When we think of Christian ministry, we tend to think of it in terms of the activities we do in 'church'. For instance being a home group leader, running children's groups, cleaning the church building, or being a warden. And there is nothing wrong with this, these are forms of Christian service. But how many of us think of what we do Monday to Friday at work as part of our Christian service and ministry?
Mark Greene has written extensively of ministry in the work place, and in his book 'Thank God it's Monday' he quotes one person who said the following: "I've been working for seventeen years and it's only in the last year or so that I've recognized my workplace as a ministry. How many Christians die without ever realizing the ministry God had for them?"
So this morning I want us to think about ministry in the work place, the challenges and the opportunities that as Christians we face. What I want to say this morning, isn't just restricted to those who are in paid employment, it relates to all of us.
Why Work is Important
We only have to look at the opening chapters of the Bible to see how important work is in God's scheme of things.
First of all we see that God is a God who works. The Bible describes creation as the work of God. For six days God works, and on the seventh he rests from all the work he has done. God is a worker and it is something he chooses to do- it is part of his plan. And we see that God takes pleasure in his work. We're told that when God finished creating the heavens and the earth he said that it was 'very good'.
Work was part of God's gift to humanity in creation; it was part of his original plan. God has created us for work, and this work is given to us as a blessing. We see this in Genesis 1:28, God blessed them and said to them. 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." And from Genesis 2:15 we read: "The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it."
There is a moral responsibility which is connected to the work we do. For example the Bible talks about the importance of working in order to support those in need, working in order to improve the life of the community as a whole.
God always intended us to be people who work, and God intended work to be a source of satisfaction and pleasure.
And in the New Testament Paul calls upon Christians to do their work for God. Paul writes to the Colossians 3:17, "whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." Work is one of the ways in which we serve God.
Why the workplace is so important?
In 1945 the Church of England produced a book called 'Towards the Conversion of England'. In it are written these words. "We are convinced that England will never be converted until the laity use the opportunities daily afforded by their various professions, crafts and occupations."
As Christians God has called all of us to be his witnesses in the world. The greatest mission field in the world today is right on our doorstep amongst our friend's neighbours and work colleagues. Britain today is a largely post-Christian society. Fewer and fewer people are attending churches; the level of Christian knowledge in our society is at an all time low.
And this is why being an effective witness in the workplaces so important. Because it is the place where we spend much of our time, maybe up to 40 or 50 hours a week. In the workplace Christians and non-Christians are able to meet and are subject to the same work cultures, and the same pressures. The work place is one of the few places where a non-Christian can actually see the difference that knowing Christ can make to a life, week in, week out. And through the workplace we will know many people, and have many friends, and we will be in contact with people at important points in their lives. For instance when people are facing divorce, illness, or bereavement.
So we see the wonderful opportunities that we have as Christians to minister to those we work with. As Emil Brunner said, what the Christian community needs to do is to regain the lost sense of work as a divine calling.
The challenges of the workplace
We only need to consider the issues facing workers today, to realize what opportunities we have as Christians to bring something positive into the work place.
British workers work longer hours than any other nation in the European Union. And increasingly people are suffering from increased levels of stress, anxiety, bullying, depression and less job satisfaction. And people are being forced to work these longer hours, because they fear that if they don't, their employers will find someone who will. For most people, job security is a thing of the past.
Also consider the values that shape the work place, and the desperate need for a positive Christian witness. For example, most contemporary workplaces will operate on secular values, and would see themselves not accountable to anyone else their employers or share holders.
The challenge for us as Christians is how to remind people that we are accountable to God for our actions. What assumptions and attitudes exist in your workplace, and how to they compare to the values and attitudes that God has, such as truth, honesty, justice, and fairness? And what are the values that we bring to the work place? Do we allow our Christian faith to have an impact upon what we do at work?
A further challenge is that increasingly people are seen in terms of what functions they perform in the business, rather than being treated as human beings. And as we work longer hours, people tend to see their work as a measure of their identity and worth. Yet the Bible reminds us that we are created in God's image, and this attaches a special worth and dignity to each individual person, irrespective of what we do. How can we ensure that this message is heard in the workplace?
So we can see both the challenges, but also the opportunities that we have as Christians in the world of work. So for the remainder of this talk I want us to consider how we can develop a Christian vision for the work place.
A Christian Vision for the Work Place
- Our work matters to God
The first thing we need to be reminded of is that our work matters to God. God is deeply concerned about the work we do, he is concerned about every part of our lives, and not just what we get up to on a Sunday morning. The work that I do as a Vicar in God's eyes is no greater or more important than the work you are involved in. We tend to talk about the priesthood as a vocation, a calling, but secular employment can be just as much a vocation. Think about how important it is for us to have Christian teachers, doctors, nurses, accountants, etc. In fact we need Christians in every walk of life.
If we look at the Bible we see that many of the great biblical heroes were people who had what we would term secular jobs. For example, Joseph who became the chancellor in Egypt, Daniel the imperial adviser to Nebuchadnezzar, or Nehemiah who was the cupbearer to king Artaxerxes.
- Our primary calling is to be a servant of Jesus Christ
Secondly we need to remember that our primary calling is to be servants of Jesus Christ. A man standing on the platform waiting for the train to take him to work was asked, Who are you? He replied… I am a Christian thinly disguised as an accountant.
If we begin to see our workplace as the context for mission and evangelism, it will change our whole attitude to those we work amongst. For example do we pray for those people we work for? When you go into work do you ask God for opportunities to share your faith with those you work with? And do you meet up with other Christians who work at the same business as you to pray and study the Bible & support one another? Jesus said, Open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. The harvest is ripe, we should ask God to use us to share his love. The important point is that it is not about getting people into church, it is about telling them about the love God has for them.
Being an effective witness in the workplace doesn't require a degree in theology, just openness to God as the following example demonstrates.
Emily, a small Chinese lady, works at the United Nations. One day one of her co-workers wasn't feeling well. 'Can I get you a cup of tea?' Emily enquired.
'No' the other replied rather shortly. 'I don't like the tea here. I only drink camomile.' Emily left her, quietly slipped on her coat, took the lift down several floors and went down the street to a nearby shop. She returned with a box of camomile tea and gave it to this lady, who immediately enveloped her in a huge hug, exclaiming, 'Emily, I love you'. Emily replied, rather muffled from the epicentre of the massive hug, 'I love you too.'
Emily's story illustrates a number of important points:
- We need to be ministry minded- Emily could have just smiled and gone on her way. Instead, because she was ministry minded, because she listened, because she saw the other person's need and desire, she took an initiative that totally transformed that person's mood and day.
- Time is on our side- the opportunities will come. We don't have to create situations in which we can minister- they will happen by themselves. We simply need to pray and be alert.
- Ministry is to individual people- Clearly camomile tea wouldn't have been a good idea for everybody, but it helped this one woman. We need to care for people and love them as individuals.
- Ministry doesn't demand- it gives- Emily asked for nothing, not even the money for the tea. She gave expecting nothing in return. Our expressions of love for others shouldn't have any strings attached. We need to be sensitive and distinguish between the opportunities to serve and the opportunities to communicate the gospel verbally.
Brother Lawrence worked in the monastery kitchens, a job which incidentally he didn't particularly enjoy. But despite this he believed that all work, no matter how mundane or routine it may be, could be a medium of God's love.
He wrote the following: "We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him, and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before him, who has given me grace to work; afterwards I rise happier than a king. It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God."
His attitude to work is one that we could do well to follow, so that everything we do is given to God as an offering, and an opportunity to be his witness. Amen.