The Blue-Collar Challenge: Connecting Faith and Human Labor

Originally published in Encounter: Journal for Pentecostal Ministry, Fall 2015, Vol. 12, a scholarly publication of the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. See the full issue on their sitePosted with permission. 

By Kent L. Duncan (M.Div., 1986; D.Min. 2015, AGTS). Pastor, Jefferson Assembly of God, Meriden, Kansas.

Introduction

Data released by the Gallup organization in January 2015 describes 51 percent of American employees as “not engaged” with their jobs and an additional 17.5 percent as “actively disengaged.”1 Gallup defines “not engaged” employees as those who “show up and kill time with little or no concern about customers, productivity, profitability, waste, safety, mission and purpose of the teams, or developing customers” while describing “actively disengaged” employees as “more or less out to damage their company.”2 These realities present significant challenges for employers, companies, the economy, co- workers, and the disengaged workers themselves.

The local church, however, has largely ignored these challenges. The church’s passivity encourages the embrace of a sacred-secular divide relegating ordinary human labor to little more than a necessary evil. Believers have divorced work from faith, finding “the paradigm of conflict—an unbridgeable chasm between faith and work—to be the only way to make sense of the tension between faith and work.”3 The church must reverse this conclusion through sound instruction that addresses the relationship between faith and work as revealed in the Scriptures.

Such was not always the case. As the United States transitioned toward an industrial economy and the corresponding implementation of mass production techniques, church leaders were often involved in the concerns of the common laborer. The lament of Elton Trueblood in Your Other Vocation, published in 1952, reveals a significant historical connection:

There are large churches without a single member who also belongs to a labor union. The characteristic supporters of the Christian movement are white-collar workers, managers, professional people and farmers. The gravity of the loss is made vivid by the fact that, in some cities, meetings of labor unions are now held in labor “temples” at eleven o’clock on Sunday mornings.4 In short, the province of labor is so far lost that, far from thinking of itself as a part of the Christian movement, it has set itself up as a genuine rival, in the competition for loyalty.5

Strong efforts toward correction are underway. The Faith at Work (FAW) movement, a concerted endeavor to strengthen the connection between faith and the marketplace, has exploded in significance in recent years. Hundreds of new publications and scores of innovative organizations testify to intense FAW efforts on the part of today’s Christian leaders. The current FAW movement often focuses on business professionals to the neglect of the ordinary worker. David Miller inadvertently reflects the movement’s bias: “Businesspeople want … Christian businesspeople and other professionals …”6 (emphasis added). The weight of the current FAW movement clearly leans toward white- collar professionals.

Trueblood then affirms the labor movement’s Christian roots:

There is no doubt that this loss is very great. The sense of its seriousness is accentuated by the recognition of the degree to which the earlier labor movement was so largely inspired by conscious Christian motivation. Men … became union organizers in an effort to make Christian ideals prevail, but little of this connection now remains.7

By the time of Trueblood’s publication, the divorce was largely finalized. While interest in the connection between faith and the marketplace continued to develop among certain business professionals,8 its link within the blue-collar arena faltered significantly.9 Blue-collar workers, however, still comprise 61 percent of the American work force.10 Given the economic, cultural, and spiritual transformation that would result from a revitalization of faith- integration in the blue-collar environment, the church must re-examine her connection to that environment, identify the defining qualities unique to that culture, and address the distinctive challenges of those workers with regard to faith and work. To that end, this paper will offer a summary of the cultural qualities and unique concerns of the blue-collar context, identify work-faith challenges present among blue-collar workers, and review one effort taken toward connecting faith and work within a blue- collar context.

The Blue-Collar World

Restoring the church’s connection to the ordinary laborer demands understanding the culture of the blue-collar world. A review of pertinent literature suggests three unique cultural qualities consistent among blue- collar workers and three commonly-held concerns. The following two sections will highlight each of these characteristics in an effort to illustrate key elements within the blue-collar worker’s world. Unique cultural qualities include direct communication, close-knit loyalties, and hands-on practicality. Prevailing concerns include job security, financial stability, and questions of personal identity.

Qualities of Blue-collar Culture

Direct Communication—”Say What You Mean”

Blue-collar people speak directly and candidly. They say what they think without subtlety or nuance, avoiding “self- censorship [and] hidden agendas.”11 This shows up most clearly in contrast to patterns of communication within white-collar circles. According to Charles Sackrey, the number of words spoken in a white-collar household in a day is, on average, three times greater than the number spoken in a blue-collar home—most of the difference attributable to a lack of interaction between parents and kids.12

The practice of direct communication sometimes puts blue-collar workers at a disadvantage when interacting across social classes. Dan Croteau, raised in a working- class family, experienced the difference while employed at a prep school: “In working-class life, people tell you things directly, they’re not subtle. At [Northfield Mount Hermon Prep School], I didn’t get how they did things.”13 Alfred Aversa, Jr., notes how the structure of formal meetings left blue-collar members of a yacht club at a disadvantage to their white-collar counterparts:

Faced with the necessity of having to propose motions and debate them in an orderly fashion, few [blue-collar participants] are willing to risk humiliating themselves by revealing their ignorance of the procedure and the idiom of polite debate.14

Raised in an atmosphere of clear expectations and direct communication, blue-collar workers often struggle in environments marked by understated speech and subtle conversational clues.

Close-knit Loyalties—“Stick with Your Kind”

Within the blue-collar environment, loyalty runs deep—particularly toward entities that are geographically and ideologically close, with family as the most obvious priority. “You don’t break up the family,” writes Alfred Lubrano, “you orbit close to your kind.”15 Whereas the middle-class family encourages and celebrates the achievements of individual family members, in the working-class world such accomplishments have a place only when family relationships remain intact and unscathed.

The reader gets a taste of the strength of family loyalties when Lubrano—raised in a working-class home—describes participating in a strike as an adult, white- collar professional. Although he expresses confusion over the reasons for the strike and any justification for his place in it, he concludes, “But I never scabbed.”16 In the blue-collar environment, loyalty matters.

Hands-on Practicality—“If It Works, It Isn’t Stupid”

Blue-collar workers have little time for abstract theory. The thought of sitting in an office all day, attending meetings, and shuffling papers holds no appeal. As a twenty-six-year-old concrete laborer puts it, “I just appreciate that God gave me a body and I don’t think it was meant to sit on a chair.”17 Moreover, blue-collar workers see the results of their labor as something tangible and enduring. “Like if you were to write a paper or something, it’s great,” says a thirty-year-old masonry laborer, “and it may last hundreds of years or not, but concrete walls, unless somebody knocks it down or bulldozes it, it’s usually going to be there.”18 Blue-collar workers value direct communication, close-knit loyalties, and hands-on practicality.

Concerns of the Blue-Collar Worker

Job Security

In recent decades, perhaps no segment of the job market in the United States has experienced more job loss than the manufacturing sector. Timothy Egan reports this mainstay source of blue-collar employment within the American economy “has shed six million manufacturing jobs over the last three decades.”19 New jobs, where created, do not match the quality of lost jobs. One recent report notes that employment losses from the 2008 recession were “concentrated in mid-wage occupations with median hourly wages between $13.84 and $21.13.”20 Recovery growth, however, has been concentrated in “lower-wage occupations—jobs paying a median hourly [income] between $7.69 and $13.83.”21 These jobs accounted for only 21 percent of jobs lost during the recession but now account for 58 percent of recovery growth. Keeping quality jobs remains as strong a concern as holding down an existing job.

Financial Stability

While some highly skilled workers earn significant income, many low and unskilled workers survive on little more than subsistence wages. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics wage estimates from May of 2013, workers such as janitors, grounds maintenance workers, and auto mechanics, earned median hourly wages ranging from $10.86 per hour to $19.17 per hour. This compares with wages for occupations such as claims adjusters, database and systems managers, and marketing and sales managers ranging from $29.43 per hour to $54.61 per hour.22 For context, a recent study suggests that “in order to afford a modest, two-bedroom apartment in the U.S., renters need to earn a wage of $19.35 per hour.”23

Working class attitudes about money factor in as well. Ruby Payne writes about the “hidden rules”24 that shape how various economic classes view money. Where a member of the middle class typically views money as a resource to manage, and a member of the upper class views it as something to conserve and invest, members of the working class view money as a resource to use. They often see the intentional management of financial resources as fruitless because of the incessant demands made on such a limited supply. Such circumstances by no means serve as characteristic of every blue-collar worker, but many in low-paying jobs struggle to remain financially solvent.

Personal Identity

Two competing realities fuel the challenge of personal identity: the negative experience of life as a sometimes-demeaning battle of survival and the positive experience of satisfaction found in blue-collar work well done. Particularly compared to others, blue- collar people tend to view life less as an opportunity to achieve and more as a struggle to survive. Leslie Rubin summarizes the childhood memories of working-class adults she interviewed:

They recall parents who worked hard, yet never quite made it; homes that were overcrowded; siblings or selves who got into “trouble”; a preoccupation with the daily struggle for survival that precluded planning for a future. Whether they recall angry, discontented, drunken parents, or quiet, steady, “always-there” parents, the dominant theme is struggle and trouble. These realities not only reflect the past, but dominate the present.25

Working-class occupants intuitively perceive these disadvantages: “We blue collars grew up understanding at an early age that it’s who you know. … And we didn’t know anybody.”26 Some embrace a fatalistic attitude regarding the future. “God doesn’t close one door,” says one, “without slamming your fingers in another.”27 Of course, not every blue-collar worker views life dimly. Still, understanding life as a struggle remains widespread within the blue-collar world.

By contrast, blue-collar workers often gain a sense of significant value through workplace accomplishment. Jeff Torlina argues that the lower occupational prestige assigned to blue-collar labor may have more to do with arbitrary judgments made by social scientists than with the realities of job satisfaction as experienced by blue-collar workers. “Consciously or unconsciously, the dominant theories of social inequality promote an inferior identity for working- class people.”28 A study by Thomas Gorman shows that “working class respondents differentiated themselves from middle-class respondents by noting they do real work, do more important work, and are more down- to-earth.”29 Many blue-collar workers take significant pride in what their labor produces.

Conflicting realities shape the challenge of personal identity for the typical blue-collar worker. A perception of life as an ongoing struggle and cultural norms that often minimize or dismiss the value of blue-collar labor battle against a more positive and intuitive sense of self-worth fueled by occupational pride and practical on-the-job accomplishments. Job security, financial stability, and personal identity remain ongoing concerns for blue-collar workers.

Work-Faith Challenges Revealed through Data Analysis

Beyond the broad qualities and concerns identified, recent data confirms the struggle of blue-collar workers to connect Sunday’s worship with Monday’s work. 30 Recently, I compared the responses of 62 workers to 83 different questions related to faith and work using Discipleship AssessmentTM data provided through Discipleship Dynamics.31 The results revealed significant differences in key ways white-collar and blue-collar workers understood their faith in relation to their work.

Most conspicuously, blue-collar workers consistently indicated less awareness of any sense of calling in their work than did white- collar workers. Six out of the thirteen statements for which statistically significant differences existed all related to a lack of any awareness of divine purpose on the job. Specifically, blue-collar workers were less likely than their white-collar counterparts to say:

  • I feel like I’m on a “divine mission” when I’m at work.
  • My career has become a “divine mission.”
  • My work provides me a sense of purpose in life.
  • God has called me into the career that I am in now.
  • The primary purpose in my career is to make a difference for others.

By contrast, blue-collar workers were more likely to say: “I often wish I could have a clearer understanding of my gifts and talents.”

Additionally, blue-collar responses evidenced a lack of worker connection with both their workplaces and with others in their workplaces. They consistently perceived the following statements as less true of themselves than did white-collar workers:

  • I understand the competitive advantage that my company has.
  • I have a good grip on the future challenges that face my field of work.
  • I feel like a “shepherd” for other disciples.

Other statistically significant blue-collar responses confirm the weight of financial concerns within the blue-collar community, evidence a lack of trust in the workplace context, and affirm the blue-collar propensity for simple and direct communication.

Analysis of the data suggests that the church’s greatest challenge involves helping the blue-collar worker understand and develop his or her sense of divine calling and purpose. Concurrent with that challenge, the typical blue-collar worker needs help understanding the unique capacities afforded him or her by means of God’s design and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Additionally, blue-collar laborers would benefit from a more holistic conception of ministry that ties what God is doing in the world to the blue-collar workplace environment.

One Response to the Blue-collar Challenge

As a Doctor of Ministry candidate at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and the pastor of a predominantly blue- collar church, I chose to address the blue- collar challenge as part of my doctoral project.32 I designed a four-week campaign utilizing a sermon series and small-group follow-up sessions to better connect personal faith to the ordinary workday.

A brainstorming session with church staff members produced the series title: 9 – 5 ‘til Kingdom Come—a title designed to tie the ordinary workday to Christ’s eternal Kingdom. Additionally, this title was chosen in hopes that, through participation in the project process, what might have sounded foreboding upon first reading—the thought of laboring without end—would become, ultimately, a confident declaration of human work as a prophetic anticipation and expression of Christ’s Kingdom. Staff members then created a unifying campaign graphic with elements that sought to mix the often manual and mechanical nature of blue- collar labor with the future-orientation of Kingdom work. Staff members also created a second graphic highlighting “Bezalel and Oholiab” (Exod. 31:1-5) for use as a pocket- sized logo on a t-shirt given to participants as a commemorative gift. Those graphics are shown below.

9- 5 ‘til Kingdom Come Campaign Logo

Bezalel and Oholiab T-shirt Art

The first week of the 9 – 5 series focused on Genesis 1-2:3 and “The Gift of Work.” Participants were encouraged to recognize work not as a curse, but as part of God’s gift of a perfect world to His human creation, a reflection of what it means to be made in His image, and a means of filling and subduing the earth in His authority. The follow-up session included a brief video by Andy Crouch titled Stepping into Culture.33 In the video, Crouch highlighted various ways in which the church has approached culture over the last century, but—building on Genesis 2 and Adam’s responsibilities in the Garden of Eden—encouraged believers to embrace the priorities of creating and cultivating culture.

Week two emphasized Genesis 2:2-3 and “The Gift of Rest,” arguing that a biblical understanding of work remains incomplete apart from a biblical understanding of Sabbath rest. A brief video titled Workaholic34 introduced the Sunday morning message, which presented Sabbath rest as a form of testimony, an opportunity for celebration, a tool for building identity, and a prophetic expression of the eternal rest promised the people of God (Heb. 4:9).

Having rooted humanity’s work in the creation account, week three focused attention on “The Gift of Ability” and the role of the Holy Spirit in human work. The story of Bezalel and Oholiab in Exodus 31:1-11 introduced a message about the purposeful calling, abundant empowerment, and cosmic connection the Holy Spirit provides to humanity’s work. This service utilized a video testimony by actor Stephen Baldwin describing how a Spirit-empowered housekeeper led him and his wife to the Lord.35 The discussion group material connected all of this more explicitly to the theological concept of vocation.

Week four celebrated “The Gift of Future” and the eschatological promise of “an inheritance from the Lord” for labor offered “as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Col. 3:23). The sermon argued for work as something the Lord “preserves, sanctifies and directs … toward the future age of God’s redemptive reign.”36 The congregation had been encouraged to “Wear your work clothes to Worship!”—dressing for service as if it were an ordinary work day. At the close of the final service in the series, the thirty-one project participants were invited to present themselves before the congregation as the church’s spiritual overseers gathered around them, laid hands on them, and commissioned them for ministry in their workplaces.

Following the campaign, a qualitative assessment by way of interview responses showed a strong understanding of and appreciation for the materials presented along with a corresponding transformation of attitudes about work and its place in the life of faith. Participants consistently testified to understanding their work as an expression of the Father’s intent for their lives, Christ’s reign over their lives, and an expression of anticipation of the Lord’s coming reign at His return. As a result, participants found the connection between today’s work and their promised eternity transformative.

Conclusion

A rich opportunity stands before the American Church. A dearth of instruction regarding the nature and purpose of work has left the American working public—and blue-collar workers particularly— uninformed and unchallenged with regard to the import of their daily labor. Still, like parched ground welcomes the rain, workers appear fully receptive to embracing the biblical truth about their work.
The Scriptures carry a rich and unequaled message of work’s origin, purpose, and promise. The Church must infuse the labor of those who claim the name of Christ with a significance befitting the call of Christ. No arena of life appears to hold greater potential for provoking life-giving transformation within multiple layers of American culture than does the biblically-rooted revitalization of the Christian worker. The opportunity for an extreme makeover of eternal significance presents itself. Let the work begin.

Notes

1 Amy Adkins, “Majority of U.S. Employees Not Engaged Despite Gains in 2014,” January 28, 2015, accessed May 30, 2015, http://www.gallup.com/poll/181289/majority-employees-not-engaged-despite-gains-2014.aspx.

2 State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for U.S Business Leaders, Gallup, Inc., 2013, 21, accessed September 2, 2014, http://www.gallup.com/services/176708/state-american-workplace.aspx.

3 David W. Miller, God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 41.

4 The “Labor Temples” Trueblood references here were something of a church/union hall hybrid—a “faith and work” concept first implemented and promoted in the United States by Charles Stelzle, a Presbyterian minister and proponent of the Social Gospel. By the time of Trueblood’s writing, most were completely secular. A few exist yet today. For more information, see Charles Stelzle, The Church and Labor, Hathi Trust Digital Library, accessed August 14, 2014, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc2.
ark:/13960/t7dr30b90.

5 Elton Trueblood, Your Other Vocation (New York, NY: Harper, 1952), 16.

6 Ibid., 74.

7 Ibid.

8 Note, for example, Miller’s discussion of the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International and the Fellowship of Companies for Christ International in Miller, 51.

9 For purposes of this study, blue-collar jobs are those typically characterized by (1) physical labor, (2) hourly rates of pay, and (3) limited educational requirements. White-collar jobs typically involve (1) no direct physical engagement on the job, (2) a fixed salary, and (3) specific higher education requirements for employment.

10 “Workers by Occupational Category,” The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, accessed August 15, 2014, http://kff.org/other/state-indicator/blue-and-white-collar-workers/.

11 Stuart Jeanne Bramhall, “Working Class Culture,” The Most Revolutionary Act: Diverse Ramblings of an American Refugee, October 25, 2010, accessed August 8, 2014, http://open.salon.com/blog/stuartbramhall /2010/10/25/working_class_culture.

12 Alfred Lubrano, Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2005), 9-10.
13 Janny Scott and David Leonhardt, “Shadowy Lines that Still Divide,” in Class Matters (New York, NY:

Times Books, 2005), 57.
14 Alfred Aversa Jr., “When Blue Collars and White Collars Meet at Play: The Case of the Yacht Club,”

Qualitative Sociology 13, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 77. 15 Lubrano, 75.

16 Ibid., 211.

17 Jeff Torlina, Working Class: Challenging Myths about Blue-Collar Labor (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2011), 25.

18 Ibid., 75.

19 Timothy Egan, “No Degree, and No Way Back to the Middle,” in Class Matters (New York, NY: Times Books, 2005), 106.

8

20 Mehreen Rasheed, “A Brief Look at Poverty in America,” Journal of Housing & Community Development 70, no. 2 (April 3, 2013): 7.

21 Ibid.

22 “May 2013 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates: United States,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, modified April 1, 2014, accessed August 23, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm.
The blue collar examples shown were updated from job categories listed in one of the resources consulted for this study. The white collar examples were chosen at random for purposes of comparison with the blue collar occupational wages.

23 “Out of Reach 2015,” National Low Income Housing Coalition, accessed May 30, 2015, http://nlihc.org/oor.

24 Ruby K. Payne, A Framework for Understanding Poverty; A Cognitive Approach, 5th ed. (Highlands, TX: aha! Process, 2013), 42.

25 Lillian Breslow Rubin, Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working Class Family (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1976), 48.

26 Ibid., 142.

27 Ibid.

28 Torlina, 44.

29 Thomas J. Gorman, “Cross-Class Perceptions of Social Class,” Sociological Spectrum 20, no. 1 (January 2000): 116.

30 For full details on the data and its analysis, see Kent L. Duncan, “The Holy Spirit Goes to Work: Facilitating Marketplace Ministry in a Blue-collar Context” (D.Min. diss., Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, 2015), 104-107. Available at: http://search.proquest.com/docview/1675048766.

31 Johan Mostert, “Holiness as a Function of Psycho-behavioral Monitoring and Spiritual Mentoring: The Talmideem Agenda Research Project” (presented at the 42nd Annual Meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, Seattle, WA, March 23, 2013); Johan Mostert, “Outcomes-based Research on Spirit-filled Discipleship: Progress Report (Year II)” (presented at the 43rd Annual Meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, Springfield, MO, March 6, 2014).

32 See note 30.

33 Andy Crouch, “Stepping Into Culture by Andy Crouch,” Q Ideas, accessed August 14, 2014, http://old.qideas.org/video/stepping-into-culture.aspx/.

34 “Work as Worship Video Kit with Matt Chandler, Norm Miller of Interstate Batteries and David Green of Hobby Lobby,” Work as Worship Network, accessed August 4, 2014, http://www.workasworshipnetwork.org/work- as-worship-video-kit-with-matt-chandler-norm-miller-of-interstate-batteries-and-david-green-of-hobby-lobby/.

35 Stephen Baldwin, “I Am Second,” I Am Second, accessed August 4, 2014, http://www.iamsecond.com /seconds/stephen-baldwin/.

36 Murray Dempster, “Christian Social Concern in Pentecostal Perspective,” (presented at the 20th Annual Meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, Lakeland, FL, 1991), 36.

About the Author

Kent Duncan serves as lead pastor at Jefferson Assembly of God in Kansas.