In Part I of my blog on Dr. Robert Wuthnow’s book, The Crisis in the Churches: Spiritual Malaise, Fiscal Woe (Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1997), I describe his thesis that churches are in decline because they have not focused on the majority of their parishioners, the middle-class. He places some of the burden on the clergy: “Many pastors seem to be unaware of how little they understand the work lives of their parishioners.”(p. 112)
I can relate to Dr. Wuthnow’s statement. In my 50+ years of church attendance, I remember only one sermon on faith and work. During my two years of full-time theological study, there were no classes or discussions on faith and work. For my final semester Capstone paper, I independently chose to compare John Calvin’s and Karl Barth’s theology of work. I discovered that most Protestant mainline denominations do not focus on this important theological topic. Why?
It starts with the theological understanding of calling. “The calling of God to one’s vocation or line of work remains an important teaching in the eyes of most clergy.”(p. 88) Yet, this calling is usually limited in scope. “The only people who have a calling, who have a vocation, are those who are paid poorly, and so we make up for it by exalting their professional life by calling it a calling. For example, a nurse has a calling, a minister has a calling, we pay them not what they’re worth and so we exalt it by giving them a calling.”(p. 89) But what about secular workers, the majority of the congregants? Don’t they have callings?
Most of my fellow seminary students had work experience prior to entering seminary, varying from a few years to retired professionals working jobs such as teachers, physical trainers, lawyers, and engineers. What surprised me most is that we never discussed the relationship between our spiritual life and our previous work experiences. Most students were leaving their past secular vocations to begin a better line of work. Many expressed their frustrations with secular work and desired to exit the secular world. They were faithful Christians and I never questioned their callings to the church. What I did wonder is why their previous secular vocations were not callings of equal importance to God?
“Pastors need to understand clearly that secular work is itself a meaningful, satisfying activity and that it is important not simply as a means of feeding one’s family but as a form of ministry and service. They need to understand that classes for people who happen to work are not an effective substitute for classes that actually deal with the spiritual dimensions of work.”(p. 117-118) Clergy awareness of faith and work needs to begin before seminary. This includes hearing sermons, attending discipleship classes and recognizing the equal callings of secular vocations. Once in seminary, work theology needs to be taught, both scholastically and practically.
Martin Luther broke with the Roman Catholic Church over their belief that spiritual vocations are more important to God than secular. The theology of ‘the priesthood of all believers’ is still foundational to Protestant churches. In reality, the Catholic theology still lies in the Protestant shadows when one examines church priorities. When I asked a retired minister why my mainline Protestant denomination does not prioritize faith and work like some non-denominational churches, she replied, “They want to own you 24/7.” I believe that the eternal Creator desired obedience 24/7 rather than just on Sunday. More on this in Part III.