Vocational discipleship: A universal desire among workers

Editor’s note: Barna Group just released a new study, Christians at Work, which explores how Christians relate to their workplace lives, and how their faith intersects with the rest of their lives. One main theme of this research centers around vocational discipleship. Made to Flourish executive director, Matt Rusten, sat down with Barna president David Kinnaman to discuss the church and culture, discipleship, and how the church can navigate these conversations better in the future. Following is the first of two parts of the interview. 

MR: Can you tell us what you mean by vocational discipleship, and why you believe it’s so important to understand how the church is addressing it?

DK: Vocational discipleship is a means of helping people understand what they’re called to do, made to do. A sense of how their work matters, including right-sizing ambition: God gives us ambition, but there can be a dark side to it, as well. There is work designed by God to do good in the world. But work is also cursed. So vocational discipleship is the process by which we would help someone understand they are made in the image of God to do things in the world, and that is meant to bring God glory and to do good, and to push back the broken parts of creation in doing your work and doing it well. In particular, when we think of the application for young people, I am convinced that the church is not doing an effective job of vocationally discipling the next generation. The research really points that out in graphic detail. Only one out of four young people who graduate from high school, as Christians, really know how the Bible connects to their calling or career, an insight we came to in the book, You Lost Me. So You Lost Me really laid out a pretty significant case that part of the discipleship problem was that we were mass producing disciples to follow Jesus, but not apprenticing them into what their calling is. A big part of that was vocational. So I think it’s a huge obstacle and problem, but it’s also a tremendous opportunity. In particular, we see new research from Generation Z, today’s teenagers, that they are even more interested than millennials were at their age in career, education, financial attainment. They’re quite ambitious, but also dealing with increasing levels of anxiety and, ironically, apathy, toward what they want to do. So the opportunity is crystal clear that the church could vocationally disciple this emerging generation.

MR: In your research, what are you learning about how regular people who attend church think about their daily work? What questions are they asking, and what concerns do they have?

DK: Well, I think this is a good place to mention the new study, Christians at Work. This is our first comprehensive look at the way employed Christians are approaching their work lives, and their sense of calling. For the most part, we actually found a lot of good news in the study. We’ve been doing it with Abilene Christian University, a partner that’s been working with Christians at work and in the workplace for many years. A majority of Christians are feeling at least somewhat, and sometimes, very satisfied with their work. They have some building blocks for a theology of work. They believe God calls them into specific work, or they believe there’s a sense that their church has been somewhat helpful in getting them up to speed. I think there’s also a lot we learned in the study about how few Christians really integrate faith and work. Only a quarter of the people we interviewed, Christians who are in the workplace, are integrators — 28 percent. We define an integrator as someone who agreed with four different concepts:

  1. I can clearly see how the work I’m doing serves God or a higher purpose;
  2. I find purpose and meaning in the work I do;
  3. As a Christian, is important to mold the culture of my workplace; and
  4. I’m looking to make a difference in the world.

Twenty-eight percent of employed Christians are integrators. Those four questions mark a really significant difference between those who are able to integrate faith and work, and those who are not. Two other groups are “onlookers,” people who might be able to take some steps and become integrators. And “compartmentalizers,” people who are at least two steps away from being able to integrate their faith and work.

MR: So what takes someone from just a learner or an onlooker, to an integrator?

DK: Well, certain research is limited in how it can tell us causal or “what came before, chicken or egg” questions. It really is a cross-section, a slice of life, at a given moment. What we can say is that by having interviewed the 1,459 employed Christians at a given moment, we can bucket people into integrators, onlookers, and compartmentalizers, and we can look at how those people are different by category. But when you ask respondents to look back and tell us what might have been the catalyst, human nature is such that it is difficult for us to identify the reasons for something. What we can say, unequivocally, is that this group exists at 28 percent based on our measures. It does compel us, as pastors and leaders, and for those of us who are integrators or those who aspire to be, that we want to grow more integrators. It would be great if in five years, that number was 10 percent higher, or double. Are there more and better ways of us to find what it looks like for us to be looking at what the goals should be? Our goal as researchers at Barna is to help clarify a picture of the marketplace and the current realities of what’s happening in the world. This might not be the only way to define the goals of an integrative approach to work and faith, but it is the best we could do with this study. We’re hoping to spark conversation with people — pastors, leaders, employers, Christians at work — who might say, “What would it look like for us to do more and better in this way?”

MR: It’s interesting that all those factors, maybe obviously so, are broad cultural trends. So there’s a sense in which the church should pay attention to this, realizing these issues and questions are dealt with at a pretty profound level, and the biblical text themselves. It’s rooted in Scripture, but it’s also responding to a cultural moment where this is pushed to the forefront in ways that it wasn’t 30 or 50 years ago.

DK: Absolutely. Another way to think about it is even looking at pop entertainment. Popular entertainment so often mirrors our times, and so much of the typical sitcom was domestic in nature. I’m making a point with “Leave it to Beaver” or “I Love Lucy,” or the stories of a family at the center, and work was just something that the guy goes out to do. You never imagine his work life offstage. And then you have things like “Seinfeld” or “Friends, and there’s just a glimpse in a few workplace episodes, but it’s all in the context of these cast characters. And then you’ve got “The Office” or other programs that are setting the stage in those kinds of contexts. That tells a fuller picture.

MR: There’s a recent article in Christianity Today called “God of the Second Shift,” and this is a greater awareness in the greater faith and work movement. Is this conversation that you’re talking about, looking from compartmentalizers to onlookers to integrators — is that conversation any different when we talk about different kinds of work or different kinds of workers? Or do those categories work no matter who we’re talking about?

DK: Well, this is just our first study in this area. This study itself was conducted online, representing all ethnicities, socio-income groups. It does limit those who don’t have online access, which is a smaller and smaller segment each year. However, what was surprising to us as we analyzed integrators was that there was not a particular correlation that they simply had more education or income or were of a particular ethnic group. So that was encouraging to us, as an initial pass, that everything from blue collar to white collar, educated to less educated, that there would be a way of thinking about integration. So you can imagine these four questions by which we define an integrator were broad enough concepts that applied to young and old, male and female, ethnic diversity, socio-economic, and educational diversity as well. They could provide at least an early stage pathway to thinking about connecting some of these things that are often either white collar or suburban or certain kinds of work, and the importance of the church bringing people across different groups together to have a shared vision for the world.

Watch for the second half of this interview, which will go live later this week. More information about Barna is available at barna.com.

Topics: Christian Life, Discipleship, Vocational Discipleship

About the Author

Matt Rusten serves as the executive director for Made to Flourish. Rusten received his master of divinity degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and has served in churches in North Dakota, the Chicago area, Kansas City, and most recently as pastor of spiritual formation at Blackhawk Church in Madison, Wisconsin. He and his wife, Margi, and their daughter, Olivia, and son, Owen, live in Kansas.