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Why Tim Keller Wants You to Stay in That Job You Hate

Why Tim Keller Wants You to Stay in That Job You Hate

The Redeemer pastor explains how he ministers to laypeople facing career confusion.

There are few better places in the world where Tim Keller could write a book about career and calling. "New York City is a place where people live in order to work," says the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and author most recently of Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work (Dutton). "They basically live more in their work than in their neighborhoods. That . . . means that if you start talking about work, you get right at their hearts."

In a recent sit-down conversation with This Is Our City executive producer Andy Crouch, Keller explained why he wanted to write a more comprehensive book about faith and work, how he learned to answer congregants' questions about their work, and what Redeemer has done to equip laypeople to live into their vocations outside the church.

Andy: What's been missing from faith-and-work books that Every Good Endeavor was designed to address?

Tim: When I read faith-and-work books, they tended to pass by each other. I had the sense that they were drawing on different streams of thought, maybe different biblical or historical themes. I tend to be a complexifier. I like to hold the different biblical themes in tension. I got the sense that most books on faith and work tended to isolate a certain idea. This book is trying to bring the different streams together.

What streams of thoughts have been most missing when we talk about faith and work?

It depends on who you're talking about. It seems to me the evangelical tradition tends to talk a lot about how faith essentially spiritually helps you deal with the troubles and the stresses of work. You need help to face challenges.

Mainline churches tend to put more emphasis on social justice and basically did a critique of capitalism early on, so whenever the mainline churches or ecumenical movement did faith-and-work stuff, it was usually critiquing the market, not "how's your heart?"

The Lutheran stream emphasizes that all work is God's work. Worldview doesn't matter. You make a good pair of shoes, then you're doing God's work, because work is God's way of caring for creation.

The Calvinist stream was more like yes, it's not just you are caring for creation through work, but you are shaping it. and therefore your beliefs have an impact.

When you put those four streams together, I think they're very comprehensive. If you isolate them from each other, they can create idiosyncrasies at best and imbalances at worst.

I love that in the book you don't just write about people in positions with a lot of authority and influence, although you do cover that. You also include people who, because of what stage of life they're in or the shape their life has taken, don't feel like they have a lot of power at work.

What do you have to say to people who just feel like, "Well, I'm kind of stuck in this job and there's not a lot I can do to change the circumstances of my job right now"?

I would say the Lutheran stream and the evangelical stream [are helpful].

The evangelical stream puts the emphasis on the heart: How do you deal with frustrations? How do you deal with co-workers whom you want to strangle? How do you deal with the fact that nobody seems to see the good work you're doing?

That gets into Ephesians 6—God sees. It's pietistic, but in the best sense of the word. You're Brother Lawrence, you're practicing the presence of God. He cares whether I do a good job today. He's watching me.

The Lutheran stream says that everyone on the earth is being fed by God. The simplest farm girl milking the cow, the truck driver bringing the milk, the grocer selling it are doing God's work—which means there's no such thing as menial labor, as long as the job is actually helping somebody, as long as you're not selling internet porn or something like that. Luther gives this amazing amount of dignity to all kinds of work. Actually, I would go as far to say I don't know that there's a Christian way to land a plane but I do think there's probably a Christian way to write plays. I think my faith automatically is going to affect how I write a play. I don't think it automatically affects how I land a plane.

One thing emerging adults say sometimes is a further step from what we're talking about: "I hate my job. It's not just like I don't have a lot of power—I really can't stand what I have to do every day." How would you pastor someone in that situation?

I hear that a lot.

What I usually say is, you have to learn the ropes of your profession. I say, "Look, you need to spend some time earning your spurs, getting some street cred, getting to know the relationships. Otherwise you're not going to be able to function in this field in a way that you think is more values driven." You basically pay your dues as long as you're not being asked to violate your conscience. If you're doing a lot of stuff that's just useless, it's only useless in the short term because in the long term you might be getting skills with which you might help people. You can go to a better company or start your own, but for a period of time, if you get too squeamish about doing useless stuff, you may never get good in your field at all. You'll never be salt and light in it later.

How did you learn how to pastor people well in a city where conversation so often revolves around work?

Practice. One of my first epiphanies was when a soap-opera actor became a Christian here at Redeemer and came in to meet. He said, "Now that I'm a Christian, I have two questions. First, what roles should I take and shouldn't I take? . . . I'm assuming that stories don't have to be religious stories to be good for people, but what stories are good, and what stories are bad?"

"Okay," I said. "What was your second question?" (laughs)

"What do you think about method acting? . . . [in which] you don't act angry, you get angry. You don't act lustful, you get lustful. You get in touch with something within yourself and really live it." I said, "That doesn't sound great," but I didn't know where to go, because he wanted to be discipled for his public life, not just discipled by being brought more and more into the church.

As soon as he starts to say, "I've got these issues about what it means to be a Christian in the acting world," I realized that we're almost on equal footing. I have information he doesn't have, and he has information I don't have. It would be sort of an egalitarian discipling, community discipling, and I wasn't equipped for it. That was probably my biggest epiphany when I realized this is a big long journey that we're going to have to take as a church.

How do churches become good at commissioning people to go out into the workplace and into the places where they're in the midst of culture?

I need to point to our church's Center for Faith and Work and its founder, Katherine Leary Alsdorf. They have a specific program of discipleship that's theologically and spiritually robust called Gotham Fellows, that's very oriented toward the workplace.

They have the Entrepreneurship Forum, which basically is church planting for laypeople. It gets together people who know something about creating for-profits, creating nonprofits, and creating arts initiatives. You get grants to get your own program started, and these are programs outside the church. You get expertise, you get mentoring. We're trying to get lay people to do new initiatives.

Most churches do have something like that; it's called church planting, where they get ministers together and give them seed money and seed people, and they send them out to start other churches. That's outwardly faced, but it's only for clergy. The Entrepreneurship Forum is a way of doing that for laypeople.

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    Comments Are Closed

    Displaying 1–4 of 4 comments

    Mark Matthias

    April 26, 2013  6:05pm

    "When you put those four streams together, I think they're very comprehensive." This reality is due to the finite limitations of analytical minds. Pure exegesis from beginning to end is challenging. Nevertheless, Some of us strive to do just that. Without the Holy Spirit this endeavor is impossible.By the fact that churches are dropping like dominoes; and prophecy is being fulfilled to the letter, no one is going to fix this place. Jesus came not to make bad men good; but to make dead men alive. No one is good; but some are alive in the Spirit of Elohim. We are ever pressed to find solutions for the mess on this planet, which cannot improve by mankind conjures up. Neither does God have any intention to fix this world, He is simply giving safe passage to His children; and to free us from the current rulership of this planet.

    Jack Ratekin

    April 24, 2013  2:00pm

    What is the Christian way to write a play? With a typewriter? A pen and paper? Is it OK to use a laptop? Do you have to be a touch typist or can you be a "hunt and pecker". Unless he meant that there is a uniquely Christian form, content and plot line which must be followed. If that's what he meant then he's full of hot air.

    Doug Knox

    April 24, 2013  9:04am

    The comment, “Actually, I would go as far to say I don't know that there's a Christian way to land a plane but I do think there's probably a Christian way to write plays,” is worth examining. “Christian” plays--and fiction and art and other creative works--are easy to visualize. Christian ways to land a plane are there as well. Christian aircraft mechanics is a laudable endeavor. Air traffic control guided by a Christian regard for human dignity is equally desirable. Why not Christian piloting, flanked as it is by clear sentiment on either side? In an early lecture series on basic Reformed theology, R.C. Sproul noted the unusually high number of successful emergency landings among Western airline pilots as opposed to Middle Eastern pilots. The reason, he said, was because Western pilots live under the benefits of the Protestant Reformation and fight for their passengers’ lives. Middle Eastern pilots tended to consigning their problem to the will of Allah. (DouglasKnox.com)

    Peter K. Johnson

    April 23, 2013  4:38pm

    Being a Christian in the marketplace and demonstrating real Christian values is challenging but wonderfully rewarding. I have shared the gospel message in business settings all over the world and have found people more open than in so-called religious environments. God opens amazing opportunities to show his love and good news.

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