Work as Pioneering Mission

Paul Robertson

Greater Glasgow October 27, 2017

“In nothing has the Church so lost Her hold on reality as in Her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as a result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious, or at least, uninterested in religion. But is it astonishing? How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?” (Dorothy Sayers, ‘Why work?’ in Letters to a Diminished Church)

A Sunday in the life of a junior doctor

It’s Sunday morning, around 5 am. A junior doctor sees a patient and makes a decision. It’s the wrong decision and the wrong treatment is given to a patient, although no serious harm results. A few hours later, the consultant responsible discovers this and ensures the right treatment is given. She’s been at work since 7:30am and could still make church if she’s quick. But she’s not quick. After her ward round, she sits down with the doctor who was working overnight and talks through what happened and how things might happen differently (and better) the next time. She’s late for church.

At church she hears that the children’s ministry are short of volunteers. She’s told that the church needs volunteers so it can keep on doing God’s work. She’s told that people should think about giving up a little of their work time to do more work for God. There is a time of prayer for the missionaries the church supports: all either overseas or in full-time Christian ministry in the UK. She wonders what God thinks of the fact that already this morning she has been instrumental in bringing healing to her patients and taken the time to provide teaching and support to one of her trainees. And she wonders why no-one in church ever seems to take an interest in what she does at work.

Time to change the conversation

This story is drawn from a conversation I’ve had with a doctor. I could share similar stories about lawyers, university administrators, podiatrists, teachers and business people. And it is why I have tried to be a pioneer: to attempt to change the conversation about church and mission in Scotland. I hesitate to be numbered among the pioneers. I don’t fit the pioneering profile that many others who have contributed to the White Canvas Collective do. I’m not primarily engaged in mission to the marginalised. I don’t work for a church or Christian organisation. I don’t even claim to do or say anything particularly novel. I have lived through the irony of giving up my job as an infectious diseases doctor in Glasgow to study theology at the International Christian College only to discover the importance of work to God. After briefly considering ordained ministry, it became apparent that the place I felt God calling me was back to the NHS, working as a doctor. I am now a microbiology consultant in NHS Ayrshire and Arran. During the intervening years I have written a handful of articles, preached a sermon series on the importance of work to God’s mission, and helped lead a small group of people in thinking through the intersection of their faith and work. But what I have done so far has met with limited success, at least at the level of my local church.

Work is Pioneering Mission

So what would I want to say to a group of pioneers in ministry about work, speaking as a secular worker? I guess I’d say this: don’t underestimate the importance of work. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that, viewed correctly and practiced prayerfully and faithfully, work is pioneering mission.

Why do I think that secular work is mission, let alone pioneering mission? Work and faith have traditionally had a rather limited intersection in much of evangelical Christianity. At its most basic, work is how you provide for your family and resource the church. The next rank up the spiritual hierarchy of work is integrity in the workplace: you shouldn’t be embezzling money or sleeping with your secretary. And the final step (for the really spiritual) is that work provides a place to evangelise colleagues, customers or service users. But the intersection of work and faith often stops there. The actual job you do, the nature of your work, your giftings, passions and calling, are seemingly incidental or irrelevant.

In the UK the key place that secular work has in Christian discipleship and mission has been argued for (successfully, I think) over the years by Dorothy Sayers, Lesslie Newbigin, John Stott and Mark Greene. Work is part of God’s original mandate to humanity to tend and care for creation. God, clearly depicted in Genesis as the original Worker, shapes, orders, names and blesses what he has made (and rests, but that’s another article…) God then places men and women in the world and commissions them to continue His job. Secular work, whether it is paid or not, has intrinsic spiritual value in so far as it shapes the worker (discipleship) and contributes to human flourishing (mission). Secular work brings Christians and non-Christians together and affords the possibility for real missional encounter (evangelism).

The slothfulness of the church when it comes to work

However, work as mission remains relatively neglected within church circles today. While many people embrace the concept of “whole-life discipleship”, the implications of this for the inherited model of church as ordained-led, gathered Sunday services have rarely been fully appreciated. At best we hear a rather fuzzy call to do what we usually do “for Christ” without ever being specific enough about what that means. Or we’re encouraged to sneak in some Bible reading, prayer or evangelism at work while we’re actually being paid to do something else with our time. When a church chooses how to prioritise its time on a Sunday morning or through the week, secular work is still often seen, sometimes unconsciously, as a distraction or a poor relation to “proper” spiritual work.

And so the vast majority of Christians who are not in Christian ministry are commonly left with a profound sense of dislocation - I can either be a good Christian or a good worker, but not both. This is damaging - both to the individual but also to the wider mission of the church. It’s also unnecessary.

How should church work with regards to work?

A key function of church is that it should “be a be a community where men and women are prepared for and sustained in the exercise of the priesthood in the world.” (Lesslie Newbigin) But Newbigin saw that for a church which is serious about equipping every member for everyday mission in the public sphere, one implication is that traditional ministry models lack the training to fulfil this function when it comes to secular work. It lacks theological training on work, and what is delivered is often rooted in limited life experience in secular workplaces. I think this continues to be true today. To counter this Newbigin envisions churches forming “frontier-groups” where workers in a given vocation (teaching, law, healthcare, business, etc.) meet and “thrash out the controversial issues of their business or profession in light of their faith”.

This brings us closer to the concept of work as pioneering mission. We might accept that work forms part of the broader canvas we call mission, but in what sense is it pioneering? Well, in at least three senses.

  1. It’s pioneering in that it is a presently untapped frontier of mission, accessible to the majority of Christians where they are, right now. There are daily, sustained, natural interactions be-tween working Christians and colleagues who would never set foot in a church. There are daily encounters between working Christians and people and communities who need healing, jus-tice, hope and beauty. But many Christians don’t see these spiritual opportunities because they’ve never been taught to look for them.

  2. Work is pioneering in the sense that workers will always be at the frontier of missional encounters between Christianity and prevailing worldviews. What is good journalism? What and when should we teach young people about sexuality and gender identity? What is the purpose of business? What can science tell about how we should live? How can we prevent unnecessarily medicalising life? What is the fairest way to fund a health service? How should we de-sign our public spaces? The answers to these questions affect all our lives. Christians working in these areas should be encouraged to think deeply about them and offer their faith-infused answers to them.

  3. As well as being a means through which mission can take place, work itself should be a strand of the Church’s pioneering missional activity. Profound questions arise about the nature of work: Why do we work? Do we shape technology or does it shape us? How is the nature of work changing? Are pay structures fair? And so redeeming work itself is a vital component of mission at home and overseas - from demeaning, meaningless, insecure, dangerous, poorly paid work (and lack of employment) to safe, good quality, well-paid jobs that provide a sense of meaning and purpose, encourage wise stewardship of the earth’s resources and contribute to human flourishing.

Well yeah, but…

Of course, I’m sure you’re thinking of some challenges. How can work as mission be relation-al enough? How can it be truthful enough about the uniqueness of Christ? Can it really ad-dress the deep social divisions in our country? Is it not another form of middle-class faith that presupposes employment and tacitly excludes those who are out of work or unable to work? I don’t think any of these things need be true, though they are certainly traps to be wary of. Nor am I advocating work as mission to the exclusion of other pioneering missional forms. But ultimately the answer to all of those questions is that we don’t know: because nobody has really tried properly.

A renewed vision for the place of work, and for the workplace itself

So what would I like to see in Scotland?

  1. I’d like to see local churches consistently affirming work, equipping members to see the value of their work and supporting them in that work. The London Institute of Contemporary Christianity (LICC) have numerous resources to help to do this. For instance, vocations can be prayed for and commissioned during church services (e.g. back to school Sunday). Or church members can be included in the churches ‘missionaries we support’ board. Or a church can have a ‘What are you doing this time tomorrow?’ slot where the wider congregation can hear about the rewards and challenges of a particular person’s work (or home) circumstances.

  2. I’d like to see something akin to Redeemer Presbyterian’s Centre for Faith and Work in New York City. In Scotland most churches lack the critical mass of any given vocation to be able to meaningfully “thrash out controversial areas” that concern it, so a regional or national resource is needed for those interested in exploring work and faith further, but also provides a melting pot where people can wrestle with issues in a vocation specific way (teachers, health care workers, business people, artists, etc).

Why do we need pioneering ministries? Because it’s clear to most of us that business as usual in the Scottish church is not an option. Traditional modes of church have, in certain respects, failed in their task. But pioneering mission, by and large, frames the solution through equip-ping a small number of people with entrepreneurial and apostolic gifts to navigate new ways of engagement and new ways of being and doing church. This is, of course, needed. What is equally needed is a shifting of the missional emphasis from the exceptional few to everybody, everyday.

The extent to which God is seen to be concerned with a city or a community is, I think, directly proportional to how visible Christians are in naming its problems, in helping to form a vision of what a good city or community would be like, and then in rolling their sleeves up and getting to work.

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Paul Robertson

Paul Robertson

Paul works as a doctor for NHS Ayrshire and Arran, specialising in microbiology. He also has a degree in theology from International Christian College, which occasionally raises eyebrows from his colleagues. His work interests are in improving the diagnosis and treatment of people with severe infections (sepsis and bloodstream infection). His theological interests lie in the intersection of faith and work. A keen musician, he’s contributed to two groups writing new music for the Scottish church: Satellite and New Scottish Hymns. He lives with his wife and two young children in Eaglesham.