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Book Overview: "How Then Should We Work"

I imagine Jesus Christ made excellent chairs. God is, after all, the creator of the universe. When he took on flesh and blood, he spent his twenties not teaching in the streets or publishing his first major treatise, but working with his hands to fill practical needs for the people of Nazareth. Only a year old, the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics is making tremendous headway in beginning to change the way Christians understand their participation in the marketplace. Their message is clear and salient: What you do every day—not just on Sunday mornings and on mission trips—is a ministry to the Kingdom of God. Furthermore, when we each fulfill our vocation as faithful stewards, a strong economy emerges, and all are made better off, both spiritually and materially. Executive Director Hugh Whelchel released his book, “How Then Should We Work” earlier this year, taking a systematic and historical look at the Biblical doctrine of work. Whelchel draws from a number of theological concepts, but for the sake of simplicity, three core ideas emerge about what it means to be human:
  1. We are co-creators.
  2. We are stewards of creation.
  3. We are salt and light.
That God created us in His own image implies that humans themselves are creative beings. Indeed, when we work, we create something from nothing. We use the resources and talents that God has provided, and by our work we bring them into greater purpose and service to humanity. Whelchel points out that God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden to “work and take care of it” (Gen 2:15). As stewards of creation, we have been given the earth—perhaps even the universe—to cultivate and restore. This does not merely apply to physical objects, but to civilization itself. In a sense, we are agents of change, working toward excellence and righteousness in our cities, our businesses and our families—not just our churches. Matthew 5 says we are to be salt and light, having tangible influence in our surrounding culture. We do not accomplish this by retreating into a Christian subculture and erecting walls to prevent mixing with mainstream society, but by standing side-by-side as members of society, while transforming it from within. Whelchel effectively argues that one of modern Christianity’s greatest missed opportunities is found in our failure to see our work beyond the church walls as a full expression of our ministry. The compartmentalization of our lives into sacred and secular has distorted our understanding and robbed us of seeing the meaning of our daily experiences. As Elise Amyx recently noted, this message fills the void in an issue that concerns every person, but for which the Church has shown up empty handed. For too many people, the workplace is merely a place of work. It is where one goes to do something one does not enjoy, but which one does begrudgingly in exchange for a paycheck. As the old saying goes: We live to work and we work to live. But the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics is reminding us that these two words are not so distinct. A wiser saying would be: We live to serve and we serve with excellence. In this view, the ends of our actions are people, not rewards, though the rewards necessarily follow. “How Then Should We Work” is a well-written, accessible book published at a very critical moment. The church, indeed all of us, must restore the view that our work is a ministry, bringing value to others and allowing us to transform the world—one chair, one status report and one cheeseburger at a time.