Presentation: A Tale of Two Congregations, Part One

Phil Kenneson
Phil Kenneson

Posted by Inagrace Dietterich


What might be some creative ways in which the church itself can become the locus for imagining and creating good work, and perhaps especially for the neighborhood in which it finds itself?

This post and the next by Phil Kenneson will make even more explicit how congregations and parishes might serve as the primary context in which we reframe and reshape Christian imagination about and engagement in our daily work.

The Role of the Church.

printer_friendlyIf God’s mission is to bring healing and wholeness to all of creation, to create a people who embody (even if imperfectly) what shalom and human flourishing might look like, it seems unimaginable that this will be possible if we do not adequately address our daily work. Good work was part of God’s original design, and so any renewed or restored humanity in Christ must also address this central aspect of human life. The church can no longer afford to convey (largely through its silence on the matter) that our daily work is tangential to our calling as the body of Christ.How might congregations and parishes begin to give proper attention to this vital aspect of human life? Clearly we need considerable teaching, encouragement, and support around this matter. We need a richer and deeper theology. We need sustained reflection on how our culture has shaped our understanding and practice of work for good and ill. And perhaps most importantly, the church needs to communicate clearly that the issue is not simply how to be a Christian at work, but how our work itself may play a role in God’s mission.

A Typical Congregation.

In telling this tale of two congregations, I’d like first to briefly profile what seems to happen in many if not most congregations, and then tell the story of another specific congregation that approaches these matters quite differently.  My hope is that the contrast will stir our imaginations to consider how our own congregations might come to see “good work” as central to God’s mission of shalom.

My very unscientific survey suggests that issues of our daily work, especially remunerated work, are addressed explicitly in congregational life in a relatively circumscribed way.  Many congregations will routinely encourage their members to “be salt and light” in their workplaces and to view those workplaces as opportunities for mission and relational evangelism. In a similar way, many Christians are reminded regularly that allowing Christ to be Lord of all of life extends to the workplace, and so attention should be given to being a responsible employee and employer.  With the advent of ubiquitous communication systems like email and texting and the shifting expectations about constant availability and the never-ending workday, conversations about so-called “work-life balance” are likewise becoming more common in congregations.  And finally, although most congregations avoid offering explicit guidance to their young people about the kinds of work for which they might be best suited, the clear signal given by most congregations (which echoes the larger societal voice) is that any legal work can be suitable and done to the glory of God.

As every good parent knows, we teach our children as much by what we don’t say as by what we do say, and so it’s perhaps important here to note what most congregations teach (unwittingly) by means of their silence.  Beyond the longstanding privilege granted to the work done by professional clergy and missionaries, very few congregations seem willing to wade into serious discussions about “good work” and what might count for “good work” from a theological perspective. In this respect, the church mirrors the larger cultural view that instrumentalizes work, finding work’s value less in the work itself, but in the (largely financial) benefits work delivers. As a result, church members could be forgiven if they sensed the church cares little or not at all about what kind of work they did as long as the work was legal (and perhaps not tied to the alcohol and sex industries), and they were faithful and generous in giving to the church. This message is also amplified by the paucity of guidance that most congregations offer their young people with regard to vocational discernment.  In other words, most young people rightly assume their church doesn’t really care what kind of work they do, because if they did care, they would surely help them discern what to do with their lives.  But few churches do, so most young people assume that little or nothing theologically substantive is at stake in these decisions.

Discerning Gifts.

As an aside, and as a Christian college educator, let me hasten to add that I don’t believe our Christian colleges do this very well either. One of the great burdens of young people in college is to choose their vocations. Most people throughout history have not had this freedom, but it is both blessing and curse. It is a huge burden continually to be asked what you are going to do with your life. How is a person supposed to know that at age 22? People keep saying, “You can do anything you want,” but that’s not nearly as helpful as it might seem. And it is particularly unhelpful if we as Christians believe that God has entrusted to every person gifts that might be used well in God’s work of shalom.

One of my deepest convictions is that God has actually given gifts to every human person that if cultivated well can be used by God to create a greater measure of healing and wholeness within all of creation. If this is so, this places a huge responsibility upon us as Christians and as congregations to help people identify, cultivate, and manifest those gifts for the life of the world. I fear most congregations are not engaged in this vital work.  We all too often think we are doing our young people a service by letting them be completely free to choose the kind of work they will do. Many Christians would be deeply surprised at how many young people intensely long to be guided by the wisdom embodied (but too often lying fallow) in their congregations.

When churches and Christian colleges are involved, I fear too often the extent of that involvement stops at administering batteries of tests and assessments to help them discern their gifts.  There may be a place for this, but what really matters to most us is what people who know us well see in us. If you have any doubts about this, ask yourself this simple question: If you have a strong sense of your own giftedness, how did you come to know this about yourself?  Because you took a test?  Or because over the years, people implicitly or explicitly identified and validated your giftedness? My hunch is that for most of us, it’s the latter.  And if this is so, how might we come to do this more intentionally in our congregations?  Such a practice presumes, of course, that we know our young people in our congregations well enough to be able to say, “Here’s what we see as some of the gifts God has given you.” And then we need to help them begin to imagine how they might use those gifts to bring a greater measure of wholeness to the world.

Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. Why should Christian communities address the issue of “good work”?
  2. What blocks the church from considering how work itself may play a role in God’s mission?
  3. What do you think is needed to enable the church to deal more effectively with work?
  4. In what ways does your congregation deal with issues of daily work?
  5. What does it mean to “instrumentalize” work?
  6. What more could the church do to offer guidance for young people in discerning their gifts for “good work”?


inagrace_smThe Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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