How You Experience and Reflect God at Work (Interview with Rev. John Van Sloten)
Amy: Thanks so much, John, for your very fine book, Every Job a Parable. I think it will be a great help many pastors and congregational leaders. Let’s start with this question: What first sparked your interest in how we can experience God in and through our work?
John: It started probably 15 years ago, when our church plant was trying to engage with pop culture in sermons. Lots of churches were doing that. And then I started to see that those things that we were engaging with in pop culture mattered as more than just a way to be relevant.
The idea of their having revelatory weight took hold in me—the idea that what is true and beautiful and good and right in the world and in pop culture could be the Spirit at work. That God could be in and behind that.
As I scrambled to look for theological assurances of this, I rediscovered my own Christian Reformed heritage. Once I became confident in the revelatory weight of general revelation—God speaking to us through creation, I started moving through other creational chapters. Before preaching vocation, I began preaching science. I had some Templeton Foundation grants that allowed me to explore God’s revelation through physical reality.
And while preaching science, I engaged scientists, and for the first time, I saw the vocational image-bearing nature in them. In their passion for their work, I saw how they reflected God’s image—I saw something of the heart of God. So it started with science, and then after a while I started to move more formally into preaching other people’s vocations.
Amy: Tell me something of what you learned from doing what you just called “preaching science.” Can you give me a specific example of a scientist through whose work you saw something special about God?
John: We had a neuroscientific researcher in our congregation, and she had recently published an article in the journal Nature Neuroscience. She had uncovered what others before her had postulated: a stress-reducing mechanism in the brain that, when things get too out of control, kind of shuts down the firing of our neurons, so that we don’t “lose it.” God had put a mechanism in our brain that keeps the anxiety and the fear and the results of sin from going too far.
And when she described this, it made me think of the God who said to the waters, “This far, and no further.” I saw the God whose common grace not only inspires truth in the world, but whose Spirit holds evil back and keeps it within a certain boundary. And there was this biological pointer to that scriptural truth.
Amy: That’s so interesting and beautiful how we can see God’s handiwork and his character through that example. What are some common things that you have identified that make it difficult to for us to see God in our work?
John: I think the first is a theology of work that’s too small. Our work is about more than just witnessing or making money to give to “real ministry,” more than integrity or morals or ethics and even working for the common good. It’s about experiencing God.
Second, a weak or incomplete theology of revelation—which is connected primarily to our image-bearing, how we engage with general revelation through the created things that we work with.
Third, we’ve never been told that we can see God in and through our work. I cannot recall ever hearing a sermon about that. There are illustrations about different jobs occasionally, but the thought of someone’s vocation having this kind of sacred, holy calling—I was never told that. Often the church’s cultural engagement is focused on what is wrong with the world versus what’s right in the world. So work was about working for the weekend. My hope in writing this book is that by naming what is right in the world, that right can grow, and people can start to experience God’s presence more.
And then lastly, it’s difficult to see because I think we have dull, muted vocational imaginations, which is a product of the Fall.
“You can only understand your work when you understand that God is present there, and experience his presence there. You can know and experience that presence there when you have a theological foundation that expects this to happen; that holds that God speaks through scripture and creation.” – John Van Sloten
Amy: In your book you lament that we often “go about our daily work as though He is not there. We barely give Him the time of day.” What specific habits would you say are helpful for Christians when it comes to strengthening our ability to discern God’s active presence in our work?
John: We can pray for God to open our eyes and ears and hands and to make us more sensitive to his presence—that would really change things. And pastors and leaders can teach this theology; we have a unique opportunity. We can find deep joy in opening the theological door and pointing people to what the Spirit is doing in and through their work and what God is saying to them through the parable of their work.
I also referenced Professor Esther Meek’s work on “signature moves” in my book. We need to know our Bibles inside and out so that when we see something in the world that is good and right and true, we will recognize that in the story of Genesis or Ruth or in what Paul wrote.
Another good practice is participating in vocational discernment communities. Almost all the really good stuff in the book came from one worker in a specific field talking to another worker in that same field.
Amy: I loved the way that you helped us to see something of God’s character through the work of people in a large variety of occupations. You wrote that in a florist, for example, we see the God who arranges all things. In the janitor we see the God who is discarding that which is no longer necessary in order to “make room for the new.”
You also helped a middle manager who was struggling to find meaning in his work to recognize that, in his work to bridge the communications between those in the company above him and those below, he was imaging Christ as a mediator.
Could you share a few more examples of how you’ve seen something of God in the work of people in some other occupations?
John: Sure. Think about the police officer. He creates order and maintains a safe space for life to flourish without fear. And even though things are so broken now in terms of police relations in some communities, imagine our cities without police.
Or consider the HR manager. She’s made in the image of a God who sees the whole corporate, universal picture and knows how you fit in the scheme of things. She images a God who’s good at calling out our potential and naming it.
And then there’s the optometrist. He sees deeply into the reality of the nature of one’s eyes and that points to a God who sees deeply spiritually—even those things we cannot see.
Amy: Those are great examples! I could listen to those stories all day long. I know that one way you’ve uncovered those great stories has been by meeting with small groups of workers from the same field, in order to learn from them about their jobs and to facilitate their sharing with each other about how they can grow in discerning God’s active presence in and through their work. How has this practice worked out, logistically, at your church?
John: If I’m organized enough, I get an email with discussion questions out 3-4 weeks in advance to a small group of people in the same field. That way they’re carrying those questions into their vocational labors for a time before we meet together.
Then when we’re together discussing the questions I record the conversation so I can download it and listen again later. Recently we’ve even video-taped some of the meetings. I then try to draw from the scriptures and my experience of preaching other vocations and write a sermon highlighting this particular work. Then I sometimes share a draft of that back out to the workers for them to read, soliciting their feedback. And they comment on it, and I often learn a lot from them.
Then I preach the sermon and sometimes—maybe 15 percent of the time—that sermon will include a worker from the group. That might be a person doing a short video presentation that we show, or a worker might actually preach the introduction to the sermon before I speak.
Amy: I know you’ve done about 30 or more of these kinds of vocational sermons and they’re very interesting. (Note to readers: visit this page for links to these sermons.) I’m wondering, though, whether you’ve had to deal with some pushback from congregants who think you should be preaching more on other subjects, whether that’s prayer or financial stewardship or marriage, or whatever. Had this been a challenge in your context? How have you dealt with that?
John: Yes, it’s been a challenge. People have said those things, and those things have come up from our board. I do think I’ve had a little less of this because as a church plant you have more latitude to do things in a new way. But yes, I think it’s a dance. I have preached on other subjects.
But Barna did some research not too long ago about why millennials stay at the church. (Note: See You Lost Me by David Kinnaman.) One of the big reasons was that they were not hearing a robust theology of vocation. So I think a pastor can make the argument that this sort of preaching is what we’ve got to be doing. So I would fight to not bump it off of the pulpit. In most of our churches, what’s important is what shows up regularly from the pulpit.
Amy: In your book, you quote the theologian Herman Bavinck saying that special and general revelation “call for each other; together they proclaim God’s manifold wisdom. Special revelation is superior to general but alone is imperfect—you need both.” Why is theological insight so important to understanding the meaning of our daily work?
John: That idea encapsulates my life’s work. When I read a Bavinck quote in a theological journal about four years ago, I almost wept because I thought, “How did Bavinck get my idea?” Which of course wasn’t mine! He is naming the exact thing that I called in my first book “co-illumination”— the idea that these texts are meant to speak to each other and that in the fullness of that dialogue we get the fullness of what God is revealing about himself.
You can only understand your work when you understand that God is present there and experience his presence there. And you can know and experience that presence when you have a theological foundation that expects this to happen, a foundation that holds that God speaks through scripture and creation.
Amy: Yes, that expectation is so critical; we need to be intentionally looking for God’s revelation.
John: I believe that a significant part of God’s word through creation is spoken through the work you do. When you read what God says through your work in concert with what God says through the scripture, you know God more—or have the potential to know God more.
When we get caught up in the co-illumination that happens in revelation between both of these books—general revelation speaking to special revelation and special revelation speaking to general revelation—we are in what I’ve experienced as a “thin place” where God is there; where we are in Kuyper’s words “near unto God.” And all of this is a foretaste, I believe, of the good work that we will do one day in the New Earth.Topics: Church and Ministry, Pastoral Practices, Theology, Vocation, Workplace Affirmations