John C. Knapp is founding director of the Frances Marlin Mann Center for Ethics and Leadership at Samford University and author of the forthcoming book How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and What Can Be Done About It). In this post (the second in a three-part series), he addresses the — subtle and often unintentional —tendency of many churches to dismiss and devalue “secular” work.
Anyone who has spent much time in the church is likely aware of its implicit hierarchy of occupations. At the top of the heap are full-time clergy and missionaries, followed closely by other paid workers in Christian ministry. Their jobs are seen as genuine callings, often validated by ordination ceremonies and commissioning rituals. Just below them in rank are the so-called helping professions — social workers, nurses, and the like — whose work aligns neatly with the church’s ministry priorities.
Moving further down the hierarchy we find the vast majority of Christians — salespeople, postal workers, accountants, business owners, electricians, corporate executives, lawyers, and countless others who comprise most of the body of Christ. Seldom are their jobs described as callings or celebrated by the church. A high school teacher astutely summed up the harm done by a caste system that devalues much good and necessary work: “I don’t think many people understand how a sense of vocation applies to their work, especially if they are not in a ministerial or helping profession. It’s clear to me, since I’m a teacher, but how do accountants know their work can be pleasing to or glorify God? How do attorneys hear the Holy Spirit in contentious cases? How can retail managers exhibit the love of Christ?”
The consequences are disastrous — for the gospel and for individual believers — when the church elevates an ecclesiastical elite while subtly devaluing the rest of the body. It is an attitude that betrays a distorted conception of Christian vocation and calling, one that sorts human activities into contrived categories of secular and sacred, suggesting that God is more concerned with church-sponsored work than with Christians being faithful in a thousand other daily contexts.
We should ask ourselves what is being communicated when a church allots time on Sunday morning to commission a short-term mission team for ten days in Mexico, yet does nothing to commission new college graduates for their careers in business or government or education. The crippling and unambiguous message is that ten days of volunteer work are more important to the church — and, by implication, to God — than a Christian’s lifelong occupation.
By and large, the church is ill-prepared for the woman who wonders what Sunday worship has to do with her hard hours as a hotel housekeeper. The tendency to devalue “secular” work only makes it more difficult for her and countless other believers to look to the faith community for support, encouragement, or constructive guidance.
Click here to order John C. Knapp’s How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and What Can Be Done About It).