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What Are We Actually Talking About When We Say 'Faith and Work'?

Without a common foundation, we can easily misunderstand each other instead of communicating. In this article, Matt Rusten offers a handful of foundation principles to guide our thinking and foster clear conversations about the faith and work movement.

A few years back, a friend told me about his weekend trip to Manhattan. He mentioned meeting up with a few friends, visiting a few familiar restaurants and driving back early Monday morning. Up until he mentioned “driving back Monday morning”, I had envisioned the bustling city, with skyscrapers, aggressive cab drivers, chic restaurants, and avant garde fashion. How did he have time to drive back early Monday morning, since we were both living in Kansas City? I was new to the area, and I wasn’t aware of the “little Apple,” as Kansans affectionately call it — the home of Kansas State University.

I thought I had been tracking with him, but I was thinking about something very different. I had imagined the posh borough of New York City. He was talking about a college town in the flint hills of Kansas. In the moment, neither of us were aware that we weren’t actually communicating.I have noticed something similar when I have engaged people in conversation about “faith and work.” I’ll be talking and I see them nodding approvingly or adding their comments about the subject. But often, it becomes very clear that I have one thing in mind, and they are thinking about something very different.

This sort of thing happens whenever two people don’t share a common lexicon. Even with all of the buzz around “faith and work,” there is often a lack of clarity by what we mean by it. While it may be impossible to bring everyone on the same page with a neat and tidy description of what “faith and work” is, there are categories that can help us communicate. David Miller has given one such taxonomy. He defines four different areas in which people integrate faith and work, and encourages us towards a more robust paradigm--that we might seek to understand and integrate them all.

Four Areas of Faith and Work in Our Daily Lives

1. Ethics

We integrate faith and work through approaching our work with a distinctly Christian ethic. This category not only addresses personal ethics related to honesty, not stealing, sexual integrity, and treating customers with dignity. It also covers corporate ethics — issues concerning human resource policies, hiring and firing, environmental practices, equal pay standards, and corporate culture. A distinctly Christian approach to our vocation should be undergirded with a robust ethical construct.

2. Expression

We integrate faith and work when we authentically and winsomely express our deepest held beliefs and values in a thoughtful and appropriate manner. Many immediately think of evangelism, but this might also include talking about how faith shapes decision making. This mode of integration recognizes that while faith is personal, it is never private. Even in work contexts where evangelism is not allowed, it is important to live as an authentic person--and if faith in Christ is central to life, there will be opportunities to express that faith.

3. Experience

We integrate faith and work when we experience our actual work as a response to God, and an offering of neighborly love. This category is often coupled with viewing work itself as a calling — a response of joyful obedience to the Caller. One might talk about pursuing excellence in work, as Dorothy Sayers has stressed. This category also celebrates the intrinsic value of work, with dignity of work and the worker rooted in creation and God’s very nature. It is what Eric Little, of Chariots of Fire, was expressing when he said of his athletic vocation, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.”

4. Enrichment

We integrate faith and work when we allow our communion with Christ and the tools of spiritual formation to enrich our vocations. In addition, work itself becomes a tool in which God is forming us into greater Christlikeness. It may include understanding our identity in Christ as the foundation for experiencing both humility and confidence in our work. It may include Scripture memorization to bring about gentleness, kindness, perseverance, and patience. It may include a Benedictine rule or community commitment towards staying accountable for faithfulness in work. There may be other ways to think about the integration of faith and work. But Miller has done us a great service in helping us think through a more robust paradigm. His suspicion is that each of us leans towards one or two expressions.

The great challenge is growing as a Christ follower, so that each informs the work we do every day.If our churches were places that regularly addressed categories like these, we might find that we weren’t so often talking past one another.

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