From the Archives – Five Reasons to Preach a Series on Work

In my five decades of attending Bible-preaching churches I’ve heard precisely one sermon series on work. It was my own, and was pretty weak.

It’s possible that the topic has been receiving systematic attention all over the place all these years, and I’ve just managed to miss nearly all of it. But I think not.

For whatever reason, work is a neglected subject, not only in topical preaching and teaching, but, in my experience, also in the applicational portions of expositional sermons. Often, when the workplace is referenced at all, the focus is solely on “being a witness” or “having a good testimony,” as though work couldn’t possibly have any other important purposes in a believer’s life.

So the topic seems not only to be underrepresented in pulpit work, but also to be poorly understood.

For several reasons, our ministries should include systematic teaching on work. Some of these reasons also point to the bigger picture of why work is important in the lives of Christians.

1. It’s OK to do topical work sometimes.

For the benefit of those who highly value paragraph-by-paragraph expositional preaching (as they should) and are hesitant to include any topical work in the mix, a few observations:

  • All systematic theology is topical teaching, and all properly executed topical teaching and preaching is systematic theology.
  • Systematic theology can be done badly or it can be done well. I’m talking about doing it well.
  • Catechism is systematic theology. It’s also topical teaching (the point being, for those who need it—topical teaching has a long and glorious tradition that goes back much further than the Second Great Awakening, and revivalism, and the sloppy topical preaching that became so widespread in their wake).
  • Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7, Paul’s in Acts 17, Jonah’s preaching to Nineveh—all topical sermons. (Admittedly they’re all on the same topic: repentance. Still … topical. The whole book of Deuteronomy is a series of sermons by Moses: all essentially topical, though there is some exposition mixed in.)

2. Most people spend at least 36% of their waking hours at work.*

It’s easy to forget this, if you’re a full-time pastor. I know; I was one for 13 years. When you’re a full-time ministry leader—or even a part-time leader who does some self-employment work on the side—you lose touch with how us regular working stiffs live.

We spend a sizeable chunk of our waking hours at the workplace, doing our jobs—day after day, week after week, year after year. Many of us also have a bit of a commute, and have jobs that continue to tug at our minds when we’re not on the clock. So it feels like most of our waking hours are spent on the job.

One implication of this is obvious, but still worth spelling out. Most of the Christian life does not happen at church or at church-related events. Since that’s the case, we need to face two additional realities:

  • If our application of Scripture only addresses church relationships and church activity, we’re connecting the Word with a mere 2% of Christians’ waking hours; we’re also creating the impression that Christian living only happens at church or when doing church activities!
  • If we expand our application of Scripture to include home life in addition to church life, we’re still only relating biblical principles to 64% of most Christians’ lives.

3. Work is often hard and frustrating.

“Work, how do I loath thee? Let me count the ways!” I don’t feel that way about my current job, but I’ve had jobs in the past that could inspire hate sonnets. That experience isn’t unusual.

The reasons for this are many, but they boil down to the fact that we humans broke the world (Gen. 3:17, Rom. 8:20-21, Rom. 5:12)—and so it’s full of problems and problematic people, not to mention poor alignment of skills with jobs.

On Sunday morning, a significant portion of people in the pews are dreading Monday morning (or whenever their next shift starts). Their jobs include unpleasant people, inadequate resources, unrealistic expectations, stressful surprises, and on top of all that, the fear of not doing well enough, getting a poor review, or losing their job to a robot or a competing company in a far away place.

These weary and heavy-laden folks need encouragement—not just the encouragement of a well-developed theology of suffering (as important as that is) but also the encouragement of a well-developed theology of work.

4. Scripture has much to say on the topic.

A bit of imagination and some time with a concordance reveals that Scripture has a lot to say about work. Some may reason that, therefore, all they need to do is continue their paragraph-by-paragraph expositions of books of the Bible, and the topic will come up as often as it should.

This would probably be the case if we managed to teach through all 66 books once a year. But because the Bible is lengthy, complex, and bursting with meaning, few are going to teach all the way through it even once in a lifetime.

Selectivity is happening, whether we do it on purpose or “leave it to Providence.” The thing is, Providence is at work when we’re selective on purpose, and Scripture is pretty affirming toward doing things purposefully and in an orderly way.

There isn’t room here to survey what the Bible has to say about work. But you’ll find a few crystals from the tip of the iceberg in one of my previous posts.

Scripture reveals that Christians’ jobs offer them an excellent opportunity to intentionally glorify God (demonstrate His character) by fulfilling His creative image through their ingenuity, energy, and productivity—as well as His moral image through their honesty, integrity, and diligence.

In addition, through our jobs, we have the opportunity to be living demonstrations of the gospel itself: of God’s grand gospel plan of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. How? Every cycle of encountering a problem, devising a solution and implementing it is a little enactment of the redemptive story. We fixed something broken.

Those who get in the habit of looking at their work that way may appear to be just like everyone else (in a professional work environment). But they’re really not doing the same work at all.

5. If you’re a full-time pastor, it may help you breach your Sunday-Wednesday box.

If I were to serve as a pastor again, I’d devote more energy to getting into the lives of the flock. I might even go the “bi-vocational” pastor route in order to help facilitate that.

Regardless, a really thorough topical series on work tends to pull a thoughtful teacher toward some field research. The need to connect principles to the realities of life at the office, or plant, or campus, or lab, or the fields, might drive some eye-opening conversations with workers in the congregation.

Even if the series turns out to be a bit of a dud, an increased mindfulness of where everyone lives and struggles can deepen and vitalize a pulpit ministry in many other small but potent ways.

* Assuming 16 waking hours a day, there are 112 waking hours in a week. 40 hours on the job, out of 112, is 35.7%.

760 reads

There are 4 Comments

T Howard's picture

In April / May of this year, once I've finished preaching through Galatians, I plan on beginning to preach through Genesis 1-11.

As I've been reading through Genesis, particularly 1-3, there are so many topics that I could spend a few weeks addressing as I make my way through the text: God, the image of God (what is it and what does it mean for issues of gender, value of human life, etc), husband / wife relations, creation / evolution, environmentalism, work, the importance of Sabbath, angels / demons / satan, the origination / nature of sin, and much more.

The question I keep asking myself, though, is why was Genesis written? What was the author's purpose in writing Genesis 1-3? If I desire to be faithful to the intent / meaning / purpose of the author, my messages should seek to explain, illustrate, and apply the authorial intent of the passage, not all these other issues or topics.

Thoughts?

Dan Miller's picture

Nice Article.

It’s OK to do topical work sometimes.

I agree. And I think through-the-passage expository preaching is super-important.

Scripture has a lot to say about work.  

Yes.  I have considered writing a paper for SI on work. 

If I were to serve as a pastor again, I’d devote more energy to getting into the lives of the flock. I might even go the “bi-vocational” pastor route in order to help facilitate that.

I remember a long time ago, my pastor was preaching through Ruth. And so I met with him and explained, from my perspective as a worker and boss, how several things Boaz does are convicting and inform how we work and how we lead our workers. It was a long explanation and discussion. Then when he preached through that part of the passage, he neglected to explain any of it from the Text. As I listened, I realized that as a vocational pastor, he simply couldn't understand the issues - not really. He seemed to understand what I was talking about, but I think he didn't really "feel" it.

T Howard's picture

Dan Miller wrote:

I remember a long time ago, my pastor was preaching through Ruth. And so I met with him and explained, from my perspective as a worker and boss, how several things Boaz does are convicting and inform how we work and how we lead our workers. It was a long explanation and discussion. Then when he preached through that part of the passage, he neglected to explain any of it from the Text. As I listened, I realized that as a vocational pastor, he simply couldn't understand the issues - not really. He seemed to understand what I was talking about, but I think he didn't really "feel" it.

Dan, here's the thing. A pastor (full-time or bi-vocational) has a limited amount of time to preach each week. He must focus and edit his sermons. The most important thing the message must do, imho, is to explain the meaning of the text. What did the author intend to communicate to his reader and why? Certainly, there must be application(s) from the text, but they should not control the sermon, the text should.

Therefore, when we read and preach through Ruth, we must determine whether the author wrote Ruth to provide a biblical theology of employer / employee relations. If not, then that cannot be the main point or controlling idea of our expository sermon. Ruth also wasn't written to help us get along with our in-laws or to help us find a spouse (although unfortunately I've heard sermons preached from Ruth on both topics). Further, Ruth is OT historical narrative and not necessarily prescriptive. Therefore, it would be difficult to preach a sermon like, "The author of Ruth provides employers five biblical principles on how to treat their employees."

Can we draw some applications from the text about employer / employee relationships? Perhaps. But, those would certainly not be the primary or even secondary emphasis of the sermon.

I say this as a bi-vocational teaching elder of my church. In my mind, it's not about whether I'm a vocational pastor; it's about what is the meaning and purpose of the text under consideration.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

The question I keep asking myself, though, is why was Genesis written? What was the author's purpose in writing Genesis 1-3? If I desire to be faithful to the intent / meaning / purpose of the author, my messages should seek to explain, illustrate, and apply the authorial intent of the passage, not all these other issues or topics.

Thoughts?

My thoughts:

It's all there on purpose. So there is an overarching purpose and there are other purposes consistent with that purpose. Revealed truth is useful in lots of ways. I know there is a common error in preaching and teaching where passages are cherry picked for a topical goal and the larger purpose of the context is never addressed. There has been an appropriate negative reaction to that, and a counter-reaction.

But there is, as always among humans, a ditch on the other side of the road also: a kind of reductionism where we reason "I can only teach the big overarching purpose and none of the smaller truths."

It's all there for our learning and truth is like 'duck tape.' It may have been made with a very specific purpose in mind, and it is possible to put it to very bad purposes, but there are a ton of very good purposes in between.

So Genesis 1-3 is mostly about the Creator-creature relationship, its design and its ruin. We can preach that, but we can also preach all the things revealed along the way. It doesn't have to be one or the other.

"The author of Ruth provides employers five biblical principles on how to treat their employees."

I would argue this a little bit differently, arriving at almost the same place. To me, it's not about what the purpose of the book of Ruth is. It's about how narrative works. Are the details of employer-employee interaction there to make a point or to bring the story fully to life and intensify its grip on our hearts? Stories are for the heart. Mostly. So there's always a burden of proof to make a case that story details are there to make specific points vs to support the narrative.

If there is good evidence that they are meant to say something on their own, we should not let that wisdom and/or application go to waste. But if not... maybe there's a better passage to draw from.

As for Genesis and work, the account there is meant to tell us how sin broke the world and part of that revelation is what work was like before and after the breaking.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Help keep SI's server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.