Mike Rowe apprenticed at hundreds of the most reviled jobs in America as host of “Dirty Jobs” on the Discovery Channel — he milked camels, picked up roadkill, castrated sheep, lashed down crab pots, and slithered through sewers. He found that those employed in such jobs are the happiest, most balanced people he’s ever met. Yet, our culture marginalizes and devalues most manual and skilled labor. More than that, Rowe says, “We’ve declared war on work, as a society, all of us. … What’s really being said? Your life would be better if you could work a little less, if you didn’t have to work so hard, if you could get home a little earlier, if you could retire a little faster, if you could punch out a little sooner.”

The church, at times, has unwittingly contributed to this diminished regard for work. And some people have formed the impression that whether they assemble computer chips or analyze spreadsheets, their work is irrelevant to many churches — except to the extent that they earn enough to fill the offering plate. By perpetuating a secular/sacred divide that elevates the “spiritual” work of Sunday over the “secular” work of the rest of the week, the church has, on occasion, reinforced a view that God doesn’t care about our work. As a result, many Christians are “working for the weekend” like most of their colleagues.

As Mike Rowe launches a public relations campaign for work, the church is joining the cause in its own way. A movement within the church is spotlighting the centrality of work and promoting a Gospel-centered view of work as integral to our Christian faith.

Nonprofits, think tanks, churches, and networks are revisiting ancient worldviews to recover a more robust conception of work. In “Visions of Vocation,” Steve Garber describes how the words we use illustrate our changed thinking about work: “The word vocation is a rich one, having solidified to address the wholeness of life, the range of relationships and responsibilities. Work, yes, but also families, neighbors, and citizenship, locally and globally — all of this and more is seen as vocation, that to which I am called as a human being, living my life before the face of God. It is never the same word as occupation, just as calling is never the same word as career.” (Read our interview with Garber here.)

Garber says that tragically, the church often fails to teach the centrality of vocation and calling. Part of his mission at The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture is correcting that error: “What we teach pastors is that vocation is integral, not incidental to the missio Dei, the mission of God.” He says that Christians often think about work as a place to witness to colleagues and earn money to give to God’s purposes. “What we are working at is developing a fundamentally deeper, biblical sense of vocation,” Garber explains.

A Way to Relate to Culture

Several factors make an emphasis on faith and work relevant in this cultural moment. One is the extent to which our society is increasingly secular. Steve Froehlich, pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church in Ithaca, N.Y., says the growing awareness that Christian influence in our country is declining presses us to think about how we live in the world and how we change a culture opposed to Christian ideology. “We don’t live in Christendom, which helps us eradicate false distinctions. … If traditional Christian things are slowly taken away, work is one of the things that we can still contribute.”

Katherine Leary Alsdorf, collaborator with Tim Keller on the book “Every Good Endeavor,” echoes the assessment that we’re living as exiles in a foreign culture: “We’re like Daniel in Babylon. We’re in an environment that doesn’t share all our values; to do the right thing or the best thing, you often have to be the only one doing it.” She also sees that people long for meaning in work: “People are disconnected from the end purpose and therefore the importance of their work.” Because God created us to work and to help the world flourish, she explains, when we don’t have a sense that our work is meaningful, we’re really disconnected from God’s purpose for our lives.

Os Guinness encapsulates the impetus for focusing on faith and work in his book “The Call,” with this assessment of our culture: “(M)odern Western civilization is the very first to have no agreed-on answer to the question of the purpose of life. Thus more ignorance, confusion — and longing — surround this topic now than at almost any time in history. … For most of us, in the midst of material plenty, we have spiritual poverty.”

Through our work, we can provide plausibility structures for those within the culture who have no Christian frame of reference but are searching for answers. “There is deep cynicism and void. In a post-Christian world, people don’t have structures to understand who God is,” Froehlich explains. “But my character and how I’m living is really credible. We are encouraging an environment in which belief becomes possible. We’re showing people what life in the kingdom is like.”

Work is Worship

Froehlich’s interest in elevating the sacredness of work is rooted not just in his own convictions but also in the needs of his community. Ithaca is home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, so 40 percent of his church is composed of Cornell graduate students, and 30 percent of church members leave every year to pursue careers elsewhere. Froehlich says these students, investing at high levels in their areas of interest, will soon be scattered across the world to occupy significant roles in business, government, and communities. That puts him, as their pastor, in a unique position to influence the world from Ithaca.

“I want to teach them that the work that they are preparing to do is God’s work,” says Froehlich. “It’s kingdom work. When you write that public policy, when you build that bridge, you are doing kingdom work. You are participating in what God created you to do, and you are participating in redemption.” He points to Genesis and the pattern of six days of work and one day of rest in God’s creation of the world. “If we follow this pattern, that means that 86 percent of our lives consist of this labor component, this culture-making component, this business of cultivating the earth, building the city. From the beginning, God has not made us to drive a wedge between our worship and our work.”

Guinness continues, “If all that a believer does grows out of faith and is done for the glory of God, then all dualistic distinctions are demolished.” Our roles (husband, father) our occupations (accountant, golfer, landscaper, cook), and our use of possessions (house, cars, money, networks, influence) are lived out in the presence of God (coram Deo). Colossians 3:23-24 describes a godly attitude toward work: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Jesus Christ.” Our work done in service to God is worship — whether changing dirty diapers, managing construction projects, or singing in church. None of our work escapes His eye nor fails to delight Him when done for His pleasure.In an effort to abolish the wedge and return to a holistic view of life, Guinness defines calling this way: “Calling is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion, dynamism, and direction lived out as a response to His summons and service. As followers of Christ, we are primarily called to follow Him, to be disciples. Our secondary callings, including our vocational callings, flow from that first call.

Implications for Life

For PCA elder Hugh Whelchel, discovering this biblical doctrine of work solved a dilemma he had wrestled with for years. He writes in his book, “How Then Should We Work? — Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work,” that as a businessman in Florida, he saw little connection between his daily work and God’s kingdom. What he did for God was “Sunday work” — teaching an adult Sunday school class, serving as an elder, working with Christian nonprofits. On Monday, he was back to life as a second-class citizen whose work was not as important as those serving God in “full-time Christian ministry.”

This understanding of how his work advanced God’s larger purposes fueled such a passion in Whelchel that he founded a nonprofit research organization to promote these ideas. The Institute for Faith, Work & Economics aims to “help individuals find fulfillment in their work and contribute to a free and flourishing society” according to biblical principles. He believes that the biblical doctrine of work is one of the most powerful means God provides for Christians to shape and influence culture.Whelchel writes, “Discovering the biblical doctrine of work transformed my life. Work for me went from being just a means to an end to having transcendent purpose in and of itself. … In fact, my vocational work was part of a larger grand story of God I was discovering, a story that started in the Garden of Eden and continues when Jesus returns and establishes the New Heavens and the New Earth. My work as a businessman, or whatever I was to do, had real value and purpose in God’s Kingdom.”

This understanding of how Christians influence culture through vocation has gained momentum since the publication of James Davison Hunter’s book “To Change the World.” He argues that, faced with an increasingly antagonistic culture, an altogether different paradigm of Christian engagement with the world is required. Hunter proposes what he calls “faithful presence,” an aspiration to imitate God in His incarnational ministry by moving into all aspects of culture with the loving desire to work for the flourishing of all people. Similarly, Froehlich understands the Great Commission imperative to “go into all the world” as more than a geographic advance. He says, “We need a map of culture — we need God’s people in every vocation. … It is through work that we are present and that the gospel lives in every part of culture. … If that’s true, the bulk of the fulfillment of the Great Commission is on the back of work.”

Implications for the Church

Equipping believers for cultural influence rather than just personal spiritual growth is a fundamental shift for most churches. If God intends to use the church as a “faithful presence,” what are the implications for how it operates? In his book “Every Good Endeavor,” Tim Keller describes how his congregation in New York City views its task: “We understand ourselves to be a small minority whom God has called to love and serve the city, our professions, our workplaces, and our neighborhoods. We seek to draw others into a redeeming and renewing faith, but also to serve alongside those who don’t believe as we do, for the good of the city and the world.”

This task calls for adaptation of the traditional discipleship model. Amy Sherman, director of the Center on Faith in Communities, describes an approach she calls vocational stewardship: “It starts by asking ‘What are the hallmarks of God’s kingdom?’ We know that redemptive history is moving toward the consummated kingdom. ‘Preview’ passages throughout the Old Testament offer glimpses into the characteristics of the kingdom … like peace, community, justice, compassion, economic sufficiency, wholeness, and beauty. Knowing what the kingdom values are then allows us to consider: How can I deploy my vocational power (skills, knowledge, network, platform) to advance these values in my workplace, my community, and the world?”

Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City created a Center for Faith & Work in 2002 to help its people explore these questions. Alsdorf describes the work of the center: “We get people together by vocation to get them talking about their industry and the kinds of questions they have, and the kinds of solutions they’ve figured out for themselves; to prod and provoke each other into thinking more deeply; to equip them to shape an entire organization and their products in a way that’s Gospel-centered or in light of the Gospel.” She says, “It’s an incubator or a laboratory that helps you practice a Christian approach to leadership in the safe environment of the church, so that when you go out into the tougher environment of the world, you can be better prepared to lead in a God-glorifying way.”

While churches such as Redeemer pioneer a variety of programs for drawing cultural influencers to be more shaped by the Gospel, smaller churches like Froehlich’s are also affirming vocation as an integral part of God’s purposes. For instance, Froehlich explains “All of Life” interviews he conducts during church services in which members describe their vocation and how their work functions as an opportunity to love and serve others. “We publicly affirm that what they’re doing is good and serves the common good,” he says. “We bring into prayer that our work matters to God and is part of our worship. We are confessing that Christ is at work accomplishing redemption through our work.”

Another way Froehlich affirms the value of work in his congregation is by commissioning members who serve outside the realm of traditional missionary work. For instance, this summer four graduate students traveled overseas to serve underprivileged areas. The church prayed for these students, affirming their service to God and their kingdom work, despite the fact that they didn’t raise support or go through a Christian missions agency. Through these public affirmations of vocation, Froehlich says he hopes to communicate to his congregation, “Don’t give up your job; view your job missionally. It is through work that the Gospel lives in every part of culture.”

If there is a war on work as Mike Rowe contends, certainly offering people the opportunity to join God in His work through their own is quite a peace offering. What the Gospel offers is far beyond Rowe’s worthy goal of restoring dignity to all work. The Gospel offers the privilege to participate in the beautiful work of restoring perfect harmony to all the world. And that is a goal worth working for.

Susan Fikse is a wife, mom, and freelance writer who lives in San Diego. She has officially joined the 21st century — she’s on Twitter @SusanFikse.

Illustrations by Peter Oumanski