Editor’s Note: How should the North American church relate to culture? How should it respond to deep racial, cultural, and religious differences and tensions? Is there a way beyond the false choices of cultural retreat and control? Beyond petrified conservatism and an obsession with the current zeitgeist? The daily work of Comment owes much to the rich cultural and theological vision of Dutch politician, journalist, statesman, and theologian Abraham Kuyper. For the next three weeks, we will be publishing a series of articles (curated by Matthew Kaemingk) that explore how Kuyper’s vision and the neocalvinist movement he inspired can offer the church an alternative way of engaging with cultural issues as diverse as racial relations, youth ministry, personal piety, sports, work, and more. The series coincides with the release of Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Eerdmans, 2011) by Fuller Theological Seminary president Dr. Richard Mouw.
When theologian and businessman David Miller is asked to speak to pastors about the working lives of their parishioners, he often begins by posing a few simple questions: “Who here prays for and commissions their teenagers as they go off on mission trips?” Invariably, all hands go up. “Who here commissions your Sunday school teachers as the new church year starts?” They shoot up again. “Who here prays for their certified public accountants when taxes come due?” Silence.
The bittersweet history of North American efforts to connect the life of faith to that of work is heavy on the bitter when it comes to the role (or lack thereof) of the institutional church. In his book God at Work (Oxford University Press, 2006), Miller tells the sad and scandalous history of ecclesial and theological disinterest and even antagonism to daily work of the laity. Here he quotes Miroslav Volf, who laments:
Amazingly little theological reflection has taken place about an activity which takes up so much of our time. The number of pages theologians have devoted to transubstantiation—which does or does not happen on Sunday—for instance, would, I suspect, far exceed the number of pages devoted to the work that fills our lives Monday through Saturday.
There is, however, a sweet side to this bitter tale. Despite nearly a century of ecclesial negligence, the people in the pews have refused to wait for their pastors and theologians to engage the issues they were struggling with in their daily work. They stood up and spent the last century organizing and developing thousands of clubs, organizations, conferences, magazines, and books dedicated to the application of the gospel to diverse vocations—law, nursing, athletics, marketing, manufacturing, secretarial services, finance, and countless more. These relentless and entrepreneurial lay theologians even started a fellowship of Christian flight attendants who are currently “serving God at 35,000 feet.”
Stepping back and analyzing these wildly diverse movements to integrate faith and work, Miller began to notice a pattern. He found that the majority of these groups were organizing themselves around one of four goals: evangelism, ethics, experience, or enrichment. According to Miller, those categorized as “evangelism groups” chose to speak of faith in the workplace primarily in terms of evangelistic witness, equipping their members with the skills they need to actively share their faith with coworkers and clients.
“Ethics groups” take a different tack. According to Miller, they seek to connect their faith to their work primarily through ethical explorations of personal, corporate, and global Christian responsibility. For this group, faith finds its relevance in its ability to direct and alter their moral behaviour.
Discussions in “experience groups” tend to concentrate on the existential purpose, value, and meaning of their work. They speak about how they have been “called” by God to serve in this particular vocation and how their work offers them the ability to fully serve and even existentially experience the life and work of God in the world.
Finally, “enrichment groups” choose to reflect on how their faith can enhance and empower their ability to work effectively. This “enrichment” can take many forms. Some groups speak about how their faith provides a spiritual peace amidst the stress and grind of their daily work; others discuss how faith in Christ can enrich their productivity or leadership skills; others boldly claim that a robust spiritual life can directly lead to a prosperous professional life.
I am deeply torn as a student of theology reading this bittersweet story of the faith and work movement and the church’s estrangement from it. I am grateful for the movement’s refusal to wait for pastors and theologians to recognize the value of their daily work. The pluriform and manifold ministries they have lovingly established are both inspiring and convicting. And yet, each of the four goals that these groups have organized around display a rather narrow theological imagination for what gospel-inspired work should look like. Is the only good the gospel brings to one’s career found in inviting one’s coworkers to church? In refusing to steal pens from the office, paying your workers a fair wage, or refusing to pollute a lake? Is Jesus really only useful when I need some peace and quiet or when I want a promotion? Is limiting the gospel to one of these four visions truly reflective of the rich and robust nature of the good news of Jesus Christ and his work in the world? Is there a more imaginative way to connect or even go beyond these rather thin theo-vocational visions?
As the institutional church slowly awakens from her century-long slumber on faith and work issues, I might suggest the booming old Dutch brogue of Abraham Kuyper as an appropriate choice to knock her completely off her pillow. The ceaselessly impatient Kuyper was a pastor, newspaper editor, theologian, political leader, university founder, and prime minister. No doubt, he learned the value of a hard day’s work (he also learned the value of medically prescribed vacations after numerous bouts with extreme exhaustion).
In between his doctor-ordered visits to recuperative spas, Kuyper feverishly worked out a rich, dynamic, and ambitious theology of cultural activity that far outpaces the rather thin visions on tap in many of today’s faith and work groups. This theo-cultural vision developed by Kuyper—while indeed showing all the parochial eccentricities of 19th century bourgeois Dutch culture—presents the contemporary pastor with a wide array of theological resources for talking about the significance of human work in culture. More than that, Kuyper’s theology of work can help both the institutional church and the faith and work movement to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of either continued institutional estrangement or a patronizing and colonized relationship, in which pastors didactically explain to lay people exactly to how the gospel is to be lived out in their specific work spaces.
Kuyper argues relentlessly that the church has not been established simply to serve its own internal politics or growth strategies, but to embody Christ in the world for its restoration, development, and flourishing. Worldly work, in and of itself, glorifies God. The institutional church “does not cover everything that is Christian”; rather, the light of the church is meant to shine “out through its windows to areas far beyond, illuminating all the sectors and associations that appear across the wide range of human life and activity.” The institutional church must therefore understand itself and its mission as intimately concerned with the witness of the people of God in their various vocations.
Kuyper uses the language of “salt,” “light,” and “leaven” over and over to describe the work of the gospel in all of the various vocations of the people of God. For Kuyper, the gospel could never be reduced to a disembodied intellectual or spiritual piece of information. After all, how could that ever be good news to embodied and cultured people who were made for and long for cultural tasks?!
The gospel could never be reduced to merely evangelism, ethics, experience, or enrichment. It encompasses these and so much more. The gospel, in Kuyper’s mind, is not simply to be believed, but lived and—for the purposes of this discussion—worked. It is important to note that when I say that for Kuyper, the gospel must be worked, I do not intend to claim that Kuyper had a “works-based” righteousness, but an understanding of cultural work as a fitting, joy-filled response to the beauty of grace.
Furthermore, Kuyper provides the interested theologian with a fully Trinitarian approach to work, in which “gifts and talents come from the Father; are disposed for each personality by the Son; and kindled in each by the Holy Spirit as by a spark from above.” For Kuyper, a person’s talents are gracious gift from the Godhead, regardless of merit. For just “as the gift of grace is freely bestowed by the sovereign God, so is also the gift of genius.” Kuyper even goes so far as to argue that these various professional gifts should be recognized liturgically in the church itself, for when “the people pray, let us not forget to ask the Lord to raise up among them men of talent, heroes of art and of office.” Kuyper’s rich understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in culture and in the work of our hands presents the careful reader with a treasure trove of language applicable to the daily tasks of the people of God.
When one scans the landscape of contemporary faith and work organizations, the Center for Faith and Work in New York City represents an important example of a group uniquely inspired by Kuyper’s theology of cultural engagement. The centre does not reduce itself to any one of the traditional four “E’s”—rather, it presents a robust, nuanced, and theologically-informed approach to work in the world. Rather than isolating itself from the institutional church, the centre has decided to house itself directly within the life and ministry of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. The pastoral staff who oversee the centre have appointed a non-ordained director and allow the lay leaders the necessary space to explore and discern for themselves the unique call of the gospel on their working lives. The leading pastors demonstrate a respect for what Kuyper would call the “sphere sovereignty” of Christian discernment in their unique and particular areas of work. Avoiding the dual dangers of pastoral monologues and pastoral disregard, they are creating a fertile environment in which people can learn, worship, and communally discern how God might be glorified in their working lives. The centre models an important role for the church—not in giving the laity all of the answers, but helping them to ask the right questions.
Evangelism, ethics, experience, and enrichment are each important to Kuyper’s theology of work, and yet his vision provides us with a broader and deeper theological category to order and direct the significance of our work in the world: the glory of God. Kuyper argued that all human beings have been royally appointed to be “priests of creation,” working in their own unique ways to give glory to God. Being priests, however, they must first be anointed by the Holy Spirit—and that anointing must go all the way down. No thin sprinkling of a little ethics here or a little evangelism there; nothing short of a complete immersion of our daily work in the work of the Spirit will do. For Kuyper, a Christian’s “whole being,” all of their “abilities and powers, must be pervaded by the sensus divinitatis.” For,
the ideal, remains unchangeable, that every creature must be immersed in the stream of religion, and end by lying as a religious offering on the altar of the Almighty. A religion confined to thinking or will is therefore unthinkable to the Calvinist. The sacred anointing of the priest of creation must reach down to his beard . . .