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Three Myths about "Secular" Work

Three myths about “secular” work

October 23, 2017

Three myths can keep our students from serving God effectively in seemingly secular workplaces and sectors. Here’s what they are, and how to help our students bust them:

Myth #1: God’s mission on earth happens only through the presumably spiritual work of churches and Christian non-profits, and not through the presumably secular work of the marketplace.

In a world increasingly distanced from religious truth-claims, students may pick up a bleak picture of working in an organization that does not claim an explicitly Christian mission. They may see such work as void of the presence, provision, and indeed priorities of God. This fails to recognize the truth recovered by Martin Luther: that God by his mercy and grace works through every vocation to provide for, protect, and heal people. If students miss this truth, they will struggle to find a sense of vocation. This myth that saps work of meaning or purpose can be busted with a coherent, basic, Gospel-informed theology of work. Armed with this, our students can move toward Christian vocation in a working world that may seem wholly secular.

One helpful source against this myth is the first chapter of John Stott’s Christian Mission in the Modern World, which shows us that while evangelicals have seen God’s mission largely in terms of the Great Commission, and mainline Protestants in terms of the Greatest Commandment, the New Testament shows us that God’s mission includes both, and is carried out largely in the many ordinary vocations of our lives.

Myth #2: When we work in a "secular" workplace, our work is completely defined in "secular" terms.

Even many faithful Wheaton graduates who understand that God ordains and uses work may assume that if they work in a workplace that does not claim an explicitly Christian mission, they must operate completely within secular visions, goals, and standards. If they have absorbed this myth, they may honor God by being personally ethical and gracious, but they will fail to approach the substance of their work, itself, “as unto the Lord.” They will become secular people at work and Christian people only at home or church.

This myth that stands in the way of full faith-work integration can be busted by cultivating a rich and detailed vision of how God and neighbor are served through the goods and services of every workplace and sector, including their own—with endless variation and creativity. Once they have begun to see this, our students will find ways to bring their Christian identity, perspectives, and standards into not just the manner, but also the substance, of their work.

A helpful primer toward this redemptive vision is Dallas Willard and Gary Black Jr.’s The Divine Conspiracy Continued, which sketches a Christian view of several sectors including business, law, and politics. Willard and Black show us how work in each of these sectors can be transformed through a truly Christian vision of how they serve human flourishing.

Myth #3: Redemptive social change happens only through extraordinary or heroically compassionate kinds of work—not the kinds of work that serve others in more prosaic, ordinary, incremental ways.

Even Wheaton graduates who bust the first two myths may still, however, be prevented from giving themselves fully enough to their work that they can make a redemptive difference in it. This may happen if they believe that even though God does ordain and use all work, the redemptive changes the world needs most can come only through heroic action in big-issue areas. Having set up such a hierarchy of value, they will never be able to give their full energy and best efforts to their seemingly less-important work. Thus they will either fail to rise to positions that allow them to exert influence for kingdom change (see James Hunter’s To Change the World), or having risen nonetheless, they will lack the vision to work for such change (see Michael Lindsay’s Christians in the Halls of Power).

This myth that strips Christians of true influence in their fields of work can be busted by helping our students overcome “the urge for the extraordinary”— through a vision not only of the redemptive power of particular work sectors, but also of ways they can steward their own vocations in those sectors to become effective Christian change agents. An excellent help here is Amy Sherman’s Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good.

If our students are to be prepared for working lives marked by Christian meaning, integration, and influence, they will need to receive teaching and mentoring that shows them (1) how God ordains work to serve human needs, (2) how that happens in the actual work done in their chosen sector and organization, and (3) how by stewarding their “ordinary” vocations well, they can help create extraordinary change in the world.