For many (or most) of us, Sunday nights are often dampened by a feeling of dread, more or less. Tomorrow is Monday and it’s back to the grind. We feel that our work carries very little meaning and that everything actually requires work – even raising a family is work. It’s work, work, work all the way.
Is this sheer negativity? Or honesty? Well, perhaps a little bit of both. All of us are somewhere on the job satisfaction scale. But I think it’s true that we all do seem to look for some kind of meaning in our work – we want to know that what we do matters. We want our work to have impact in some positive way, but for most of us we feel that it’s either only the rich, company owners, presidents, CEO’s or pastors that seem like they can have any real impact.
The trouble here is that all five of those people get those jobs and – if they’ve managed to keep themselves from being influenced by corruption – find they are just as frustrated as the next person. Presidents can’t do whatever they want, they have layers of politics to sort out first. Business owners have to answer to shareholders. CEO’s have to walk a thin line to keep themselves from being fired. Pastors are frustrated with a lack of finances or may find that most of their job is just tied up in administrative work.
Most days are filled with menial tasks, regardless of your kind of job. Regardless of the PR surrounding people like Steve Jobs, I’m not convinced that he was always 100 percent happy with his impact.
In comes the Doctrine of Vocation, Reformed Christianity’s solution to the problem of work. It’s this doctrine that helped shape a prosperous Europe. The American Puritans were influenced heavily by this doctrine, forming their own out of it (the Puritan work ethic) that helped shape what America is today. Of course, in both cases secularisation has come in and tainted the original thinking – a focus on individual gifting in the doctrine is warped by secularised culture where the individual is the centre of the universe. A focus on hard work has led to abuse by secularised culture. And so it goes on.
But the doctrine is incredibly important yet extremely neglected in our modern day churches. Gene Edward Veith, a college dean, believes that the Doctrine of Vocation is second to the doctrine of ‘faith alone’. This is the doctrine that allows Christians to impact the world regardless of what they do.
Martin Luther is a forerunner in the forming of this doctrine. Back in Catholic / Monastic Europe, the only ‘holy office’ that God approved of (ie. the only work God saw as holy and important) was the work of the clergy. In many instances, ‘good works’ were relegated to prayer and spiritual disciplines rather than, well, feeding the hungry or doing a good job. This is because farmers and milkmaids and whatever else were not seen to be doing anything that God actually cared about. The Doctrine of Vocation put that thought right and set people free to approach their work with vigour, joy, and a great deal of meaning. Regardless of what they did. Because even the most menial jobs actually carry meaning.
The unfortunate neglect of this doctrine, particularly in evangelicalism, has led to a kind-of return to the old Catholic Monastic teaching above. Many Christians have no idea how their daily work can have any impact – they’re not content with their work – so they think the only impact they do have that’s meaningful is what they do in church – their contribution to the programs and activities of their church. Not that their contributions are not important or should end, but when life is only ever about our ‘ministry’ then we feel it’s only ‘ministry’ that has impact, rather than the ordinary, every day work that most of us do.
I’m on a journey of discovery here as I study this doctrine. I’ll be putting more posts up as I go. I’m currently working through Veith’s book called God at Work (link to the Kindle version below) and am convinced he is right – this doctrine needs a much more central space in our church life and teaching. Join me as a I post my findings and thoughts on this line of thought, which I have already found quite liberating, in the next couple of weeks.