The World of Work: Forgotten Missionfield?

I have long been convinced of God’s sense of humour. A few years ago, when I was a minister in Sheffield, I was privileged to be able to study for an MA in Evangelism Studies at Cliff (a well-timed sabbatical proved invaluable!) The title of my dissertation was the same as that of this article[1], and I sought to investigate how the church could and should be supporting, resourcing and encouraging its members who are engaged in paid employment. I really felt that God had led me to research this subject so that I could make a practical difference in my local church situation. Soon after I had completed my MA, I was called to move to Doncaster where the vast majority of my town centre church congregation is retired!

So was the research wasted? Absolutely not, for two main reasons. Firstly, the church as a whole still needs to wake up to the fact that the world of work is a key mission field, and its workers need supporting, encouraging and resourcing to be God’s people in the (often difficult) work situation. Thankfully, this is an area which has been given greater prominence in recent years. One of the key people in bringing the issue to our attention has been Mark Greene (his book Thank God It’s Monday[2] is a great read). Yet, of course, this isn’t a new idea, as if the church has never realised it before. In 1945 a document was produced called Towards the Conversion of England. One sentence of the report was printed in bold type: ‘We believe that England will never be converted until the laity use the opportunities daily afforded by their professions, crafts and occupations’. The tragic thing is that in the intervening years the church has never really taken on board the full implications of those words.

The research I undertook supported that carried out by others, and highlighted two key problems. Firstly, working Christians were generally receiving little or nothing from their churches which helped them in their workplace situation. They were given relatively few resources to enable them to bridge the gap between Sunday and Monday. Many felt great pressure to work out their faith through the local church - their paid ‘secular’ work was almost seen as a necessary evil. The second problem was that many working Christians had not themselves really grasped the calling to work out their Christian ministry in the workplace. I have come to heartily dislike the common understanding of the phrase ‘full time Christian service’. Isn’t that what all Christians are engaged in? As a young person (some years ago!) I had a sense that God was calling me to some form of mission work abroad. I well remember a conversation I had at the time with someone from the Methodist Missionary Society, who helpfully pointed out to me the very real possibility of being God’s ‘missionary’ in my current work situation (I was working as an accountant at the time).

This dichotomy was brought home to me in a personal way very recently. At the time of writing, my son, currently a university undergraduate, is hoping soon to travel to Israel to help with a summer peace camp, working with local children. Some church people have been generous in offering financial support, and I am sure that he will receive lots of prayer backing. What he is about to do will be clearly seen as ‘mission’. On the other hand, my younger daughter has recently qualified as a nurse, and has begun work on a children’s ward at our local hospital. Probably many people at church would see her work as good and positive - but I doubt that many would recognise that she is working in a mission field just as much as my son will be (even less, perhaps, if she was working, for example, as an engineer or a solicitor). Yet the reality is that she, like all Christians who go out to work, is called to be God’s person in the workplace.

As a minister, I believe that we church leaders must carry much of the responsibility for the woeful lack of support given to many working Christians. We ran a ‘Christians at Work Group’ at one of my previous churches. It was designed to give an opportunity to discuss workplace issues in an open and supportive manner, and to encourage and pray for one another. Those who came along to the meetings found them helpful and affirming. One of the group members was someone in a highly responsible executive position. He was due to lead one of the monthly group meetings. On the day when the meeting was to take place, I received a message to say that he couldn’t make the meeting because of commitment at work. My first reaction was to think ‘He should have made our meeting his priority!’ The error of this reaction soon dawned on me - the very purpose of the meeting was to offer support and encouragement, not condemnation. I am sure that we leaders, and the church as a whole, ought to do more to release people into workplace ministry.

Earlier in the article I said that there were two reasons why my original research was not wasted, despite that fact that I am now minister of a church where relatively few members are in paid employment. The second reason is that the principle underlying what I have stated so far applies to all Christians, whether or not they are in paid employment. It can best be summed up in Paul’s words, ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for people.’[3]. God is interested in every part of your life! In his eyes there is no division into sacred and secular parts of life. As Newbigin puts it, ‘The incarnate Lord is Lord of all, not just of the Church’[4]. Greene sums up the situation when he writes, ‘The key problem is that we have failed to regard all of life as significant’[5].

Even as I type these words I feel a passion for this subject being reignited within me! The challenge is there for church leaders to equip and encourage their people to live ‘Christianly in daily life - whether in the workplace, the home, the community or wherever, and to make what we do in the church building relevant to what we do outside. The challenge is there for every Christian to work out their faith in daily life - to be 24/7 Christians. What fantastic opportunities if we will seize them. How desperately our society needs to see God’s people living in God’s way in God’s world. Isn’t that what Jesus meant when he said that we are to be salt and light?[6]

[1] My dissertation was published by Christian Research as a Leaders’ Briefing (no. 15) and is still available from them (http://www.christian-research.org.uk)

[2] Scripture Union, 1997

[3] Colossians 3.23

[4] Newbigin L, Truth to Tell (London, SPCK, 1991) p.49

[5] Greene M, Christianity and Renewal (June 2004) p.52

[6] Matthew 5.13-16

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