Theology 101

Dismantling the New Sacred-Secular Divide

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“Raise your hand if you’re going into full-time ministry.”

This was spoken by the dean of the School of Business at the graduation dinner the December I finished college.

Having attended a Christian university, and knowing the context behind this question, I smiled and began to raise my hand, looking around me to see who else would catch on.

The professor looked around and continued, “You all should be raising your hands.”

He was charging the business majors, biology majors, communications, and education majors, among others, to view their future work—whatever it was to be—as ministry, because it was. He didn’t just want to see those graduating with degrees in theology, youth ministry, and biblical studies raising their hands. As followers of Christ, we were all going into ministry.

Ground Gained (But the Battle Isn’t Over)

This professor desired for our new class of graduates to understand that ministry is not relegated to “church work” or whatever is more explicitly and obviously furthering the gospel.

This faulty distinction that elevates “church work” over against everything else, commonly termed the “sacred-secular divide,” has been wreaking havoc in the church for centuries. Even though many of us have become aware of this divide and its effects in recent years, the deeper mindset behind this divide is still at work in other ways.

Those of us in business and finance, marketing and communications, education, healthcare, and the like may now recognize that our work is not of less value than that of a pastor or missionary—that it is indeed valuable to God—but it is still difficult for us to understand how or even that our work is ministry.

Defining Ministry

Perhaps a good place to start is with understanding what ministry is.

There are several definitions for the term, and while some are governmental, the primary connotations of this word are religious. The Oxford dictionary defines ministry first as, “The work or vocation of a minister of religion.” This would seem to suggest pastor, priest, or missionary, but we must read on for more clarity.

The second sub-definition under this primary one provides a broad view of what, or who, a “minister” is. It calls ministry: “The spiritual work or service of any Christian or a group of Christians, especially evangelism.” Now, as important as evangelism is, remove that piece for a second and reread it.

Ministry is the spiritual work or service of any Christian or group of Christians.

If we return to the truths that dismantle the sacred-secular divide, we are reminded that all we do is spiritual. We don’t live in the spiritual realm merely on Sunday mornings, but all day, every day.

As holistic beings, we are incapable of separating our lives into segments, labeling one “spiritual.” Though it can be helpful to think about aspects of our lives in discrete terms such as “relational,” “vocational,” or “intellectual,” even such distinctions are largely synthetic and for the purpose of analysis.

“Spiritual,” especially, cannot be placed in such a segment, as it is not an aspect of our lives we can segment off from the rest. All facets of our lives are spiritual. As Harold Best states in Unceasing Worship, all human beings—Jew, Christian, Muslim, and Atheist alike—are worshipers of something or someone. “No one does not worship.” Imbued with the very breath of God (Gen. 2:7), humankind is inherently spiritual.

But even more importantly for Christians, our lives have been joined to Christ and we participate in his work of “reweaving shalom” by helping to repair the brokenness around us, giving others a glimpse of the way things will be when Christ returns.  Therefore, whatever work you set your hands, heart, and mind to each day is spiritual. Your daily work has eternal significance.

Same Problem, New Cloak

We must take care, in moving away from the sacred-secular divide, not to move into what some are calling the “new” sacred-secular divide. Though not as blatant as its predecessor, its insidiousness can be dangerously more difficult to detect.

The so-called “new” sacred-secular divide simply replaces the starker contrast of “church work” vs. remaining industries with a division between seemingly more meaningful jobs (e.g., jobs that help “change the world”) and “ordinary” jobs that don’t have (or seem to have) the same direct impact.

Those of us on the “sacred” side of the new divide may have an easier time seeing our work as ministry—for example, those involved in urban planning, addictions and abuse counseling, and nonprofit leadership. Inversely, those of us falling on the “secular” side of this new divide—project managers, accountants, and plumbers—likely still struggle as much as ever to find meaning and significance in our work, let alone to view it as ministry.

In addition to continuing to undermine the importance of work itself, this new sacred-secular divide once again creates a false dichotomy. Not only is it false, it’s harmful. It masks that these “ordinary” jobs are forms of ministry, and that those working such jobs are indeed ministers of reconciliation and gospel truth.

Again, if you are a Christian today, your work is ministry. As followers of Christ and recipients of his forgiveness, love, and grace, we are called to be his ambassadors. We have been made new and, through our work, we join in God’s redemption and restoration plan.

Editor’s note: Read more about how our work is part of God’s redemption and restoration plan in All Things New: Rediscovering the Four-Chapter Gospel.

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