Anyone who has spent much time in the church is likely aware of its hierarchy of occupations. At the peak of the pyramid are full-time clergy and missionaries, followed closely by other paid workers in Christian ministry. Their jobs are seen as genuine callings, often validated by special ceremonies and rituals. Just below them in rank are the so-called helping professions—social workers, nurses, and the like—whose work aligns neatly with the church's ministry priorities. Moving further down the pyramid we find the vast majority of Christians—salespeople, postal workers, accountants, business owners, electricians, corporate executives, lawyers, and countless others who compose most of the body of Christ. Seldom are their jobs described as callings or celebrated by the church. [While researching this book,] we interviewed a high school teacher who astutely summed up the harm done by a cast system that devalues much good and necessary work:
I don't think many people understand how a sense of vocation applies to their work, especially if they are not in a ministerial or helping profession. It's clear to me, since I'm a teacher, but how do accountants know their work can be pleasing to or glorify God? How do attorneys hear the Holy Spirit in contentious cases? How can retail managers exhibit the love of Christ?
I was astonished recently to hear this hierarchy colorfully depicted in a sermon by a well-loved, retired minister. He declared that the church is like a circus that requires all kinds of workers—some to pitch the tent, some to take tickets, and even some to clean up after the elephants. At first he seemed to be working toward a rather strained metaphor for Romans 12:45 ("Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others"). But soon it was clear that his vision of the body of Christ was much more hierarchical than anything the apostle Paul ever imagined. He explained that the responsibility of everyone in the church, as in the circus, is to support the performers, chief among whom is the preacher in the pulpit. Granted, his imagery was a bit unusual, but the message that clergy are the stars of the show is quite common indeed. Consider these words of an earnest, freshly ordained seminary graduate preaching to a downtown Atlanta congregation with many businesspeople:
Generations of people in this country find their identity in their jobs. But that is an empty life, a life that leads you down a path of nothingness. But what might it mean if God says, "Now you are the one to go deliver the message." Your life must be interrupted if you are ready to be an instrument in meeting the world's needs. You must be ready to respond to the calling that God has on your life. Think about the untouchables in India. What if God said, "I want you to be the one to travel over there and give them the message?" What about the epidemic of AIDS in Africa? What if God is calling you to do something about it?
Must we really go to India or Africa to be instrumental in meeting the world's needs? Could it be that God also needs Christians to serve the world as factory workers, hairstylists, and bond traders?
These two ministers at opposite ends of their careers had the best of intentions, but I doubt if either had ever considered the disastrous consequences—for the church or for individual believers—of a theology that elevates an ecclesiastical elite while subtly devaluing the rest of the body. It is an attitude that betrays a distorted conception of Christian vocation and calling, one that sorts human activities into contrived categories of secular and sacred, suggesting that God is more concerned with church-sponsored work than with Christians being faithful in a thousand other daily contexts.
We should ask ourselves what is being communicated when a church allots time on Sunday morning to commission a short-term mission team for ten days in Mexico, yet does nothing to commission new college graduates for their careers in business or government or education. The crippling and unambiguous message is that ten days of volunteer work are more important to the church—and, by implication, to God—than a Christian's lifelong occupation.
Surely many of us have experienced doubts about the value of our own work. Pastors, too, have days of doubt. But let's be honest; it is much easier to find meaning in some jobs than in others.
I am reminded of a pastor who told me of a woman who suffered bouts of depression and marital strife. "She never smiled—always seemed bitter." He had counseled her on several occasions, but he never fully understood her situation until one afternoon when he stopped to see her at the poultry-processing plant where she was employed. Her shift was just ending, and she showed him the production line where she had just stood for eight hours gutting chickens with a knife. "Her work was grueling, messy, and smelly," he recalled, "and I realized at once why she had so little joy in her life." It is hard to find much redemptive value in repetitively cutting chickens or in hundreds of other jobs that must be contrary to the Creator's intention for human flourishing. There are well-paid lawyers and executives, too, who find it hard to see any divine purpose in their life-draining work.
By and large, the church is ill-prepared for the woman who wonders what Sunday worship has to do with her hard hours at the chicken factory. The tendency to devalue "secular" work only makes it more difficult to look to the faith community for support, encouragement, or constructive guidance. The writer of Ecclesiastes poignantly captures this sense of despair: "So what do people get in this life for all their hard work and anxiety? Their days of labor are filled with pain and grief; even at night their minds cannot rest. It is all meaningless" (Ecc. 2:2223, NLT).
Too often the church portrays itself as a place of refuge rather than a spiritual gymnasium to strengthen Christians for the transformative work they must do in the world. "To belong to the church is not just to belong to a community of believers who come together to 'get something out of' a church service, to be 'fed' and 'blessed,'" writes Shirley Guthrie. "It is to belong to a community of people who come together to be renewed so that they can go back into the world to serve God as they serve their fellowmen." With active church members spending less than 2 percent of their waking hours at church, how much time is devoted to equipping them for their own public ministries?
The church's preoccupation with the private sphere of life is evident in many ways. Think of the litany of illnesses, deaths, and births in church newsletters and Sunday-morning prayers, reminding us weekly of what must surely matter most to God. Many of the people we interviewed shared a perception that the church is unconcerned about their lives in the public sphere:
"The church rarely addresses [work-related] issues. It seems to be more directed toward individual relationships with Christ."
"I do not think it is an interest of the church to help one resolve work problems."
"Family issues, drug and alcohol problems, crises of faith are concerns for my pastor. … It is hard for me to waste the time of one faced with life issues on a personal business issue. I've never heard anything to the contrary at any event I have attended at my church."
"Pastors are too busy taking care of the sick and dying to get involved in people's work whims and troubles."
Is faith only of value when healing is needed? Is it not essential to living our daily lives as instruments of God's healing power in the world? Church culture, like business culture, reinforces the notion that the proper place for faith is the private sphere. Despite this, many men and women in the pews are not easily persuaded that the God they worship on Sunday morning is unconcerned with how they make their living.
John C. Knapp is founding director of Samford University's Frances Marlin Mann Center for Ethics and Leadership.
Excerpted from How the Church Fails Businesspeople (And What Can Be Done About It) by John C. Knapp. Reprinted with permission of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
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