A Tale of Two Ends

Phil Kenneson
Phil Kenneson

Posted by Inagrace Dieterrich

Over the next few months the Center Blog will share the presentations of Dr. Phil Kenneson in the 2016 missional church convocation held in the Chicago area on the topic of “Redeeming Work.”


To begin the discussion, we will seek to accomplish two things. First, we want to explore together some of the most fundamental ways people are formed to think of work in our culture. What are the most pervasive assumptions people have internalized about work, in many cases from an early age? How do those assumptions shape their choices about and experience of work? Second, we want to rehearse briefly the story of God’s work, God’s mission in the world, and how God has called us as the people of God to be part of that work.


A theology of work is not something that is usually focused on. At issue is how might, how should Christians think about work? The few times I remember the topic coming up in a congregational setting was around how to be a Christian at work, how to be a good employee working for excellence, or how to witness at the water fountain. Now there is a place for those kinds of discussions. But what has bothered me is, how do Christians think about the actual work? Do we have a way of thinking about work that is any different than anyone else?

A Theology of Work.

In the church I grew up in, we were told very clearly that the way the church thinks about sex is very different than the way the world thinks about it. There were other things that we had to be clear that we thought different about. But nothing was said about work. So the assumption seems to have been that Christians don’t think any differently about the actual work. The way American culture thinks about work must be just fine. So a lot of people within our congregations have the default view of our culture about work.

If Christians are called to have a peculiar or a specific view of work that actually flows from our story of what we think God does in the world, what would it be? The greatest number of our waking hours are engaged in some sort of work. How are those hours integrated into Christian discipleship, into God’s mission in the world? If we do not consciously work out a distinct theology of work, we are destined to live hopelessly fragmented lives. In church on Sunday we will have a particular vision of the world, while during the week another vision will shape our lives.

Two Different Views of Work.

work_evilWe are going to try and tease out two different views of work. On the one hand, the “normal” or default view consists of the deep, unspoken assumptions that our culture gives us about work. We have internalized deep assumptions about work, some spoken, some more subtle than others: What is work? How does it fit into our lives? What is good work?” How is work bound up with our identities? Just by breathing the cultural air, most of us have this “normal” view. It influences our imaginations and forms the horizon within which we experience work.

For example, many people have been shaped to view work as a necessary evil. The necessary part is obvious: work pays the bills and takes care of our families. But the second part is also true. For many people, there is something distasteful about work. They only do it because they have to. For many the idea of non-work is preferable. For example, dreams of early retirement or winning the lottery.

On the other hand is the “kingdom” view of work.” Jesus announced a new thing, the reign or kingdom of God which was breaking in by means of Jesus’ person, message, and ministry. Thus we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done.” What is the role of work within God’s kingdom? How might we talk about that? What is the story Christians have to tell about work?How are the hours we spend at work integrated into Christian discipleship, into God’s mission in the world?

I think Scripture is trying to tell a different story than the normal view of work. One word we might use is that work is a privilege, a gift. At the heart of the Christian story we tell work is a gift given to us by God. All too often in the popular Christian imagination, a particular story is told: people are seen as sitting around the Garden of Eden relaxing and enjoying themselves, but when they disobey God, God says, “Get to work.”But this is not the way the story goes at all. One of the most amazing and un-reflected upon points is that God created a world that is open to our work. I can imagine a God who created a world that is complete and self-sustaining. But the way God created the world, work is part of God’s design. Adam and Eve had good work to do before they disobeyed. Rather than punishment, work is a part of God’s good design. It is true that after they disobeyed God the earth became more resistant to their work and labor became more painful. The curse is not work itself, but that some forms of work would become more difficult, more painful, more toilsome. So work is good in God’s original design, a privilege and a gift, a call to participate in God’s ongoing creation.

“Normal” View of Work.

(Listed below are some of the common assumptions about how work functions in our lives that were solicited from convocation participants and then discussed together)

  1. Work is a necessary evil which pays the bills and supports our families.
  2. Work is what you do for pay, it is “gainful” employment where money changes hands.
  3. TGIF: we reward ourselves for work during the week by the leisure and fun things of the weekend. “I get to be who I really am during the weekend.”
  4. Hard work leads to success. If you work hard and play by the rules, you will succeed; thus, don’t be afraid of hard work.
  5. Work is a marker of identity.In social situations, the first thing people want to know after they know your name is “What do you do?” This is code for “what do you do for pay?”because our assumption is that your work or occupation is the key that unlocks your identity. If you don’t do work for pay, then who are you? This assumption has implications for the unemployed, the retired, and stay-at-home parents.You are what you do for pay.
  6. Different kinds of work have different value and status. People are all too often respected and treated according to the kind of work they do.Higher status is not necessarily tied to compensation, since plumbers may make more than professors, but culture often regards the social status of the former as lower than that of the latter.
  7. Time is money. The more work you do the more money you should make. The more time it takes, the more you should be worth. Thus vacations are frowned upon as money wasted.
  8. Instrumental: work is a means to an end. This end is normally understood in financial terms: the money we earn from work pays our bills and keeps the economy going. Many people feel that their work doesn’t contribute to the common good. World says don’t worry about that, it sends your kids to college. What makes a better job better is better pay.
  9.  Competition. Many occupations are adversarial: my job is to get ahead of others, to destroy the competition. In some settings competition can be toxic. How can I cooperate with you if we are competing for the same promotion?

Kingdom View of Work.

(Listed below are some possible alternative assumptions about work derived from our understanding of God’s work in the world that were solicited from convocation participants and then discussed together)

  1. Work is a privilege and gift which enables humans to participate in and contribute to God’s ongoing creative and redemptive activity in the world.
  2. Work is related to issues of justice and fair play. All people are to receive fair compensation for their efforts. The kingdom view raises issues related to the current inequality of wealth and access to work, as well as concerns of race, ethnicity, and gender. Also brings up how resources are to be shared with children and others unable to work.
  3. Forced labor is viewed as wrong. The focus is on a living wage for all people rather than what the market will bear.
  4. Contributing to the greater good. Most people would like to be engaged in the kind of work that contributes to the common good. What is the church’s role and responsibility to create this kind of work? Is there enough good work to go around? Part of what is redeeming about work is not just full employment but good work.
  5. Social relationships. A great part of what people value about work is the opportunity to interact with other, to form friendships that enhance their personal and corporate lives.
  6. Kingdom work would have boundaries, we don’t force people to work for 30 cents an hour and don’t put children to work in horrid conditions.

Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. What do you think is involved in a “theology of work”? Why is it important to develop such a theology?
  2. Can you recall a time when work was discussed within your congregation? What assumptions about work were expressed?
  3. What difference does it make to view work as part of God’s design rather than as a punishment for disobedience?
  4. As you look at the assumptions expressed under a “normal” view of work, what catches your attention? What would you add to the list?
  5. As you look at the assumptions under a “kingdom” view of work, what catches your attention? What would you add to the list?


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


Work in the Spirit

This post offers some initial reflection on the contributions of Miroslav Volf. He identifies the wide-ranging significance and implications of work, declaring it is “the basis of individual human life and all human history.” Volf seeks to develop a broad framework for a theological and ethical discussion of work.


Join this conversation by leaving a comment below as you read. Come back to this blog often in coming months as we share key insights of Dr. Phil Kenneson keynote speaker at this year’s convocation, July 21-23, 2016, on the topic of “Redeeming Work: Living Wholly within God’s Reign”.


In his book, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work, Volf offers a comprehensive definition of work: “Work is honest, purposeful, and methodologically specified social activity whose primary goal is the creation of products or states of affairs that can satisfy the needs of working individuals or their co-creatures, or (if primarily an end in itself) activity that is necessary in order for acting individuals to satisfy their needs apart from the need for the activity itself.”Believing that economic systems should follow the dictates of theological reflection, he suggests three normative principles by which economic systems should be judged: freedom of individuals, satisfaction of the basic needs of all people, and protection of nature from irreparable damage.

The Crisis of Work.

Exploring the “problem of work,” Volf outlines the ways in which current world economic systems are not meeting these criteria. He sees a worldwide crisis manifesting itself in negative attitudes toward work. On the one hand technology has transformed people from crafters to machine workers to machine overseers. The progression obviously has certain economic benefits. On the other hand no society, regardless of its relative industrial progress, has completely solved such problems as child labor, unemployment, discrimination, exploitation, and pollution. Moreover, market forces and corporate decisions beyond the control of rank-and-file laborers alienate them from their jobs and each other.


God’s New Creation.

Turning to a theology of work which reflects upon the nature and consequences of human work, Volf explores the “ultimate significance of work” within the biblical and theological vision of God’s “new creation.” “Christian life is life in the Spirit of the new creation or it is not Christian at all. And the Spirit of God should determine the whole life, spiritual as well as secular, of a Christian. Christian work must, therefore, be done under the inspiration of the Spirit and in the light of the coming new creation.” Such a theology of work is normative since it is about what human beings should desire their work to be. “What people desire is objectively desirable only when it corresponds to what the loving and just God desires for them as God’s creatures. And God desires the new creation for them. New creation is the end of all God’s purposes with the universe, and, as such, either explicates or implicitly is the necessary criterion of all human action that can be considered good.” Thus a theological interpretation of work is valid only if it facilitates the transformation of work toward the coming new creation which will bring God, human beings, and the nonhuman creation into “shalomic” harmony.christian_life

The Role of the Holy Spirit.

Such a theology of human work rests in an understanding of God’s gifting humanity with clear purpose and a variety of abilities (charisms) to enable the fulfillment of that purpose. And at the heart of such a vision is the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit of God calls, endows, and empowers Christians to work in their various vocations. The charismatic nature of all Christian activity is the theological basis for a pneumatological understanding of work.” When the work of human beings exhibits commitment to the new creation (what Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit”) then the Spirit is working in and through them. For Volf, the whole Christian life is a life of cooperation with God through the presence and activity of the Spirit. “As Christians do their mundane work, the Spirit enables them to cooperate with God in the kingdom of God that ‘completes creation and renews heaven and earth.’”

Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. How would you define “work”? What catches your attention in Volf’s definition?
  2. How well do you see current economic systems fulfilling Volf’s three criteria? Are there other criteria you would add?
  3. In what way does the concept of “God’s new creation” provide a valid framework for a theology of work?
  4. How does thinking of work in terms of the “fruit of the Spirit” impact the role and importance of work?
  5. Why should Christians seek to develop a theology of work?


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


Working with “stuff” in A God-Centered World

convo2016logo150Join this conversation on the theology and practice of ‘daily work.’  Leave a comment as you read, and continue the conversation at the missional church convocation in Chicago area, July 21-23, 2016, Dr. Phil Kenneson keynote speaker.


Living and working within a God-centered world—participating in God’s economy—means establishing a new standard of what is real and what is important. The New Creation inaugurated by Jesus Christ turns things upside down.

Our relationship with possessions is transformed in a God-centered world.

For example, the Gospel of Matthew illustrates an alternative approach to material possessions: Three central teachings can be identified:

(1) “You cannot serve God and mammon” (6:24). The story of the rich young man (19:16-30) tells of a pious Jew, following God’s commandments and living a good life. Yet when confronted with Jesus’ request to “go, sell what you possess…and come, follow me,” his possessions appear to mean more than his salvation.

(2) Acknowledging God as Lord affects the attitude that people have toward material with_gift_spiritgoods. While it is true that life is “more than food, and the body more than clothing” (6:25), both food and clothing are good things (7:11) given by God. Jesus went so far as to liken the reign of God to a marvelous feast (22:1-14). Although appreciating material blessings as God’s gifts, followers of Jesus are not to accumulate possessions or become unduly devoted to them.

(3) God’s people ought to regard material possessions as resources God trusts them to use as God wishes. Rather than storing up earthly treasures for personal use, devotion to God means devotion to the “least,” to those who are hungry and thirsty, the stranger, those who are naked and sick, as well as those who are in prison (25:34-46).

In the Genesis 1 account, all the created world and its resources and riches are pronounced “good.”  The biblical witness then goes on to envision their usage within the context of God’s economy. While we tend to talk about “our money” and “our possessions,” such ownership is illusory since all that exists belongs to God. As gracious gifts given by God, material goods are to be used for God’s purposes. In other words, possessions are not ends in themselves, but have an instrumental value. In a God-centered world, through what human beings receive, make, and possess they are to honor God and participate in God’s redemptive activity.

Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. What happens when we believe that everything we have belongs to God?
  2. What difference would it make in your relationship to material possessions – your stuff – to relate to these within the context of God’s economy?
  3. Read Gal. 5:16-25. This text invites us to “walk by the Spirit.” We might not immediately relate this text to human work or our work lives. Consider these questions:
    • Where do you see evidence of the “works of flesh” within cultural views of work?
    • What changes if the goal of work life is the “fruit of the spirit”?


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


Working within a God-centered World

The world is God’s good creation but I think most would agree the quality of life within God’s world is not as God intended.

convo2016logo150Join this conversation on the theology and practice of ‘daily work.’  Leave a comment as you read, and continue the conversation at the missional church convocation in Chicago area, July 21-23, 2016, Dr. Phil Kenneson keynote speaker.

printer_friendlyHuman beings are capable of both breathtaking kindness and horrible cruelty. In Orlando at the Pulse Nightclub community last Sunday 50 people were struck down by an unspeakable act, with as many more injured.  We at the Center for Parish Development and the wider watching world join them in this time of deep and uninvited grief.  God’s good world is a place where persons can live in comfort, and is also a world in which millions of people tragically suffer from the effects of poverty, hunger and disease, violence and too early deaths.  

Where is the biblical vision of shalom — thriving and flourishing in communities of peace and abundance? 1

God’s economy

The big picture view from “God’s economy” provides a perspective on some key underlying assumptions about the arrangement or management of the world and its affairs.

Ordinarily, the term “economy” is associated with the production, distribution, and consumption of wealth or material goods. Yet the theological concept of the economy of God refers to the “divine economy,” God’s arrangement or management of the world and its affairs. Thus the phrase “the economy of God” provides a comprehensive way to speak about God’s active and purposeful work within all of God’s creation. Rather than an absentee landlord, the Christian God is one who spoke and speaks, who acted and acts, who planned and executes a design to transform the world into a habitat in which all of God’s creatures can have life and have it abundantly.

Our world’s economy of consumption leaves some with the world’s goods, and many many more without.  Within this world, missional congregations are called to witness to God’s economy, that is, God’s arrangement and management of the world and its affairs.  God’s economy is one of abundance and generosity, individual greed transformed into all-inclusive communities of love and sharing.   Christians are to be shaped by overwhelming gratitude for the abundance and wonder of God’s good gifts, and an overflowing generosity which seeks to share with all people the joy, compassion, and righteousness of life with God.

An attitude of shared abundance

“God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance….” (2 Cor. 9:8). Rather than operating on the basis of scarcity, God’s economy is one of shared abundance, the promise of full and abundant life for all of God’s creatures: “God’s mercy is so abundant, and God’s love for us so great” (Eph. 2:4). Assuming a world of scarcity does dreadful things to people. We become afraid and defensive. We become selfish, competitive, and protective of our own self-interests and possessions. These attitudes and behaviors destroy community. They do not make room at the table for the hungry or for the stranger. Assuming a world of scarcity makes human life less joyful, less adventuresome, and less compassionate.

The biblical witness offers a very different perspective. All that human persons require—food, health, life itself—are not “needs” or “rights” which they have to struggle to satisfy or obtain, but are gracious gifts from a loving God. While we may be able to conceive of a God who meets our needs or who rewards us for hard work, a God who bestows undeserved and even unasked for gifts upon us is almost beyond our comprehension. But this is the God affirmed by Scripture: “The eyes of all look to you, you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing” (Ps. 145:15-16).

Throughout Scripture God is revealed as the deliverer and avenger of the poor and oppressed. Those who are wealthy are instructed to relinquish their wealth and power for the sake of the poor. Isaiah declares that the fast in which God delights involves breaking the yoke of oppression, sharing our bread with the hungry, and bringing the homeless poor into our homes. Money and possessions are not peripheral issues but are at the core of Christian discipleship. In a God-centered world of shared abundance and generosity, we are freed to place food and clothing, property values, investments and jobs into a transformed perspective. Responding in overwhelming gratitude to God’s gracious economy, the Christian community is empowered to engage in the risky practice of generosity.

Next post:  Our relationship with ‘material things’ – A Transformed Perspective in a God-centered World.

Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. What is the difference between God’s economy and the usual understandings of economy?
  2. How is your view of “food and clothing, property values, investments and jobs” changed when placed within a God-centered economy rather than an economy of consumption?
  3. How does an “attitude of scarcity” have an effect on you, your church, your world?
  4. What difference would an “attitude of shared abundance” make?

1 Peter Vander Meulen, “Do Justice—Keep It Simple, in Christian Reflection (Baylor University, 2007), p. 61.


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


The Daily Life of Work within the New Testament

Is work a blessing or a bane? Is it a duty or a privilege? Do we work to live, or live to work?

convo2016logo150Join this conversation on the theology and practice of ‘daily work’ from the angle of God’s mission and the missional church. Leave a comment as you read, and continue the conversation at the missional church convocation in Chicago area, July 21-23, 2016, Dr. Phil Kenneson keynote speaker.

Our cultural context shapes the understanding and experience of work in a number of ways by assuming that work is: (1) equivalent to employment, (2) shapes our personal identity and worth, (3) has no value in itself but in what it makes possible, (4) is simply a means to an end—a necessary evil.

A Biblical Perspective.

Rather than considering work as a peripheral issue, a “secular” concern on the fringes of Christian thought and life, the Bible presents a different perspective. Consider David Jensen’s helpful summary: “Biblical narratives overflow with work. Between the opening lines of Genesis, which portray God as a worker, and the closing chapter of Revelation, with a vision of new creation, God labors. One of the distinguishing characteristics of biblical faith is that God does not sit enthroned in heaven removed from work, willing things into existence by divine fiat. Unlike the gods of the Greco-Roman mythologies, who absolve themselves of work [or make work a punishment for troublesome persons) dining on nectar and ambrosia in heavenly rest and contemplation—the biblical God works.”1

GodatworkThe biblical creation narrative witnesses to the interconnection between our work, God’s work, and a creation that works. Thus human work is a significant way of participating in God’s creative and redemptive work in the midst of human life. In God’s economy, what counts is not the human ability to accomplish and make one’s way in the world, but the ability to continue the self-giving, self-limiting love of the creator.

The focus within the Bible is not just upon God’s working: but also upon God’s people working. God’s people are called to participate in work that God sees as good, endorses, and indeed participates in. While the Christian understanding of “God’s Good Creation” provides the church’s “window on the world,” the New Testament’s witness to God’s “New Creation” in Jesus Christ shapes the understanding of Christian discipleship, including the role of work in human life.

Work within God’s New Creation.

Continuing the discussion of “redeeming work,” this post and the next will draw upon the essay by Thomas Robinson, “On the Job in a God-Centered World: Understanding Everyday Work in the New Testament.”2 Robinson explores the question: “What does life—including work-life—look like in a world that places God and God’s love and grace at the center of all values and in which God is the most active worker of all?”

The life of daily work (hard labor, craftsmanship, accumulation of wealth, and toiling slaves) provides the cultural context of the writings of the New Testament. Not limited to wage-earning jobs or professions, “all of the activities by which people sustained and secured their lives and expressed their values and desires flowed into this vast social phenomenon. Work in one form or another consumed most of the waking hours of most days for most people.”

Then, as now, all work was done in order to create some value. People exchanged their life—time, energy, and ability—in order to secure the things they needed or desired. Work shaped life, and what people strived for shows what they considered to be most important. Therefore, in Luke, Jesus warned, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consider in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). And in John, he urged, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life” (John 6:27.)

Thus the New Testament views work, not as a separate category of life to be interpreted through a distinct “theology of work.” Rather, “work is life, and all the fundamental theological understandings that interpret and give meaning to life give meaning to work as well.” As the early Christians underwent a radical reorientation—a new creation—the experience of work was profoundly altered. God’s act of self-giving love in Jesus’ death and resurrection challenged believers to re-envision their entire life, including their work-life.working1

The new vision of life within the reign of God stimulated believers to a new view of work. “All kinds of issues surface, for example, the way anxiety and worry or greed and love of wealth motivate work, the temptation to abuse power and mistreat workers, or the destructive impact of willful idleness. In each case the task was the same, envisioning a life based on the core values of the gospel.” What does everyday work look like for Christians when every action is consciously performed for Christ by one who is a devoted servant of the Lord (Col. 3:17, 23-24)?

Even though the Christian community continued to live within a world shaped by long established structures of power hostile to God and God’s will, they believed that all work, no matter how ordinary, was marked by the process of new creation (Rom. 12:1-2). “If Jesus was true, nothing, not even the most mundane areas of life could ever be the same. God had established a new standard of what is real and what lasts. The work of a king, a hired plowman, a woman serving a meal, a merchant, even a slave, all now had to be seen in the light of that reality.”

Next blog post: Work within a God-centered world.

Questions for discussion and reflection:

  1. How does the biblical witness to God as a worker challenge cultural assumptions of work?
  2. In what way does the image of God as worker challenge your view of human work?
  3. What is the connection between work and money in the New Testament? (Read Luke 10:7; Rom. 4:4; 1 Cor. 9:7-10; 1 Tim. 5:17.)
  4. How do you react to the claim that “work is life” and thus to be interpreted theologically?
  5. Read Rom. 12:1-2 and 2 Cor. 5:16-18. What does new creation have to do with the understanding and experience of human work?

1David H. Jensen, Responsive Labor: A Theology of Work ( Westminster John Knox, 2006), p. 22.

2Thomas Robinson, “On the Job in a God-Centered World: Understanding Everyday Work in the New Testament,” in Leaven: A Journal of Christian Ministry, 2004.

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