In June of 1976 I was one of the speakers at a conference at the University of Dallas. The theme of the conference was “The Laity: A New Direction.” I was initiated there into a group of people who were to meet regularly for the next few years to strategize about promoting the cause of the laity. I was the youngest member of that group and the only evangelical, and I was intimidated to be in the presence of folks like James McCord, president of Princeton Seminary; Presbyterian pastor Howard Blake; Mark Gibbs, of the Church of England; Cynthia Wedel, of the World Council of Churches; Father Joseph Gremillion, of the University of Notre Dame; and William Diehl, a well-known business leader.1
While our Dallas conference made much of the need to “empower the laity,” there were different motivations at work regarding what was required. For some church leaders this meant giving more visible lay leadership in the church’s authority structures; this emphasis was often spelled out with much criticism of a clergy-dominated “hierarchicalism.” Others wanted to enlist lay people for active leadership in church-sponsored “peace and justice” activities. Still others advocated for a theological emphasis on the daily working lives of “ordinary” believers as forms of “ministry.”
My own strongest sympathies were with this third emphasis. I was pleased that William Diehl had a significant presence at our conference. Bill, the president of Bethlehem Steel, was a theologically savvy Lutheran who at the time of our conference published his book Christianity and Real Life, where he laid out the basics of a theology of work. Bill’s theological vision was the inspiration for a Lutheran organization, Laity Exchange, that in the next decade sponsored the publication of a series of books on a theology of work, including Mark Gibbs’s Christians with Secular Power, Bill’s Thank God It’s Monday, and my Called to Holy Worldliness.
I said that I was the youngest member of the group that planned and led the Dallas conference and the only evangelical. I was intimidated, not only in the presence of senior ecumenical leaders, but also being rather new to the substantive theological ideas with which the others were already intimately familiar. Soon, however, I found my own voice in the discussions.
Significantly, I drew strength for finding my voice from a condescending comment made to me by a mainline church leader. We evangelicals, he observed, would have difficulty falling in line with a robust theology of the laity because of our “weak ecclesiology.” The evangelical community, he complained, “gets bogged down with all of your ‘para-church stuff.’” In reflecting on his comment, I realized that our evangelical “para-church stuff” actually featured an infrastructure for connecting discipleship and daily life that exceeded anything in the larger ecumenical world. In the twentieth century, evangelicals had created a variety of vocation-specific laity groups: the Christian Nurses Fellowship, the Christian Legal Society, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Full Gospel Business gatherings, the Christian Medical Association, prayer groups in Hollywood—and even airline personnel who meet for devotions and Bible study in several large airports. In addition, there were the academic groups who meet for faith-based discussions: Faith and Literature, Faith and History, the Christian Philosophy Association, Christian Social Workers, Biologos, Christians in Political Science, and so on.
There is nothing like all of that in mainline Protestantism, and very little in Catholicism. Indeed, many mainline Protestant and Catholic lay people are drawn to the evangelical groups, precisely because they don’t have that kind of encouragement in their own communities.
In the past, of course, this network of evangelical organizations has not shown much interest in encouraging careful reflection on the meaning of work. I had a striking example of this when I flew home from the Dallas conference. In a conversation with the man sitting next to me on the plane he told me that he had recently attended an inspiring conference for Christians in the business world. When I asked him what topics were covered in those meetings, he replied: “Mainly Israel in Bible prophecy.”
The vocation-specific groups in those days focused primarily on group Bible study, witnessing to fellow workers, resisting sinful temptations, and maintaining a personal devotional life. Little attention was given to Christian perspectives on corporate structures, employee relations, and how the actual products and processes of our labors can glorify God.
In my Dallas speech, I told a story about a friend of mine who owned an insurance business. A local TV station brought him and three other business leaders together on a panel to discuss how their faith related to their business activities. The first three expressed variations on the same theme. In the tensions and challenges of their work they drew strength from the “inner resources” of their faith. One of them reported that he regularly needed to retreat from “the dog-eat-dog world of business” to spend time alone with his Lord.
Then my friend introduced a new note. He said that also needed times for quiet meditation and prayer. But he wanted to be sure that he brought the awareness of his Lord’s presence into his business practices. He wanted to honor God’s purposes in the kinds of insurance policies that he wrote up. He told about meeting a few days earlier with a young married couple who were pregnant with their first child. As they talked about their insurance needs, my friend said, they were dealing with hopes and fears that Jesus cares deeply about. And then he said this: “I knew that my Savior was looking over my shoulder as I wrote up their policy!”
In the months following the Dallas conference, I shared my thoughts with a number of folks in the evangelical world. I found an eager ally in InterVarsity’s Pete Hammond, who had been thinking of strategies for getting evangelical ministries to get beyond a purely “spiritual” focus. I also discovered that John Stott had been prodding evangelicals in a similar direction, as was Wheaton’s philosophy professor Arthur Holmes, who was featuring God-glorifying work as a key theme in his college courses on worldview.
And I have to add that Art Holmes was not alone on this in the evangelical academy. The progress that was to be achieved on this subject in the next decades had much to do with creative teaching and writing on vocation by faculty at evangelical schools—and by folks engaged in campus ministries in the broader academy.
In the early stages, it was helpful to be able to point to the example of the Bill Diehl types—leaders in “secular” occupations who were serious about bringing biblical principles to bear on their working lives. But we had to broaden the focus. It was good to draw on the wisdom of corporate executives, senior level managers, bank presidents, coaches of professional teams, and leaders in the grocery business. But what does a theological understanding of work mean for the bank loan officer, the person who takes our orders at the fast food restaurant, the young man who stocks produce at the supermarket, or the person who runs the sound system at rock concerts?
To dig into these complexities requires attending to the diversity of societal spheres wherein various kinds of work take place. Here I saw the importance of drawing on neo-Calvinist insights, particularly Abraham Kuyper’s insistence that God designed created life to feature multiple spheres of human engagement, with each one having its own unique function and authority patterns. Working in a clothing store is different than shelving books at the local library. And leading a hockey team is different than leading a worship team. Kuyper rightly insisted that this diversity required the formation of sphere-specific groups where Christians wrestle together with the challenges of their unique work situations.
We see this wrestling occurring these days in creative ways among evangelicals. Christians in the Visual Arts meet together to explore God-glorifying patterns of artistic creation. The Christian Nurses Fellowship share concerns and insights about caregiving, cooperation with hospital authorities, and the like. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes discusses the meaning of “play,” proper pursuits of competition, and the financial aspects of sports. Christian factory workers explore the conditions under which they can participate in strikes, foster healthy working conditions, and negotiate salary packages.
On our evangelical campuses we have been blessed by initiatives, made possible by significant funding from the Lilly Endowment, for vocation studies. Indeed, as I look back to the discussions that took place in Dallas almost five decades ago, our evangelical community, with our diverse para-church groups and our network of colleges and universities, is where the hopes expressed in that conference have become realities.
Well, almost. The mainline Protestant and Catholic leaders at that conference were deeply committed to having the local churches actively equip their members for biblically faithful service in the world. Regrettably, their ecclesiastical bodies have subsequently turned to other challenges. It is good to think now about how our evangelical congregations are doing in this equipping task.
Here is how I think about that question. What will it be like for a person who has done much thinking, in her college studies or in an InterVarsity study group, about her chosen area of work in a high tech firm, to show up at a local evangelical church? Will she be encouraged to see her daily work as a God-honoring ministry?
My evidence on this is only anecdotal, and I do know of congregations where lay people are “sent out” for Kingdom service in their daily lives. A hopeful sign is the positive reception by church leaders to the excellent book, Work and Worship: Reconnecting our Labor and Liturgy, by Matthew Kaemingk and Cory Willson (full disclosure: both of them were my Ph.D. students). Also, the Karam Fellowship works with theological educators to promote efforts for the flourishing of God’s people for their lives of service in the world. But much more needs to be done.
When I decided to leave Calvin College in 1985 to join the Fuller Seminary faculty, my good friend Mark Gibbs was quite upset with me. He felt strongly that my teaching at Calvin College was, in essence, an important exercise in the education of the laity for ministry in their daily work. For me to move to a seminary was, for him, my running the risk of joining the enemy, where students were trained to be pastors who enlist laypeople for their own “churchy” causes.
A few months before he died of cancer, Mark came to visit me in Pasadena. While he was very weak, he did muster up the energy to lecture me on the importance of the cause. “I have told you it was a mistake to come here to Fuller,” he said. “But it does not have to be. You can promote the cause here, and it can have a big impact. Promise me you will stay faithful.” I made the promise, but even when I moved into the school’s presidency, I did not accomplish all that I hoped for. Abstract discussions about the seminary’s mission and curricular reform are not enough. We need—to use Bill Diehl’s phrase—“real life” conversations where theological educators hear the call for new patterns of educating for ministry. Given my own history with this topic, this means engaging in a vibrant quadrilogue—college scholars, parachurch leaders, seminary faculty, and pastors—for exchanging lessons learned and challenges that must be faced. In these conversations, seminary and church leaders must be willing to be the primary learners, with the colleagues who share wise insights in these daily CSR reflections as their willing teachers. May that that teaching and learning happen!
- The conference was planned with the intention of promoting a more general awareness of a new theological focus on the role of lay people in the mission of the church. In 1954, for example, the Assembly of the World Council of Churches, meeting in Evanston, Illinois, had issued a call for a stronger emphasis on God’s mandate for all of the people of God to promote God’s purposes in the church and the world. “There is nothing new in this conception,” the Council declared, “but it is a truth which has been obscured over many periods of the Church’s life.” Then in 1965 the Catholic bishops meeting in Rome at the Second Vatican Council addressed the issue in the theologically innovative document, “The Apostolate of the Laity.”
Influential book-length studies of the subject were also published around this time: particularly The Theology of the Laity, by the Dutch theologian Hendrick Kraemer, and Lay People in the Church, by the Dominican priest Yves Congar (who was a key presence at Vatican II after having previously been silenced by Rome for his writings on the laity). A more popular work lamenting the longtime inattention to the role of the laity was God’s Frozen People: A Book for and about Ordinary Christians, by two Anglican lay leaders, Mark Gibbs and Ralph Morton.