Established in 1989, Redeemer Presbyterian Church grew in large part by connecting with the spiritual and vocational longings of New York’s emerging creative class. In 2002 the church launched the Center for Faith & Work (CFW) to specifically equip, connect, and mobilize the congregation for faithfully living out the gospel through their vocations, in hopes of contributing to the peace and prosperity of the city (Jer. 29:7).
Soon CFW was responding to pent-up demand within the church and the city for deeper conversations around faith, work, and calling. The center cultivated these conversations through a wide range of programs: classes, retreats, vocation groups, arts programs, job-search support, business-plan competitions, and coaching.
Programs are one thing, changed lives are another. How would CFW help these workers surrender their vocational idols, find vocational purpose, and be transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ? How would CFW help them find peace, not in their work, but in God’s work? To do this, the center needed a theology of work to undergird and direct our mission.
When I was hired in 2002 to envision and lead the Center for Faith & Work, I’d been working in the high-tech industry for thirty years. I was familiar with many of the vocational challenges, questions, and crises facing Christian workers in the marketplace. And yet, though I knew their questions intimately, I was unschooled in the theological answers and resources available to them within the history and theology of the Christian faith.
Before I arrived at CFW, I had attended several Christian workshops on faith and work in both Silicon Valley and New York City, but generally found them disappointing. Many of these trainings were filled with simplistic and individualistic lists of “do’s and don’ts” for Christians in the office: don’t work on Sunday, do keep a Bible on your desk, don’t engage in office gossip.” The gospel was reduced to moralism. Be a “good person,” put God first, family second, and work third. The deeper and more complex questions in the global marketplace were never discussed: How does our work matter to God? What do fair and just work policies look like? How can workers “walk humbly with God” (Mic. 6:8)? If I was going to lead CFW well, I would need a deeper theological well to draw from. I would need theological resources that could connect with the vocational and existential questions haunting New York’s creative class.
Over time, I found those theological resources in the Reformed tradition. Puritans like Jonathan Edwards and John Owen, Scottish Presbyterians like Thomas Chalmers, Dutch neo-Calvinists like Abraham Kuyper and Richard Mouw, and our own Presbyterian pastor, Tim Keller, gave us the theological grounding and imagination we so desperately needed. The Reformed belief that the gospel of Jesus Christ informs and transforms all of life became the central and organizing conviction for everything that we did at the center.
Inspired by this theological vision, CFW developed a threefold approach to vocational transformation. In everything we did, we sought to explore how the gospel impacts the heart, relationships, and world of a worker. In transforming hearts, Christ frees workers from their professional idolatry and gives them a new orientation for work. A gospel-transformed heart will long to work, not for self-actualization but for one’s neighbor, one’s city, and God. In transforming relationships, the gospel impacts the way workers interact with their colleagues and clients, their employees and employers. In Christ, these professional relationships become spaces of self-sacrifice, opportunities for service, justice, and grace. Finally, the gospel transforms a worker’s world. Here the worker learns that God is already at work in their working world, in their industries and institutions. Christ is inviting workers into his ministry of reconciliation and transformation in the world. In this threefold vision of vocational heart, relationships, and world, workers can witness the depth and breadth of the Reformed conviction that Christ’s redemption is never partial but is pervasive. It is both spiritual and material, personal and professional, relational and structural. As Christ promised, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn. 10:10).
Holistic Theology of Work
The Reformed tradition’s more holistic understanding of work is grounded in the biblical narrative. Scripture affirms the goodness of diverse capacities for human work embedded by God in creation. Scripture acknowledges the pain and frustration of work after the fall. And finally, Scripture points to a holistic hope for our daily work’s renewed participation in Christ’s present work of restoration and reconciliation in creation. Our day-to-day work in the city is not ancillary to God’s mission and work in the world but integral to it all.
This holistic theology of work was a radical and disruptive departure for many evangelicals arriving at Redeemer Presbyterian Church for the first time. Many of them came from a church background that either ignored or undervalued their work in the world. They carried an underlying guilt for working outside of “professional ministry.” Entering into this new vision and community, they found a new motivation for work. Suddenly they were able to connect their daily work to the cosmic work of God.
Dorothy Sayers’s theology of work has been foundational reading for many of us at the center. She’s inspired us to approach our work “as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself.” Her definition of Christian work as, quite simply, “good work, well done” frees many evangelicals from the misguided guilt they feel for not working as a pastor or missionary. The sparks of delight they feel while working in science, finance, the arts, medicine, and marketing are a reflection of the God who delights in his own complex works of creation. This God, they discover, still works with delight today, right at their sides.
Editor’s Note: This article is from Reformed Public Theology edited by Matthew Kaemingk, ©2021. Used by permission of Baker Academic.