July 22, 2012
“I’m out,” said the church planters’ wife. “I don’t want to do this anymore.” The planter – who like many of us believed planting a church to be the pinnacle of joining God on mission – was stunned to hear these words directed at God’s vision. Tim Suttle, in his book Public Jesus tells this story and explains why she hesitated. “You don’t count what I’m doing, and what I’m doing is providing income for families. I run my business like a family. We talk about our problems; we bear each other’s burdens. I’m trying to be the hands and feet of Christ in this place, and you won’t count what I do unless I can get them to come to church.”
This story is marvelous in helping us to think about the way we think. Because, for most of us the business owner in this story has us pegged for what we are: compartmentalized thinkers.
For hundreds of years the way we think about the work of Christ and the church has gone something like this: Special people do special things for God, and everybody else pays. We call and ordain pastors to be these special people who do special things when they live here, and send and commission missionaries for the same work that happens to be “over there.” For the rest of us “being Christian” and connecting to God’s story happens primarily through tithing and volunteerism.
Suttle says that we may spend up to 65% of our time at work. And yet, as the story illustrates, in the old model of being a Christian, this doesn’t count. The worth of “normal Christians” comes in their capacity to financially support the “special Christian” and in the amount and quality of time they can shave off their busy schedules to volunteer.
Work is something I do over there to allow me to participate with God over here. The “ethical version” of such a mental model is an invitation to do your job purely (after all, work is a necessary evil, isn’t it?): not gossip, keep your books right, not cheat, maybe start a Bible study.
Compartmentalized thinking assumes there is a place that God acts, and a place God seemingly doesn’t.
How can we faithfully follow Christ in all of life if our mental model suggests what matters happens only in my limited “Christian” time, such as going to church and volunteering? Such compartmentalizing of our lives is incompatible with Anabaptism, which insists that we are to follow Jesus in “all areas of life.” Daily discipleship to Jesus is a call for all Christians in all areas of life, not just an elite few who perform special tasks.
So let’s look closer at the 65% of our time we spend at work. Work is not a necessary evil, drain on your time, or boost to your bottom line. It connects you intimately with God’s reign and mission in our world. It’s an invitation for you to catalyze your best energies of heart, mind and strength to seek shalom in our cities and the common good of neighbor and enemy alike.
In describing Mennonite faith and practice in his book Beliefs, John D. Roth says, “Mennonites believe that hard work- the disciplined skill of the artisan and professional, the creative expressions of poets and musicians and artists, the routine tasks of parent and farmer – is a reflection of God’s original act of creation. Work that is honest and constructive, that heals and reconciles, that makes the world more beautiful- all such work celebrates the goodness of God.”
Through both the form and the function of our jobs, we can glorify God. Formally, we can be Christian in our workplace, such as the opening story illustrates: through paying living wages, practicing care-giving to coworkers, exercising concern for the environment, allowing our word to stand for itself, etc…
Functionally, we can connect faith and work through the specific type of work we choose to do. We as a congregation build, engineer, teach, heal, nurture, organize, and engage in work that genuinely furthers the common good. This work in and of itself should be brought under the lordship of Christ and given the appreciation it deserves!
Your work matters. It doesn’t matter because it allows you to tithe, or is flexible enough to permit you to volunteer. No, it matters because it is part of God’s healing plan for our world. It’s a powerful way to participate in the reign of God with the 65% of your time too often ignored when we compartmentalize.
Do you see how big the Gospel is? It completely obliterates the notion of “secular” and integrates work in to our faith. As Paul says, “Whatever you do, in word and work, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” God is creating a beautiful new world right in our midst, and invites us to join in through the work that we choose to perform. Thus Suttle says, “Our jobs, our work will have meaning for us only when it finds its proper place in God’s good creation.” Is your work part of the reign of Christ? Or is it dedicated to something other than Jesus?
Psalm 139 empowers our decision to those questions by moving us past the demand to incorporate God into all areas of life and into the promise of God’s presence in every area of our lives. A missional retelling might go something like this:
Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to NASA, you are there. If I make my income in business or the corporate world, you are there. If I spend all day with patients, energetic students, clients or family – you are there. In all our workplaces your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
Most Christian business people today have heard scant few sermons in their lives directed at their work. Sermon applications that target family, marriage, church, or spiritual life are prevalent. But few have heard that Christianity calls us to move beyond volunteerism to vocation. If as a church we continue to embrace a missional identity, that will unequivocally change. I pray you have or find that meaning in your work. And I pray for wisdom in empowering you for your ministry there.
Note: Tim Suttle’s Book “Public Jesus” is an excellent and highly recommended read.