Pastors, choosing one thing your congregation can identify with is probably pretty simple — that’s work. But how often do you talk about it from the pulpit?
Despite clear data that both work and sermons matter greatly to people, most churches seem to struggle to embed the concepts of work, its accompanying toil, and the opportunity to love God and others in and through work, into their liturgy.
Hear me out.
A Gallup poll of 167 countries, developed and developing, found what the organization claims is the single largest finding in the history of the organization: Work matters more to people than almost anything else, regardless of a person’s geographic or socioeconomic context. While we could debate the reasons for that and acknowledge that they likely vary by person, we cannot debate the reality. People care significantly more about work than we might realize. Gallup CEO Jim Clifton writes in his book, The Coming Jobs War: “Humans used to desire love, money, food, shelter, safety, peace, and freedom more than anything else. The last 30 years have changed us. Now people want to have a good job, and they want their children to have a good job.”
A 2019 global study of 18 to 35 year olds by the Barna Group and World Vision, The Connected Generation, confirms Gallup’s findings. Specifically, the study highlights that millennials are not finding answers to their key questions about day-to-day life in their churches. This generation is longing to make a difference and needs the church to help. According to the study, “Those who have left the faith are particularly inclined to find flaws or gaps in its teachings, which they believe cannot address their questions, their day-to-day life, or real issues in society.” And, “One of the clear imperatives of this research is to offer more holistic forms of leadership development and vocational training and to mobilize a generation already inspired toward justice.”
At the same time, work is a source of great stress for people. In the U.S., over 85 percent of people report work stress, and worldwide only 30 percent of people or less consider themselves fully engaged at work. A recent New York Times article about wealth and happiness quotes researchers who claim that “work is the second most miserable activity; of 40 activities, only being sick in bed makes people less happy than working.”
If work is as important to people as love and security, yet also a place of great pain, and if, globally, 18 to 35 year olds are clamoring for the church to answer questions relevant to their day-to-day lives, then the subject of work deserves a strategic place in our weekly gatherings.
Data shows us that work is particularly important to the people in your church, and it also reveals that the sermon is also particularly important. A different Gallup poll about church attendance reveals that “a full 75 percent of respondents indicated that, of all the offerings from their places of worship, they cared most about sermons, preferring those which taught scripture and were relevant to their lives.”
Jesus routinely used work as a key context for teaching in order to teach through everyday examples. In Jesus’ 37 parables, 32 refer to work as part of the narrative and in 27 of those, work is the main point of the parable. Across all the parables, 22 different types of work are mentioned, but the parables were not necessarily about how to work. For instance, Jesus taught lessons about grace, the kingdom, mercy, and obedience through workplace examples. So, as Klaus D. Issler observes, “To convey spiritual concepts, [Jesus] incorporated work images and technical commercial terms familiar to his audience.” While Jesus may have been well formed in the pains of work due to his years participating in a trade, his frequency of using work metaphors as a teaching tool makes it evident that he saw the importance of work as a context to mold human hearts.
One thing pastors can effectively do — starting as soon as next week — is add work examples into sermons.
Many pastors have shared with me that they feel uninformed about many spheres of work and thus inadequate to talk about the work of their congregants. But though a pastor may not understand the specifics of advertising or construction, they do understand creational goodness and brokenness — and every industry has both. A pastor may not understand the pressures of profits, but they do understand pressure and how it exposes idolatry. The Theology of Work website is a great resource for understanding the work implications of an industry or a passage of Scripture.
In your next sermon, can you discuss how the desire to be affirmed by our boss can become something that we desire more than God? Show how that dynamic can reveal the sin of our heart through symptoms of jealousy of a colleague’s accomplishment or anger at being passed over for a promotion.
Talk about how our desire for leisure can make work a necessary evil instead of something God created us to do. Ask what God would say to you about your job if he came back tomorrow. What changes would he want you to make? Reveal that he is a suffering savior to comfort those facing oppression on minimum wage jobs with unsafe work conditions.
Are you covering the story of the prodigal son? A workplace context can illustrate how we can be both the wayward son or the self-righteous one, both needing a savior.
Are you preaching about the call to live missionally? Consider including what it might mean to look at both the creational goodness and brokenness in banking as a way to embrace the “already but not yet” of the new heaven and earth. Could a banker push against the greed in their industry by day? Or find ways for underserved people in their community to be served with access to financial capital?
Preparing for a sermon is an opportunity to call a church member to get some ideas and feedback for a sermon application specific to an industry. One phone call or workplace visit to a congregant is sure to reveal an example, as well as engage a congregant who may be wondering about their relevance to the church.
People care about work greatly and people need their faith to make sense in the context of their daily reality. They want churches that speak to the day-to-day pain points of their lives, and sermons play a significant role in their church selection. Pastors need to help people understand how the gospel changes everything, including work. And congregants need to receive spiritual guidance for Monday to Friday, too.