Faith and Work. (Is that it?)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I was recently asked to speak to a group of graduating high school students at a Christian school about faith and work. One of the questions our panel was asked was how we bring our faith into the workplace. I have to say I was a bit shocked when I heard the answers of the other two panelists. Both of them said that the way they brought their faith into their work was in having honest business practice, and in being patient and kind when dealing with difficult clients. Now these are of course good things to do, but I found myself thinking, "is that it?" Doesn't every professional adult pretty much do that? Who doesn't have to deal in a mature way with difficult clients? Isn't that just called being a professional?

It really got me to thinking about what our vision is of how we can apply our talents and training and expertise in our given fields to bear into seeing the kingdom of God working in our world?. How many times have you heard it preached from the pulpit that really all we need to do is do our work with integrity, and that's it? Is that really all there is? I have to say seminary is not any better. The only occupations on their horizon are professors and pastors. Seminaries are not structured to accommodate any other possible jobs, which explains why they have so little vision for how to bring faith into work. Is that it? Work hard and be nice?

The context that the above statement comes from is Colossians 3:23-24 "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving." Now I have no problem with this. Of course you should do your work well. But let's remember who Paul was addressing with these words. He was talking to slaves. Yes, that's right, slaves. So what I want to really challenge here is whether advice given to slaves on work should really be the sole teaching we have in church on faith and work? We've come a long way since then, and many of us have high ranking professional careers. We are doctors, lawyers, psychologists, educators, and engineers. We are people who potentially have quite a bit of impact and pull in our world. So what foundation can we give to a business owner or lawmaker for how they can bring the kingdom of God into what they do? Does the church really have nothing to say here? Is that it?

Way back in the 80's in "The Grave Digger Files" Ox Guinness bemoaned how privatization had made the church "socially irrelevant even if privately engaging". Guinness writes, "Look for a place where the Christian's faith makes a difference at work beyond the realm of purely personal things (such as witnessing to colleagues and praying for them, or not swearing and not fiddling with income tax returns). Look for a place where the Christian is thinking 'Christianly' and critically about the substance of work (about say, the use of profits and not just personnel; about the ethics of a multinational corporation and not those of a small family business; about a just economic order and not just the doctrine of justification). You will look for a very long time." Since he wrote this in 83, faith did move out of the private sphere, but it did so in a way that it was completely co-opted by the ideals of nationalism and capitalism masquerading as so-called Christian "family values". That politicized private morality has dominated the western Christian political imagination for two decades. It other words, when we were engaged socially and politically, our thinking was on a private and individual level. Thankfully there are signs of a growing social awareness among Evangelicals, but this is really in its infancy, and the mindset of thinking only in privatized individual terms is still deeply entrenched.

There was recently an excellent interview on the Emergent Village podcast with Joe Carson a high ranking nuclear safety engineer at the Dept. of Energy on bringing one's faith into their work on a structural level. Joe begins by explaining that engineering "builds the infrastructure that society is run on, and the weapons to tear it down". So we're talking about a profession here that has some pretty major impact on the world; one with the potential to do great good, and one that can and has done great harm as well. Joe asks for example, should an engineer care that the work they are doing is helping to fuel a genocide in Darfur? It's the kind of big-picture question many of us in the professional world could ask of our own work's impact. What Joe stresses in the interview is that a single individual often can do very little. That's why it is so important he says for there to be a collective voice which can influence industry and power. So he for his part is working to found the Affiliation of Christian Engineers who seek to bring Christian ethics to play in the engineering profession.

That's just one example of a person thinking through how they can bring their faith to bear on their professional life. I found it really challenging because it pushes the boundaries of how we think about what it means to be a Christian in the work place. This is exactly the kind of application that I see as the next step for the emerging church. Beyond all the re-thinking about theological formulations which has been the focus of the emergent movement, the next phase is to ask how we can really live that out. What would it mean for each of us to not simply be a worker with a good attitude fueling the status quo, but for us to be part of a force for change and good? What would that look like in your life and mine? It's a talk that is long overdue.

One suggestion I have, that builds off of what Joe Carson says above, is that in order to affect change in our work world, we will need to learn not only to think about morality and meaning on a social global scale, but we will need to also learn how to act not simply as lone individuals, but collectively. Church needs to grow beyond an institution setup to meet our private spiritual needs, and become one that helps us to organize together to impact our world with our collective ability.

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At 9:50 AM, Anonymous Deborah Lee said...

Kind of like, "Start locally, think globally."


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