This art installation was simply called “Work.” If you could see this art installation up close, especially the table, you’d see a timeline of my various vocations through the years. I’ve worked in theaters, Radio Shack, as an electrical engineer, and more. Most of you know I’ve also spent a lot of years in Christian ministry.
What is more valuable to God? Someone who serves in full-time Christian ministry or someone who works at an “ordinary” job – administration, educator, food industry, etc?
Trick question? Perhaps. I observe that a lot of Christians see their “secular” work as less significant than their Christian vocational counterparts, like being a pastor or missionary. It does not help that Christian culture has expressions like “Sunday Christian” or “Consumer Christian.” Terms like these almost sanction this divorce between the sacred and the secular, at least here in North America. Could it be that a lot of Jesus-followers just have not learned to follow Jesus well in the workplace?
Sometimes, it’s the missionary, the pastor, or a Christian organization that esteems Christian vocation as a “higher calling.” When I went through orientation with one of the world’s largest Christian organizations, it was assumed that our vocation was a “higher one” and thus, people would of course want to support us. The testimonies I’ve heard from many mission conferences usually center around the soul who left the allure of a hi-tech job to go into “missions.” I rarely hear testimonies of missionaries leaving the “field” because they’re called to go into “missions” in their secular work. (they are there, and I wanted to learn from them as I describe below.) The distortion of how we see work comes from both sides.
When we’ve not learned how to follow Jesus at work, when our spiritual lives are not connected to our lives at work, all kinds of problems arise. It stunts the Great Commission of Matt 28:19-20, truncates the Greatest Commandment, and encourages the “sacred-secular” split that’s unfortunately so common in this part of the world. But perhaps worse yet, this kind of mentality stunts the abundant living God has in store for every believer to be experienced every day of the week, and not just when Christians come together for a Sunday worship.
Work is not a curse. If anything, it’s a blessing, such as when “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” in Gen 2:15. (ESV) i.e., work and the responsibility that came with it was a part of God’s paradise and what God intended before sin came into being. So for disciples of Christ, regardless of our title, position, seniority, temperament, and training, work is intended to be part of “heaven on earth,” part of God’s good Kingdom.
Work is also a part of our worship. The Old Testament illustrates how work and worship are intertwined because both work and worship translate the same Hebrew word עָבַד. Following is a sample list of verses that contain the word עָבַד. If you flip through different English translations, you’ll see it translated into work or worship, sometimes interchangeably.
2 Sam 15:8 יהוה יְרוּשָׁלַםִ וְעָבַדְתִּי אֶת־יהוה׃
Ps 102:22 לַעֲבֹד אֶת־יהוה׃
Isa 19:21:וְעָבְדוּ זֶבַח וּמִנְחָה וְנָדְרוּ־נֵדֶר
Isa 19:23 וְעָבְדוּ מִצְרַיִם אֶת־אַשּׁוּר׃
Isa 14:23 אֲשֶׁר עֻבַּד־בָּךְ׃
Ps 2:11עִבְדוּ אֶת־יהוה
Ps 100:2עִבְדוּ אֶת־יהוה
Ps 102:22לַעֲבֹד אֶת־יהוה׃
Ps 106:36וַיַּעַבְדוּ אֶת־עֲצַבֵּיהֶם
I’ve visited dozens of dozens of churches and understand why Christian vocations are often held in higher esteem, especially in the Chinese churches that I’m most familiar with. Pastors and missionaries are often the “face of the church,” because they are the patriarchs, or the esteemed ones featured on “missions boards.” Missionaries are seen as the ones doing great things in far away places. And when they’d come back from distance lands, seemed like they could do no wrong. It’s as if members “stuck” with the “ordinary” jobs are vicariously satisfying their missions quota by listening to the stories and supporting the missionaries. Perhaps that’s why churches are often seen as the “front door of the church.” That is, to expose people to Christianity is to get them to church. Getting people to church allows the pastor to preach the Gospel and reach them. Isn’t this a backhanded way of saying that lay Christians with the “ordinary” jobs are exempt from doing the “work of the Lord?” Or perhaps the only role of “ordinary” Christians with secular jobs is to somehow get people into the church so the pastor can do the “saving.”
I believe that’s why the church program usually plays such an important role in many evangelical churches. The inferred priority is simple, to get people to “come.” But the first verb in the Great Commission is not “come” but “go.” The fact that “go” is translated from a participle perhaps suggest it’s an ongoing action, but the grammar suggests this kind of ongoing action is so strong, that it’s almost always translated as an imperative. But whether you’re an “F” student in grammar or a grammar Nazi, it’s clear. Our modus operandi should not be to get people to “come” to experience Jesus, but to “go” and there’s no better place to practice our “going” then where many of us spend the bulk of our time, at work.
When I was a pastor, I worked to equip “ordinary” people to bring the life of Jesus to where people worked, lived, and played. I worked to equip “going” churches. Because no matter how “contemporary” our style and music were, no matter how many candles we used or purple drapes we used to create that right, “seeker” environment (I’m dating myself here), I did not want people to think that Jesus had to be associated with our church culture. Instead, I wanted people to experience Jesus in their context, “out there,” in their culture. That’s exactly what he did for us in his kenosis of Philipians 2, where Jesus became one of us and knows what’s it’s like to be in our flesh, to be shamed like no one else. I’m a big fan of the early church, when church was not “seeker friendly.” They could not; they were persecuted…but those churches were the most missional churches. This same DNA can be found in churches of in the global east, where disciples of Christ see themselves as disciples every day of the week, and not just on Sundays. Jesus came not for the elite, but for everyone, including the ordinary. When we place certain vocations in an elite status, we’ve diminished mission of Christ.
I did eventually make it to the mission field, to lands where I could not even read the gender signs on bathrooms and once went into the wrong one. But that’s another story for another time. 🙂 For me, long gone are the days when I esteemed pastors and missionaries more than the “ordinary” Christian for one simple reason. There are no “ordinary” Christians. Every Christian has a magnificent purpose in God’s Kingdom simply because they are loved by a magnificent God. And personally, I know many faithful Christians in secular jobs influencing many more people for Christ than many pastors and missionaries I know. These “ordinary” Christians just don’t have the “title” of pastor or missionary. But they are out there, and we must learn from them.
I began learning this in my old days as an engineer, where God sent to me “ordinary” engineering co-workers who were disciples of Christ. They were not just secure, integrious, and joyful employees, they stood with hope even during the waves of layoffs. I saw them questioned in those times of stress. They influenced their work circles, bringing joy, wisdom, peace, and selflessness. They were the kind of employees you’d want to work with, or better yet, work for. Thank you Tom Metzler, Chi-Yin Pang, Jeff Iswhandi, Ngoc Nguyen, and others.
Once I learned that my ordinary job as an engineer could make a difference, I did all I could to be the best engineer I could be. My motivation changed radically. And that’s why I took advantage of the Ivy-league education my company offered me. When I eventually left engineering, I had learned how to see my work as worship.
Fast forward another ten years after having served as a missionary, and as a pastor, the job that REALLY radically brought my work and worship together was my floor refinishing job with NHance Every day, I lined up at service entrances or showed up at someone’s home with hundreds of pounds of equipment at 8am, ready to refinish floors and cabinets for the day. That work began the huge de-tox task of no longer deriving my worth from my work. No other job has equipped me to work as onto the Lord, as an act or worship, then when I was scrubbing and refinishing those floors. Coworkers who did not share my faith were transformed. The clients we served were touched. Awards were won. But those accolades were never the goal. Believing our work was really serving our true boss, our Father in heaven, that was the goal.
Training missionaries is part of my work today; they’ll never know how much of my training comes from the sweat from those floor jobs. They’ll never see the values of abundance, sweat equity, and the influence we had on our clients, our company, our neighborhood, and our city from this very ordinary job of refinishing floors.
For further rendering, I’d recommend Brother Lawrence’s “Practicing the Presence of God.” He was a man who spent most of his life in the kitchen but saw his work as worship. The floor company I worked for was very inspired by a book called “Joy at Work” by Dennis Bakke. If you’re reading this and serious about continuing your journey down this path, let me know, or someone you know, ideally someone in your spiritual community who has walked down this path, or wants to. And let these kinds of books open your imagination for what your work could be like.
Besides coaching missionaries, I’m perhaps more excited about the opportunities to coach “ordinary” Christians with “ordinary” jobs. I really believe they are doing “even greater things” because God’s given them a natural context by which to influence their spheres of influence in unique ways, even if their workplace won’t allow them to be explicit about Jesus. These are the laborers to pray for. Perhaps you are one of them. But this was the case of the early church. Such is the case with Jesus-followers in countries where practicing Christian faith is persecuted. This is good company; it’s the company where our work, shopping, and playing are all found in God’s presence. Work has already been ordained to be worshipful. It’s a matter of us receiving what’s already been granted.