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Work Adventures (5): Reflections

Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:17)

This series of posts has told the story of a life-changing period in the 1980s when I moved from being a schoolteacher to lecturing at university. I am now looking back to reflect on what might be useful for others to gain from my experience.

Everyone’s story is individual, so I don’t want to focus on the fine details of mine. However, I do believe that the first post, Crossing the Divide, highlights an important issue that impacts many people.

Sacred-secular divide

The start of my work journey in the mid-80s involved breaking out of a misconception, which had made me too inwardly focused on church activities:

“Unwittingly, during the previous years I had fallen into a “sacred-secular divide”, believing that some activities (such as church) were more holy or significant than everyday matters such as “secular” work. Therefore, pastors and missionaries were more important in God’s sight than schoolteachers, shop assistants or taxi drivers. I doubt if anyone really teaches this, but it seems that many Christians act as if it is true, and certainly I did at a deep subconscious level.”

Seeing through this misconception freed me to look for new work, with a fresh vision to serve God in his world. Though the journey had many challenges, including three years as a full-time student, doors apparently closing in my face, and financial challenges that brought our family close to homelessness, God helped us through it all and brought me to a “broad place”.

At the start of my journey, I only saw the misconception as my own. However, as time passed, I saw that it was widespread.

Some symptoms: no church preaching or prayer relating to daily work, even though it takes so many of our waking hours; public recognition of a new Sunday school teacher, but not of a church member becoming head of a local school; a member declining to bring serious work problems for prayer in a small group because it would be a “distraction”; young (and not-so-young) people aspiring to church work as an escape from the frustrations of secular work (good luck with that!) At its worst, this reduces God’s glorious church to an ineffective ghetto.

I have often wondered about the roots of this tendency. Perhaps it relates to the infiltration of Greek thinking into the early church, bringing a perceived tension between the physical (bad) and the spiritual (good), despite the strong biblical affirmation that God’s creation is good. Perhaps it comes from the expectation of a disembodied heavenly reward playing harps in the clouds with the angels, a far cry from the robust physicality of the resurrection and the new heavens and earth. Or maybe it is just escapism from the challenges of life in a sin-infected world. Whatever the origins, it is a weakening influence on the Body of Christ.

Since those days I have always advocated for Christians to take seriously their calling to represent God by doing good in his world through their work, and I have tried to encourage churches to help their members in this.

The church is still vital

None of this means that the church is unimportant. On the contrary! It is the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the Household of God, a Holy Priesthood, the Bride of Christ. The church lies at the centre of God’s purposes and its mature completion is his goal.

We need the church! At various stages of my journey the church was indispensable. It was my pastor’s words that started me on the journey and strengthened me when the door seemed to close. When we sold our house before going to the USA, it was church friends who stored our furniture. It was a previously unknown church in the USA that welcomed us, helped us to find flat, car and school, and supported us through that time. It was a church friend who bought a house for us in the UK and other church friends who decorated it. When my sister-in-law saw that house, she commented that we were lucky, but there was no luck in it: it was the grace of God through his people.

Around the same time, someone else in my church started on a similar journey, but he failed to keep his roots in the church and drifted away from the faith. We need the church!

The church also needs us! Many of our gifts are discovered or developed at work, and successful work brings helpful life experience and wisdom to share within the church. A different twist on the sacred-secular divide leaves all the work of the church to the professional leaders and relegates ordinary members to pew-fillers, financial givers and choir members. Yes, this is a caricature, yet it reflects the situation in many traditional churches last century, before the charismatic movement stirred things up. How much is lost through that?

For Christians to serve God effectively in the wider world, we must be rooted in the church. For the church to remain strong, it needs all the contributions its members bring from their work and life in the local community. We need not choose between work and church. We must not choose!

Dynamic tension

During the years since this work adventure, I have often felt the tension between calling in work and responsibility in the church. Probably we all have more gifts and desire to serve God than we have capacity to carry out. We need wisdom to find an appropriate balance at any time, which can vary from one period to the next. For my first year as a student, I had to let go of all my serving responsibilities in church. Later, I could take on a little, and after I became established as a lecturer, I was able to do more. When, much later, we moved to China, we both laid all church responsibilities down, though they increased again in China. We have to know our own times and seasons.

Churches can help their members work through this dynamic tension. Preaching and teaching on work-related topics is instructive and empowers people to pursue their God-given calling. Making space to pray for individuals at work, whether in small groups or whole church prayer meetings, strengthens them and honours their contributions.

There may be a place for highlighting particular groups with significant work impact, such as health professionals during the Covid 19 pandemic. At the same time, we need to recognise that everyone’s work is important in the sight of God: a low paid shop assistant can honour God in their work as much as a high-flying businessman. Giving honour to all work done in Jesus’ name is a way to recognise our equality in the body. Whatever our background, we are all children of God through him.

Church leaders can help individuals to work out this dynamic tension; my pastor affirmed my goal of returning to university and released me from significant responsibilities. When a particular direction is likely to be unusually demanding, pastoral support can help to negotiate the pitfalls, watch over the health of the family, and allow guilt-free release from church responsibilities to pursue other kingdom goals.

A current threat?

What I have described is a potential unhelpful division between the dual responsibilities of church membership and daily work. The term “sacred-secular divide” refers to the danger of esteeming one of these above the other. However, it seems to me that current trends in society threaten both these aspects of our Christian calling. I will leave it to the next and final instalment of this series to unpack this idea.

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