One of the tendencies at many workplaces is to speak of employees as “a family.” It’s often well meaning. Even at corporations and non-religious organizations, many leaders strive to live up to that ideal, and many coworkers do feel a sense of kinship. At least until layoffs come. Or they’re passed over for a promotion. Or their big idea is skewered in a meeting.
As our cover story this month highlights, Americans are increasingly turning to the workplace for their sense of identity and worth. It’s a trend that, if continued, can only end in some kind of existential bubble-burst.
Every human longs for community, for someplace to belong. But we long most deeply for belonging that is unconditional, for people who will love us simply for who we are apart from what we yield or accomplish. For Christians, this longing finds its ultimate fulfillment in God’s grace through Jesus. It is also why kids love birthdays and why dog people love dogs.
Offices, in contrast, are enormously difficult places to find a secure sense of belonging. Even in the healthiest and most generous organizations, we are in the end only units of production. Our presence there is always conditional—contingent, in coldest terms, on our ability to produce. Modern workplaces are so thoroughly governed by economic competition that, for most of us, this seems less an evil than a simple fact.
It turns out that competition thwarts our efforts to build the kind of community we most desire. And it does so well beyond the workplace. All are welcome to pull up a chair to the boisterous table of social media, for example, with its nonexistent barriers to entry. But make no mistake about what governs your place at that table: Your value is strictly and proportionately tied to your wit and ability to perform.
Wendell Berry once wrote, “No individual can lead a good life or a satisfying life under the rule of competition.” If that seems extreme, consider the Apostle Paul’s decidedly uncompetitive prescriptions for community: Christians, he wrote, are to “do nothing from rivalry” and “consider others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). They are to “admonish the idle,” yes, but also to help the weak and “be patient with them all” (1 Thess. 5:14). They should welcome and value the contributions even of lesser members of the body (1 Cor. 12; ESV all).
In short, Paul called the church to be productive yet to extend the same kind of unconditional grace as the God it serves. That ought to be of great comfort. Even with all the church’s flaws, in it we can find the one earthly venue where our belonging is not meant to hang on personality, performance, or market whims.
Andy Olsen is managing editor of Christianity Today. Follow him on Twitter @AndyROlsen.
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