Over the past three years, I (Denise) have been working on a research project called Faith at Work: An Empirical Study, which collected data from individuals across the United States. My colleagues and I wanted to understand how everyday people think about faith and work. We also sought to learn how Christians want their churches to support them in their work. After surveying thousands of people and conducting follow up interviews with more than 200, several themes have emerged from this research. One theme is that working Christians want their churches to provide encouragement and support for their work; guidance for how to engage faith at work; and more empathy with respect to the demands of their work.
Encourage the value of work
Many of the interview respondents reflected that they wanted their churches to affirm the spiritual aspect, meaning, and value of work, particularly when that work was in a “secular” context. They wanted to know their work matters to God. There was a poignant sense from many that they yearned for their work to be meaningful but weren’t sure whether it was. One woman working in social media said, “I’d love for my job to be more spiritually meaningful, but I don’t exactly know how to get there. So, maybe offering ways to help with that, to find meaning in your job that’s not in ministry or in missions or directly working for something that’s faith-related.” Other respondents indicated they wanted more support for their struggles at work. This was especially true for certain kinds of workers: Those who experienced their jobs as particularly challenging, women, and job seekers.
While these people didn’t expect their churches to solve their workplace problems, they did wish their churches would help them with ethical dilemmas, workplace conflict, and stress at work. They mentioned a desire for access to prayer and counseling resources related to work, as well as to small groups focused on specific industries or professions. The people we surveyed also provided examples of practical things that the church community could do to support workers, including hosting job fairs, providing resume workshops, and cultivating workplace networks.
What about the church?
Pastors will have a major role as providers of encouragement and support. Through our teaching and preaching within the local church, we can help our people develop a biblical theology of work, one that affirms “the heavenly good of earthly work,” to borrow a phrase from Darrell Cosden. We can help folks think about how their work contributes to God’s work in the world and how their faith gives deeper meaning to so-called “secular” work. We can regularly include in our sermons and teachings applications and illustrations that connect to the real life work challenges faced by our congregants. (Of course, to do this, we need to know that these challenges are. That’s one reason why visiting people in their workplaces is essential for pastors.) But it’s clear that what people desire from their churches cannot and should not be provided solely by pastors. Rather, it requires participation by church members in a variety of ways.
Pastors can certainly include illustrations within their sermons of congregants who find their work deeply meaningful because of their faith. But it is often more effective when that congregant shares their own story. This can happen in a worship setting if a church does “This Time Tomorrow” interviews. But, some of the most effective sharing of work-related joys and challenges happens in small groups, especially when the groups are encouraged to make work a significant theme of their fellowship. For this to happen, church leaders — both pastors and others — need to consistently and wisely urge their congregations to take work seriously as an essential element of Christian discipleship and worship. Yes, preaching about the importance of work can make a difference. But there is so much more that can be done. Several years ago, I (Mark) was worshiping in a small church whose congregants were struggling with unemployment.
During a time of intercessory prayer, a church leader prayed for those without work, asking that they might find jobs. Nothing unusual here. But then the person praying went on, “And so we ask you, Lord, to bless the businesses in our community. Help them to thrive so that they might be able to provide jobs. Give wisdom to the leaders of these businesses so this can happen.” I thought to myself, “I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a prayer like that in church before.” After the service, I talked with a man who, with tears in his eyes, said, “I have been in worship services for almost 60 years. Never in my life has anyone prayed for me in my business. Today, for the first time, I feel like this church cares about me and what I do all week.” Of course I’m only scratching the surface here.
There is so much more that churches can do, especially when pastors and congregants work together to encourage and support folks in their daily work. Let’s continue the work, helping congregants both feel seen and known, but supported and encouraged in their daily work, whether paid or unpaid, in an office or if they work with their hands for the good of their families and communities.
 Faith at Work: An Empirical Study is a research project funded by the Lilly Endowment, and conducted by Elaine Howard Ecklund, Rice University (PI), and Denise Daniels, Wheaton College (co-PI)