By Daniel Darling
“My dream is to one day save enough money so I can quit my job and do real kingdom work.”
This is a sentiment I’ve heard many times over the course of my ministry. On one hand, it makes me rejoice to see followers of Jesus so committed to seeing the gospel spread around the world that they’d give up wealth and their career ambitions to make it happen.
I love to see people say yes to God’s call.
But at the same time, I cringe at the false dichotomy I hear in statements like this. As if “real kingdom work” only takes place when one is volunteering at church or getting a paycheck from a nonprofit organization.
Perhaps the reason people think this way is because church leaders have taught them to think this way.
I’ve mostly been employed by Christian organizations, so it hasn’t been hard to find meaning in what I do. I can point to a mission statement on the wall or find joy in the stories of lives changed.
But, sadly, for those who work for typical employers—which is most of the church—it’s a struggle to see the connection between their worship on Sunday and their labors on Monday.
Of course we know work is important because it provides income to support our families, provides funds to help give toward Christian mission, and becomes a means through which we can demonstrate and share the gospel.
But could it be that what we spend the majority of lives doing—in cubicles and cars, scaffolds and stations, airports and aisles—has important, eternal significance?
I think it does. But more importantly, the Bible says it does. And because of this, it’s incumbent upon us to speak of this often to those we lead. Here are some key points to remember when you encourage your congregation in their work.
1. Work is an essential part of our humanity.
We create because God creates.
Genesis 1 and 2 make the case that, unlike the rest of creation, humans were created in the image of God. This doesn’t only mean we’re valuable and have inherent worth—it does—but it also means we were created to, in some ways, reflect our creator. One of the most important ways we do this is in the way we work.
God is a working, creating God (John 5:17). As His image-bearers, our mandate is to subdue the earth and fill it with His glory (Genesis 1:27). God has given us the raw materials in His creation, and it is our duty to use them to image Him by creating things ourselves. When we create, we reflect the glory of the creator.
Of course, in a fallen world, our work is more difficult. But while the curse may make our work harder, more futile, and sometimes dispiriting, it doesn’t diminish the importance of the work itself. God cares about the work we do.
2. Work is how we love our neighbors.
Besides glorifying God, our work is also a way we love our neighbors as ourselves. The products we make with our hands help people flourish.
Consider the engineers who design our infrastructure, the designers who create new life-saving medical products, or the artists who beautify our public spaces.
Or consider the plumbers, electricians, and other tradesman who make our systems work in both our homes and places of business or the sales people who introduce new products to new markets.
From the most menial data entry or fruit-picking or table-waiting to the most visible CEO’s, work, when done with excellence and integrity, our communities flourish.
But work can also do the opposite. Sometimes work, rather than help people flourish, exploits and assaults their dignity.
Consider the way Pharaoh, greedy and bigoted, pressed the Hebrew people to produce. He ratcheted up their expected output and made more difficult their means of production. He didn’t see his employees as people, but as numbers on a balance sheet, cogs in a cruel wheel of greed.
Sadly, too often our work is more like Egypt than Eden.
Still, for those caught in a stifling 9-to-5 grind, we can find meaning in the seemingly meaningless by doing well whatever work we are given (Colossians 3:23). We should do this, not to please an unappeasable boss, but to glorify God and help our neighbors.
3. Work now is an internship for eternity.
If work was given as a good gift by God to His image-bearers before the fall, it means our work won’t stop when we die, but will only just be beginning.
The kingdom of God has dawned in Christ and, when He returns, will be fully consummated. This means our giftings, our callings, and our duties will carry on into the new Jerusalem, where we will rule and reign with Jesus.
Sadly, we tend to think of heaven as only spiritual, as a kind of eternal soul sleep or a never-ending hymn singalong in the clouds. But the future kingdom of God will be even more real than this fallen world. And our lives now are only preparing us for what we’ll be doing in eternity.
Russell Moore says it well: “Our jobs—whether preaching the gospel or loading docks or picking avocados or writing legislation or herding goats—aren’t accidental. Our lives now are shaping us and preparing us for a future rule, and that includes the honing of a conscience and a sense of wisdom and prudence and justice.”
This is good news. Imagine fulfilling our callings and exercising our giftedness without the weight of the fall. Imagine our ability to create without frustration, fatigue, and false motives.
4. Work is a visible sign of God’s renewal of the world.
Our work not only prepares us for eternity, it gives the watching world a glimpse of eternity. If the church is the outpost of the kingdom of God, then the way we work, with excellence—renewing, restoring, building—shows the world what the future kingdom will look like.
Every broken bone set, every new and innovative piece of technology, every piece of art in some way points toward a better world to come.
It’s true that, at the end age of the age, much of what we’ve built will be destroyed—not in a fire of destruction, but in a fire of refinement. God will put everything created through a refining process, filtering out the works that are destructive, impure, and unfit for the New Jerusalem.
What’s excellent and beautiful will remain, only polished and perfected for eternity.
So as people work, we work not only for ourselves. We work for others. We, by our commitment to doing good, image the world to come and invite those far from God to ask questions, to inquire, and ultimately, to find rest in Jesus.
5. Work is a part of discipleship.
When most of us think about discipleship, we think about the spiritual disciplines and evangelism. These are an essential part of growing in Christ, but given how intimately work is embedded in our identity as image-bearers, we should also think about our work as part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
This is why Paul often talked to the churches about their work. Few, if any, of his original readers would be involved in “full-time Christian ministry.” Most would be making a living in some fashion. So he embedded in his letters much application toward their daily vocations.
The gospel changes the way we see our work. It adds a newfound significance. It elevates us from hum-drum, cynical employees to servants of the King. Every day may not feel like heaven, but every day at the job matters in heaven.
This is why it’s important for pastors to constantly season their preaching and teaching with application toward the average working man. This is where church leaders need to get out of their church bubbles and imagine life for the person who makes sales calls, bakes cookies, or works the night shift at the hospital.
Too often we assume our people are as cloistered with books and Bibles as we are and our sermons or Sunday School lessons fail to connect with where the average person is.
But if we are going to disciple well, we must disciple our people in the way that they do their jobs.
Suggestions for shepherding working people
It’s one thing to remind people of these five truths through sermons, one-on-one conversations, or Sunday School lessons. It’s another to demonstrate that we know their work is important—and encourage them. Here are three practical ways to do that:
- Know what a typical day is in the life of your congregants. A leader, especially of a larger church, probably can’t know everyone in the congregation. But they should know some. Ask your people good questions about their jobs, what a typical day is like, and what some of the pressure points are. Show genuine concern for what they’re concerned about.
- Visit your people in their place of business. This isn’t always possible, but often you can visit your people where they work. Stop by their office and say hello or swing by the jobsite or school and chat. Get out of your office and get a sense of what life is like for the average Christian in your church.
- Keep them in mind when you prepare your sermons. Ask yourself, “How does this text apply to my people on Monday?” This is especially important when using illustrations. Resist the urge to take every illustration from a pastor’s life. We pastors live unusual, uncommon lives. Instead, pick things that could actually occur in a cubicle or a kitchen or in a sales meeting.
DANIEL DARLING (@dandarling) is vice president of communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and teaching and discipleship pastor at Green Hill Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. He is the author of several books, including The Dignity Revolution.