Say it’s Thursday evening, and you sit down on your couch after dinner. Just before flipping on the TV, you pause, breathe, close your eyes, and reflect for a moment about your workday.
What do you feel? Do you have a sense of being anxious and overwhelmed? Of satisfaction and accomplishment? Of exhaustion or frustration from interacting with a coworker? Or does your mind blank out, avoiding thoughts of work altogether?
For some, perhaps, the wheel of ambition is still turning, and instead of watching Netflix you decide to flip open your laptop and keep working until bed. If that description fits, you might be what Andrew Lynn calls a “creative class evangelical.”
Lynn, a University of Virginia sociologist, is the author of Saving the Protestant Ethic: Creative Class Evangelicalism and the Crisis of Work. In the book, he surveys both the history and the current state of what some call the “faith and work movement,” which he describes as a “highly organized and well-resourced effort to renegotiate creative-class evangelicalism’s place and relation to power within the institutions and social structures that make up American society today.”
Lynn argues that the contemporary faith and work movement arose principally to meet the needs of a narrow niche of Christians: highly educated evangelicals seeking meaning in their work and a place within an increasingly secular culture. Beginning in the 1980s, as evangelicals attained college degrees and entered the knowledge economy in greater numbers than ever before, there was increasing talk of closing the “Sunday to Monday gap.” Rejecting the notion that work is merely a moneymaking necessity, a rising cohort of evangelical professionals wanted to make theological sense of their newfound success.
How we got here is its own interesting tale, which begins with fundamentalism after the Civil War. When the Scofield Reference Bible was published in 1909, a frantic concern for eschatology and saving souls took hold. Funding soul-saving ministries became a top priority, and work was simply a way to supply these funds, which, in the words of one writer, needed to be “exchanged” into the “current coin of heaven.”
Later evangelical leaders like Billy Graham abandoned many elements of this earlier fundamentalism. But the remaining network of Bible institutes, summer camps, media outlets, and parachurch ministries still focused on spiritual rather than earthly labors. Echoes of this mindset can be heard in Rick Warren’s 2002 book The Purpose Driven Life, which states, “The consequences of your mission will last forever; the consequences of your job will not.”
Along the way, however, several prominent Christian business leaders began wondering whether their actual work mattered to God, not just the money they made from it. As the inventor and engineer R. G. LeTourneau said at a Christian Laymen’s Crusade in 1941, “We are going to sell laymen the idea that they are going to work for Jesus Christ seven days of the week or not call themselves Christians.” Subsequent decades saw the advent of organizations like the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International (1952), Laity Lodge (1961), and Fellowship of Companies for Christ International (1977). By the 1980s and 1990s, dozens more had been founded.
And from the mid-1980s to the mid-2010s, an explosion of books, conferences, and funders fueled a wave of Christians claiming that work itself—not just soul-saving—was important to God. Out of this movement arose four frameworks for understanding how Christianity ought to influence our work.
As Lynn describes them, each was embodied in a distinct group. The first was the evangelists, for whom faith at work principally meant workplace evangelism. Second were the achievers. Prominent business figures like J. C. Penney and Henry Parsons Crowell, the owner of Quaker Oats, popularized the idea that business itself was endowed with spiritual value. Notions of “stewardship” and God’s “ownership” reframed work as an arena of holy influence.
The third group, which represents the most common framework within evangelicalism today, consisted of the integrators of faith and work. Thinkers like Dorothy Sayers and lesser-known figures like Marquette University professor David Moberg reminded evangelicals that being made in God’s image means being made in the image of a maker. Work is valuable simply because God works—and calls us to do likewise.
Lynn also identifies a final group of activists, who called for Christians to pursue the common good through their jobs. Their ranks were smaller than those of the integrators, in part because some evangelicals were skeptical of calls to view work as an engine of advocacy or social change.
But the integrators mainly benefited from larger trends in demographics. As more evangelicals earned college degrees and entered the knowledge economy during the 1970s and early 1980s, they were receptive to messages that affirmed their work as a form of service to God and neighbor.
And yet, whose work were we talking about?
Lynn notes that two groups were often overlooked in faith-and-work conversations: women and blue-collar laborers. It was business leaders, on the whole, who were credited with breaking down the sacred-secular divide, and attendees at faith and work conferences tended to be male, white, and college educated. Over time, the language of “calling” and “vocation” became attached to entrepreneurs, lawyers, and other “creative” or high-status professionals.
Lynn also faults the faith and work movement for being too susceptible to influence from the political Right. He argues that organizations like the Acton Institute, the Kern Foundation, and the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics baptized laissez-faire capitalism, channeled evangelicals away from progressive causes, and even lowered the ethical standard for work that honors God’s image in all people.
But the movement largely succeeded in shifting evangelicals from postures of cultural separatism and embattlement toward a spirit of stewardship and production. Buttressed by Dutch theologian and statesmen Abraham Kuyper’s theology of public engagement, leaders like the late Tim Keller and his ministry’s Center for Faith & Work promoted this shift. D. Michael Lindsay’s 2007 book Faith in the Halls of Power highlighted evangelical involvement in the upper reaches of media, business, government, entertainment, and higher education.
Lynn acknowledges that faith-and-work conversations face an uphill climb in an era of growing distrust for institutions. In such a climate, he writes, “inner-worldly asceticism mobilizing zealous participation in secular institutions appears to be a tough sell.” The problem is especially acute for Christians who work at the lower levels of these institutions and have little power to change them.
Alongside the risks of resistance or indifference goes perhaps an even greater risk: the lure of cultural accommodation. Lynn wonders whether the faith and work movement might serve as its own “gravedigger” as it “shuttles evangelicals from subcultural institutions centered on evangelical distinctives into full admission within mainstream societal institutions.” There’s a historical warning here: In the latter half of the 20th century, mainline churches were full of educated elites who enjoyed leadership roles across society, but this didn’t spur revival within those churches. It would be a shame to watch the faith and work movement launch believers into positions of leadership, only to see them changed by the world rather than changing it for Christ.
Despite these warnings, however, I remain hopeful for the faith and work movement. Christians will keep working, and they’ll keep asking what their faith means for their work. And yet, as someone deeply involved in this movement, I have three suggestions.
First, knowledge-class evangelicals should commit to using their power for the vulnerable, not only in society at large but also within their own workplaces. And they should give greater weight to the concerns of organized labor. Evangelicals could work to rediscover Catholic social teaching on this topic, or at least remember the days when Wesleyans, Free Methodists, and Salvation Army groups championed the rights of workers.
Second, while continuing to affirm that work matters to God, we should recognize the extent to which workers are feeling anxious, stressed, and burdened. The faith and work movement has been geared toward power and cultural influence, but the future of the movement, I believe, will be rooted in spiritual formation. Work is not only about success, influence, or even gospel impact—it’s about who we’re becoming as followers of Christ. Indeed, Puritans like John Cotton, who helped shape the Protestant work ethic, warned that making one’s labor “the chiefest good” would only lead to selfish materialism. Lynn (and others) are right to regard a spiritual vibrancy as the foundation not just for work but for all of life.
Finally, the future of the faith and work movement depends on deeper rootedness in local church communities. Lynn helpfully points out that non-Anglo churches have excelled at creating communal bonds and “collective identities that resist some of the excessive pulls of capitalism and careerism.” Indeed, one historic distinctive of the Protestant ethic is congregations that provide refuge and solidarity to workers facing dangerous conditions, punishing demands, or economic volatility. At its best, Lynn remarks, the church draws people “toward forms of social relations not determined by status, wealth, or achievement.” What would it look like to center our identities on our local congregations rather than our professional titles?
In sum, building a faith and work movement that appeals to a broader swath of Christians means a renewed emphasis on justice, spiritual formation, and the church. Perhaps more of us can look forward to resting after a long day and breathing in the lasting peace of knowing we have spent that day simply working with God.
Jeff Haanen is the founder of the Denver Institute for Faith & Work. He is the author of Working from the Inside Out: A Brief Guide to Inner Work That Transforms Our Outer World.
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