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Work Adventures (6): Threat

You are the salt of the earth…  You are the light of the world. (Matthew 5:13-14)

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. In the previous one, I reflected on what others might gain from my experience. Particularly, I highlighted the widespread impact of the “sacred-secular divide” in undermining Christians’ engagement with both the world of work and the church community.

Even as I was writing this, I realised that some of what I was saying could be out of date, with a new threat in our generation potentially superseding the sacred-secular divide. In this final post, I now want to unpack that, though a lot of this is “thinking out loud”.

A new threat?

I described the sacred-secular divide as follows:

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.

For me, the main effect had been to limit my sense of calling to represent God in ordinary daily work. However, there is also a flipside, in which the life of the church can be dominated by “professionals”, restricting the contributions of the whole body. We might say there is an either-or situation, in which either the importance of work or contribution to church is under-emphasised.

The new threat that I saw is an increasing retreat in our society from both work and church. Rather than an either-or situation we seem to be moving towards neither-nor, in which the desire for peace and a stress-free life predominates, limiting engagement with both work and church. If this is so, it radically impacts our ability to live for Christ in this world.

Evidence?

This is a strong claim, and some (brief) evidence is required.

First, let’s consider the world of work. Statistics show that the number of economically inactive people has been rising. The definition of economically inactive is complex, including students and carers, but also those with long-term health problems, including mental health, and a growing number of discouraged workers, who see no prospect of meaningful work. It doesn’t include unemployed people who are seeking work or those above retirement age.

Alongside this, in the UK we see shortages of workers in key production areas such as agriculture, together with a growing exodus of people from teaching, the NHS and social care. Attempts to compensate by bringing in overseas workers runs into a different kind of political problem.

Whereas historically, most people aimed for full-time work, some people now are content with a shorter working week in the interests of work-life balance, and early retirement is often talked about.

These rather simple statements hide numerous complexities. Many people take multiple (low-paid) jobs to make ends meet; reduction of working hours is often beneficial, especially in terms of mental health; concerns about pension make retirement at any time a distant dream for many. Nevertheless, there seems to be a trend of growing disenchantment with the workplace, less engagement with long-term careers and the desire for less arduous lifestyles.

As far as the church goes, dwindling membership has been a long-term trend, affecting most established Christian groups. There are exceptions, particularly among churches with mainly immigrant congregations, such as those from Hong Kong. A few UK-based groups also buck the trend, including Newfrontiers with which my own church is associated. However, membership numbers are not the whole story; it’s common to hear that actual involvement is less, with many members attending less frequently than in the past, whether in main services (usually on Sunday) or in small groups. The past norm of ‘weekly’ has moved towards ‘fortnightly’ or ‘monthly’ for some.

Causes?

If this analysis is correct, what might be the causes? I suspect there is a complex mixture of factors. Here are some possibilities in relation to work, far from exhaustive, many of which are interlinked.

  1. The security we get from social welfare payments can have the undesired side effect of reducing incentives to work.
  2. The narrowness and monotony of many jobs makes it hard to see meaning and purpose in them.
  3. Mental health problems greatly reduce the ability to sustain work.
  4. The pressures in many areas of work seriously challenge the well-being of workers and lead to high levels of worker loss.
  5. Perceptions of a hopeless future, whether from climate change or other economic factors, undermine motivation for a longer-term career; “let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.”
  6. Rapid technological changes make it less likely that the single career can be sustained long-term and bring fresh pressures on workers.
  7. The post-modern concept that there is no “grand narrative” to bring purpose for life undermines a sense of vocation or making sacrifices for the greater good.
  8. The cultural mood of expressive individualism, with the sense that life is all about me and my feelings, provides little motivation for service, perseverance or sacrifice, but rather tends to encourage retreat into privatised comfort and safety.
  9. The spectre of abuse which haunts modern Western society undermines trust in organisations and authority figures, and thus reduces commitment.

Several of these may also affect our engagement with church, notably 3, 7, 8 and 9. Other factors tending to reduce church involvement might include:

  1. Easy mobility means that both friends and family tend to be widely dispersed. Maintaining these relationships requires significant time.
  2. The pressures of work and daily life tend to lead to a culture of escape at weekends, rather than learning to live in God’s Sabbath rest.
  3. In many cases, living some distance away from the church’s base puts obstacles in the way of sustaining relationships and practical commitments.

Impacts?

A retreat from work threatens crucial aspects of our national life, including health and social care, farming and education. It is not simply about numbers – loss of experienced workers also impacts the quality of work and the ability to pass on crucial skills and values. In the long term, perhaps already, it will impact our economy and national stability. Disengagement of Christians from the workplace reduces Christian impact and opportunities for sharing the gospel. The salt of the earth starts to lose its taste.

Those who disengage from church life rob themselves of a primary means by which they are equipped to live effectively and share Christ in the world. God’s purpose for the church as his Body, Bride, Temple and City is devalued and local churches are weakened spiritually, socially and financially, undermining all aspects of their mission. The light of the earth starts to dim.

Where do we go from here?

I don’t claim any special insights into answers, so these final thoughts are brief.

Clearly some of these challenges require political action, but this does not mean we Christians have no responsibility. Jesus calls us salt of the earth and light of the world; surely, we have a part to play!

Two words come to mind: purpose and power.

Genesis 1 and 2 show God creating humans, with purpose. We are created in his image and likeness, to fulfil a role in the good world he has created. The Fall in Genesis 3 makes fulfilling this purpose much more difficult and painful. In Christ, the ultimate image and likeness of God, we are renewed into this image and likeness, so that in his Kingdom there is a wonderful purpose as we submit ourselves to him with the promise of abundant life. Recapturing this sense of purpose and privileged calling to engage with God’s world must surely be fundamental. The times may be very challenging, but the light shines most strongly in the darkness.

We cannot fulfil this calling in our own strength, which points us to the need to keep experiencing God’s power. Recently I have been drawn to 2 Corinthians, where Paul talks about his continuing service to God in the face of overwhelming pressures[1]. A key word is sufficient, used four times.[2] We don’t have the strength in ourselves to do what is needed, but God is sufficient, through the power of the Holy Spirit. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work in us. We need to draw on the resource of the Spirit in us through all the trials of life.

To finish

As I was writing the last paragraph, I remembered an event when I was teaching in China, so I’ll end the post and series with this.

I used to teach a 15-week Bible class at my university every year. It was very popular and many people came to visit, including colleagues and officials. I found it incredibly rewarding, but also tiring, and I often felt drained afterwards. One day, before teaching the class, I felt exhausted already and very achy as if I was coming down with a virus. As I set off to walk to the class, I was thinking about Romans 4:18-21 where Paul talks about Abraham considering his body as if it were dead but not wavering in faith. Walking along, I felt a gradual renewal of strength, so that by the time I got to the class I was full of vigour and remained so throughout the two-hour lesson. When it was over I walked home still full of energy and continued so throughout the evening, without any of the usual draining after-effects. God’s power is sufficient in our weakness!


[1] 2 Corinthians 1:3-11, 4:7-12, 6:3-10, 11:21-29

[2] 2 Corinthians 2:15-17, 3:5-6, 9:8, 12:9

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