The Christian at work: insights from the latest Barna research: Part 1
by Jack Taylor
Every Monday, Scott settles down in front of his computer for another week of IT work, Imelda reconnects as a caregiver with the seniors she monitors, Jonathan checks in for his work as a physiotherapist, Brianne starts processing the patients booked in at her clinic and Carlos maneuvers his bus through busy city traffic. Millions just like them try to put the Sunday messages they have heard into practice in the spheres of influence where they are ‘salt’ and ‘light’.
In the preface to the book Christians at Work, Tod Brown, founder of the Moriah Foundation, states that, regarding his team’s work with the Barna Group, “Our experience has led us to a conviction that there is a mostly silent, unrecognized but crucial army of servants who are at the heart of everything good that is happening in the kingdom of God. They volunteer in ministries and non-profits in their communities. They serve on boards for Christian schools. They teach Bible classes in their churches. They host small groups in their homes. They plan their vacations around mission trips. These men and women are deeply committed to their local church, they carry a vision for the world – and, pivotally, they show up to work in the marketplace every Monday morning. They have a deeply-integrated understanding of how their commitment to follow Jesus informs the whole of life – work, church, family and so on.”
It isn’t surprising to be reminded that most people want a form of work that means something significant – especially if they are going to spend up to 90,000 hours on the clock. They may be anxious around finding ‘the right fit’ but they still want to make a difference. Barna’s David Kinnaman and Bill Denzel want to focus on the Christian’s work as calling and quote Steve Gerber (Visions of Vocation. 2014) “Work, yes, but also families, and neighbours, and citizenship, locally and globally – all of this and more is seen as vocation, that to which I am called as a human being, living my life before the face of God.”
Barna wants to focus us on Paul’s mandate to “take my everyday, ordinary life – my sleeping, eating, going to-work and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering.” (Romans 12:1–2, The Message).
How do people “think and feel about calling, purpose, career and the world of work”? Barna has set out to let us know so that a sense of “purpose and fulfillment” can be discovered in our daily efforts. We may not be directly impacting the 10,000 believers detained during 2018 in China but somehow, we are part of a common movement to transform our world. The unfortunate reality, as Barna discovers, is that there are many Christians who have no sense of their calling.
Some of the key findings of this study show that most Christians “don’t see a strict spiritual hierarchy of professions or a divide between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ jobs” (64%). Two thirds recognize that their work serves God and have found “meaningful, purposeful employment. “Six in ten believe they have God-given gifts. One in three wants a better understanding of them.”
Corey Maxwell-Coglan (p. 32) is quoted in this regard. “When we consider some professions as ‘secular’ and others as ‘sacred,’ we risk saying God’s hand is absent from some professions. But if we’re able to see that the culture-building commanded of us in the original mandate is part of the blueprint for God’s masterpiece, then it becomes possible to serve God in industries like business, politics, media and technology. Even janitors and accountants serve the common good. When we conflate God’s kingdom with the institutional Church (i.e., only clergy or missionaries are engaging in full-time sacred work) we restrict the scope of God’s work and kingship.”
Barna’s findings seem promising but the study also notes that 72 percent are “Compartmentalizers or Onlookers when it comes to their calling and career, and only 28 percent qualify as Integrators.” The study also shows that “working mothers and single men struggle for vocational fulfillment” in comparison with working fathers and single women. “Only half of churched adults feel their church supports them in their career” and job commitments can hinder church involvement.
With the wave of job-hopping Millenials and academic-focused Generation Z’s flooding the marketplace, there is concern as to how discipleship for the workplace might happen. Millenials still have a sense of ambition and hope that they can make a difference in their worlds. They are “very conscious of their talents (42%) as well as hopeful for a better understanding of them (37%). They are also motivated to be generous with their unique skills; more than two-thirds (67%) report that they hope to use them in service of others, 10 percentage points more than the proportion of Boomers motivated by this idea.”
The study declares why understanding is important for Christian leaders. “As the world and our workplaces change—each uniquely marked by trends of digitization, globalization, secularization and individualization – it’s never been more important for people of faith to think deeply about what they are made to do and why they do it. We have reason to believe it’s already on their mind; five years ago, one-third of employed Christians (34%) had never even thought about whether they felt ‘called’ to their work. Today, that percentage has dropped to 15.”
Tim Keller’s book, Every Good Endeavor (p. 197), reminds us that every form of work has “some degree of God’s common grace as well as the distortions of sin”. He notes that “Being a Christian means believing that God is at work in the whole of our lives, that the gospel reframes everything, not just the overtly religious things.” Some of us who are deeply engaged in the ministry of the church are understanding and attempting to implement this.
Next month, we’ll look at what Barna found regarding the integration of faith and work.