Missy Wallace, who is director of global strategic services at Redeemer City to City, recently talked with Brandon J. O’Brien at the How to Reach the West Again podcast. Below is some of the conversation. In it, she talks about who can glorify God at work, what creational good is, and what it means to live the Christian life in the public sphere. If you’re in need of a refresher on what the faith and conversation can mean, here it is.
BRANDON J. O’BRIEN: How would you describe the benefits that come from thinking about the sphere of work as a priority for discipleship? What happens if we think of it as a place where we primarily live out our Christian life?
MISSY WALLACE: That is an incredibly important question at this point in time. I love how Dr. Keller notes that at certain times in the North American past, people could arrive at their workplaces assuming that they were influenced by Judeo-Christian values, whereas that isn’t necessarily true in the West anymore. One thing that is very important for churches, pastors, and marketplace leaders to understand is that work has become one of the most important aspects of human life.
Gallup did a survey a few years ago called “What The Whole Wide World is Thinking” to try to understand if there were any trends across global urban and rural settings that defied socioeconomic class, whether you’re a developed country or a developing country. They found what they say is the single largest finding in the history of Gallup — that people care more about work than anything else. The way the CEO commented on it was, “Humans used to desire love, money, food, shelter, safety, peace, and freedom more than anything else. The last 30 years have changed us. Now what they want is a good job.” He goes on to talk about how everything for leaders needs to be carried out through the lens that people care deeply about their work. So if you’re a pastor, if you’re a church, if you’re trying to help people understand the promises of Christ, if you are trying to impact your city, you need to do that through this lens. Their work now becomes an on-ramp to understanding the promises of the gospel through the work of Christ’s redemption.
It becomes a place for the non-Christian to be sanctified, to understand their own brokenness in light of what Christ has done. To understand suffering at work as a part of their sanctification process. And then it becomes an off-ramp to impacting cities. If you think about how much time you have left after you go to work all week, after you take care of kids, after you eat well, after you sleep well, after you try to work out, how much time do you really have to give to your city and try to create change? How much space do you have to try to do things for the common good of your city? It’s maybe a marginal one percent of your time. But if we can take people to the most important place they’re spending their time (in their mind, according to Gallup, this is their work) and help them understand how their faith impacts that for bringing change to their city, we may get some momentum.
BJO: That’s really insightful. If I remember right, when people take spiritual gift tests and other assessments at their church to help them identify what their unique contribution is to the kingdom of God, the results are almost always church-focused. You're asking us to consider that mission happening from nine to five out in the rest of the world, not just the local church.
MW: But it does change the programming of the local church. We have to disciple the worker to understand what their faith means to education, what their faith means to advertising, what their faith means to finance. How do they understand their career in light of creational good? What about education or advertising or finance shows God’s character? How, too, can your congregants see the brokenness in these fields, and how can they join God in his redemptive plan for the world by pushing against that brokenness? So churches do need to take the role of equipping the individual to go into their industry.
The church doesn’t need to know all about finance; they don’t need to know all about advertising or all about plumbing or all about manufacturing or all about mowing lawns, but they do need to know how to help and disciple the people that attend their church to take frameworks back into their own world to help them think through what being a Christian means in those spaces. That is the role of the church if they really want to be missional. It needs to take the 80 or 200 or 1,000 people that it sends out five to six days a week and teach them what it means to love people, places, and things right where they are.
BJO: If we’re measuring success in terms of how many people are coming to church on a Sunday morning but not by how many people are sent out in the workweek to missionally live out their various vocations, then we have a very different sense of our impact. We may be discouraged that not many people are coming in, but it would be helpful to reverse it and say, “Yes, but look how many people we’re sending into these various spheres of influence weekly to do their work for the glory of God.”
MW: Thinking about evangelism in the United States, when you say the words “faith and work,” there is a group of people that immediately thinks faith and work means they should have the Ten Commandments posted on their wall and have to tell their cubicle mate about Christ. But most people don’t have the sphere of influence to be able to do that; you have to pretty much own your own company to be able to do that.
I’ll give you an example of what I would suggest would perhaps be an even more effective method of evangelism. I know someone that had been discipled by my church around faith and work, and he worked on a manufacturing line for the tape on diapers. He noticed that the way the line workers were scheduled did not appreciate a work-rest balance. They were switched back and forth between day shift and night shift on such a frequent basis that they never had healthy sleep cycles. They couldn’t get reliable childcare. They constantly felt like they had jet lag. So he initiated a project completely out of the blue, based on the fact that, theologically, he didn’t think the rest-work balance was right for the workers. There was a union involved, and it was a whole process of talking to management, but here’s the interesting thing — the project actually failed. It didn’t go through. The scheduling was not changed. But he said that no less than four people came into him and said, “Can I sit down? What motivated you to initiate that project outside your lane? Your bosses didn't ask you to do that. What motivated you?”
By seeing something broken and trying to care for a group of people impacted by that brokenness, that act of love in the workplace led to a very natural evangelism conversation where he could share that it all began because of the beliefs he has as a Christian and what’s in the Scriptures. That's a very interesting evangelism conversation and is much more natural — and lends you a lot more credibility than, “Hey cubemate, have you heard of Christ?”
BJO: You mentioned creational good, and I think that is a fundamental assumptive building block for the way you talk about and think about faith and work. Can you tell us what you mean by that? I think we know the two terms — creation and good — but when you put them together and apply them to work, what does it mean?
MW: It is that creation is good. In the first book of our scriptures, there’s something called the cultural mandate, which is basically God saying, “Go out and be fruitful and multiply, and go out and take dominion.” Some biblical scholars who are far more studied than I am have been able to help me understand that actually means to go out and create flourishing in your communities. And you can look at some passages in Isaiah and other places in the Bible where, when you look at the new heaven and the new earth, you see the ships of Tarshish coming back into the picture. The ships of Tarshish represented the evil of commerce in parts of the scriptures, yet here they are, coming back as part of the new heaven and the new earth. They aren’t thrown out.
The Bible starts in a garden and ends in the city, so we can draw some inferences for what God has intended for commerce. He intended these various spheres. Without them, our societies can’t run. So if we believe God is sovereign, and if we believe that he knew and unleashed us to create these spheres of economy, family, education, religion, church, etc., we have to understand that the image of God that is in each of us in all of our brokenness, and it is in these systems too. They, like us, are broken, and they represent some goodness of God, too.
Let’s take finance as an example, since it’s often determined to be this horrible, greedy, secular industry. Imagine there was no financial sphere. Can you imagine if we were still trying to trade goats’ milk for erasers? It would just be chaos, right? You had to have an economic sphere develop for a community to flourish. When you think of God’s goodness, one thing that banking represents of God is a redistribution of resources from those who have much to those who have little. That is part of God’s character, right? We’ve seen that in the scriptures, and we’ve seen that in Jesus. Well, banking does that. Banking is an organized way to redistribute resources.
Now, banking is broken, of course. Banking has some greed involved. Does the need for profits impact the distribution equity? Yes. What happens if certain segments are left completely out of the redistribution? How do you address that? I don’t have all the answers to that; I can’t tidy that up and put a bow on it, but I can say that we know that industries do have good qualities of God.
Take music. Music displays God’s creativity. Education is all about God’s wisdom. Someone even had me analyze the NFL (the National Football League in America) one time. I thought to myself, “Oh my goodness, how am I going to do that?” I got another pastor involved who was actually a former professional football player. I said, “Talk to me about the creational goodness of professional football because that one’s hard for me.” And he said, “Missy, it brings a community together to pull for something that's fun. And is it broken? Are people getting hurt? Is the pay messed up? Oh, yes.” But he said, “There is something good about bringing a community together to be excited about something. There’s something beautiful about that.”
So I think it’s a great exercise for Christians to think about their industry and what creational goodness exists and then start to think about why it’s broken and where you can play a role in pushing against the brokenness wherever your small sphere may be. In some industries, it’s harder than others, but I find it difficult to find an industry I can’t find some creational good in.
BJO: A second helpful thing you mentioned is that work is not a consequence of the Fall — that maybe something like feudal work or unjust work or something of that sort is a consequence of the Fall, but work was something that people were always expected to do. I also think of Daniel and his friends in Jeremiah 29 receiving the command to build houses and plant gardens and engage in their community even while they were in exile. It seems like work is one of those continual themes; everywhere we see God’s people trying to flourish and help others flourish, work is always a key aspect of that flourishing. We have a tendency to spiritualize their situations, but the mundane reality is that they’re working to make their own lives and the lives of those around them better.
MW: That’s very interesting. I think it was the pastor of my church who I heard talk about Jeremiah 29:7: “Go out and seek the welfare of the city where I sent you into exile.” He gave a pretty strong analogy describing that this would be like saying, “I’ve sent you to live with the Taliban. Go out and seek the welfare of the Taliban.” I think we have a lot to learn about seeking the welfare of the city we are in, regardless of the beliefs of those around us, like God asked his followers to do in Babylonia.
What might that look like? There’s an article about excellent discipleship I once read, and rather than expecting everyone to assume Christianity, it discusses what it looks like to assume you’re the stranger. Oftentimes we operate under the assumption that if you don’t like what your neighbor is doing morally, you need to call them out on it before showing hospitality or forming a relationship. Because they are the “stranger” in that context. So what if we began to live like we were in exile instead of assuming that we were living in a Christian-based world?
BJO: One thing I like about the way you describe the relationship of faith and work and the relationship between the church and the world is that it doesn’t feel limited to a certain class of workers or particular kind of role. I’m a novice to the faith and work discussion, but from the outside looking in, I sometimes get the impression when there’s a lot of language about transformation and righting the wrongs of an industry that it takes a certain level of control or influence to bring about that kind of change. But the way I hear you talking about it feels like this emphasis is available to everyone. What are some of the particular nuances for people who have different levels of leadership or different spheres of influence within this conversation?
MW: I mean, everybody goes to work. Even if you don’t go to paid work, you go to work. You probably unload a dishwasher or you make a bed or you parent and change diapers or you participate in community involvement. So I define work as anything that is not rest and not leisure — most everyone goes to work.
You said there are various levels of agency, though. So if you’re a CEO, you have a lot of agency. You can make a lot of decisions about how things are going to work. And if you work on the factory line floor and your job is to turn a widget, you don’t have a ton of agency. This is what you do. However, I don't think agency is binary. So I don’t think you have either tons of agency or no agency. I think it’s on a spectrum, and everybody has some level of influence of those around them. You have some ability to impact and love the community around you.
The person who shows up and turns a widget — he’s got a worker on his left and a worker on his right, and at the coffee break, he has some agency over how he can love those workers. If you think about the triad of heart/community/world, everybody has full access to heart. That is about your relationship with Christ and understanding how you were created to work, what kind of sacrificial attitude you bring to work, how the suffering from work might sanctify you, how you behave ethically at work. That might be the heart level. And if you think about community, everybody has access to that. So what does the gospel mean for how I interact with those I’m in community with at my work?
When you talk about world peace, maybe the people with more organizational agency have more significant ability to make that kind of change. However, they're often blind to the change that needs to be made. So it often takes the people that are perhaps lower in the hierarchy to have some courage to use what agency they do have to point out some things that are broken in a loving way. Or it takes someone in the middle of the organization to see a broken system that is hurting individuals and have the courage to speak out on their behalf as to how a process or a policy can be changed. In Western contexts that still have have some level of agreed-upon ethical norms, it is a bit easier to accomplish this change than in some other contexts where the ethical norms are perhaps highly different. It gets a little bit trickier, and the costs are a little bit higher.
A version of this conversation first appeared at Redeemer City to City. How to Win the West Again is hosted by Tim Keller and Brandon O’Brien.