(The Preacher, Quarterly Publication of the New Zealand Lay Preacherís Association, June 2001, pp.19-22)
Lay preachers are well placed to make connections between worship and work that make a difference to the relevance of what we do in church. Preaching that touches work takes less than we realise and means more than we think. It often only takes a simple acknowledgement, an illustration from the workplace, or a line or two in a prayer, to affirm that work matters in the purposes of God. It is also possible to do a great deal more. Many need help seeing their place of work as a place where God can be known and served and the world of work as one that is at the same time part of Godís creativity and in need of Godís justice
Of course this is not always the message people get. It is easier to relate to the working world of first century shepherds and tax collectors than the fascinating range of occupations Ė and the lack of them Ė found in New Zealand congregations today. It is also easy for a busy church programme to send the message that church matters and work does not. Pastoral leadership can have an unreal sense of the workplace, which can be romantic, hostile, or plain ignorant. The answer is less in sending pastors into factories, than in encouraging lay preachers to preach about faith in situations where they are the ones with the first hand experience.
The workplace provides a bridge linking lay preacher and lay congregation. It is worth cultivating ways in which it can be used to improve communication about what the Gospel means in these situations and expanding the language by which Christians generally are able to talk about their faith and their job. Talking about work and faith in the same conversation needs models, something which sermons can help provide.
Although people spend a lot of their lives ďat workĒ the church often has to remind itself that all of life, including daily work, is part of Godís intention. God is a working, creating God, who got dirty hands on the job, and who rested as well as worked. Of course work is affected by sin, but no more or less than anything else. Work is also about creation, hope and building a future.
At a basic level worship needs to affirm our places of work as places God wants us to be, not places God wants us to escape from. At the same time exploring issues and engaging in the big questions is a responsibility of Christian mission. We do not need to be experts with all the answers, but we can care about identifying important questions, and the Christian values that relate to them.
From a position of expertise, or just observation and careful reflection, we may be able to address issues affecting people personally such as restructuring, redundancy, harassment, discrimination, unfair treatment, whistle-blowing, guilt, ambition, greed. Questions may arise about respect for the religious sensitivities and social needs of people of other faiths. Most of us have to cope with anger and frustration when things go wrong. The politics of the workplace can be painfully similar to those of the church and the gospel applies to both. At a social level there are issues such as ecology, globalisation, free trade, and government legislation. While being known for a hobby horse is a risk, there is value in growing our expertise on issues we can address with some authority.
The attitude we take to those we disagree with is also a telling witness. Lay preachers are not immune from the need to be seen to be fair to other legitimate points of view, particularly the views of those whose political allegiances may be different.
The idea that working for the church is somehow spiritually superior to working for a secular employer dies hard. Making demands on church members which imply that church meetings are more important than family or work responsibilities is an easy trap, but an avoidable mistake. Christians work full time for Jesus no matter who their immediate employer is. It is important to be able to say that work does not have to have a religious label to be of value in the kingdom of God.
Work is often a focus of dissatisfaction, and a sense of its being meaningful is not always close to the surface. We may recognise the challenge of preaching about work to a congregation of unemployed. We may pray for jobs and help people find them.
It can also be salutary to discover the range of occupations represented in our congregations today. It is one thing to affirm Christian vocation applying to a wide range of occupations, but some may stretch conventional assumptions. Today congregations may include people in the gaming and alcohol industries. Some people may be into drugs and seeking Christ in church at the same time. There are some congregations which include sex workers or worshippers whose horticultural skills are employed in dubious ways. A congregation may include pacifists and members of the armed forces. The range both of occupation, and of peopleís feelings about their jobs, needs some sensitivity to what people may be thinking when we are preaching. An informal survey of occupations and attitudes could be revealing.
Christians relate to their workplace as a place of personal challenge and opportunity, but it is also a place where social and economic issues of Christian political concern are highlighted. Some find personal moral and spiritual challenges the areas in which they need most help. Others recognise that concern for social justice is part of the mission of the church. People from each group do not always have much patience or understanding of those in the other. Lay Preachers can take both groups seriously and help them appreciate the validity of the otherís concerns.
It is often a stretch to affirm and address both areas, and it is only being honest to admit limits to our sympathies. While sometimes it may be appropriate for a preacher of strong convictions to simply preach out of them, acknowledging that that is how they see things, more generally it is important to affirm diversity fairly allowable within the Church. Either way the message is that this stuff matters in the sight of God, and Christians want to share in the process of working it through.
If many pray for work - others need help to see work as part of God's plan. Can our work be redeemed? Committed Christians are sometimes restless in their work. It is not always obvious whether this is about openness to doing something new, or difficulty accepting responsibility for the matter in hand. Preaching about work can encourage the idea of our places of work being places where God wants us to be. Of course sometimes God wants to take people out of a situation, but often God wants people to stay and be part of improving it.
Creation and Redemption are not only grand themes running through biblical history, they are the stuff of everyday life. Our understanding of God is shaped by all our life experiences, including workplace experiences. We should expect reflection on our experience of work to be a fruitful source of thinking about God, and a stimulus for identifying biblical passages that address work-related issues. The challenge and opportunity in preaching about work is not only to do it, but to help others hear what God is saying through their work experience, to articulate it, check it and share it. Perhaps that is a vocation in itself!
Robert J. Banks and R. Paul Stevens. The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity : An A-to-Z Guide to Following Christ in Every Aspect of Life. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1997.
R. Paul Stevens, The Other Six Days : Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000