How to elevate the value of work through language

In his religious satire, Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis unmasks lies many fall prey to in their Christian life. Though he never speaks directly to daily labor, it’s easy to imagine Screwtape, Lewis’ senior demon, teaching his nephew and junior demon, Wormwood, to persuade his new proselyte that everyday work is fruitless, that only church work is a high calling. “To deaden the spirit, get the new Christian to think her 9-to-5 is in vain,” Screwtape might advise.

Sadly, today this devilish refrain goes unrefuted in many real-life faith communities. But the church has an opportunity to unmask and refute this false dichotomy by encouraging more thoughtful approaches to naming our work.

Choosing transformative language

One way to reframe work is through the transformative power of language. Rather than relying on terms that flatten or commoditize our labor — such as manual labor for physical trades, widgets for manufactured goods, and utils for units of customer satisfaction — we can use language that better honors the unique outputs and benefits of our work. Rather than referring to employees as outsourced labor, temps, assembly line workers, knowledge workers, or FTEs (full-time equivalents), we can cultivate language that captures and reflects the unique contributions of each worker.

Effectively, we need a vocabulary revolution. We need unambiguous terms — particular verbs and nouns — that aptly describe our unique vocational contributions. Consider the language used here: mechanical assembly, environmental hazard remediation, post-production video editing, deep tissue massage, silicon wafers, long-term disability insurance, bevel gears, chocolate confectionery, audited financial statements, honey crisp apples, and Class A motorhomes. Each of these products and services meets a felt need, and precise language ascribes its value and uplifts the dignity of the worker who helps bring it to market.[1]

Author and agricultural activist, Wendell Berry, makes a similar argument when he describes the dehumanizing impact of applying machine language to living organisms. To view the world as God’s machinery, or the human brain as a supercomputer, may have metaphorical value.[2] But by relying too heavily on technological or economic terms to reveal the fruits of our labor, we diminish wonder from our role as God’s appointed stewards of Creation.[3] Well-chosen words for our work affirm our participation in God’s divine plan for the world; poorly chosen terms obscure this connection.

Application for Christian Leaders

How can the church and its leaders elevate the value of work and workers through language? Three practical ideas come to mind:

Avoid negative name associations

When preaching, teaching, and seeking to live out our faith in a wide variety of organizational contexts, Christian leaders should avoid negative labels for work, except when emphasizing the direct impact of the Fall and the types of broken relationships that result.

One important way to honor all vocational callings is to cease the jokes about lawyers, accountants, car salesmen, and politicians. Rather than denigrating professions, let’s hold them up as vital, especially when pursued with the goal of serving God and others.

Some honest soul-searching can help. You might ask, “In my work, who embodies my nemesis voice?” For a business leader, it might be a government regulator. For a faculty member, it might be a university administrator. For a church leader, it might be another non-profit leader, or a powerful and persuasive leader in the congregation. After identifying the oppositional influence, spend some time rehumanizing them by naming their work. What is it that they have been charged to do? Why is it important? How, when properly understood, can it contribute to collective flourishing? And even more personally, how does their work uniquely benefit my life?

Avoid workplace jargon

Business jargon is a black hole that exerts its gravitational pull on marketplace and church leaders alike.

Go after low-hanging fruit… Take it offline… Move the needle… Punt… Trim the fat… Beat the bushes… Leverage… Synergize… Put boots on the ground… Tee it up… Ideate… Pivot…Pick your brain… Think outside the box… Run it up the flagpole… Deep dive… Give 110%… Monetize… Scale up…

Defaulting lazily to business jargon further flattens our collective understanding of what good work entails. Providing a more detailed sketch, though, of what it means to “ideate” may unlock for others the practical steps involved in this creative process. Fully describing what it means to “put boots on the ground” may help someone better understand what’s involved in recruiting, training, and equipping team members to do their work well.

Describe in detail what you and others do

Whether a town official describing zoning ordinances, a welder discussing the intricacies of sheet metal, a business leader recounting supply chain issues, or a pastor introducing workplace themes into the pulpit, we all gain — and the Church gains — by being more descriptive. When members of our community share the gritty details and efforts of their work, we are both more appreciative of others and emboldened to pursue our work with vigor.

Dave Hataj, a Wisconsin-based business owner, models this principle well. An accomplished leader with impressive professional and academic accomplishments, Dave first describes himself as a “journeyman machinist,” and then as a second-generation owner and president of Edgerton Gear. When asked about his company, he replies, “We make gears that make every aluminum can on the planet. We make gears for every cardboard box. We make gears for construction equipment, logging equipment, food processing equipment, and textile equipment.”[4] He continues, “Gears make our world go. Everything depends on gears… Making gears is an act of worship; gears are a work of art. When gears mesh and work as they are intended, they reflect how the body of Christ is intended to function.”[5]

In a few sentences, we experience Dave’s passion and purpose; we learn a lot about gears, their service to humanity, and what they teach us about the body of Christ.

Revisiting wormwood

Why would C. S. Lewis name his devilish junior apprentice Wormwood? Perhaps because wormwood is an herb that leaves an acrid taste. Wormwood is also the name of the star that falls from the sky in Revelation, causing death and the waters to turn bitter.[6] Whatever the reasons, Lewis’ choice of name was deliberate.

Names command our attention. They convey meaning and value. They tell a story. If we are to re-enliven our churches and workplaces with inspired, vocation-minded stewards who seek to serve the common good, then we need to hone and strengthen our work-related language. Wormwoods have the capacity to tempt, steal, and destroy, but faith-at-work champions who use language carefully have the capacity to rebuild, redeem, and liberate. By insisting on language that captures the full potential of God’s people in all fields and trades, we stretch the boundaries of Christian imagination and create greater awareness of the redemptive role we all play in God’s greater economy.


[1] It can even be argued that to withhold naming is to undo God’s creational design. Consider the antagonists in Madeline L’Engle’s Wind in the Door science fantasy novel. The Echthroi (Greek for enemies) seek to diminish and destroy by un-naming creation.

[2] Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2001), 46-47.

[3] See Gen 1:28, 2:15.

[4] Seattle Pacific University, “Turning: Edgerton Gear,” a film by Untamed (2019), https://faithandco.spu.edu/film-detail/turning/.

[5] David Hataj, “Cultural Business Transformation through God-Centered Principles,” Kiros video (June 12, 2020), https://kiros.org/media/.

[6] See Rev 8:10-11.

Topics: Meaning in Our Work, Pastoral Practices

About the Author

John Terrill serves as the executive director of the Stephen & Laurel Brown Foundation, which includes Upper House — a Christian study center located at the heart of the University of Wisconsin-Madison — and Dottie’s Ranch — a leadership development and spiritual retreat house located near Oregon, Wisconsin. Prior to this role, John served as director for the Center for Integrity in Business at the School of Business, Government, and Economics at Seattle Pacific University; before that, he worked with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA as the National Director for Professional Schools Ministries, as well as campus minister at Harvard Business School and National Director for MBA Ministry.  John currently serves as a board member for Religion News Service and Religion News Foundation, and he enjoys writing and speaking on issues related to the academy, business, faith, and culture.