A Vision for Integrating Faith and Work

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This week I am featuring an essay written by Christ Presbyterian Church‘s recently announced Missy Wallace, who will soon become Executive Director of CPC’s Nashville Institute for Faith and Work. Missy’s essay first appeared on a book review website, and her review is of a Faith and Work book called Every Good Endeavorco-written by my former NYC colleagues Tim Keller and Katherine Alsdorf. Missy’s review paints a vision for how the church can (and should!) assist its members to approach their work as a primary realm of discipleship and kingdom impact. Every Good Endeavor also represents a new direction that Christ Presbyterian Church is taking this year, with the upcoming launch of CPC’s Nashville Institute for Faith and Work. Enjoy!

This book really is not all that radical, but it made me quit a job I absolutely love… for real.  The irony is that the book was actually written to encourage people in their jobs, not inspire them to quit.  Last spring, I picked up a copy of Every Good Endeavor by Tim Keller, my favorite modern day theologian, and Katherine Alsdorf, an ex-Silicon Valley entrepreneur.  I had not even finished the introduction when I had a panicky feeling that said, “you are going to have to do something to get this message out…”  So I went on a bit of a related reading odyssey, and I traveled to study with the book’s authors which resulted in my resignation from an organization I love so I can spend my time spreading the message of this book.

Every Good Endeavor is the story of why work matters to God – not just mission and ministerial work, not just education and medicine – but all good work, even investment banking, fashion design, mothering, and corporate law.  The average American spends over 80,000 hours at work.  Some adore work while others deplore it; some see it only as a source of income while others a source of self-definition.  Some have the flexibility to change careers often; others are hopelessly stuck without upward mobility.  While reading this book, I suddenly grasped that we can connect our work, even our secular, for-profit work, to God’s plans for the world as a whole, not just for us as individuals.  Our work does not have to be pro-bono, non-profit, or social entrepreneurialism; even with mundane, 9-5 work, we can be bringing “thy Kingdom come on earth…” And for some reason this was a big “ah ha” for me.  I left the corporate world in 2003 for education partially because I worried my toil was for naught.  If I had read this book back then, would my corporate work have been more fulfilling?  I think so.

Despite the emphasis on work in an individual’s life, its effect on one’s contentment, and the opportunity to participate in God’s plan for all creation, most churches do little to overtly equip congregants to integrate their work and faith.  Keller and Alsdorf set out to change the 21st century culture of separating Sunday from Monday to Friday life; and I did not just drink, I gulped, their Kool-Aid.  Keller and Alsdorf discuss work’s Biblical roots as a first step in linking faith with work.  It had never occurred to me that the first sentence of the Bible is about work, and Genesis’ first chapters are all about bringing structure to chaos and calling it good.  Nearly every modern day job somehow brings structure to chaos if you think about it, and it can all be good.  Do you know that 45 out of 52 of Jesus’ parables are set in a work context?  Per Keller, “Work is as much a human need as food, beauty, rest, friendship, prayer, and sexuality; it is not simply medicine, but food for our soul.  Without meaningful work we sense significant inner loss and emptiness.”  Further he pontificates, “Whatever your work, you need to know this:  There really is a tree.  Whatever you are seeking in your work – the city of justice and peace, the world of brilliance and beauty, the story, the order, the healing – it is there.  There is a God, there is a future healed world that he will bring about, and your work is showing it (in part) to others.  Your work will be only partially successful on your best days, in bringing that world about.  But inevitably the whole tree that you seek – the beauty, harmony, justice, comfort, joy and community – will come to fruition.  If you know all this, you won’t be despondent because you can get only a leaf or two out of this life.  You will work with satisfaction and joy.”

Is Keller and Aldorf’s view of work idealistic?  Work can be hard for sure.  Though work can be a calling from God, it can also be a perilous false idol for self-glorification (mea culpa).  Keller and Alsdorf discuss that understanding the idols in our work is paramount to being part of the plan as God intends it.  Per authors Sherman and Hendricks in Your Work Matters to God, the culture of work in 20th century America revolves around the following five themes, all of which break work from God’s purpose:  “1. The ultimate purpose of work is to fulfill yourself…2. Success in life means success in work….3. You can tell how successful someone is by his material wealth, his professional recognition, or his positional status….4. You’ve got to do whatever it takes to get the job done….5. ‘I just go to work to earn a living.’”  But Keller and Alsdorf remind us, “The Gospel frees us from the relentless pressure of having to prove ourselves and secure our identity through work, for we are already proven and secure.  It also frees us from a condescending attitude toward less sophisticated labor and from envy over more exalted work.  All work now becomes a way to love the God who saved us freely; and by extension, a way to love our neighbor.”

Alsdorf and Keller were so moved by the need for people to connect their faith and their work that Alsdorf quit her high tech job and went to work with Keller.  They started the Center for Faith and Work in New York City (CFW), an intentionally Christian but decidedly ecumenical organization which “equips individuals of all backgrounds to develop and apply a worldview for work that better serves their profession and industry; connects professionals within a field and across industries to inspire and challenge thinking and behavior with an aim towards personal and cultural flourishing; and mobilizes New Yorkers at large to become agents of change for the common good of the city through existing and new institutions.”  Alsdorf and Keller’s organization is training leaders to think of each and every decision in the context of God’s world.  Can you envision a city where entrepreneurs can compete for funding based on potential impact for good?  Where developers work to support dislocated families in gentrifying neighborhoods?  Where venture capitalists decline their share of profits of portfolio businesses with questionable ethics?  Where finance professionals meet together to generate ideas to combat greed?  Where professors meet with their institutional adversaries to encourage each other and understand varying viewpoints?  Where high fashion professionals embrace the true female physique?  These things are happening through the CFW in New York, one leader at a time, and you will read of some examples in the book.

Last summer I had the privilege to study with Alsdorf, the CFW team, and about 25 pastors and lay leaders from five continents for an awe-inspiring week.  Hopefully, with God’s grace, some counsel from the CFW, and the help of my favorite visionary pastor, we should have a Faith and Work Institute in Nashville starting next fall.  But for now, I hope you rest in the knowledge that you are just where you are supposed to be and that your work matters immensely to God.

Following are a few books, articles and studies if you want more after you read Every Good Endeavor.

Miller, David. “The Present State of Work Spirituality.” N.p., n.d. Web.
Miller, David W. God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.
Nelson, Tom. Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011. Print.
Oldmeadow, Harry, and Dorothy Sayers. The Betrayal of Tradition: Essays on the Spiritual Crisis of Modernity. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2005. Print.
Ortberg, John. The Me I Want to Be: Becoming God’s Best Version of You. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010. Print.
Sayers, Dorothy. “Why Work?” N.p., n.d. Web.
Sherman, Doug, and William Hendricks. Your Work Matters to God. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1987. Print.
Stevens, R. Paul. Work Matters: Lessons from Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2012. Print.
“Take Your Faith to Work.” Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2014.
Traeger, Sebastian. The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to Our Jobs. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013. Print.
Veith, Gene Edward. God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002. Print.
Witherington, Ben. Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2011. Print.

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