Can we find Christian vocation in the “secular” world of work?


After a hiatus, I’m back. Sorry friends – it’s been a crazy life this past year or more. If anyone ever asks you to start an entrepreneurial initiative at a conservative religious college, maybe think a couple times before saying “yes” . . .

So, on the question above: “Can we find Christian vocation in the “secular” world of work?”

First I should say (but you know this already): It ain’t easy. It ain’t obvious. And for a lot of us, we’re just not sure it can ever really happen.

The other day I was at Upper House – a Christian study center on the campus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison – and I talked about this with a group of marketplace folks & pastors. Thought you might be interested to see the four stories I told to answer the question. [If these help you, or confuse you, or you think they’re bunk – unleash a comment or two. I’m always happy to engage.]

For those in a hurry, here’s the nutshell:

(1) This question is important to me personally

(2) There are (it seems to me) at least four questions lurking behind this question for many Christian folks

(3) Being a historian, I rooted around in the cellar of history and found four folks who I think can help us out with those questions

(4) Spoiler alert: Their names are Gregory, John, Charles, and . . . well . . . Clive.

OK, here goes, in five linked posts (my intro + the four guys & their answers):

Many today are asking, Can we find God’s purpose and presence in our work in the presumably “secular” world?

This question is personal for me. After becoming a Christian at 22, I spent 8 years in business communications. I enjoyed the work, but something at the back of my mind wondered – is this all? Am I wasting my life?

My very passionate, evangelical, charismatic church kept stirring me up to give myself 100%, sacrificially, to God’s kingdom work. Problem was, I didn’t see anything I recognized as kingdom work going on in the businesses, the ad agencies, and the government departments that were my clients. So I decided that what I really needed was to find a job that was “obviously spiritual.”

So I entered graduate study in church history, then spent two years working for a Christian magazine, then ten years teaching in a seminary. This was mission, right? My students certainly thought so. Many of them were second-career folks, like me. And they said something like this: “I used to work in the world. Then I heard a call to ministry.”

“I used to work in the world. Then I heard a call to ministry.”

What does this mean?

Pretty clearly, by “world” they meant ordinary workplaces.

And by “ministry” they meant church-paid work.

Looking back now, two things seem clear to me. First, the mere fact of not knowing how ordinary work can serve God is not a good reason to jump ship for a so-called “ministry position.” Second, our churches have seriously failed us by not teaching us how ordinary work in so-called “secular” settings can be a part of God’s mission on earth.

Unfortunately, what we’ll often find not only in the church, but also in the “marketplace ministries” that have been around since the eighties, is this assumption that the God’s mission is over here—in church, evangelism, Christian non-profits; and not over there—in all the places where the world’s work gets done.

What should you do if you find yourself stuck working, so to speak, over there? You should work to support yourself and your family. You should be a shining example of Christian character. You should be extra nice to your co-workers, because they might ask you what was different in your life and you could lead them to Christ. And you should send some money back over here—to the “sacred” side—where the important, Godly, kingdom mission stuff happens.

That’s a pretty thin understanding of the ordinary work that takes up most of our waking hours, isn’t it?

In fact, I’m not even sure it’s ethical to teach this kind of “churchy” understanding of work. Think for a moment what a non-Christian boss is going to think about a Christian who sees her work mostly as a place to be a spiritual example and lead others to faith. Is her vision of work at all relevant to what she’s being paid to do? Does it really help the firm produce the goods or services that are its reason for existing – and by the way, that also earn the profits (or in non-profits, the donations) that keep the lights on and the workers employed?

I believe many Americans have given up on finding any spiritual meaning in our actual, proper work—that is, what we’re being paid to do, not those Christian “extras” we may sprinkle on our work so we can feel meaning and purpose and mission.

Why has this happened? What is standing between us and a sense of Christian vocation in our work?

In the next few minutes, I’d like us to look at four issues that keep many from Christian meaning and purpose in our work. And I’d like to briefly tell the stories of four wise leaders of the church who have addressed those issues in much more holistic ways than we typically do today.

Let’s jump right in. I’m going to frame each of these four issues in the form of a question that may stand between us and a sense of Christian vocation in our work.

Here’s the second part of the series. And the third.


One response to “Can we find Christian vocation in the “secular” world of work?

  1. Pingback: Christian vocation in a “secular” world – part 2 – Gregory the Great | Grateful to the dead

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