Is work irredeemably secular? – part I

Cathedral of St Stephen, Brisbane; wikimedia (creative commons)

A couple of years back, in the depths of the COVID pandemic, I was invited by Sioux Falls Seminary to address an international group of their students via Zoom on a topic related to faith and work. Reflecting on the assignment, and aware that I would be addressing workplace Christians studying for ministry in one of the most innovative seminaries in the world (which has now spread globally and renamed itself Kairos University), I decided to address the “sacred-secular divide” that many experience acutely in their working lives. The resulting talk draws on four historical figures who addressed this divide in various ways. Here it is, in five parts:

This past January, I was co-teaching a group of graduate students at Regent College, in Vancouver, BC, with that wise and humane thinker on faith and vocation, my friend Steve Garber. Steve had asked me to join with him in creating and teaching a course for Regent called “Models of Public Engagement.” My contribution was to provide readings, mini-lectures, and discussion prompts from a wide variety of historical people of Christian faith. By the class’s second day together, in our Vancouver intensive week during which it would snow, rain, and blow gusts of freezing wind every day, it had already become a class joke that all of Dr. Armstrong’s best friends are dead.

This is actually not far off the mark. You can find my blog-site, for example, at “” (This, by the way, has confused more than a few Grateful Dead fans, who have wandered onto the blog expecting to find me writing about Jerry Garcia.)

But I can’t help myself. I love introducing people to my friends. As a wise priest once said to me, the teaching gifts of our past leaders have a very long shelf life. Yes, and I’d add, their lives as well as their teachings can also still speak to us today. So this afternoon as we dive into a few questions about how to find Christian vocation in a working world where Christ is so rarely named, I’ll be sharing with you from the thought and lives of four of my best dead friends. These are Gregory the Great, John Wesley, Charles Sheldon, and C. S. Lewis.

Before we get into those stories, though, I want to start with a quick comment on two terms you’ll hear me use in this talk: “sacred” and “secular.” To be clear, I will use those terms not to describe things that I believe are essentially different realities, but rather to indicate that, for many people in the world today, they are assumed to be different realities. In fact, I don’t buy that dichotomy, and I don’t think anyone should. But again, my purpose in this talk today is to help you help those in your spiritual care answer some questions about working within realities they may assume to be secular – and to find some pathways to sacred meaning in that work.

Today many people are asking, Can we find God’s meaning, 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 us up to give ourselves 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 was called to ministry.”

“I used to work in the world. Then I was called 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 churchly work. 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 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 a person do if they find themselves stuck working, so to speak, over there? The Christian advice has been: they should work to support themselves and their family (so far, not wrong!). Then, you should also 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.

In fact, none of that is wrong. It’s just insufficient. It has nothing to say to the actual work of that person, does it? Just some extrinsic things related to that work.

In fact, I’m not even sure it’s ethical to teach this kind of “churchy” understanding of work—or at least, to teach it as the primary way we should look at our 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 employing organization 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.

. . . continued in part II

One response to “Is work irredeemably secular? – part I

  1. Pingback: Is work irredeemably secular? – part II | Grateful to the dead

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