I graduated from college in 2008 at the height of the Great Recession. It wasn’t the greatest time to be looking for a job, but nevertheless, I somehow managed to get hired at a global FORTUNE 100 company. I had conquered! I had succeeded!
Alas, within a few months, several of my fellow coworkers were let go and their jobs were offshored to the Philippines and Mexico. It was the first in a series of layoffs to come, and I soon realized that the only reason I was able to survive was because I was the youngest, cheapest, and least experienced worker at the office.
Soon enough, all 250 people in my department were “dissolved,” our jobs rendered obsolete due to “changes in the industry.” In turn, my child-of-the-80s optimism was promptly replaced with fear, resentment, and pessimism.
But why? The world is growing increasingly connected! Poverty and hunger are on the decline! Freedom and opportunity are reaching new corners of the world! Technological innovation is allowing us to do more with less!
Yet in America, we are no longer living in the safe, secure, insulated, post-war era. It’s the same old story of creative destruction but at a new, break-neck speed: more global, more rapid, more dynamic. Through this lens, many of the primary drivers of our newfound prosperity — innovation, automation, offshoring, immigration, and trade — are also the drivers of our disruption.
So what is the Christian response to such disruption? Is there a way of viewing these constant “threats” to our jobs, comfortability, and convenience as opportunities?
As Christians, many of us understand the poor standard “spiritual tools” for such seasons — prayer, fasting, discipleship, worship, gratitude — and each of these is important. But if we misunderstand God’s design and purpose for business and economics, the church is at risk of misapplying these same tools, responding out of a mindset of security and scarcity rather than risk and abundance.
And in many ways, the modern church has adopted and co-opted a very “worldly” view of work. The world says work is primarily about material provision for ourselves and our families. It’s about carving out your niche and achieving and succeeding and climbing the ladder. Or, if you’re a millennial like myself, it’s about “following your passion” and “living your dreams” — about “doing what you love and loving what you do.”
But while work can and often does produce these things, does this really represent its essence and purpose and design? What if work isn’t ultimately about us?
As theologian Lester DeKoster puts it, work is, first and foremost, service to others, and thus to God — or service to God, and thus to others. From the Wall Street banker to the garbage man to the school teacher to the doctor to the microchip engineer to the software developer to the father and mother, all of our work is about service to neighbor.
When shift our perspective toward God and neighbor, everything flips upside down. Calling is no longer about “following your passion” or self-actualization, though that may be a byproduct. It’s about obedience to God. Work and career are no longer about personal provision, though that will likely be a result. They’re about providing for others. Work is no longer about protecting our turf or sitting still in our “niche.” It’s about creativity, inclusion, collaboration, and competitive development. From here — and only from here — can we effectively apply the range of spiritual tools God has given us bringing prayer and prophecy, wisdom and discernment, miracles and Gospel transformation to all areas of our work, from the assembly line to the board room to the Silicon Valley garage to the home nursery.
“Work restores the broken family of humankind,” DeKoster writes. “Through work that serves others, we also serve God, and he in exchange weaves the work of others into a culture that makes our work easier and more rewarding … As seed multiplies into a harvest under the wings of the Holy Spirit, so work multiplies into a civilization under the intricate hand of the same Spirit.”
When economic change hits, that fundamental switch makes all the difference, turning signals of disruption into signals for creative service.
No longer are people seen as “stealing our jobs.” They are being included in an intricate web of service, relationship, and fellowship. No longer is job disruption or industry shake-up an occasion to mope about what was or wasn’t “our job” or an “American job” in years gone by. If someone or some company or country is able to do something faster, cheaper, or better, it’s an opportunity to either improve our service or shift our focus elsewhere. It’s an opportunity to adapt and retool, to create and innovate on behalf of our neighbors, as uncomfortable and inconvenient as it may be.
The temptation to dwell on the illusion of economic security will remain strong — to cherish and fight for the comfortable control we’ve enjoyed thus far. But to do so requires us not only to succumb to an unworkable fantasy about the global economy, but to distort God’s design for work: to give way to selfish impulses, to suppress our own creative potential and exclude the creativity of countless others.
America is not insulated from its competitors, whether we pretend to be or not. And that is not cause for fear and territorialism and protectionism. Rather, it is a good and beautiful and promising thing, if only we’d respond accordingly — reorienting our hearts and hands from a work that secures, consumes, and collects to one that serves, creates, and sustains.
This is an edited transcript from a speech given to North Central University’s School of Business in Minneapolis, MN, on September 15, 2017.
Image: Free-Photos (CC0)