My father-in-law is always reminding me that as a pastor my job is not to be a “ministry professional” but to equip others do minister in the vocations that God has uniquely called them to. The biblical rationale for this is Ephesians 4:11-12.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.
In other words, the pastor is the minister of God to the people, but his calling is not to do the work of ministry per se. No one is equipped for such a massive task! It takes more than a church staff to minister. It takes a kingdom of ministers. Hence one of the tasks of the church is to equip all Christians to understand their calling to minister in this world. This is the language of “vocation.” Not job, not career, but vocation—understood as a calling by God to serve Christ and neighbor in the world.
In much of Christendom, the classical doctrine and practice of vocation has been lost. Much of the church, especially the evangelical church, has adopted some form of the medieval teaching on work. You’ve probably heard the notion that a Christian must serve God in his work. And this must entail sharing the gospel with coworkers, decorating your workspace with Bible verses and paraphernalia, and keeping your nose clean of office politics, shenanigans, and immorality. Then, as a Christian matures, he will leave his secular job to work for a parachurch ministry, or a church, or even go overseas to serve as a missionary. This is the path laid out for the believer who desires to serve God in his or her work. Or so the thinking goes. It’s not much different from the notion that the super-spiritual person will leave worldly employment to become a priest, monk, or nun.
It’s time for a course correction. For decades now many thoughtful Christians have embarked on a journey to reconsider the majority narrative of work. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC, is the latest to cast a vision on the duty, delight, and calling of work in the world. His book, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (hereafter EGE), is a tour de force. Its twelve chapters, divided into three parts, draw in Part 1 from the Bible God’s plan for work by examining its design, dignity, and work as both cultivation and service. In Part 2, the author identifies and explains our problems with work: its fruitlessness, pointlessness, how it becomes selfish, and how it reveals our idols. Part 3 explores how the gospel alone empowers us to work with renewed vision, understanding, joy, and hope. Here Keller unveils how the gospel gives a new story (metanarrative) for work, a new conception of work, a new compass for work, and finally a new power for work.
EGE is the kind of book that equips pastors, preachers, and teachers to help Christians who work outside the realm of traditional ministry. Thus it is a book for every Christian. And unlike many books that seek to instruct Christians to do more overtly spiritual things at their place of employment, EGE has a much broader scope. In some ways it strives to appeal to the vocations that have so often been overlooked: art, high finance, music. Moreover, the author addresses the various levels of workers: entrepreneurs, owners, managers, laborers, etc. Again, this is a book for all Christians.
But it’s not just for Christians. Woven throughout is the underlying assumption that the gospel and its vision for work is the most beautiful the world has ever seen. The gospel transforms work so this understanding is attractive to the unbeliever too. Keller is characteristically respectful of those who are not Christians because he observes God’s common grace is abundant throughout all creation. Every culture has been blessed with people who work with excellence, service, ethics, and purpose. But every culture is cursed with the effects of the Fall. And so every culture, every vocation, and every worker needs redemption. The author carefully and clearly spells out how the redemption that the gospel brings to vocation is the very hope that everyone longs for.
To quote Keller, the goal of the book is
To feed your imagination and stir your action with the richness of what the Christian faith says (directly and indirectly) about this inexhaustible subject. The Bible teems with wisdom, resources, and hope for anyone who is learning to work, looking for work, trying to work, or going to work. And when we say that the Christian Scriptures “gives us hope” for work, we at once acknowledge both how deeply frustrating and difficult work can be and how profound the spiritual hope must be if we are going to face the challenge of pursuing vocation in this world. [p. 25]
One of the most poignant insights of EGE is that most of us don’t work for the work itself. More than likely you are working for “the work under the work.” This is why the work itself can be so frustrating and difficult. The work under the work is the underlying reason why people work. Some get out of bed with the motivation that the weekend is coming. Some go to work for the money and the things it buys them. Others go to work for intellectual challenge, or to exert power over others, or for peer recognition, or to change the world, or for fear of failure or poverty, or just to get out of the house and even away from family for the day. You get the idea. Fill in the blank with the work under your work. There are a myriad of reasons why people work. But if the work itself and the joy of a job well done for the glory of God and love of neighbor are not the primary reasons why you do your work, then you need a better vision for work. As Keller argues, you need to understand Tolkien’s short story parable Leaf By Niggle. He finds this story is deeply shaped by the Christian hope of heaven and thus is a powerful illustration of the frustration and glory of our work.
I appreciate EGE because it is not just theory. The principles and vision it contains have been practiced in real life by a larger community of Christians in NYC, and by many specialized micro-communities. The story of this community, connected to and supported by Keller’s church, is told in the book’s Epilogue. What the reader possesses is material tested by real people in worldly employments seeking to connect their vocation to God’s work. If you desire to explore the same, I encourage you read EGE in a group with other like-minded friends, especially those who are fellow co-laborers in similar fields. Discuss it. Share your struggles. Spur each other on for God’s glory to grander hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Challenge one another to love and good works in your work. Here are some suggested discussion questions we’ve used in our reading group to get started.
Quotes from the book
The Publisher Highlighting Every Good Endeavor
Authors Keller and Alsdorf discuss the book
Tim Keller gives a talk on Why Work Matters
Why Tim Keller Wants You to Stay in That Job You Hate
Four Points on Faith and Work from Keller’s Every Good Endeavor
An “unauthorized” discussion guide
Lutherans, Calvinists, & Evangelicals on vocation