In the fall of 2014, I started a Master of Theology degree program at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I retired a few months earlier after 34 years working in energy. When people learned that I was in seminary, I was often asked about why I felt called to be a minister. When I replied that I wasn’t going into church ministry, I received puzzled looks and more questions. My ministry was outside of the local church building and in the “Church,” the entire community. I specialized in the faith and work movement.
For many people, the idea of faith and work is two disconnected subjects. The faith and work movement is probably new to the majority of Christians who regularly attend church, I found during my investigation into faith and work that the subject has been a theological topic since the time of Genesis.
I recently located a post-war faith and work publication (Work and Vocation: A Christian Discussion, edited by John Oliver Nelson, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, NY, 1954) that highlighted work and vocation theological issues that are still present 60+ years after its publication. “At the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1948, upon the specific request of the churches, attention was given to the problem of a Christian doctrine of work and vocation adequate to the contemporary scene. … The present book is a result of the American study.” (page 9) The study took three years to complete and is still relevant today.
John Oliver Nelson, former Professor of Christian Vocation at Yale Divinity School, wrote the Introduction: “To a good many people who have studied the stresses and strains of our work today, it has been clear that whatever their religion may do for those engaged in occupations, it has little or no relation to their jobs as they see them.” (page 16) This belief is still the majority opinion, but I would argue that more workers today are looking for meaning and purpose in their occupations than in 1954. Just as I observed when I decided to go to seminary, Dr. Nelson states: “a call of God has in our day become for most Christians a call to the ministry.” (page 23)
What I find intriguing is Dr. Nelson’s statement that industrial life dominates the faithful: “Certainly modern industrial life … has shaped the Church more than the Church has been able to shape the world of work. Occupational life has in this century been self-sufficient enough to relegate religion to the margins of personal and emotional life, denying it the center. As a result, Christianity, and any other form of faith, has found itself domesticated in the home, in private morality, and in Sunday services, but firmly fenced off from daily work.” (page 23) If our faith is not fully lived, then Christians have no faith. “And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” (Mark 3:25)
I believed that my ‘calling’ was to serve the community through the gifts that God gave me. I went to seminary to learn theological theory before I used it in practical mission. The vast majority of people work outside of the organized church in secular vocations. Only a very small minority of workers use their God given gifts in church professional ministry (less than 1%).
“True to his absorption with secular work, the average layman reasons that businessmen and others would surely not be ‘called’ by God, for they are completely preoccupied, too busy with other things. So when a Christian does feel that the Holy Spirit has laid hold upon his life, most church members assume that he or she will ‘leave the world’ to prepare for service as a missionary or otherwise take up an employed Church task.” (pages 23–24)
The authors of the New Testament understood our 24/7 faith within a secular world. “For the New Testament claim is that every Christian believer is summoned to full-time Christian work, while a few are called to church vocations. Happy is the layman who does find his occupation a veritable ministry to God: every Christian should share his dedication.” (page 25) I am at peace with my faithful calling in the secular community and joyful that my seminary welcomed my lay ministry along with those called to church ministries. Both serve God and our community equally and faithfully.