Category Archives: Work with purpose

Millions of Western Christians experience a painful bifurcation between their faith and their work. How can Christians see the divine purpose in their “secular” labors? And where can God’s purposes be found in the economic sphere?

Where do we begin to understand our work in the light of our faith? Building a foundation for economic wisdom

the whole world in his handsWork as a graced activity benefiting all

I do think that the best place to start in talking about a theology of work is with the fact that economic work is the primary way human beings promote the flourishing of other human beings. An appropriate category for this is the idea of common grace. That is, the understanding that God bestows a measure of grace on all people, whether or not they are Christians. Although most often mentioned by Reformed theologians, common grace is rooted in the first chapters of Genesis: God creates everything from nothing. Made in God’s image, mankind also creates — not from nothing, but things of greater value out of things of lesser value.

Much of this value creation takes place through business. Continue reading

Let’s get practical: faith-and-work pointers for pastors and lay leaders

Jesus_Small_Group_LeaderPractical suggestions for pastors and lay leaders

Will Messenger, executive editor of the Theology of Work Project, admits that many pastors will never be attuned enough to the concerns of business people to offer really deep advice on difficult workplace issues. For these, the best form of support may be to facilitate small groups of like-minded people — for example, workers in similar jobs — to read Scripture, pray, and discuss matters touching their work. David Miller, founding director of the Princeton Faith & Work Initiative, agrees and says that pastors who are most distant from work-related concerns can take steps to bridge the divide between themselves and the working people in their pews. Some ways they might do so:

  • Be present in the work sphere and listen carefully.
  • Become workplace literate (for example, by reading the Wall Street Journal).
  • Preach to work concerns.
  • Address workers’ sense of work-faith disjunction in adult education, small groups, and retreats.
  • Train laity in devotional disciplines linked to their work and daily lives.

This kind of engagement may not be possible if a pastor embodies anti-business biases. And researchers like Miller and Laura Nash of Harvard say that such biases are common — sometimes inherited from seminary professors. Messenger says that businesspeople tell him things like this: Continue reading

Pastors and lay leaders, start where many of your people live: burnout and the “suckiness” of work

We’ve been talking about how much God values our work and how important it is to his purposes. That’s great, but most people live far, far from that reality. And pastors, let’s be honest: most of you are not equipped to help your people put the “thorns and thistles” of their work in biblical perspective.

The truth is that most working people, though they may otherwise love their church and their pastor, feel their pastor simply does not understand their working world and its issues. One businessman puts the situation in stark terms. He says:

“In the almost 30 years of my professional career, my church has never once suggested that there be any type of accounting of my on-the-job ministry to others. . . . There has never been an inquiry into the types of ethical decisions I must face, or whether I seek to communicate the faith to my co-workers. I have never been in a congregation where there was any type of public affirmation of a ministry in my career [as a sales manager]. In short, I must conclude that my church really doesn’t have the least interest in whether or how I minister in my daily work.”

This is clearly a matter for pastoral concern and action. Continue reading

If God really does work through our economic work – then what do we do about that?

National-Unemployment-Rat-007Over the past week or so, we’ve done a rapid survey of the New Testament, the early church, and the medieval church on faith, work, and economics, and then settled into the massive changes wrought by the industrial revolution of the late 18th through late 19th centuries, looking at that era through the eyes of John Wesley and some key industrialists.

I’d like to suggest now that just as the industrial revolution left in its wake many kinds of social misery as workers left the moral and spiritual boundaries of the Christianized towns of the West and tried to navigate the tempting and alienating cities, we are again today seeing economic dislocation, social misery, and a loss of moral moorings. And Christians must address these realities – not exclusively through charity (though the worst of the current social problems do demand this), but also – and more importantly – through economic action grounded in economic understanding.

As Greg Forster has said, “The economy is a moral system, a web of human relationships in which each person’s work benefits others through a vast system of exchange.” Pure and simple, there are good and bad ways of behaving in this system. Continue reading

God’s beer mogul: A case study of Wesley-influenced economic action

Guinness is good for youIn the early days of Methodism as now, not every capitalist operated out of corrupt motives of greed. One contrary example, a contemporary of Wesley and deeply influenced by the Methodist leader, was Young Arthur Guinness, an up-and-coming eighteenth-century businessman in Dublin. Guinness was a brewer, during a time when beer had a significant health benefit over many other kinds of beverage, including water:

No one in those days understood micro-organisms and how disease is spread. They routinely drank from the same waters in which they dumped their garbage and their sewage. Unknowingly, they polluted the rivers and lakes around their cities. People died as a result, and this made nearly everyone in Guinness’ day avoid water entirely. Instead, they drank alcoholic beverages.

Usually, this was done in moderation and all was well. Occasionally, though, excess set in. . . . This is what happened in the years just before Guinness was born, in the period historians call “The Gin Craze.” Parliament had forbidden the importation of liquor in 1689, so the people of Ireland and Britain began making their own [, and drunkenness became widespread.] Every sixth house in England was a “gin house.” (Stephen Mansfield, “The Story of God and Guinness,” Relevant magazine, March 24, 2010.)

An advertisement for one of these dens of squalor read, “Drunk for one penny, dead drunk for two pence, clean straw for nothing.”

Poverty deepened; crime rose. And “to help heal their tortured society, some turned to brewing beer.” It was much lower in alcohol than gin, “the process of brewing and the alcohol that resulted killed the germs that made water dangerous, and it was nutritious in ways scientists are only now beginning to understand.”

This young brewer, Arthur Guinness, fell under John Wesley’s influence. Continue reading

How and why John Wesley’s movement (Methodism) moved the market economy forward

pewtershopIt is well known that early Methodism flourished most among the new working and middle classes – the artisans and entrepreneurs who were rising up above their formerly lowly status in the ancestral class system, in which for example Anglican priests were members of the upper class, and wielded disproportionate social as well as religious authority in the towns. It was the newly discovered mobility that allowed them to rise through industry, frugality, and investment of their time, talents, and treasures that also allowed them to question and challenge the Anglican religious establishment. Such people naturally gravitated to the fervent, warm-hearted, and freeing message of Wesley’s “born-again” religion and its free, democratic organization in small groups and mutual aid societies.

Methodism itself was in many ways entrepreneurial, and so it shouldn’t surprise that it enjoyed good relations with business such as the mining companies of Cornwall. Many of Wesley’s early converts were miners and other workers. The Wesleyan message, meetings, and organizations gave confidence to the people working in the mining businesses, and helped those who led the businesses to do so in ways that made their communities more healthy. Numerous mine captains were also Methodist preachers who communicated to their communities the powerful messages of respectability and self-improvement, thus helping to ensure that Methodism became the most relevant religious institution for laborers and the working class – far more so than the Established Church of England. Continue reading

John Wesley’s message(s) on work and the economy


While Wesley (1703–1791) claimed that Christians ought to preach repentance often and politics rarely, except when necessary to defend the king, he was actually not shy about expressing his political and economic opinions. Those opinions were typical of an upper-middle-class, Oxford-educated clergyman, but that did not mean he was unconcerned about the problems of English society.

One of his responses was to issue scathing indictments of those who profited off of others. His tract “Thoughts on the Present Scarcity of Provisions,” for instance, claimed that the poor were hungry because of the influence of “distilling, taxes, and luxury.”

He also tried to help. Continue reading