My friend, Steve Garber, says that vocation is integral—not incidental—to fulfilling the mission of God in the world. If we're not talking about work and vocation from the pulpit, from the Christian worldview, then we're leaving Christians to listen to messages on work from the culture.
What messages does the world feed us about our work?
For one, we're inundated with the message that we need to over-work. Americans work more hours than citizens of nearly any other country. I've begun to realize how I've fallen into this trap myself. I've been struggling with health issues in the past couple of years. This year I'm paring back my work to give myself time to heal and recuperate. I've felt embarrassed because I'm not as busy as I usually am. The fact that I feel embarrassed because I'm not busy enough is a clue to me that work is an idol.
How are you changing your perspective on this?
The Lord has encouraged me in this area. I was reading a devotional booklet (not something I normally do), and the comment that struck me was Jesus saying, "I love you as much when you're walking as when you're running, and when you're sitting as when you're standing." Jesus cares about what I do. It's good to be excited about doing things for God and having an active role in his Kingdom. But he delights in me whether I'm working or not. I needed to be reminded of this reality.
Also, I was reminded that God is good, and whatever comes to us comes through his hands. When I'm lying in bed, literally unable to do anything, I can feel so worthless, like I'm not contributing to the kingdom of God. I've fallen into the lie that if I'm busy and productive, then I have worth, but if I'm not productive, I have no value. I'm trying to remember that I don't need to do anything to be more valuable to God. Thank God I can just rest in Christ, knowing there's nothing I need to add to what he's done. It's been a time of relearning these truths. There's something God can bring from this less-busy time I'm in.
Should the church be doing more to help us understand the power and value of our work?
The church needs to help people be disciples in their Monday to Saturday life. Barna says failure to disciple on work is a primary reason for the young adult drop-out rate in church. According to their research, 59 percent of Millennials (18-29 year olds) drop out of church. Young adults have always dropped out at this age, but what's different now, they say, is that Millennials don't see the church speaking on themes that are relevant. David Kinnaman from Barna says, "Christianity doesn't have much to say, if anything, on their chosen field."
We sometimes make marketplace Christians feel like second-class citizens. When we say things like, "Have you heard about Don? He left the firm to work for ministry," we're implying that secular work isn't ministry. When we commission the Sunday school teachers but not the public school teachers, or we thank the overseas missionaries, but not the Christian business leaders who help create new jobs in our community, we're creating a sacred/secular divide. We need to help people understand how faith informs the actual work we do, not just the kind of worker we are. How can I, as an architect, a banker, or a plumber, bring a foretaste of heaven here to Earth? The church needs to affirm all of the work we do—raising kids, working in ministry, or working in the marketplace.
How can people who work in repetitive, mundane jobs find fulfillment and a sense of calling?
I think it's critical for people who feel that they have mundane jobs to assess all of the skills that go into the work they do. They may be surprised to discover that they have many different critical skills that they're strong at that could possibly be used in other more fulfilling ways.
Also, we get energy when we do work that fits us better. Find a way to serve within your sweet spot—work that matches your interests and talent. In terms of finding our calling within the church, my church's policy is for all members to serve in the nursery. The reality is I'm afraid of babies! I didn't want to get anywhere near the nursery. Thankfully, the church leaders understood it when I said, "Let's have me just keep teaching adults." I'm not saying you shouldn't ever stretch yourself outside your comfort zone. I'm just saying that people will give more, and more energetically, when they are volunteering in ways that draw upon their particular skills and abilities.
The way we do our jobs is critically important. For example, I've spent a lot of time in hospitals. The quality of a patient's care and recovery is hugely contingent on the aides and nurses. We think of the doctor as playing the most important role in our care, but it's the nurses and aides who make all the difference. If the aide has a good attitude, brings you water when you need it, is sweet when you need a little encouragement, she has such an effect on you. If they don't do their jobs well, your experience in the hospital can be horrific. When people have jobs like this, they need to understand their full influence. We need to help people see all of their skills and the influence they do have. If you're in a mundane, low-level type of job, think through what you do every day and realize the ways you impact the world.
Saddleback pastor Rick Warren talks about the Mother Teresa principle—the lower you are in service to others, the more influence and credibility you actually gain. Is this a truth we need to claim for ourselves?
Yes. For example, I have AAA. Think about the first person who answers the phone. They're probably the bottom rung of the company. But they're your first point of contact when you break down on the highway. They are the ones who will call you back and make sure you're safe. If they didn't do their jobs well, you'd be in trouble. Another example: My mom went to Kmart once. Something she really wanted was way high up on the shelf. She asked a staff person for help, and he was cheerful, got a ladder, and pulled the item down. He went the extra mile. How often have you been in the opposite situation when you're treated terribly? When someone does their job well, it changes the course of your day.
As Christians, how do we become more intentional about redeeming our work?
The church can be more intentional about affirming their congregants in the work they do and for doing their jobs well. We can remind our people to thank and affirm those around us who serve us well. For people who supervise others in the workplace, especially those who work in lower level, service-oriented jobs, remember to affirm your staff for the work they do. Treat your employees with dignity. Ask them how they could do their jobs better and more efficiently. When you listen as a supervisor and don't lord your position over them, you show dignity and value for the person and the job they're doing.
Skye Jethani pointed out that the cultural mandate (Genesis 1 and 2) precedes the family mandate, and yet we spend all our time affirming the family and not our role in the world. That's an important point.
One of the challenges for women is that we've elevated motherhood to the highest calling. Is raising a family the most important work?
Our marriage and family is ultimately for the sake of others, not just for its own sake. It's easy to say, "The culture's going to hell in a hand basket, so let's just be our own little Christian family and focus inward." But the family itself can be a missional family, an externally focused family, a family of service. Christian families need the attitude, "I'm taking good care of my kids, not just for their benefit, but for the good of others." No matter what we're called to do, there's a sense of other-centeredness in all work. We work on behalf of others. One of the problems in our culture is the emphasis on self-fulfillment. We spend so much money on career counseling so that we can find what fulfills us. The Lord reminds us again and again about being other-centered. We engage in our work for the sake of others. This is how we redeem all work, no matter what it is—we stay other-centered.