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A Haunting Comment

“I respect that person as a leader and as a theological thinker,” a friend said recently, “but I wouldn’t look to them for spiritual discernment.” I knew the person and had to agree, but I was troubled by what this said about the role of theology in the Church. I work at the intersection of the church and academia, so this question hits close to home: Should we expect theologians to be spiritually discerning? Let me offer some reflections on how my experiences have shaped my answer.

Pressing Questions about Work from the Road

A couple summers ago, I was commuting back and forth between Long Beach and Phoenix and Long Beach and San Francisco. I was doing ethnographic research on congregational approaches to vocational discipleship. I had chosen one church in each city as the site for my research in which I engaged in participant observation of church gatherings, interviews with members, and countless informal conversations with staff, members and visitors.

I sat down and listened to people from a range of backgrounds tell their work stories, experiences and anxieties. Some were fresh out of college; others were retired; and still others were struggling with unemployment. Many were trying to navigate their way up the career ladder; many others were attempting to navigate multiple roles and jobs—parenting, taking care of aging grandparents, etc.). After these interview recordings were transcribed I had 1000+ pages of stories about work, church discipleship, and God.

One of the biggest learning points for me through this experience was this: work is not the most pressing issue that evangelical churches need to deal with today, but it is, perhaps, one of the most strategic ways that a church can engage in Christian discipleship.  Let me explain.

If we believe that Jesus is the Lord over everything, then all of life in terms of our private life and public life must come under the rule and reign of God.  I doubt any pastor or theologian would disagree with me on that.  Good so far.  But this raises the more difficult question: how do we go about discipling Christians to live all of life under the rule of Jesus?  This is where the strategic value of relating work to discipleship formation comes in.

The Strategic Role of Work in Discipleship

Other than family relationships (parents, spouse, siblings or children), work is one of the greatest sources of stress and conflict in a person’s life. Think about it. What anxieties have kept you awake this past week? What sources of frustration, anger, or fear have preoccupied your emotional energies? For most people, their answers tend to emerge from their work.

This is some of what I heard as I listened to those church members tell their stories:

  • The unemployed are weighed down because they cannot find work.  Sometimes carrying a fragile self-identity, they often experience a lack of work in terms of a relational affront by a God who is not providing for them.
  • For the retired persons I interviewed—especially retired men— work was perhaps THE central way in which they felt they contributed to society and the community and provided for their family.  Simply telling such a person that “their identity is in Christ” or that they had “made an idol out of their work” because they are disoriented now that this daily routine is absent would be seriously misguided!
  • Even those who are doing well in their careers (many of the people I interviewed were “successful” financially) face challenges and sometimes a crisis over God’s leading in their lives.  Should they switch jobs and follow where they see God leading them even though it would mean a substantial pay cut?  What would be the likely collateral damage on the family and community if they took that promotion?  In the cities, many of these economically successful people are single and experience deep pain over the ways in which God seems hidden from them in not providing a spouse.  They wonder, “Can I even find a spouse when I work 60+ hours a week?!”  I could go on with examples.

What struck me in these 77 interviews is how often talking about work seamlessly led into talking about God and pain as well as hope and joy. Work is the source of some of both our highest aspirations and our deepest anxietiesThe problem is that these were not the kinds of conversations and problems that I found discussed in the leading texts dealing with a theology of work! As a friend said to me after finishing a popular book on work by a well-known pastor, “The problem with this book is that the author assumes that we are all in jobs that we like!” I took his comment as a needed shot across the bow as I was drifting with the tide of “theologies from the balcony.”

Theology and Sensitivity to the Spirit

The challenge for me was to keep these existential questions arising from work in mind. I wanted to write a theology of work that could help churches minister to people like my friend; a theology for those who are plodding away in jobs that pay the bills but don’t fulfill the deeper aspirations of life. My struggle found a promising direction late one evening sitting in a home library in Driebergen in the Netherlands.

After patiently listening to my struggles to bring the numerous stories of work I had heard from Christians together with the scholarly literature, Cornelis van der Kooi challenged me to embrace the wider calling of a theologian as articulated by Escobar in the quote above. Cornelis remarked, “Cory, I want to challenge you to view the interviews not simply as sociological research but as an attempt at discerning the work of the Holy Spirit in each person’s life.” His words not only provided clarity for me in how to bridge the gap between theology from the balcony and road, but (more importantly) opened up a vista in my own vocational calling.

A core responsibility of the local church should be to help Christians engage with the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Experiences of work are rich fodder for such discipleship formation. This approach to discipleship offers a different form of pastoral ministry than is commonly seen in North American churches—especially in those churches that place a value on the pastor as “resident theologian.” Samuel Escobar states the problem in this way:

While theologians seem to be at home in handling words from the Word and in formulating precise orthodox propositions about the content of the faith, they do not know exactly how to handle the reality of the Holy Spirit at work in the church and in the world.[1]

Pastors and church leaders need to not only handle words from the Word but also need to be adept at discerning the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of people. A simple way to begin is to come alongside and take an interest in people and their work. Teaching a class or preaching a sermon series about work is good but incomplete. Christians need to connect in deeper ways with their work and through this connect with the work of the Spirit in their lives. Finding ways to use a person’s experience of work as a means of processing their knowledge of God and knowledge of themselves is a strategic resource for developing disciples of Jesus who desire to bring all of life under His Lordship.


[1] Samuel Escobar, The New Global Mission, 126