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%.

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There are 13 Comments

TylerR's picture

Editor

Most pastors are in "fulltime Christian service," thus live in a churchy bubble, and some have little idea what it means to work in the secular world, so they lack experiential contact with this facet of everyday life... so they may have no idea how to do a series on "work" ... so they may be effectively isolated from a key component of real life and are somewhat hindered in their ability to relate to everyday people about the value of work. 

I believe this is a major factor, to greater or lesser extent, depending on the pastor.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Larry's picture

Moderator

In response, most pastors (assuming the stats are correct) are in fulltime Christian service because that is the command of Scripture. God in his wisdom apparently did not consider it necessary for a pastor to also work elsewhere. In Scripture, bi-vocational work seems presented, not as a better option, but a lesser one. It is a concession.

It seems there is also an assumption that pastoral work is somehow substantively different than secular work, something I wouldn't grant at all. Aaron says 36% of one's time is spent at work. I imagine for most pastors, it is likely greater than 36%, but in any case, I am not sure how that disconnects pastors from how "working stiffs" live. If a pastor is not doing his job correctly, I suppose there is a disconnect. Jobs are different but like most people in the church, pastors get up and go to work. Sometimes it is in an office, sometimes on the road visiting, sometimes at home. Perhaps unlike many "working stiffs" a pastor takes his work home so that after the kids are in bed, they are back at it. Or before the family gets up in the morning. Tyler's comment assumes that preaching on a topic requires a certain experience of it rather than Scripture. The idea for a series on work (a good series to be sure) comes from the sufficient Scripture, not from someone who has a particular resume. It also seems to assume that a congregation does the same kind of work. But in a congregation, you will have factory workers and management. You will have school teachers who have summers off. You will have construction workers who have winters off. You will have sales people who travel a lot. You will have business owners who get up and go to work in the basement office. Is, say for example, a government employed fraud investigator better qualified to speak on the work of nurses, or factory workers, or teachers, or salesmen, or CEOs than a full-time pastor is? I don't see how. If a pastor needs to know more, perhaps get out and start talking to these people about the work they do. In fact, a full-time pastor might be better qualified because he is not juggling several jobs and has time to research, to talk to people, to spend time seeing people's work locations.

I think the work of pastoring is undervalued by many. I am not sure that is a good thing.

I don't know that I have preached a series on work, but I have preached a good number of messages on the toipc as a part of either serial exposition of books or as a part of a topical series. 

TylerR's picture

Editor

There are well-known pros and cons to bi-vocational and fulltime pastoral ministry. With the "what do I preach about work" topic, I think a bi-vocational pastor has a clear advantage. To each his own.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture

Editor

I have been wanting to read about a theology of work for a while, so I can think more deeply about this topic. Any resource suggestions, Aaron?

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

In my 13 years as a full time pastor, it was work, yes. It was in many ways quite unlike any other work I did before or after it, though. This is partly because I was the only staff member at a rural church, and everyone else volunteers. But the lack of a profit motive, and the uniqueness of the church's purpose make for a dynamic that is different in so many ways.... That and working only with fellow believers who are committed enough to volunteer.

It's a very different experience. 

Resources

I'm mostly looking at everything relevant I can find in Scripture, but much has been written on the subject. If you dig around a bit at tifwe.org and acton.org, they both refer to related books pretty often. Sometimes the Colson Center gets on the topic also.

Amazon has lots of stuff, but I don't have any specific recommendations at this point. 

I think a whole lot of the theology of work builds on Biblical anthropology.

... Maybe I'll do a short followup post as a survey of literature on it. But I'm pretty backlogged on writing projects right now! 

Larry's picture

Moderator

Just a quick follow up to a couple of points:

First, how does "to each their own" honor the authority of a biblical commands? I have been both full time and bivocational. Full time is a better way to do ministry, though bi-vocational is sometimes necessary. Yet, isn't the Bible is clear on this as a matter of command? What other biblical command would we say, "to each their own"? For those interested, Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman did a Pastor's Talk episode on this that is worth listening to (https://www.9marks.org/pastors-talk/episode-76-on-pastoral-pay/). They go so far as to suggest that if a church cannot pay its pastor full-time, and there are other gospel preaching churches in the area, then it may be a reason that the church shouldn't exist. I am not convinced of that, but it is a thought worth considering. 

Second, if Scripture is the sufficient content for preaching and Christian discipleship, then in what sense is some secular job needed to preach on the topic of work? Does Scripture not have enough on this? Is there authority in secular work that cannot be gained from Scripture? Again, what other area of Christian discipleship would we say this about? I think the Scripture is sufficient for preaching and discipling people who work. I am reminded of being told by drug addicts I don't really have anyhting to say to them because I haven't been addicted. None of us here would accept that. Or would we?

Third, given the approach suggested here, it makes me wonder how anyone could be qualified to preach on work. Aaron and Tyler both admit that pastoring is work, real work. Yet that real work somehow insufficient because it isn't like secular work. But what secular work qualifies? They are a ton of occupations that all bring different experiences, or to quote Aaron, a "very different experience." Along the road of being bivocational, I have done a number of things from the educational realm to handyman to tech/computer work to coaching to running a business. They are all very different experiences. Aaron mentions the profit motive? What about a bivo pastor who works for a non-profit? He mentions the uniqueness of a church's purpose. Yet many jobs and organization have unique purposes. Most jobs are different. If a pastor only works one of them (say, IT), how can he preach on work to an electrician or a plumber? Or a teacher? Or a CEO? In other words, I don't think the solution is any solution at all. 

In fact, it may be that the job of pastoring is unique in that it sums up so many other jobs that are held by different people. the pastor is at once a teacher, an author, a planner, a visionary leader, a CEO, a manager of people, a journeyman who teaches apprentices how to do something, a promoter or salesmen of sorts who is to be constantly prospecting for new people to persuade them of something. 

So while I think preaching on work is a biblical necessity (since the Bible addresses it), I would stop short of raising extra biblical qualifications to do do. i would exegete the Scripture and turn it into a message or series of messages. 

 

Larry's picture

Moderator

I think a whole lot of the theology of work builds on Biblical anthropology.

This is an interesting idea. I haven't thought of it this way, but I would be curious about it. It strikes me at first glance, as a legitimate connection. I think a lot of theology of work is based on post-fall theology, but as I like to say, Work isn't the result of the fall and curse. It was God's intention for mankind before there was sin. So I think it is tied to creation and subduing the earth. I think it is tied to humanity and our creation mandate and purpose.

M. Osborne's picture

TylerR wrote:

I have been wanting to read about a theology of work for a while, so I can think more deeply about this topic. Any resource suggestions, Aaron?

For a historically rooted start, try Gustaf Wingren's Luther on Vocation; Wipf and Stock has republished it. 

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

TylerR's picture

Editor

Appreciate it.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Larry's picture

Moderator

There's also a book called Deep Work by Cal Newport. I haven't read but have read a number of reviews. It sounds interesting and helpful

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Third, given the approach suggested here, it makes me wonder how anyone could be qualified to preach on work. Aaron and Tyler both admit that pastoring is work, real work. Yet that real work somehow insufficient because it isn't like secular work. But what secular work qualifies? They are a ton of occupations that all bring different experiences, or to quote Aaron, a "very different experience." Along the road of being bivocational, I have done a number of things from the educational realm to handyman to tech/computer work to coaching to running a business. They are all very different experiences. Aaron mentions the profit motive?...

I think you may be misunderstanding my point in both the article and my comments. I don't think there's anything deficient about full time pastoral work. My point was that pastoral work is very different from everything else, and when you do it full time, there is a strong tendency to forget what the "everything else" is like--and with that, a tendency to neglect speaking to that very large part of many peoples' lives.

Is that "deficient"? Not really. It's not a problem with the work, but with the less-than-perfect human beings who do it.

As for "to each his own," on full time vs. bivocational... how else to fairly interpret the NT? Clearly both options are permitted in Scripture. Don't we generally say of things in that category that they are matters of conscience? It's really not the topic of this post, but if it wasn't wrong for Paul to work a job at times while he was doing ministry, how is it categorically wrong for anyone else?

As for the idea that the work in the secular workplace setting is just like being a full time pastor... The suggestion that it is pretty much proves my point that when you're in that role full time long enough you tend to lose touch with what work is like for non-pastors.

Larry's picture

Moderator

Thanks Aaron. A quick response. We may be talking past each other to some degree. I am not sure. 

My point was that pastoral work is very different from everything else, and when you do it full time, there is a strong tendency to forget what the "everything else" is like--and with that, a tendency to neglect speaking to that very large part of many peoples' lives.

Couldn't that be said about everyone's job? Aren't virtually all jobs very different from everything else? A schoolteacher is going to have a very different experience than sales or undertakers or plumbers or factory workers or airline pilots or CEOs or business owners or nurses or pastors and on and on. So given what seems your principle, no one can ever know what "everything else" is like and a pastor, no matter what his bivo occupation is, will never been able to speak to that "very large part of many peoples' lives." But again, even if we grant the point, that pastoral work is "very different," the solution doesn't seem to stand. Going out and becoming bivo or even taking a full time secular job doesn't increase the biblical authority and teaching on work. Which is why the whole point seems strange to me. Why does it matter that the work is very different? The work isn't the basis for teaching.

Here's what seems odd to me: it is claimed that pastoral work is somehow different and pastors don't understand secular work enough to preach on it effectively (or some such argument) but it is also claimed that Scripture has all the authority necessary to preach on it. So which is it? Does a pastor need the extra job or not to preach effectively on work? (Of course you say "No" but that is the disconnect for me.)

As for "to each his own," on full time vs. bivocational... how else to fairly interpret the NT? Clearly both options are permitted in Scripture. Don't we generally say of things in that category that they are matters of conscience? It's really not the topic of this post, but if it wasn't wrong for Paul to work a job at times while he was doing ministry, how is it categorically wrong for anyone else?

I didn't say it was categorically wrong but what are the places in Scripture where bivo is permitted or seen? And compare that to the commands. Paul, in order not to burden a particularly young and immature church, and he said he had the right to demand it but didn't for very specific reasons. Any others? 

But consider, the one who preaches the gospel is to live of the gospel. Why do we say "to each their own" in response to that passage? To what other biblical commands would we say "to each their own"? The whole point of that passage is that the occupation should provide the income, as the examples show. It's a command to the church. Can a church be obedient if it treats a pastor differently than a nation treats a soldier, or OT Israel treated the priests, or a shepherd, or a farmer, or the like? I don't see how in normal circumstances. I don't think "to each their own" is a good response to a biblical command.

When someone is bivo because their church is too small and poor to provide a fulltime salary, that is one thing. When someone is bivo because their church is selfish or has bad spending priorities, that is another thing. When someone is bivo because they want a higher standard of living than a reasonably resourced church can provide, that is something else again. Again, I would encourage one to listen to the 9 Marks talk above. It might be that the answer to a church that doesn't provide for its pastor is to fold and join another church rather than increase the pastor's contribution to the church by taking a job that ultimately harms the ministry. And that's essentially what being bivocational does: It raises the pastor's offering amount by making the pastor go get someone else to pay him instead of them. Again, I am not saying that bivo is wrong all the time. I have done it for years.

As for the idea that the work in the secular workplace setting is just like being a full time pastor... The suggestion that it is pretty much proves my point that when you're in that role full time long enough you tend to lose touch with what work is like for non-pastors.

Speaking of misunderstanding, I didn't say a being a full-time pastor was "just like" work in the secular workplace. It's not. But my point is that no job is "just like" another job, even in the same field, quite often. Aside from the work itself, there are workplace cultures, coworkers, management styles, company sizes, etc. all of which make every job unique. 

Do teachers know what work is like for airline pilots? Or do airline pilots know what work is like for the sales people that they haul? Or do sales people know what work is like for the factory worker that provides the widgets they sell? Does a factory worker know what life is like for the CEO who has to keep the place running? 

I have been bivocational for the last 8-10 years with several different sources of work. I no longer need to be but I have lived that life. I understand it. It is not better for the church for a pastor to be out searching for dollars than to be preparing to feed people, to lead, to disciple. Almost inevitably, church work will get pushed off to the end and taken out of family time.

In the end I think there are two principles at stake.

  1. The principle of scriptural authority: Scripture says to do something a certain way. We don't have the authority to do it another way.
  2. The principle of scriptural sufficiency: Scripture says it is sufficient for disciplemaking. We don't have the authority or necessity to add to that sufficiency by some other requirements. 

I think you agree with those. I think Tyler agrees with those. And that's why I don't understand the point here.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Larry wrote:

When someone is bivo because their church is too small and poor to provide a fulltime salary, that is one thing. When someone is bivo because their church is selfish or has bad spending priorities, that is another thing. When someone is bivo because they want a higher standard of living than a reasonably resourced church can provide, that is something else again.

I agree with all of this. Well said.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

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