The COVID-19 pandemic forced most employees to drastically change where, when, and how they work. The effects of those shifts are ongoing, but one result is already apparent: a workforce that is in many cases ready for a change in what they do or how they do it. A Harris Poll early this year found more than half of American workers were considering a job change in 2021.
“I think the nature of work has changed for most people,” said Pastor Greg Gilbert of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the co-author of the 2013 book The Gospel at Work. “Work has just become harder in a lot of people’s experience. It’s certainly required everybody to kind of rethink it.”
But adversity always creates opportunity, he said, and Christians know from Romans 8:28 the Lord is working all things together for good. “We may not always see how, but we know as a matter of conviction that He is,” Gilbert said.
The challenges of the last year can be a chance to rethink work and, for the Christian, to rightly position their vocation within life as a follower of Christ.
Idol or idle
Gilbert’s book, co-written with Sebastian Traeger, identifies two main categories of sinful thinking Christians can fall into concerning work: making it an idol or becoming idle in it. When work is an idol, he said, it takes on an importance God never intended it to have and becomes the main source of significance in the Christian’s life.
On the other end of the spectrum is a worker who has grown idle about their work. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not doing anything, Gilbert said.
“It can mean you’ve just lost a perspective on the fact that work really is meaningful. It’s not just a necessary evil. It’s not just a drudgery. It’s actually something the Lord means to give life and joy and fulfillment and happiness. Just not ultimate life and joy and meaning and happiness.”
It’s wise to be vigilant, consistently assessing whether you’re falling into one or both of those categories, Gilbert said, but there are also some warning signs to look for in diagnosing the problem.
“If you realize your entire week, your mood for a week with your family, with your kids, with your church, whatever it is, if that is being set almost entirely or largely by whether your personal stock at work is going up or down, whether you’re being successful or not, then there’s a real danger you’ve made an idol of your work.”
Or, he said, “If you hate your job, if the only thing you can think about is the grind of your job and you want to get out of it, it’s possible you’ve gone idle in your heart about work.”
Keeping the balance is difficult, Gilbert said. “But if you can catch that balance, it really imbues work with a whole different significance.”
Searching for purpose
A recent YouGov survey found most Americans are optimistic about whether their job is making an impact. A slight majority of Americans (55%) think their job is making a meaningful contribution to the world, while 22% do not. And even among those who don’t think their job is making a meaningful contribution, YouGov noted, 42% say their work is fulfilling. Overall, 67% of Americans feel personally fulfilled by their jobs.
An earlier Barna Research study found that among Christian workers, a majority said their church has provided teaching on aligning unique strengths, talents, and capabilities with their faith. Fewer were satisfied with how well their work fits their calling.
Leaders like Gilbert and others who have entered the conversation about work and faith have tried to help Christians connect how the gospel influences their everyday work. Tim Keller, former pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, wrote Every Good Endeavor to help believers think about restoring God’s purpose for work, as he explained in a video clip about the book.
“All work is rearranging the raw material of God’s creation for the purpose of human flourishing,” Keller said. “In the process you make money, and sometimes you even get self-esteem. But if money and self-esteem is the main reason you work, the work will be boring and very often it won’t add to other people’s lives.”
Redeemer’s Center for Faith & Work provides training for Christians who want to apply the gospel to every area of life, including their work. Programs include a multi-week course on Faith & Work 101, and the nine-month Gotham Fellowship designed to promote integration of faith and work.
Most churches don’t have a center dedicated to faith and work (although Redeemer has as part of its mission to help other churches teach the same principles). But church leaders can help people develop a biblical doctrine of faith and work, Gilbert said. His church has devoted a six-week Sunday School class to the topic. He also encourages pastors to think of the workplace as a specific category of application in their preaching. Just as some Scripture passages have specific things to say to husbands and wives or to Christians and non-Christians, the Bible speaks to workers, too. Questions of faith and work impact everyone, he said.
“Everyone is in a position of needing to support themselves and do something, and also work is one of the main things in our lives that tends to be a stressor. And so, to have a biblical perspective on it, to understand it correctly becomes really important, and can become a really important thing in having a joyful and happy Christian life.”