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?

Christian vocation in a “secular” world – pt 3 – John Wesley


On Luther, more later. But now another challenging question arises in our complex, post-Christian workplaces full of real, fallen people:

  1. Does practicing the virtues demanded by the working life (such as industriousness, self-control, service to others, obedience to rules and leaders) reduce us to drones or pawns in exploitive structures of modern work? Or, Does becoming a good Christian worker mean sacrificing social conscience for placid obedience—prophetic witness for financial security?

To help us answer this, we turn to our second past leader, England’s 18th-century evangelical pioneer, John Wesley.

Anyone remember the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics? As the spectacle started, before millions of worldwide viewers, England’s pastoral island paradise rose slowly into view from below ground, to the wafting strains of British composer Edward Elgar.

But then – suddenly – the paradise was shattered.

Like missiles from silos, belching smokestacks shot up to dominate the landscape, accompanied by violent drumming and harsh music. The Industrial Revolution had arrived. Legions of laborers overran the green land, marching and working rhythmically under the watchful eyes of black-coated capitalists. TV commentators gleefully quoted the Victorain poet William Blake, describing how the Industrial Revolution’s “Satanic mills” had brutalized the landscape and crushed workers. The ceremony’s creator, they told viewers, had titled this section “Pandemonium,” after the capital city of hell in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

This dramatic vignette sets the stage for our second question about whether Christians are capitulating to immorality if they lend their labor to the industries of a secular world. Certain historians have leveled exactly this charge against one of the most active British Christian movements during the time of the industrial revolution: the Methodists. These historians have argued that the early Methodists simply capitulated, like sheep and slaves, to the worst of the Industrial Revolution, perpetuating its abuses when they should have stood against them.

Methodism was born in the late 1730s—when the steady industrious virtue of the old Puritans and the new capitalist habits of long-term investment were beginning to build the commercial machine that would drive Western economic growth in the centuries to come.

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Christian vocation in a “secular” world – part 2 – Gregory the Great


[This is the second in a series; the first part is here.]

Here’s the first question that may be nagging us as we seek a sense of vocation in our work:

  1. Does time dedicated to working in the secular world endanger our souls? Is there an inherent tension or contradiction between the “worldliness” of work and the “spirituality” of faith?

A century or two before the opening of the Middle Ages, the theologian whose influence would become definitive for the next thousand years, Augustine of Hippo, distinguished two spheres of human endeavor: the “active life”—our work in the world—and the “contemplative life”—our private worship and prayer. The active life could be good, but the contemplative life, such as that enjoyed by monks and nuns, was much better—and indeed safer for our souls.

Augustine’s view has persisted in some circles right up to this day – but it was quickly challenged by the man some consider the spiritual father of the medieval church, as Augustine was its theological father.

Born into a wealthy family and educated in grammar, rhetoric, law, and letters, young Gregory—who would become Pope Gregory the Great (540-604)—rose by age 33 to the exalted position of Roman prefect, in charge of the city’s police force, food supply, and finances.

Gregory found in Augustine’s distinction between the active and contemplative life a frightening challenge to his spiritual life. He worried that all the ordinary, daily, and challenging work of the prefecture might be endangering his very soul. Where in all the busyness could he find God?

Agonized, Gregory left his wealth and power, taking on the monastic vows of obedience, poverty, and celibacy, and the monastic life of daily disciplines, prayer, and Bible reading. He expected to live out his years safely ensconced in the contemplative routines of the cloister.

But his holy seclusion was not to last. Just three years later, in 578, Pope Benedict I called Gregory out of his monastery to become one of the seven deacons of Rome, an office carrying heavy administrative duties. And when Pope Pelagius II died of plague twelve years later, Gregory was unanimously chosen succeed him as pope. Continue reading

Can we find Christian vocation in the “secular” world of work?


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After a hiatus, I’m back. Sorry friends – it’s been a crazy life this past year or more. If anyone ever asks you to start an entrepreneurial initiative at a conservative religious college, maybe think a couple times before saying “yes” . . .

So, on the question above: “Can we find Christian vocation in the “secular” world of work?”

First I should say (but you know this already): It ain’t easy. It ain’t obvious. And for a lot of us, we’re just not sure it can ever really happen.

The other day I was at Upper House – a Christian study center on the campus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison – and I talked about this with a group of marketplace folks & pastors. Thought you might be interested to see the four stories I told to answer the question. [If these help you, or confuse you, or you think they’re bunk – unleash a comment or two. I’m always happy to engage.]

For those in a hurry, here’s the nutshell:

(1) This question is important to me personally

(2) There are (it seems to me) at least four questions lurking behind this question for many Christian folks

(3) Being a historian, I rooted around in the cellar of history and found four folks who I think can help us out with those questions

(4) Spoiler alert: Their names are Gregory, John, Charles, and . . . well . . . Clive.

OK, here goes, in five linked posts (my intro + the four guys & their answers):

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Young, restless, and immediate: The future of evangelicalism


Here’s a piece I did a little while back on Patheos.com on who evangelicals are and where they’re headed – getting to the nub of the matter.

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A little taste:

“What do this fundamental immediatism and this youth-driven quality mean for the future of evangelicalism? First, they very likely mean that whatever touches the hearts and minds of the generation rising right now – the adolescents of today – that will shape evangelical worship, ecclesiology, and doctrine for years to come.

“An optimist could point to the dynamism and renewal that emerged from past youth movements, or to the laudable and faithful concern of many young evangelicals today for justice, creation care, and other historical blind spots of the movement.

“A pessimist, however, would say that this is very bad news indeed. They could point to sociologist Christian Smith’s famous diagnosis of evangelical youth as mired in “moralistic therapeutic deism”: the theologically vapid belief in a kindly grandfather God who lavishes blessings and requires no accountability—this we might call immediatism gone, at last, to seed . . .”

10 Things You Don’t Know about the Clapham Sect


From Wikimedia

Attending the Q Conference in Boston this past week, I was reminded that almost any evangelical who wants to leverage their vocation to change the world takes William Wilberforce’s Clapham group as a sort of knights-of-the-round-table paradigm. But few seem to know much about this remarkable group. So as a public service, here’s my . . .

10 Things You Don’t Know about the Clapham Sect

First the basics: The Clapham Sect was a group of aristocratic evangelical Anglicans, prominent in England from about 1790 to 1830, who campaigned for the abolition of slavery (among many other causes) and promoted missionary work at home and abroad. The group centered on the church of John Venn, rector of Clapham in south London.

Today these activists are frequently held up as an example of Christian social-justice reform to be emulated. It’s always good to know a few things about someone you’re going to emulate, so here are 10 things you probably don’t know about the Clapham Sect:

  1. Aside from the great parliamentarian William Wilberforce and several other MPs, the group also included a
    Wilberforce, from Wikimedia.

    Wilberforce, from Wikimedia

    brewer, a banker, several clergymen, the father of the great English historian Thomas Babington Macaulay (Zachary Macaulay), and the great-grandfather of Virginia Woolf (James Stephen). Two of its prominent members were women: the evangelist Katherine Hankey and the writer and philanthropist Hannah More. . (Read more about More in this wonderful new biography of her by Karen Swallow Prior.)

  2. The term “Clapham Sect” was a later invention by James Stephen in an article of 1844 which celebrated and romanticized the work of these reformers. In their own time the group used no particular name, but they were lampooned by outsiders as “the saints.”
  3. Though they were of aristocratic background and many of held positions of power and influence, the Clapham group’s involvement in the abolition cause brought significant social stigma on their heads. The English ruling classes viewed abolitionists as radical and dangerous, similar to French revolutionaries of the day

Continued at the Patheos Faith & Work Channel

Jake Gyllenhaal’s Nightcrawler – parable for a broken marketplace


cdn.indiewire.comThis movie has been out for just over a month (its release was Oct 31, 2104), but we’ll start with the now-customary warning . . .

****SPOILERS: If you are tempted to see this grim, Breaking-Bad-esque moral spiral of a movie (which, in this reviewer’s opinion, is brilliantly done), you will likely want to skip this review until you’ve seen it. As the TV announcers say throughout this film: Viewer Discretion is Advised – Graphic Scenes (and plot points) will be portrayed! You have been warned!

The morality of Nightcrawler may seem at first to be all about individual economic decisions – the decisions ambulance-chasing news videographer Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) makes as he climbs the ladder in a particularly dirty corner of the marketplace. When we meet Bloom, Timothy Wainwright says in his Christianity Today review of the film: “It’s as if Humphrey Bogart had a baby face, lost all his marbles, and gotten a subscription to the Harvard Business Review.”

But is this film really about the off-kilter entrepreneurial decisions of a lone-wolf opportunist? Continue reading

Next steps and resources in faith, work, & economics for church leaders


OIkonomia Network logoA first step for a pastor or lay leader who wants to lead their people in a healthy integration of faith and work is careful listening on their own part, as ministers. This may mean, for pastors, paying attention to the lay-led faith-and-work movement, which has done an end-run around the religious establishment. This movement is developing a contextual theology among people who are actually doing “secular” work, seeking religiously informed answers to the existential sense of disconnection between the two halves of their lives – “spiritual” and “secular.” People in ministry would do well to listen to these people, even though their folk theology may often lack subtlety or depth.

Another very practical way of gaining wisdom in this area I’ve already mentioned. In 2009, the Kern Family Foundation, which had been supporting seminary education through student scholarships for more than a decade, created a seminary initiative called the Oikonomia Network. Framed as a “learning community” for theological educators, its mission is to help its members help the church to integrate theological truth and Christian discipleship into work and economic thinking. Through the network, the foundation now funds significant initiatives at eighteen seminaries.

All these initiatives seek to train pastors to affirm the basic goodness of work, business, and economic activity; to prepare people to discern their callings and pursue excellence in their work; to help communities respond in virtuous ways to the changes wrought by economic forces; and to cast a future-oriented vision for virtuous membership and participation in the civic community. Continue reading