Lesslie Newbigin, a Christian missiologist, was ahead of the curve when he wrote in 1986 about the need for “a theology that has been wrought out at the coal face, at the place where faith wrestles at personal cost with the hard issues of public life.”
In this section of “Foolishness to the Greeks,” Newbigin calls for the church to encourage and equip the laity who are on mission in the world seven days a week – in the office, the coal mine, the classroom, the shop.
In a recent article titled “The Other 100,000 Hours,” Chris R. Armstrong argues that the church has not only failed to tackle this opportunity but has often “marginalized itself from the world of work.”
Armstrong believes that pastors rarely address the world that parishioners encounter when they go to work and often either misunderstand or are ignorant of the workplace.
Clergy leaders are much more concerned about what happens within the walls of the church than in the workplaces outside the church.
Armstrong suggests that the workplace can provide the venue for grace, self-expression and formation in the life of the believer – not only for himself or herself but also in relation to others.
The person who is employed outside of the home spends more time with fellow workers than with their family members, so the opportunity and challenge of being a Christian is even greater than what one might exercise in the home or church.
Why do clergy miss this opportunity?
One reason is that many have never held a regular workplace job outside of summer or school-break jobs. They have never experienced the “daily grind” of the workplace.
Therefore, they do not understand it or have the vocabulary or experience to address what happens there.
Second, clergy are often more interested in their own domain – the church and its relationships with judicatory bodies.
This is not really a matter of control because we know that clergy usually do not “control” what goes on in their congregations, but the congregation is the place where they have been called to work so that becomes their primary concern. This is their “comfort zone.”
Third, seminaries and theological schools rarely address the working world or help students learn how to assist parishioners to develop a “workplace theology.”
This is an opportunity for an expanded ministry that most clergy and their churches are missing.
It is also central to our efforts to encourage the people of God to be the missional church ministering both within and without the church walls.
Both Newbigin and Armstrong challenge us to understand this.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is associate professor of ministry praxis at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, BarnabasFile, and is used with permission. His Twitter feed is @ircel.