Connecting Gospel and Work (RJS)

The final section of Tim Keller’s new book Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work explores the ways in which the gospel should shape and focus our work. The four chapters in this section cover a new story, conception, compass, and power for work.

What story do you see yourself as a part of?

How does it impact your life and work?

Or I can ask myself ….

What in the world does being a Christian have to do with being a scientist and a professor?

One of the most significant ways that Christian faith impacts work, for better or worse, is in the story we find ourselves in. Everyone sees themselves as part of a story, a worldview, that makes sense of life, death, and the universe. There is a problem, a plot, and a mission. We see ourselves as actors within this story.

…if you get the story of the world wrong – if, for example, you see life here as mainly about self-actualization and self-fulfillment rather than the love of God – you will get your life responses wrong, including the way you go about your work. (p. 156)

Keller turns this then to the biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption and restoration,  summarized briefly. God made the world and everything in it good. There are no intrinsically evil parts of the world. The whole world is fallen and affected by sin. The whole world is going to be redeemed. The way we see this story and see God’s mission in the world will have a profound impact on the way we go about life.  The gospel, Keller points out, “teaches that the meaning of life is to love God and love our neighbor, and that the operating principle is servanthood.” This will affect every aspect of work, from purpose to performance.

To be a Christian in business, then, means much more than just being honest or not sleeping with your coworkers. It even means more than personal evangelism or holding a Bible study at the office. Rather, it means thinking out the implications of the gospel worldview and God’s purpose for your whole work life – and for the whole of the organization under your influence. (p. 168-169).

This is true not just in business, but in education, science, journalism, law, medicine, the arts, and more. Keller lists a series of questions that can help to shape a Christian approach to work (p. 181).

  • What’s the story line of the culture in which I live and the field where I work? Who are the protagonists and antagonists?
  • What are the underlying assumptions about meaning, morality, origin, and destiny?
  • What are the idols? The hopes? The fears?
  • How does my particular profession retell this story line, and what part does the profession itself play in the story?
  • What parts of the dominant worldview are basically in line with the gospel, so that I can agree with and align with them?
  • What parts of the dominant worldview are irresolvable without Christ? Where, in other words, must I challenge my culture? How can Christ complete the story in a different way?
  • How do these stories affect both the form and content of my work personally? How can I work not just with excellence but also with Christian distinctiveness in my work?
  • What opportunities are there in my profession for (a) serving individual people, (b) serving society at large, (c) serving my field of work, (d) modeling competence and excellence, and (e) witnessing to Christ?

A thoughtful answer to these questions will go along way toward helping anyone connect their work with God’s mission. Keller “gets it” in a way that I’ve seen in few (almost no) Christian leaders and teachers. There is an enormous disconnect from the work world many of us occupy five or six days a week and the Christian experience of Sunday worship and a small amount of fellowship. This disconnect makes the two seem like different countries with completely different cultures. As a professor in a secular university I experience this daily.

All Christians live in cultures and work in vocational fields that operate by powerful master narratives that are sharply different from the gospel’s account of things. But these narratives work at such a deep level that their effects on us are hard to discern. (p. 181)

It is very helpful to realize that there is such a deep cultural divide – and to be able to understand the nature of this divide.

Higher Education. Most of Keller’s examples come from friends, and people he has interacted with in the business world, in journalism, in medicine, on Wall Street. His short section of comment on higher education is rather unhelpful and doesn’t really get to the point – although the overall chapter has much to offer. Because this is my field and I’ve been involved in secular Universities for some 30 years as graduate student, scholar, professor and now including more leadership and committee roles, I will look briefly at the application of Keller’s ideas to the field of Higher Education.

Keller concentrates on some of the writings of Andrew Delbanco, both in his book College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be and a piece published in the New York Times to explore the changing worldview story of higher education and the impact that the Christian worldview may be able to have.  Access to education, attitudes of elitism, and increasing emphasis on education as vocational and technical scientific training, devaluing the humanities, are seen as aspects of the problem in higher education.

Keller suggests that Christian colleges, both Protestant and Catholic may be “in the forefront of the preservation and recovery of the humanities,” something I doubt. Christian colleges, as much or more than secular colleges and Universities seem to be pressed toward a utilitarian view of education as vocational training for employment through the financial realities of the 21st century market. This does not benefit the humanities. Keller also suggests that Christian educators should be motivated to resist the enormous academic pressures that work against quality and access to education. This is true, perhaps, but also largely outside of the influence available to all but a very few (Christian college administrators and a small handful of administrators at secular schools may be in a place to have some small impact here).

So where can the list of questions really help? I can give a few outlines of answers to the questions. Consider this a first draft,  subject to revision and expansion.

What’s the story line of the culture in which I live and the field where I work?

Knowledge will make the world a better place. Creative, critical thinking allows us to break free of oppressive traditions and shape the future. Humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences are all of value in this endeavor. Philosophy, psychology, physics and papyrology all have a role to play. Knowledge is created and transmitted.

What are the underlying assumptions about meaning, morality, origin, and destiny?

Meaning is self made and comes in the creation of knowledge. There are a few strong moral values – integrity in scholarship, and a prohibition of “abusive” relationships. There is a very strong ethic of intellectual integrity. Destiny is not tied to the individual, but to the community. Knowledge and understanding are cumulative through the generations.

What are the idols? The hopes? The fears?

Accomplishment, recognition, respect, distinction, approval. Money and power come in to play as well, but are tied up with the list above.

Fear of a failure to measure up in an environment where every statement or idea will be questioned and tested (this is the mechanism of critical thinking).

What parts of the dominant worldview are basically in line with the gospel, so that I can agree with and align with them?

The insistence on intellectual integrity should be in line with the gospel. We should be able to investigate all questions openly and honestly.

What parts of the dominant worldview are irresolvable without Christ? Where, in other words, must I challenge my culture?

We must challenge the cultural mindset of scientific materialism and secular humanism.

Interestingly though, I think that there are also places where I must challenge my Christian culture as well. Intellectual integrity is not valued within large parts of the church – and this is a shame.

I could continue and explore these questions in more detail, and we could probably add to the list. But there is a very important point here. The interaction of Christian faith with work is not found primarily in Bible studies, evangelism, and inviting people to church (all of which are good things in relationship with colleagues). The connection of our work with God’s work is in the way the job is approached and performed.

Actually writing on this blog is one way of connecting my work with God’s work.

I expect that serious consideration of the the questions posed above can help in all areas of life – whether one is a teacher, a pastor, a professor, a business man or woman, a doctor, a lawyer, or a stay at home parent.

How would you begin to answer the questions above?

What are the idols, hopes, and fears of your vocation?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

 

  • Rick

    RJS-

    Glad he is tackling this topic.

    Would you say that this book would work well as a study for certain small groups?

  • RJS

    Rick,

    This book would be excellent for small groups. Especially groups for say 20-30 year olds, but not only for younger adults. I am much older than that and find it quite useful and thought provoking.

  • http://www.krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    “There is an enormous disconnect from the work world many of us occupy five or six days a week and the Christian experience of Sunday worship and a small amount of fellowship. This disconnect makes the two seem like different countries with completely different cultures.”

    Amen.

    I keep coming back to John Walton’s book about Genesis 1. Dominion over the earth in community with God and each other is our mission. Bring the earth and humanity to flourishing fullness is our mission. And Scripture says, in the end, we will reign with God again in a new creation. From the beginning through all eternity, that is our mission.

    Yet the church seems determined to do all its power to avoid addressing this mission. Some act as unreflective chaplains to the existing order. Some have collapsed mission into evangelism and personal salvation. Others have collapsed mission into social justice political agendas informed more by modern categories of rights and equality then by the biblical narrative. None of these see the centrality of our daily work as God’s mission and how that it is not just individuals that are being redeemed but the whole enterprise God set in motion in Genesis 1.

    I found very few Christian thinkers who help me think through a holistic vision of a good working order for society that genuinely wrestles with technical issues of science, sociology, economics and such. And many who say they have such a view appear to me to be not so subtly justifying a political agenda. Most attempts to engage these topics quickly turn into partisan political squabbles.

    In my estimation, there is no hope for the church to begin to influence culture and until this is reversed. Barth said pastors are experts on the Bible and the people are experts on life. Until all the experts are at the table of theological discernment, we are doomed.

  • AHH

    The connection of our work with God’s work is in the way the job is approached and performed.
    That’s a nice reminder, too often unheard in Evangelical culture. One of my most encouraging moments at work was when my boss (a nonbeliever of Jewish heritage) offhandedly mentioned that he was consulting me about something because he knew I’d be honest and ethical. Those moments may be outnumbered by those in which I fall short as an ambassador, but nice to be reminded that one can have some impact if one works with a Jesus-shaped attitude and ethos.

  • RJS

    AHH (#4)

    I didn’t find anything surprising in this book – but excellent reminders and good ways to focus and think about the topic. It was encouraging and also prodding.

    I agree that it is a topic too often unheard in the Evangelical subculture. Salvation, church attendance, perhaps individual spiritual disciplines are mentioned … but how to focus one’s life and effort in harmony with the kingdom of God? It just doesn’t come up much. Scot’s book one.life is somewhat more general, but the same idea – how to focus one.life in harmony with the kingdom of God.

    Real commitment seems a dirty word.

    This post hasn’t gotten a great deal of comment or attention today – but I hope people buy, read, and use the book.

  • gingoro

    While I deeply appreciate Keller’s points in his book, I get hung up on:

    “Keller turns this then to the biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption and restoration, summarized briefly. God made the world and everything in it good. There are no intrinsically evil parts of the world. The whole world is fallen and affected by sin. The whole world is going to be redeemed. ”

    Given evolution how can the world be fallen since there never was a state of perfection and goodness where everything was good? Sure one can say that what was created and evolved was good for God’s purpose but genetic imperfections etc can hardly be called good.
    DaveW

  • http://www.serveplant.com John Short

    Great post. I wrote a blog about the subject of work. It’s not as detailed as yours, but thought it could be encouraging to you http://serveplant.com/2011/11/05/work-is-serving/


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