Adapted from a talk by Katherine Leary Alsdorf at the Faith@Work Summit 2014
I left a long career in the tech industry and moved to New York City in 2002 to help Redeemer start a marketplace ministry. And I did that basically because I knew how much I needed it. I’d become a CEO and a Christian in the same month, and I didn’t know how to do either. By 2002, I’d spent a decade wrestling and trying to figure out how my faith should shape and influence my work.
When I got to New York and was barely situated, my phone started ringing off the hook. Calls from young people in the church eager to be part of this new kind of ministry. They wanted to connect their faith with work. Sometimes, it’s because something is missing from their work maybe meaning. Sometimes, it’s because the work is so hard it’s just constant toil. Sometimes it’s because they feel so uncomfortable in their environment, with the values in their workplace, they don’t know how to handle it. And sometimes, it’s because they doubt their faith in its entirety because it just doesn’t seem to matter in 90% of their life. I look around, group after group, and I think, here are some of the most educated and advantaged people in the word, and they are so struggling with faith and work. And I’m expecting that you see the same struggles.
It seems to me after working on this for a decade and a few years, that whether they grew up in the church or were brand new Christians, one of the problems was that they needed more Bible, and more theology. In particular, they need the whole Bible story. A better understanding of God that helps them understand themselves.
It seems almost as though Genesis and Revelation were left out of their Bible training. And maybe they really were, I mean, who wants to touch Genesis ever since the Scopes trial, and Revelation is pretty hard for anyone to understand. So they really do need Genesis. I tell them they should read chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis every month until it goes deep, deep, deep into their being. God made the heavens and the earth and everything in it, and it was good. They were made in God’s image, and they are very good. They were given work to do on God’s behalf, to fill the earth and steward it. They were given the Sabbath to rest and worship God. And they need chapter 3 just as much. It really does help to remember that everything was broken, that sin really is the cause of all of our problems of work. The sin in the world and the sin in ourselves. We’re so overwhelmed by sin and we cover it up. We don’t even like the word really. I tend to use the word brokenness just because it comes across as a little bit more palatable.
So they need Genesis—and they need Revelation. They need the part of the story that’s the kingdom come. His kingdom come, the new heavens, the new earth, the New Jerusalem. Some of our traditions do a better job with this than others. But this part of the story, in which God will wipe away every tear and make everything new is the good news. It’s our hope. It’s the goal we’re working toward by faith. I cannot tell you the number of times we hear, why didn’t I ever hear the whole story of the Bible like this? Why didn’t anyone ever talk about work as something God laid out right in the very beginning?
But they also need to be able to apply that Bible to their work. They might have faith in God and relationship with Jesus, but they don’t really know how to apply it. I find preoccupation with rules and practices. Just tell me what I should do or what I shouldn’t do. You know what I mean. Should I or shouldn’t I work on Sunday when my boss is working on Sunday? Should Jane take a part in this play where she has to take off her clothes? Is it wrong to develop advertising for a cigarette company? Or on the practices side, leaving a Bible on your desk, I mean sometimes it’s just a symbol with no meaning. It is so much more than rules, this integrating our faith with our work.
How can we help people see and experience that the gospel changes everything, that it actually has real power in our own work lives. The best place is to start with our own hearts. Can the gospel really change our hearts, and how does that happen?
Work opens up so many possibilities. Are you jealous of your coworker? The gospel can change that. Do you fear that you’ll fail at what you’re doing? How does the gospel calm your fear? Are you having trouble getting up in the morning to face work? Or trouble stopping work in order to rest. As a matter of fact, work is a bit of an idol factory. It leads us to overvalue success or money or security or recognition or comfort. And the gospel helps us to root out those idols and turn to Jesus for our salvation. And when we do that, we change. Our hearts change. I love it. I love it when it happens to me and when I see it in others. I see people change from hating to loving their colleagues, from fearing failure to stepping out in faith. This gives a good start in applying the gospel to work and our work lives. Once we experience the gospel transform one thing in us, we grow in confidence that God is at work in us.
The third problem our young people face is as Christians they don’t really know how to live in this post-Christian culture and in the city.
We’re not in Jerusalem anymore. At least for those of us in Canada, or the Northwest, or Europe, it may be a lot more helpful to think of ourselves as in Babylon as opposed to Jerusalem. We’re not of the culture, but we are in it. Jeremiah’s letter to the people of God is so helpful. Jeremiah 29 has almost become a mantra for our people at Redeemer. In Jersualem, everyone believed as we did, and it was just a mtter of living it out. In Bablyon, we are to seek the welfare of people who oppose and sometimes are hostile to us. We’re to help them flourish and still live out a God-fearing life in their midst.
My colleague, David Kim, who’s my successor running the Center for Faith and Work, coined the expression exilic discipleship. We need to disciple people for living in exile. We need to give them a sense of mission, perseverance when it’s hard, an expectation of brokenness, and imagination for gospel renewal. And we hope they approach their faith and their work with humility. As the post-Christian culture spreads, we’re all learning new ways to see God still at work in the world. And this is a really important part of connecting our faith and our work. It’s working faith-fully.
Katherine Leary Alsdorf (BA, Wittenberg; MBA, Darden School, UVa) founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s Center for Faith & Work in New York City and served as Executive Director from 2002 – 2012. She established the intensive Gotham Fellows program, an Entrepreneurship Initiative to start new gospel-centered ventures, Arts Ministries, and numerous vocation groups. She now helps churches in other cities to establish faith and work ministries. She also serves on the board and steering committee of the Theology of Work Project. She spent 25 years in the high tech industry in California and New York. She is co-author with Tim Keller of Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work.
Faith@Work Summit 2014 by fwsummit.org is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.