Four takeaways from the latest faith and work survey

Earlier this year we published an interview with Barna Group president, David Kinnaman. During the interview, Kinnaman discussed topics related to vocational discipleship and the church, explaining some of the research from Barna’s new study, Christians at Work. If you missed the interview, you can read the first and second parts on our website. This article explores four specific findings from the research. 

As one of my professors in seminary reminds us each class, context is king.

Which is precisely why the work done by the Barna Group is quite helpful for those attempting to understand the modern faith and work movement.

Recently the research firm released an exhaustive study on the current state of faith and work integration for Christians in conjunction with Abilene Christian University.

“What people really want, Barna’s research indicates, is a job that means something, that changes the world, that fulfills and stirs passions,” wrote Bill Denzel, executive director of Barna’s Vocation Project, and David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group. “The time is ripe for a new imagination, new definitions and a new theology of work that speaks to who we are and how we are uniquely made. These conversations will happen with or without the Church.

“Our hope is that Christians will lead the charge in rethinking what work means and what changes we need to make in order for work to lead to our personal and collective flourishing.”

Below we have distilled a few major takeaways from the study as you contextualize this data and apply it in your churches, workplaces, and public squares.

1. Christians are doing away with sacred/secular language surrounding their work.

According to Barna, 64% of employed Christians agree in some way it is clear how their work serves God or a higher purpose. Comparatively, five years ago one-third of employed Christians (34%) had never even thought about if they felt “called” in their current work. That percentage has dropped to 15% today.

This shift away from sacred/secular language presents an opportunity to provide hope and context for the missional nature of the Christian life.

Stated well by Amy Sherman in her book Kingdom Calling, “The gospel of the kingdom tells us not only what we’re saved from, but also what we’re saved for.”

2. Christians are finding purposeful employment.

Barna reports six in 10 people believe they have God-given gifts, and one in three want a better understanding of those gifts.

What’s encouraging is that just over a quarter (26% “strongly” agree) see how their job description serves God or a higher purpose, up slightly from 20% when Barna asked this question in 2014.

And while Christian millennials specifically are the most likely generation to view shaping culture as “important,” (40%, compared to 35% of Gen X and 33% of Boomers) there still remains much malign and confusion for what that actually looks like played out in the public square (less than 50% feel their church offers a vision for integrating faith and work).

Sherman offers a helpful definition of taking the desire to shape culture and bringing it into the stage of life.

“Social righteousness is about how we treat our neighbors near and far,” she writes. “It is about how vertical love toward God is expressed in horizontal love toward the world he has made and the people he has created.”

3. However, a majority are struggling to fully integrate their faith in their employment in a meaningful way.

The study reports almost three out of four workers are Compartmentalizers (Christians who experience their work separately from faith or a sense of calling) or Onlookers (Christians who have a passive interest in aligning their calling and career) when it comes to their calling and career, and only 28% qualify as Integrators.

One in four Compartmentalizers say they have never even thought about whether their calling and career overlap.

“Even when we talk about talents and gifts, we often discount any hard work that we have to do to get there,” said Bethany Jenkins, vice president of forums at The Veritas Forum, in the report. “I would actually say calling is a co-activity between the Lord giving us certain things and us actually developing them as well.”

However, as pointed out in the study, two-thirds of Integrators (Christians who have a high sense of experiencing faith and work together) say they strongly agree they are aware of their God-given gifts and talents and are engaging them on a regular basis in their work.

Frederick Buechner offers some assistance in this masterful statement regarding calling and vocation in his book Wishful Thinking: “To believe that a wise and good God is in charge of things implies that there is a fit between things that need doing and the person I am meant to be.”

4. Pastors are in a position to offer vocational guidance more than ever before.

Almost two-fifths of pastors (38%) see faith communities as key in helping Christians discover their own vocational strengths — manifest through sermons (86%), classes and tests (85%), or small groups (83%).

In fact, 71% feel their churches are successful in equipping congregants to discuss religion or faith at work.

Interestingly, four in 10 Christian workers Barna surveyed (42%) note they have heard a message about work from their church in the past month.

“The good news is that there are those among us from whom we can learn a different way,” wrote Ben Ries, associate dean for vocational formation and director of the Center for Vocational Formation at Abilene Christian University. “There are men and women who sit in our pews who walk into board meetings, classrooms, warehouses, offices and interactions with clients with a deep sense that God is there and that God is up to something in this world.

“They are teachers, lawyers, executives, non-profit leaders, social workers and healthcare professionals who have developed a sense that their work is not simply something to endure, but the very place they experience God’s presence and transforming power.”

This article originally appeared on the Center for Faith and Work Los Angeles’ website.

Topics: Christian Life, Millennials, Vocational Discipleship

About the Author

Gage Arnold is the communications director for the Center for Faith & Work Los Angeles. He is currently an M.Div. student at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, and holds a B.S. in Journalism & Electronic Media from the University of Tennessee.