Training Session 39: Integrating Faith & Work: The Hurdles

Key Scriptures

1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:23; Rev 21:5

Hurdle #1: How We View Our Work

How many hours a week do you do work that is ministry-related?  Stop and think about it.  Seriously, stop—don’t read anymore.  Do 30 seconds of reflection to come up with a weekly number.  Now, list an answer in this blank_______; if you are reading online, jot it down on your phone or a piece of paper.  It doesn’t have to be an exact answer—just give a rough guestimate.

I have a friend who posted a similar question on Facebook.  One respondent answered seven hours a week, which wasn’t altogether surprising, but what was downright shocking was her occupation—she spends her waking hours rescuing trafficked women and providing recovery services for a Christian non-profit!  Despite working for an organization that virtually anyone would say is doing “God’s work,” she only saw herself as doing spiritual work seven hours a week!

Why is that?  Because she had drunk the same Kool-Aid we all have- ingesting the sugary drink served widely in our culture that energizes us to work so hard in our “secular jobs” because we have so many of our hopes and dreams wound up in our jobs; then, inevitably, as the sugar high wears off, we come crashing down when our work can’t carry the freight we have loaded on it.  Some of us reach the mountain top of our profession and, like the teacher in Ecclesiastes, find that it is empty, nothing more than “chasing after the wind” (Ecc. 1:17).  Others of us have struggled through being let go or fired, leaving us feeling like a pinball, bouncing from job to job, with a trunk full of broken dreams and strained relationships.

All the while, for those of us who are followers of Jesus, we struggle to reconcile our sense of purpose, to connect the things we believe about God, with the things we do in our waking, working hours.  The reason we struggle so mightily is because in 21st century America, Satan has divided our work into categories God never envisioned, between spiritual work (you know, church stuff) and secular work (you know, the 8 to 5).  Sadly, we’ve bought his lies, leaving many of us feeling as if our deeply held convictions are deeply divided from the work we do in most of our waking hours during the day.

Sacred Vs. Secular Divide: How Did We Get Here?

Beginning as early as the third century, Christians began to adopt the Greco-Roman philosophy viewing work as a curse.  On the one hand, society, to the Greeks, was both architected and governed by the intelligentsia, so it seemed fitting to them that the privileged few should enjoy the blessing of leisure while the hoi polloi—the working class and the slaves—suffered through the curse of hard work.  On the other hand, the Church felt the need to both distance and distinguish itself from the pagan society all around it, drawing a line in the sand between what was holy (i.e. the physical church property and its ministers) and what was not (i.e. everything else).  As a result, work done by anyone other than a priest became increasingly unhinged from all that was considered spiritual.

Tragically, as the middle ages ensued, Satan built the divide between the sacred and the secular on the backs of the clergy.  The medieval Roman Catholic Church continued teaching that holiness meant separation from society (hence, monasteries).  Meanwhile, the priests had largely removed the Bible from the hands of the people, making those working as butchers, bakers, and candle-stick makers completely dependent on the priests for all things related to their spiritual growth.

Martin Luther, whom we’ll examine later, began the destruction of the divide between the sacred and the secular by championing the spirituality of all work:

“A cobbler, a smith, a peasant,” wrote Luther, “each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all like consecrated priests and bishops.”[1]

He reacted violently (per usual) against the holy huddles of monks who were thought to be doing “God’s work,” noting that, if done to the glory of God, “household chores are more to be valued than all the works of monks and nuns.”[2] Hopefully, Luther will help all of us approach our laundry differently this week, that we may do it to the glory of God!  Luther flung wide the gate for the priesthood, welcoming cobblers, blacksmiths, and all of humanity into ministry.  With the exception of immoral work, Luther believed that all work was consecrated work—all work was inherently spiritual.

Sacred Vs. Secular Divide:  How are we still here?

Sadly, the work that Luther began of tearing down the divide is far from over, and even worse, seminaries and churches often throw brick and mortar at the divide, cementing its future for generations to come.  For example, I attended a seminary committed to bridging this divide, yet even still I remember one of our best and brightest professors flashing a picture of a previous seminary class from decades past.  Grabbing a yellow pointer, he began circling person after person after person.  Like an attorney making a melodramatic opening statement to a jury, he looked us in the eyes and pleaded, “Character matters!  Every single person I just circled is no longer in ministry because they had some moral failure.”  To be fair, he was trying to keep us from driving our lives into the ditch morally, but the implicit takeaway was clear, “These people are no longer in ministry.  They were forced to go get a regular job at the bank—they are now relegated, like the hoi polloi, to ordinary, secular work.”

Grievously, Christians have developed a laundry list of questions and phrases like the one posed by my professor.  For instance, we say things like, “Hey, are you in full-time ministry?”  By asking this question, we act as if Jesus gave us another option.  See, we’re still working under the curse of the secular and sacred divide because we, the Church, continue to add bricks to the wall separating the two.  It’s our fault, and it’s in direct violation of our orders that “whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Col. 3:23-24).

Paul says whatever we do—not just in our “spiritual work,” but in all of our work, we have a boss, and it isn’t the boss who signs our paychecks.  Our boss is Jesus Christ, and it is him we serve in all of our work.  Whether we receive a paycheck or not, our work is all ministry from the moment our feet hit the floor until they are back in bed.  With every waking moment, our work should be done as an offering to the Lord.  Isn’t that, after all, ministry—work that is done in service to the Lord?  Therein lies the true Biblical definition of the Greek word used for ministry (diakonon)—it is one who serves.  At its core, ministry is service, something each and every one of us are called to do!

Hurdle #2: A Part-time Ministry Model

To solidify the divide between the secular and the sacred, Satan developed several (bad) models and cloaked them in Christian language.  One (horrible) model developed by Satan is to offer us “part-time ministry work.”  The “part-time ministry work” consists of the stuff you do for your church or Christian non-profit, but your full-time job has nothing to do with “ministry”—it is in business or education or the like.  This is wrong, on so many levels.  First, as we stated, ministry is service, and we’re all under orders to serve.  Second, all of our lives, not some of our lives, are to be lived for the glory of God: “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).  Whatever means whatever work we do is ministry, it’s service to the glory of God!

Under Satan’s (deceptive) part-time ministry model, Jesus did 30 years of secular work and three years of spiritual work.  Sadly, Satan’s (treacherous) part-time ministry model has become part of our common vernacular in the church. We say things like, “Jesus began his public ministry at the age of 30,” as if everything he was doing before the age of 30 wasn’t ministry!  Think about the irony of this model– God himself wasn’t even in ministry until he was 30!

Apparently, Jesus thought differently about what many in our world call “secular work.” He seemed to think his work as a carpenter was ministry (Mark 6:3).  The Greek word used for carpenter (tekton) is a term commonly used for an artisan or craftsman. He wasn’t biding time, wasting time, or killing time when he whipped out the chisel and shaped a chair.  Nor was he simply trying to pay the bills—He owned the cattle on a thousand hills.  Rather, the same God who put his fingers in the dirt and got to work in the book of Genesis put his fingers on wood and went to work, and it was ministry.  It was carpentry to the glory of God, as unto the Lord.

In fact, he would go on to clarify this when he said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34).   Jesus was acutely aware that He was sent by His Father.  He was on mission and never once wavered from the Father’s mission for Him. He was so enthralled with doing the will of His Father that doing so meant more to him than smashing some chocolate chip cookies and ice cream.  Doing the will of the Father was tastier to Jesus than a Krispy Kreme donut and cup of coffee.

Now, let’s apply this truth to carpentry. Jesus was both sent and called to the work of carpentry. The will of the Father was for him to work with wood.  The call of the Father was to carpentry.  That was his ministry. It wasn’t second best.  Then, at the age of thirty, after no less than 17 years of living out his calling as a carpenter, He was called by the Father to new and different work.  We would say he changed jobs, but to be clear, His ministry wasn’t beginning at thirty, rather it took on a new expression of the Father’s purpose and plan for his redemptive work in the world.

Hurdle #3: Some Go, Some Send

A second (debilitating) model constructed by Satan to deepen the sacred/secular divide is that some go (to the mission field), some send (to the mission field). In this model, the mission field is a mythical place (often far away), for professional “missionaries.”  They go to the front lines—the rest stay behind and write checks from our secular jobs! Every time churches trot out missionaries—the ones who have “gone” to the mission field—at an annual conference or “ministry spotlight” on missions on a Sunday morning, the divide often deepens because the conference or spotlight isn’t done in such a way that empowers every single person to GO and do the work of missions.  When churches only feature and support missionaries doing work we have been conditioned to think of as missions (i.e. evangelism, church planting, disciple-making, etc), the implicit takeaway for those in the audience who work at Applebee’s is, “I’m not a missionary, nor am I in missions.  I work at Applebee’s.”

Surely you have heard the old, well-worn cliché, “When you die you will never say, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.'”  We repeat that as if it is gospel truth with chapter and verse, primarily because of the chasm between the sacred and the secular in our culture.  But what if the office was a place brimming with the power and presence of the living God?  What if it was a place where you worshipped God in and through your work and experienced his presence leading you and empowering you to do the very things he created you to do?  Yet, in a debilitating way, we keep acting like the office is a God-forsaken place that demands way too much of our time away from the things that really matter, like family and church.

This kind of thinking has led to the impotence of the Church in the West by creating a frighteningly small, mythical group of “missionaries.”  You know, they are the ones we pray for and support at church to reach unreached people groups with the gospel.  Tragically, we’ve narrowed missions to mean taking the gospel to foreign places (which is true!) and even sharing the gospel with your local neighbors (which is also true!), but we give very little voice to the mission of God as a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker (which is debilitating!).  Tragically, we’ve reduced the cosmic scope of the mission of God—”the renewal of all things” (Rev 21:5)—to something so small and so churchy, when our Lord is actually after the reclamation of every square inch of the universe![3]

In a twist of providence and irony, British “missionary” Lesslie Newbigin, who spent much of his life as a “missionary” in India, saw how this model of missions led to the demise of the Western church.  In response, Newbigin began to lay the foundation for the contemporary missional church movement, which is a movement that calls every single Christian to live out the mission of God in every sector of society.

Much good work is being done in this area; so much more needs to be done.  Far too often, extraordinarily gifted Christians are given an extraordinarily tiny vision of the kingdom, one that both limits and equates kingdom service to service in the local church.  Pastors call volunteers to help them build their local church by volunteering in the typical ways–community group leaders, greeters, parking cars, and children’s ministry.  These are all necessary and good, because their local church won’t exist without an army of volunteers.  To be fair, there is nothing wrong with calling the church to serve in these areas, and doing so can be tremendously beneficial for the church member as they begin to exercise their giftings in the service of others.

Yet, as one who did so as the pastor of a local church for 13 years, I am beginning to see, after almost four years in the business world, that in the typical American church model, it is virtually impossible for a local church pastor to not over-index the role of his or her particular local church.  I was guilty of doing so myself! Why? Because calling people to give to and volunteer in your local church is the air you breathe as a pastor. Without doing so, you don’t have a job!  Without doing so, you can’t staff children’s church, have greeters on Sunday, and operate all the machinery required for the Sunday morning experience.   The implicit takeaway, for those in the pew, is that serving and building the kingdom means serving and building the local church, even though this would never be voiced.

Things have to change.  We can’t keep adding brick after brick to the wall separating spiritual work from secular work, all the while continuing to wonder why the church is in decline in the West.  Doing so has allowed Satan to keep the overwhelming majority of Christians on the sidelines for the overwhelming majority of their waking, working hours. The time has come for the Church to wake up and rise up!

This series on integrating faith and work is designed to function like smelling salts for the church.  In this series, we’re going to begin thinking and praying about a new model, one that gets us off the sidelines and into the game with our working lives.  We’re going to develop habits that will help us integrate our faith into every area of our lives, including our work.  Friends, King Jesus is calling us to partner with him in “making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).  He is inviting us to join him in his redemptive work in donut shops, law firms, hospitals, government agencies, and beyond.  As my good friend Steve Garber has said to me on many occasions, the goal is to help us move into each day with the guiding conviction that our vocation is not incidental to the mission of God, but integral to the mission of God.


Discussion Questions:

  1. What had the greatest impact on you in the training session?
  2. Read 1 Cor. 10:31. The first hurdle is overcoming how we view our work, so that we no longer make a division between our secular work and our spiritual work. After reading the first paragraph of the training session, how many hours a week did you write in the blank that you do spiritual work?  Discuss your answer and reflect on how this has impacted you in the past.
  3. Read Col. 3:23-24. The second hurdle to integrating your faith is not seeing yourself in full-time ministry.  Up until this point, have you seen yourself in full-time ministry?  Discuss why or why not and how this has impacted you and the work you do.
  4. Read 1 Cor. 10:31. The third hurdle to integrating your faith with your work is seeing yourself as one who sends others to the mission field but doesn’t actually go yourself. Discuss how this verse helps you overcome the hurdle that you aren’t called to the mission field and reflect on how this hurdle has impacted your spiritual journey in the past.
  5. Read Rev. 21:5. Describe how your work is involved in the renewal of all things.



[2] See Luther’s Commentary on Genesis

[3] There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!” (Quote from Kuyper’s inaugural address at the dedication of the Free University. Found in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Eerdmans, 1998), 488).


Stephen Phelan is a beloved son of God, husband to Bradford, dad of 4, crazy about his family in Alabama and former church family in San Diego, pastor of a mortgage company (what???), and joyfully astonished by the grace of God and the power of the Spirit.

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