3 Reasons Why the “Vocation Conversation” Is Critical

[Ed. Note: This article is adapted from a talk Amy Sherman gave at the Denver “Redeeming Work” conference sponsored by Christianity Today Institute September 2014.]

Congregational leaders, and especially pastors, often experience people telling them: “This is REALLY important! You MUST preach on this!” The “this” can be all manner of things, from evangelism to missions to financial stewardship to why the youth group shouldn’t be allowed to play paintball in the gym. Sometimes it’s easy to sort the wheat from the chaff. Other times, it can feel like there are 20 or so “top priority” topics for preaching and teaching. At Made to Flourish, we’re unapologetically arguing that teaching on faith and work is a top priority—in fact, one that ought to be ranked higher up than the top 20.

Why does it matter to have a strong theology of work? Why should congregational leaders help their flock connect faith and work? Why should we talk about vocation when there are so many other worthwhile things we could talk about, like evangelism or compassion ministry? Why does it matter?

1. It matters because discipleship matters. Jesus has commissioned us to make disciples. Discipleship ought to be a primary topic congregational leaders are thinking about every day. And discipleship that doesn’t equip people for the activity they spend 40 percent of their waking hours doing is not discipleship.

You’d think that the activity people spend that much time doing would be addressed regularly from the pulpit. It’s not (at least in most churches). Dr. David Miller at Princeton University’s Faith & Work Initiative reports that fewer than 10 percent of church-goers can remember the last time their pastor preached on the topic of work. Research in 2014 by the Barna Group shows that nearly two-thirds of churched adults say it has been at least three years or more since they heard church teachings on work and career. (Happily, according to more recent research from the Center for Faith and Work at LeTourneau University, more pastors are preaching about a biblical view of work more often.)

But just not talking about work isn’t the only problem. Inadvertently, certain language and practices that are commonplace in churches can actually send a negative message to congregants engaged in the marketplace.  Chuck Proudfit, a Harvard-trained businessman in Cincinnati who founded and oversees At Work on Purpose, one of the largest marketplace ministries in the U.S. (with over 5000 active members) says businesspeople regularly complain they feel like second-class citizens at church. Why is this? It’s because the language at the church betrays a functional theology that accepts the sacred-secular divide. When congregants hear church leaders say, “Did you hear about Doug? He left the firm to go into fulltime Christian ministry with Young Life,” it implies that Doug’s work at the firm was not fulltime Christian ministry. Similarly, if the church regularly commissions “full time missionaries” or commends the folks who volunteer as Sunday School teachers – but never commissions marketplace professionals seeking to be “missionaries” in their own vocational sectors and never commends the people in the pews who serve as full time public school teachers, they reinforce this message that “churchy” work is what really matters in the Kingdom of God.

It may be the case that some pastors think they don’t really need to provide much teaching on faith/work integration because, after all, there are a lot of parachurch “marketplace ministries” out there that are doing that. Well, it’s true that there are indeed many such ministries. And some of them are doing a fine job of helping marketplace Christians understand their vocation in light of their Kingdom citizenship. But it’s also the case that the message of some marketplace ministries is insufficient:  they limit their focus to the traditional three E’s: ethics, evangelism, and excellence. Those 3 E’s are good but insufficient because they don’t concentrate enough on the work itself or connect our work to God’s work in the world.

“How to think about work” is not an arena we can just leave to chance. Average Christians need guidance from the Church because the culture regularly bombards us with two loud and oddly conflicting messages.

On the one hand, there is a cultural message that work is everything. “What do you do?” is typically the first question strangers ask one another. Many of us are embarrassed if we cannot say, when asked how we’re doing, that we are “busy.” Many of us want people to know we’re busy—really busy. Because busy=important.

Americans work longer than the citizens of most nations. In the U.S., according to Forbes magazine, 86% of men and 67% of women work more than 40 hours/week at their paid jobs. In fact, 10 million American work more than 60 hours week. Americans work on average 1778 hours a year – more than the British, the French, and the Belgians. One in three American workers don’t take all their vacation days. Many rarely take time out for lunch. Not surprisingly, our society is replete with workaholics and all kinds of work-related stress and disease. In short, too many people are working too much and putting too much value, or investing too many hopes, in their work. Work has become an idol.

But there’s a second loud cultural message that’s common in America, and it’s a very cynical one. This is the message that work is generally stupid, meaningless, and petty. Work is a curse, a drag; something we have to do because we’re not rich. It’s something we should try to avoid if at all possible.

Think about the huge popularity of the TV series, The Office or of the comic strip Dilbert. They were hilarious, but they were also ruthless in their view of work as meaningless. Bosses are stupid, office politics are adolescent, and company “missions” are a joke. It’s just dog-eat-dog, make a buck. It’s Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” where they use your mind and you never get the credit.

Given these twin problematic pressures of contemporary culture on the folks in the pews, pastors need to step in. Congregants need to hear good teaching on a Biblical understanding of vocation that can help them navigate the world of work faithfully in the midst of these unhealthy messages.

2. The vocation conversation is critical because failure to teach and equip on vocation and how faith and work connect is a major contributor to the young adult drop-out rate from Church. Hopefully, congregational leaders care about reaching the next generation and stemming the tide of Millenials leaving the Church.

In his book, You Lost Me, Barna’s David Kinnaman estimates that some 5 million young adults today—a group called “Mosaics” who are ages 18 to 29—leave the church or are putting their faith “on hold” in large numbers. Fifty-nine percent of Mosiacs drop out of church after attending regularly as a teenager.

Kinnaman argues that one of the most important reasons is that the churches don’t provide them a connection between Sunday and Monday. “One the most recurring themes” in his research with dropouts, Kinnaman reports,

is the idea that [the Christianity they’ve been taught] does not have much, if anything, to say about their chosen profession or field….It is a modern tragedy. Despite years of church-based experiences and countless hours of Bible-centered teaching, millions of next generation Christians have no idea that their faith connects to their life’s work.

These 20-somethings want their marketplace vocations affirmed, but instead hear theologically misguided teaching that “spiritual” work is superior to “secular” labor. They desire guidance and equipping on what it means to bring their faith to work, and how to renew culture through it. Instead, inside their congregations they have faced suspicion for their choice to work in fields like science, fashion, and film. Coddled by overprotective parents and churches, they’ve also been warned to eschew the world and deploy their artistic talents only inside the church, where things are safe. But, Kinnaman notes, these young adults “want to be culture-makers, not culture avoiders.” Their churches have dismayed them with simplistic black-and-white answers that don’t match the complexity they sense in their world.

Kinnaman quotes one 20-something young woman, Kellie, who pleads with church leaders to change:

I am misunderstood by my Christian community because I am young and because I am a woman. People often assume that my international development work is just a “phase,” done for my own fulfillment, as if I do it for the thrill or for the snapshots I bring home. I would like my community to see my work for what it really is: the best thing I can do to act out the heart of Christ. It’s not a phase, but an important part of who Christ made me to be. Our work doesn’t look like a traditional Christian ministry.  The name of Jesus isn’t in our title, and evangelism isn’t the primary focus of our daily activities. But we are working for God’s kingdom and believe this is the way God would have us reach people for His purposes. God has placed a dream and calling within us, and we ask the church, rather than seeing us as young and idealistic, would see us as warriors of God who are acting as the arm of Christ, reaching the world with love, hope, and empowerment.

3. The vocation conversation is critical because, to quote my friend Steve Garber,Vocation is integral, not incidental, to the mission of God in the world.” Again, hopefully congregational leaders care deeply about God’s mission in the world and the role their churches are called to play in that mission.

God through Christ is on a mission to renew all things. The grand story of His love begins with the creation of paradise in Eden and ends in a recreated garden city of perfect shalom. From the beginning God has invited human beings into this story. In creation, God invited human beings to become culture makers who make something of the world He created, filling it and ruling it with wisdom; tending and keeping the garden. He created us to be both lovers of Him and laborers with Him. (Or, better put, to receive both His love and His invitation to allow Him to work His purposes through us—for both our own, and others’, good).

The Fall alienated us from God. But through Jesus’ comprehensive atonement at the cross, comprehension redemption of all that was lost in the Fall—peace with God, peace with self, peace with others, peace with the creation—is made. The way is opened once again to be in a love relationship with God, and to participate again in His work, His mission in the world.

Because the missio Dei is about renewing all things, our daily vocations as Christ-followers have huge importance. In each workplace, in each work sector, Christ wants to work through us to promote all that advances His shalom and resist all that which corrupts it. Our daily work—not so much that week-long summer mission trip or the Sunday worship service—is one of the primary places where we participate with God in His mission in the world.

This is a message that people in the pew are hungry to hear. One 2014 survey reported that fully 3/4ths of U.S. adults say they are looking for ways to live a more meaningful life. And among Christians there is an additional question being raised: What does God want me to do with my life? According to the survey, only 40% of practicing Christians say they have a clear sense of God’s calling on their lives. And the younger Christians—those in the millennial generation—are especially eager to hear counsel on this. Six out of ten say that they want their work to make a difference in this world.

What an opportunity for pastors to respond, “Well, you can make a difference when you link your life’s work to Jesus’ work in the world.”

The pressure on pastors to preach on everyone’s pet subjects aren’t likely to diminish any time soon. But some topics really just are more important than others. Vocation is one of them.

Related Resources

Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute and author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (IVP).