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How Shall We Then Work?

September 3, 2007

**This complete article is now available at Boundless.

In washing windows in the towns of East Texas, managing an Italian café in a quaint neighborhood of metropolitan Minneapolis, working security for a top advertising firm in Boston (no, I didn’t have to wear a goofy uniform or ‘get’ to carry a gun), and providing online customer support for a successful bowling dot com business (and I don’t even bowl), I have struggled to find my identity as a Christian in the workplace.

In all these jobs, I have faced challenges to integrating my faith with my work. Consistently, questions have pressed my faith such as: How excellent is excellent enough? Where should I draw the lines in ethical situations? Where does evangelism fit into my vocational responsibilities? Is there eternal meaning in my work? How can work become more worshipful?

When washing widows, I aimed for excellence—no streaks and clean ledges—something I never did perfectly. As a remote worker for an online company, I am trusted to manage my hours ethically; something I take seriously. Managing at D’Amico & Sons, I did my best to maintain a ‘good witness’ among my co-workers, but found myself in the awkward position of being told I was an arrogant Christian, by a furious, foul-mouthed employee I had to fire. As a night-shift security guard, whose primary responsibility was to lock doors and turn off lights, I struggled to see the significance of my work. In all these struggles I have groped to find my identity as an employee and a Christian, a worker and a worshipper of the triune God.

A Theological Framework for Work

Currently, I work a forty hour work week during the day and plant a church by lunch breaks and nights. My weekends include writing, preaching and playing. On all days, I fight to be a wise, loving husband and father to my wife and two children. I am not alone in the demands of work. Most Americans spend the majority of their days working. One study reports an average 46 hour work week in the U.S., with 38% of laborers working over 50 hours a week. Chances are that if we aren’t sleeping, we’re working.

With all these demands, it is much easier to keep my work separate from my worship, to compartmentalize my life—family / church / work—but biblical faith won’t let me, and for good reason. Is there a theological framework for work that will inspire us through the demands of the 9 to 5? If so, how should we then work?

In recognition of God’s sovereign and creative work and the importance of “living before God in all of life,” Francis Schaeffer sought to answer the question, “How should we then live?” In his book by the same title, Schaeffer explores the intersection of the ideas and beliefs of Western culture with those of the Christian worldview, in order to advance whole Christian living in the whole of life—in Art, Science, Literature, Philosophy and Film—to name a few.

Primarily an historical-theological reflection on the rise and fall of Western culture, How Should We Then Live? sets the philosophical stage for living christianly in all of life. What it does not do (though Schaeffer did this elsewhere) is connect the worldview stage with the dramatic details of everyday work.

In many respects, work is the engine of civilization. Without work societies would not perpetuate. Furthermore, if as Schaeffer argues, the rise and decline of civilization is intimately intertwined with the strength and weakness of the Christian worldview, then the labor of everyday citizens, which contributes to the quality of human flourishing, should be given serious attention. If indeed theological ideas have practical consequences it becomes us to inquire, “How should we then work?”

In response to this important question, I can think of at least four main approaches to work that should frame our theologically informed response. First, Christian work should be excellent work. Second, Christian work should be ethical work. Third, Christian work is a platform for evangelism. And fourth, Christian work should be done in reflection upon its essence, how it may or may not reflect the nature and character of God. The rest of this article will critically explore these approaches in an attempt to redemptively answer the question: How shall we then work?

Christian Work is Evangelistic

Others consider work to be Christian when they can use the workplace as a platform for soul-winning. This approach to labor sees work primarily as the context for evangelistic contact with unbelievers. While evangelism is important, it should not take place at the expense of our employer or our work.

The movie The Big Kahuna starring Danny DeVito and Kevin Spacey comes to mind. Industrial lubricant salesmen, DeVito, Spacey and their Baptist co-worker, Bob, all host a party intended to win over an important client—the Big Kahuna. When Bob gets their only chance to pitch their product, he elects to neglect his job and just tell the client about Jesus. He chooses evangelism over work. Bob looses their only opportunity to make the deal but justifies it by saying he did the right thing, the eternal thing. There is no doubt that Christian work can and should be evangelistic, but bad or neglectful work with a soul-winning glaze will win no one to Christ. We must be careful to not compromise excellence and ethics amidst evangelistic pursuits in the workplace.

The Big Kahuna approach to work operates on a narrow view of the gospel. The gospel is not merely for soul-conversion but also for life, culture, and city transformation. Jesus came to set the spiritual prisoner free as well as heal the physical paralytic. The announcement of Jesus’ arrival in Isaiah 61 prophesied that he would bring a gospel for the poor, the broken-hearted, for the repair of cities and the renewal of vineyards. If we are to be truly evangelistic in our work, we will need to take into account the whole person and the whole of society, working with empathy, excellence, and ethics.

One Comment leave one →
  1. richard t. permalink
    September 3, 2007 4:01 pm

    Thank you for this post. I look forward to reading the rest as I have been thinking about this in my own life and vocation. I found this article, “Starbucks Spirituality”, interesting as well.


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