This is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Vocation: The Setting for Human Flourishing, written by Michael Berg (1517 Publishing, 2020)
George Will once said that American football was everything that was wrong with America: violence and incessant committee meetings (huddles). I wonder what he thinks about the church. It can be a very hectic, bustling place. But as Aidan Nichols quipped, “Unfortunately, the ‘liveliest church in town’ has little to do with the life the Gospel speaks of.” (1) How can a preacher climb the pulpit and preach on the importance of being a good parent and then, after the service, announce a dozen events or meetings that those same parents need to attend? The implication is that there are two kinds of activities: churchly activities and everything else. One is of eternal importance, and the other is of little importance. While it is true that there is one thing needful (Luke 10:42), it does not mean that everyday life has no meaning. Think of the guilt a church bulletin can heap upon the faithful. Do this. Come to that. Donate to this. Volunteer for that. All this on top of being a worker, a family member, a citizen. Forget life-work balance. There is also a church-life balance, and the church needs you. Jesus needs you! It is a recipe for despair. Or just as bad, it is a recipe for self-indulgent piety. An opportunity to indulge and revel in your personal piety. An opportunity to feel good about yourself—spiritually good about yourself. You are the one who has it together, who can run a family and make the church successful. How lucky Jesus is to have you!
I say close and lock the church doors. No, keep them open for prayer and study, for gospel comfort and preaching, but kick the incessant volunteer out into the world. Don’t get me wrong, the church needs volunteers, but we don’t have to make work for her members so that they feel spiritual. Being a mom is spiritual. So is working at a deli and attending your granddaughter’s flute recital. Those things matter a whole lot more than some committee meeting. The work will get done! It will. We’ll call you when we need you—but only when we need you. Go into the world; that’s where you belong.
There is something dreadful lurking behind the busyness of the church. We are tripping over ourselves to be more righteous than the next person. It appears that sometimes—and sometimes often—rather than being motivated to do a particular thing for the love of a neighbor, Christians take on assignments at church to put guilt upon others in the congregation who do not share the same level of righteous fervor. There is plenty of law preaching out in the world—it’s all there is out there, in fact. The church should be the place of gospel, not more self-righteous law. The world lives in the first system (a righteousness by law); the church lives in the other system (a righteousness by faith). If the church is the place to feel righteous (and more righteous than everybody else), then the church is no different from the world: “Unfortunately, the ‘liveliest church in town’ has little to do with the life the Gospel speaks of.” (2)
Neomonasticism—that is, the idea that church work is more important than regular work—implies that God cares more about the spiritual than the physical. This is nothing new. There has always been the urge for the religious to escape this world, to cloister themselves away in order to be hyperspiritual. Away from the world, they can truly do God’s work of praying and praising. It can quickly become the place where the hyperspiritual are seen as better than the material-driven masses. It can also become damning if those “spiritual heroes” find merit before God because of their sacrifice. But is it really a sacrifice? It’s a man-made sacrifice. A man-made good deed. I would argue that being a parent or plugging away at a factory job week in and week out is far more complicated and difficult. I imagine that many overworked accountants have dreamed of a quiet life of contemplation. Religious escapism is still escapism. Jesus said that Christians are not of this world, but he also said that Christians are in the world (John 17:14–15). It’s where we belong.
Os Guinness distinguishes between the “Catholic distortion” and the “Protestant distortion” (3) when it comes to a theology of work. The Catholic distortion elevates the spiritual work of monks and priests high above the ordinary callings of Christians. The Protestant distortion simply takes the spiritual out of the ordinary. And in a bit of irony, the word vocation, which was once wrestled away from the monks, now refers to secular work only, as in “vocational school.” Guinness, a Protestant himself, rightly sees the two distortions as the same error. The Protestant distortion “completely betrays the purpose of calling and, ironically, activates a counter-reaction that swings back to the Catholic distortions again.” (4) Both devalue life’s vocations for the work of the church, whether it be performed by the clergy for merit (medieval monks and priests) or by the ordinary to feel spiritual (laity in the church).
God cares about the physical as much as the spiritual. He is the creator of all. This means that there is nothing that he does not claim as his own. God cares about the small stuff. Of course he does. He told us so when he declared us more important than the sparrows and that he knows the number of hairs on our head (Matt. 10:29–31). God wants a clean restroom and a productive factory. He wants cars that run smoothly and thoughtful lesson plans in our classrooms. Of course he does. Our work matters. Novelist and playwright Dorothy Sayers connects work with true piety:
It is not right for [the church] to acquiesce in the notion that a man’s life is divided into the time he spends on his work and the time he spends in serving God. He must be able to serve God in his work, and the work itself must be accepted and respected as the medium of divine creation. . . . What use is all of that if in the very center of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry? No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. Nor, if they did, could anyone believe that they were made by the same hand that made Heaven and earth. No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie. (5)
Work matters. Quality work matters. It matters to God. Luther famously said that the angels smile when a father changes a dirty diaper. (6) God wants clean rear ends! Of course he does.
Why does God care about such small details? Because he loves, that’s why. He wants children taught, and he uses principals, teachers, and parents to do it. Not to mention all the staff it takes to run a school. God wants people protected, and he uses firefighters, police officers, and a host of government officials to get the job done. God wants diseases controlled, and he uses doctors, nurses, and researchers to take on this monumental task. He cares deeply about the janitor’s work, too, for the very same reason. God wants it all, and he wants it done well. He uses people to do it. He frees Christians from working for him so that they can work for their neighbors.