Tom Nelson | Interview by: Matt Smethurst
It's counterintuitive, but our allegiance to Christ doesn't lessen our obligation to work faithfully on earth. Rather, faithfulness to Jesus deepens this effort. How this fleshes out, though, often requires deep reflection on God's Word. Tom Nelson, senior pastor of Christ Community Church in Leawood, Kansas, and TGC council member, has done some of that reflection for his new book, Work Matters. Matt Smethurst corresponded with Nelson about how the gospel intercects with our vocations.
Work Matters is largely focused on the importance of a pastor connecting for his people "the professions of their Sunday faith with the practices of their Monday work." How can pastors better encourage and equip their people to truly value their jobs?
While I offer some practical suggestions in Work Matters, I believe what pastors need most in equipping their congregations is to have a robust theology of vocation firmly imbedded in their own hearts and minds. Then a pastor can begin to preach, teach, and celebrate with the congregation the multi-faceted and multi-colored threads of a gospel-centered vocational missiology. Pastors need to grasp that a primary work of the church is the church at work and an important role in their equipping responsibilities is to prepare the laity for gospel faithfulness in and through their vocational callings. It is in the workplace where the gospel is not only powerfully incarnated but also compellingly proclaimed through both word and deed to a lost and needy world. Congregants most need to take with them to their jobs a robust theology of work that shapes how they view their work, their workplace, and their fellow workers. When our congregations begin to see their Monday work as worshipful and God-honoring as their Sunday morning gathering with the saints, then the value of what they do the majority of the week takes on great significance and meaning.
You claim that there is "no more sacred space than the workplace where God has called you to serve him as you serve the common good." What do you mean here?
First, Abraham Kuyper—a great cheerleader of seeking the common good—insightfully reminds us that there is no square inch of the universe that Jesus as Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer does not claim as his very own. Second, as followers of Jesus who have embraced the gospel, the apostle Paul tells us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and wherever our bodies are, we are indwelling sacred space. That space may be in a church building on Sunday or in a workplace on Monday. Wherever we are, Christ is faithfully present to us, and we are called and empowered to be a faithful presence for Christ wherever we are, including our workplaces. I don’t want to in any way minimize those places where we gather for corporate worship, but when we raise the importance of some space over other space, either by subtle implication or direct assertion, we tiptoe very close to an unbiblical position.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones once remarked, "To me the work of preaching is the highest and the greatest and the most gracious calling to which anyone can ever be called." Was Lloyd-Jones mistaken to elevate one calling above all others?
I don’t think Jones was mistaken, because I understand his comments to flow from his own enthusiastic passion about his particular vocational calling. I believe that as this giant of the pulpit preached with Spirit unction he felt God’s great pleasure. I don’t believe that Dr. Jones was disagreeing with the Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther, who equated the vocational calling of a monk and a milk maid as having the same value and importance before God. While the Protestant Reformers wonderfully recovered the gospel and the authority of Holy Scripture, we must remember they also recovered a robust theology of vocation. Dr. Jones understood the extraordinary nature of ordinary work. I believe he understood that a robust theology of vocation was one of the great legacies passed on to the church by the Reformers.
How does the gospel transform the way that Christians view and carry out their work? What happens when the gospel intersects with a vocation that doesn't afford many opportunities for gospel conversations?
In Work Matters I seek to unpack how the gospel transforms not only the worker but also the workplace. One of the biblical examples we have of gospel transformation and the workplace is found in the delightful small book of Philemon. Onesimus runs away from his workplace and heads to Rome where he encounters the apostle Paul and the gospel. Onesimus is wonderfully converted to Christ, and Paul sends him back to his Christian boss, Philemon. Paul’s inspired letter to Philemon tells us that the gospel not only changed Onesimus and Philemon, it also changed their relationship and the workplace they inhabited together.
Whatever our vocational calling, we need to see our workplaces as opportunities to proclaim the gospel and fulfill the Great Commission, but we also need to see them through the lens of helping to fulfill the Great Commandment. Martin Luther made the comment that while God does not need our work, our neighbor surely does. In many ways, Luther saw the commandment to love God and our neighbor through the lens of vocational faithfulness. When we work, we bear God’s image and we further the common good of God’s fallen yet good world. Our work has intrinsic value in itself and not just instrumental value in the opportunities it presents for us to share the gospel---as important as this stewardship is for a faithful disciple.
How would you encourage a believer for whom work feels like pure drudgery, who thinks, There's just no way I'm making a difference?
Though there are times the Lord will lead us to another workplace, I would say that Holy Spirit calls us in most cases to be faithful where God has already providentially placed us. When we tell ourselves that we are not making a difference, I fear we may be assuming a prideful posture that asserts we have a good read on things. We look through a mirror dimly. Our viewpoint is often myopic at best. God’s viewpoint is what matters most and often God is doing a work in us and those around us we simply cannot see. I would also remind the person who is struggling with the seeming drudgery of work, that work in a fallen world, like suffering, can be used by God to build greater spiritual maturity in our lives. Our work is part of God’s providential spiritual formation process. We shape our work and in many ways our work shapes us. As we follow Christ in obedience and as we do our work for the glory of Christ, the Holy Spirit brings greater Christlikeness and fruitfulness to our lives. Our work is one of God’s most powerful tools of transformation in our lives and our world. Let’s not forget that Jesus spent the vast majority of his time on earth working as a carpenter in the obscure village of Nazareth. This too was part of God’s plan to bring redemption to the world.
Matt Smethurst is an assistant editor for The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.