by The Table

How does one live a holy life in an unholy job? If God is supposed to grant us the desires of our hearts, why are some of us stuck in unbearable working environments? We’ve heard about holiness in the marketplace; now who can tell us what that looks like? If you’ve ever asked any of those questions, Dan Boone wants to help you find the answers. His latest book, The Way We Work: How Faith Makes a Difference on the Job, explores ways to turn servitude into servanthood. The Table recently asked Dan why he thinks it’s a message we need to hear. For many years, Dan served as a pastor; and since 2005 he has been the president of Trevecca Nazarene College in Nashville, Tennessee. An effective communicator and speaker, he is the author of several books, most notably, Charitable Discourse: Talking About the Things That Divide Us, published in 2011 by Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City.

WHAT WAS YOUR MOTIVATION FOR WRITING THE WAY WE WORK?

Ten years I’ve been out of pastoral ministry, and there is something about working that eight to five, Monday to Friday job. I go to worship differently than I did during the preaching part of my career. Without the load of pastoring, I can stand at the door and hear the stories of people about their work weeks. It dawned on me one day that during my pastoral ministry I was always cajoling my people about volunteering some of the last ten hours of their weeks. How could I just get five or six of those hours for the church—working with the youth, teaching Sunday school or Bible studies, serving on a board? “What if,” I thought one day, “I’d spent that amount of time working on energizing people’s first forty or fifty hours—the ones they spend in their workplaces? What if I had given as much attention to how they lived as Christians where they earned their livings—the places they encountered more lost people than they ever would at the church? What if I’d made it a priority to energize the laity and the way they work? My pastoral ministry would have been much more effective. I don’t deny that the church needs volunteers, but if I had flipped the priority and encouraged people about ministering where they work, we would have strengthened the church. That’s what drove me to write the book. I wanted a Christian theology of how we spend that primary segment of time in the workplaces of the world. 

IN WHAT WAYS DO YOU DISTINGUISH HOW CHRISTIANS SHOULD VIEW WORK OVER AND AGAINST THE VIEWS OF SECULAR CULTURE?

I think God’s strategy of evangelizing the world may have a whole lot to do with work. We use the word “vocation” as a holy, sacred calling. When Christians go to work, I want them to sense that God is already there, calling them to join him in what he is doing in that particular place.

It’s most likely that the Christian testimony will be heard when the way a Christian uses power is experienced by non-believers, and they begin to see a different way of approaching authority in the workplace. You’re in a marketing meeting, for instance, and a marketing slogan comes up. A secular person says, “Well, we could appeal to sexual desire,” which is how a lot of marketing is done. Appeal to a legitimate desire, but it’s really a bait and switch. You get in the door through your customers’ desires, and then divert attention to a product. What if, instead, a Christian thinks about how his product actually serves the customer’s—or his neighbor’s— needs, thus building a better society? That is evangelism of the highest level. What if television commercials or billboards everywhere suddenly employed a dignified way to talk about their products? The differences that Christians can make are enormous if we can help them approach their work from a godly perspective. That’s how Christians differ from secular people in the workplace.

HOW DO YOU HONOR GOD AT WORK IF YOU ARE IN A DIFFICULT JOB YOU DISLIKE? 

We have good company in Scripture. Look at Exodus. Did the people of God lose their identity while working for Pharaoh? They wanted out of there. They wanted out badly. But somehow, their identity as God’s people was preserved even in slavery, even when they had no choice where they would go. Many of the people in our pews are debilitated by their jobs. There is drudgery and meaninglessness in work that doesn’t feed the spirit. They’re under dark powers in the workplace. They are suffering. And in the Christian story, suffering is the way of God. Jesus took the identity of the suffering servant of God from Isaiah 40—55. Isaiah’s suffering servant was a leader of God’s people during the Babylonian exile. They didn’t want to be there. They weren’t doing work they wanted to do. They weren’t even living where they wanted to live. They were suffering. But even in that place, God said to them, “It’s too small a thing that I should restore the fortunes of Jacob” (Isaiah 49:6, NIV). If all you want is to get to live where you want, do the work you want, in the place you want, then that’s too small an agenda for God. He said instead, “I will give you as a light to the Gentiles.” God’s agenda is not to get us out of the hard places we find ourselves in, but to make us a light to the Gentiles, to the pagans in those dark places. When I find a person who’s suffering in a difficult workplace, I tell them, “Instead of asking God to get you out of here, ask God to help you find meaning for being here. Ask God to sustain you so that you might be light in the darkness. In a place where others are suffering, you could become the very presence of God.” A part of why I wrote this book was to try to help the church understand how to sustain people who suffer in hard workplaces. If the church could help them articulate that, and surround them in prayer and support and restoration, we may open one of the greatest fields of witness that we’ve ever had. We’ve not thought about the church’s ability to be present in hard workplaces, and I think God is calling us there. God’s already there, but is now wondering when his church is going to show up.

HOW DO STUDENTS AND HOMEMAKERS FIT INTO THIS IDEA OF VOCATIONAL DISCIPLESHIP? 

If we only talk about people who get a paycheck, we miss a lot of the work being done in this world. My wife reminds me that she has worked her whole life, even though she received a paycheck only a short time. I watched her work with our children: the places that she took them; the things that she did with them; the way that she labored to make their lives creative. I have seen her minister in the neighborhood. Many of our neighbors know Christ today because Denise met other moms and led them to Christ. I watched her befriend college students: having a Facebook presence; mentoring the women’s soccer team. I see her go above and beyond the call of duty doing those things. When we recognize such work as insignificant, we devalue the homemakers in our world. There’s a misconception that because they don’t bring home money, what they do is less important. But the majority, possibly as many as ninety percent, of Christians made the decision to follow Christ before they were ten years old. And that’s because of the influence of those stayat-home moms or dads who instill in children values that follow them throughout their lives. So it is important for us to value mothers and fathers who can and choose to stay at home.

Many college students aren’t getting paid while they are in school. But I remember when a pastor said to me, a college sophomore, “I hope you’re doing your pastoral work well.” I replied, “Well, I’m looking forward to serving a local church.” He said, “No, that’s not what I’m talking about. You are already serving the congregation you will lead one day. You’re serving them by the way you work as a student.” Something clicked in my mind, and I suddenly realized that in my education, I was already “on the job.” The quality of the work for the rest of my life depended on how seriously I took my education. So I tell students here at Trevecca, “You’re already on the job. You are demonstrating your respect for those you will serve one day by the way you read a textbook, by the way you write a report, and by the way you engage in classroom projects. You’re already working. Understand that. You’re not getting one now, but the paycheck that you earn one day, you will have deserved because of the way you do your work today.

YOU WROTE A CHAPTER ON KEEPING THE SABBATH HOLY, WHICH HAS BEEN INTERPRETED MANY DIFFERENT WAYS— FROM DOING NOTHING BUT WORSHIP TO DOING ANYTHING THAT PROVIDES REST FOR THE SPIRIT. WHAT GUIDANCE DO YOU HAVE FOR THOSE WHO STRUGGLE WITH THIS COMMANDMENT?

Sabbath defines and describes God’s people. Sabbath comes to us in the biblical Creation story, but then it disappears for a long time, until the Hebrews are slaves down in Egypt and they have no Sabbath. They’re Pharaoh’s brick-making machine, working seven days a week, non-stop, to build for him. And then they get out in the middle of the wilderness, and here comes this fresh commandment. “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” I don’t think Sabbath is best understood as some law that prohibits working seven days a week anymore. That’s not what God was all about. If we are wedded to our work, or our work is the god that drives and enslaves us, or even the idol that we worship, we forget who we are. Sabbath is the means of interrupting a weekly routine to recalibrate our spirits. It’s so we might gather together, tell the defining stories about who we are, and remember that we are the playful children of a playful God. Sabbath is broader than just going to church together and taking a nap that afternoon. Sabbath is about asking, “What refreshes my spirit?” For some, that’s a long bike ride. For others, it’s fishing, making music, or watching movies. Some folks get out on a golf course and chase a little white ball all over. You have to ask yourself, “Besides gathering with the people of God to worship, and besides being with my family, what things do I do that when I finish I say ‘This is what I was meant for?’” That kind of Sabbath is a gift, not an obligation. We ought to receive that God-given gift and use it to the hilt.

This interview is part of a series accompanying videos here.


DAN BOONE serves as president of Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tennessee.

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