We are hurtling into the future like never before. The change makes us anxious about whether we can keep up and makes us less likely to take risks, since the whole world seems risky. Just keeping the house together can feel like a challenge. For instance, all the Pathmarks are shutting down as part of the A&P’s bankruptcy and the consolidation of regional supermarket chains into giant multinationals. Our Pathmark in Gray’s Ferry was across the street from a new Bottom Dollar, so we had two stores for a while. Then Aldi bought Bottom Dollar (it’s rival) and Pathmark went bankrupt. ACME (pronounced akamee, if you’re new) bought a few Pathmarks but not ours. So now we have no stores and have to travel somewhere else for food.
The workplace is no less challenging for many of us. For instance, one of the blessings and curses of new technology is that work is mobile. I am writing on the laptop I took on my weekend away — I was never far away. Work is so demanding and we are so afraid of the forces that will take it away from us, that we give it total loyalty at all times. Social observers say that the workplace, mobile or otherwise, is the dominant place where people work out life now; it replaces family, friendship circles, church and other organizations that used to be the major ways people found an identity.*
The all-encompassing workplace
An example of an all-encompassing workplace is what many people say is the best place in the country to work: Google. An employee reviewer says, “The perks are amazing. Yes, free breakfast, lunch, and dinner every weekday. Aaaaaamazing holiday parties (at Waldorf Astoria, NY Public Library, MoMA, etc.); overnight ski trips to Vermont; overnight nature trips to the Poconos in the summer; summer picnics at Chelsea piers; and on and on and on. The company is amazingly open: every week Larry Page and Sergey Brin (right) host what’s called TGIF where food, beer, wine, etc. is served, a new project is presented, and afterward there’s an open forum to ask the executives anything you want. It’s truly fair game to ask anything, no matter how controversial, and frequently the executives will be responsive. * No, nobody cares if you use an iPhone, Facebook, shop with Amazon, stream using Spotify, or refuse to use Google+.“ There’s no reason to leave.
So let’s say you want to build the church and have a mission to the 10,000+ 18-35 year olds that move into Philadelphia every year. If home life is hard that is one thing. But who can compete with Google or with every other employer that thinks they are doing you a favor by making it possible for you to never leave work and making other things work like your family? Doesn’t the church want you to be under the umbrella of its family (since God is our father and Jesus our brother)? Isn’t Jesus the leader who calls us to work in his “harvest field” since the night is coming when the work of redeeming the world is finished? (see John 9). Doesn’t just bringing up that sense of competition make a few of you readers squeamish or resistant? Don’t leave yet, let’s try to talk about it!
Gave it all at the office
What if you feel like “I already gave what I have to give at the office?” Or “I’ll let you know what I feel right after I answer this call; it’s about work?” Maybe you’re thinking, “I have a hard enough time seeing my children and now you want me to be like family with a bunch of other people?” Yes we do.
The sense of competition is compounded for many of the people in our church because they managed to get a job that actually does good – maybe it is not good in the name of Jesus, but it is good. What’s more, they are either in charge of or working in an environment that is good for them. They lead. They are affirmed and successful. They are building or have built something that feels useful to them. They may have been good for a cause – just think of all the dear friends we have who have poured their heart into education, homelessness, counseling and so much more. They really give it at the office.
As a result, these good people often leave the church to others who do it for their job, or to a “B-team” composed of people who don’t have quite so much to do. Or they take roles in the church that they should have because of the gifts they have been given and then don’t really do them because they have to find a new grocery store or because work has an emergency. This week someone told me their relative has meals delivered because he and his wife discovered they would make more money if they spent their cooking time creating billable hours.
I am not trying to solve all the problems of being a radical in a rapacious world with this blog post. But I do want to bring up the perennial questions of practical devotion to Jesus before we have to reduce church down to fit into the life that is being forced upon us. Does the Lord speak to you and do you listen? Is the church the Lord’s vehicle for redeeming the world or is it making progress with your unmarked-by-Christ good deeds? Is your vocation who you are in the body of Christ or is it how you get paid?
At every age, answering those and many other questions is how we form into Jesus-followers and make it possible for others to meet God — and at every age, they are hard to answer. 20somethings are often good at jumping into being radical but they are also good at freaking out over their insecurity. 30somethings often struggle with a sense of being tapped or trapped; it’s a difficult decade for seeing things spiritually, even if you want to. 40somethings are at the beginning of their best contributions to the work of faith or are beginning to slide toward death, getting by, turning off, avoiding the problems they now know about.
Answering the big questions about vocation
At some point you have to be and build the church or attending the meetings seems kind of extraneous to life. Sitting in a cell or Sunday meeting gets old after a few years if you come to get too much instead of using them for the mission – to give your gift, make a disciple, build a missional community. For the 20somethings the meetings can’t just be ways to find out who you are, they have to become what you do because of who you are. For the 30somethings they can’t just be the obligations of staying in the game, they have to become what you are building. For the 40somethings they can’t just be the habits of being a church person, they need to be the basis for giving the gifts you have.
Circle of Hope really forced the issue of commitment this year when we made extravagant plans together and then had the audacity to implement them all. We were doing well as we were but then we changed a bunch of stuff and called people to take a new look at who they are and who we need to become as a church. It was like shutting down the grocery store. What’s more we asked everyone to give a bit more money (or some!) in order to pay for the new ideas and give us the capacity to imagine what’s next, plus we asked for the necessary time to make something great happen. That sounds a lot like competing with the workplace for preeminence.
Jesus is famous for upending what is usual and demanding preeminence. When he healed the man born blind he got into a lot of trouble with the powers that be. (You read John 9, right?). The man who was healed got in trouble too! The physical act of the Lord’s work caused the transformation he was after. But his work not only healed the man, it resulted in a conversation about spiritual blindness with the men who dominated their world. Those men thought they were doing good and holding the fragile society together in the face of its enemies. Jesus upended it and said, “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Regardless of Google and even the nonprofits that think they buy all our time, Jesus is the Lord who calls us to his most satisfying and necessary work. We are his hands and feet, the church is his vehicle. He is the light of the world in us and the night is coming.
*Overcoming Workplace Pathologies: Principles of Spirit-Based Leadership, by Gilbert W. Fairholm