Things are looking dark in American culture. We lament the darkness, but at least it helps make the light of the gospel more visible. However people respond to it, our job is to shine that light. And the place where we have the most opportunity to shine it these days is not in elections or in movies but in everyday workplaces.
Work brings the gospel and culture into contact.
Only God Could Do That
I have a relative who worked many years in a doctor’s office filing medical records. She was converted in her 60s after having been disconnected from the church her entire adult life. What changed her perspective? Seeing how Jesus transformed the way her coworkers did their work. Only a living God, she told me, could enable people show up day after day with such eagerness to serve their neighbors in such a dull, stressful job.
Only a living God, she told me, could enable people to show up day after day with such eagerness to serve their neighbors in such a dull, stressful job.
What does that have to do with culture? Plenty.
To start, the church’s disconnection from culture was a major factor in my relative’s long disconnection from the church. She had been presented with an anemic vision of the gospel and its implications for daily life—and was left wondering why the gospel was worth bothering about. As a publisher’s review of John Stott’s The Contemporary Christian once said: “People today reject Christianity not because they think it is false, but because they believe it is irrelevant.”
Right now, many Christian efforts to “engage culture” or “contextualize the gospel” are focused on things like influencing elections or making Hollywood movies. It is important for us to promote justice and beauty, simply because God loves those things, but politics and art alone cannot produce broader cultural impact. By themselves, they are incomplete pieces of the cultural whole. Daily work is where most people experience their cultures in its wholeness.
Daily work is where most people experience their cultures in its wholeness.
We can’t help people see the full gospel of the kingdom of God unless we connect it to their daily work. For it is in their work—filling reports, driving trucks, writing programs—where most people find God’s calling on their lives focused. A few may be called to contemplative occupations, but most of us are divinely called to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
Not a Vending Machine
That’s not all. Connecting with culture through daily labor is not only important to the way my relative saw the gospel at work in her coworkers. It’s also important to a gospel-centered understanding of the work itself.
American religious culture is deeply infected with individualism and subjectivism. We tend to turn God into a personal therapist or even a vending machine. We want a God who meets our needs and heals our wounds, but not a God who compels our reverence and obedience. The living God does both, and you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.
We tend to turn God into a personal therapist or even a vending machine.
The faith and work movement struggles with this problem as well. We should want people to experience the presence and love of God in their work, and to take comfort in God as they persevere through toil and suffering in their work, but we shouldn’t want people to reduce God to a workplace counselor.
The solution is to help people understand not only the how and why of their work through the gospel, but also the what. Jesus has a gospel plan not only for individuals, but also for cultures and civilizations. His commission to Abraham for his special, set-apart people was to bless all nations. His commission to the apostles for his special, set-apart people was to make disciples of all nations. John’s eschatological vision finds the gospel reaching fulfillment as all the nations bringing their glory into the new Jerusalem—“and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2).
As we serve our communities through our work—providing food, health care, protection, and so many other good and beautiful things—we carry the redemptive implications of the gospel into every domain of God’s world. The things we do for our neighbors through our work are, of course, good in themselves. (If they’re not, it’s time to re-evaluate your career!) But they also bring just a little bit of that future consummation of the gospel into the present. This is what creates the possibility for our work to be transformative.
If we think about “changing culture” only in terms of special, limited activities, like influencing elections or making movies, we will always end up having to choose between a focus on changing culture and a focus on loving our neighbors. But if we teach people to be disciples of Jesus Christ in their workplaces, loving our neighbors—serving them through our work—becomes a way of bringing the gospel to our culture.
Editors’ note: Join over 400 leaders from various industries, including Greg Forster, at the Faith@Work Summit this October in Dallas, as participants learn from each other and work together to extend Christ’s transforming presence in workplaces around the world. (Note: the event is already at 80% capacity, so register today: fwsummit.org.)