Note: This article is the latest in a series highlighting resources for classrooms and churches.
“What does my job have to do with poverty?” That’s an easy question for many non-profit workers and missionaries, and some pastors. However, we might forgive almost everyone else if they struggle to see a connection between their daily work and the various poverty concerns in their city (much less around the globe). For many people, the theological and practical connections between their everyday work and poverty are tragically unclear.
I wonder if that’s one reason people in the church often fail to see their everyday work as God-ordained and God-blessed ministry. On the one hand, yes, they may lack a theology of work that puts their jobs clearly in the context of the biblical story. When they grasp that theology, they will be better equipped to see the ministry value of their everyday jobs. On the other hand, even with that theology, they may still struggle to see how their work might help address poverty.
My father spent most of his career driving a tandem truck around rural Northern Indiana for a local feed mill. He saw the value of his work providing a service to farmers. I remember him talking about that. But he never mentioned the role his work played in addressing poverty (except that it kept a roof over our heads!).
We need to help people make this connection between their everyday work and how God might want them to help people who are in need.
The Everyday Works Curriculum
At Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, we recently released a new video-based curriculum that leads people to consider these and other questions. Not only “Why is my work valuable?” but also, more specifically, “What role does my work play in addressing poverty?” In other words, “How has God situated me at work to help people in need?” The study is called Everyday Works: Rethinking What You Do and Why It Matters for the Kingdom, and it’s available free online or in print/DVD versions.
The study has five speakers who explore four major themes:
- “Work is Good” with Michael Wittmer
- “Live the Kingdom” with Amy Sherman
- “Flourish for Others” with Rudy Carrasco
- “Expand the Circle” with Artie Lindsay and Peter Greer
For each theme, a creative intro video (like this one) features a sand artist who carefully creates a picture made of sand to represent the theme. The music, visuals and gradual reveal of each picture provides a compelling introduction, which is then followed by four video clips of teaching. Each video clip, then, has one or two discussion questions to encourage reflection and to guide group meetings.
This format allows for freedom to work through all 20 video clips as fast or as slow as needed. Most groups can cover one or two videos per meeting, which stretches the experience over 10-20 weeks. However, the four themes provide natural breaks if groups want to complete one theme at a time. In that way, Everyday Works is essentially four studies in one.
Applying a Theology of Work to Poverty
Our theology of work impacts decisions on everything from benevolence to global missions: Who gets money from the church to cover unpaid bills? What international ministries should the church support? What is our role as the “giver” in these relationships? Our answers to these questions (i.e., our approaches to local and global poverty) are shaped for good or ill by our understanding of work, economics, and what actually helps people who are in poverty. Churches that engage this study are challenged to take an honest look at their approaches and find ways to minister faithfully.
Just under the surface of this conversation about poverty is the issue of biblical justice. This study seeks to make that connection explicit. We can work on economic principles and systems all day long, but if people don’t have access to those systems, they won’t be helped. That’s why justice matters.
Thus, God calls his people to do justice and love mercy (Micah 6:8) – to care for the vulnerable of society by meeting their immediate needs and also addressing the causes of their poverty. According to Proverbs, those causes can include both personal and systemic issues (e.g., Proverbs 23:21 and 13:23 respectively). But, as Tim Keller writes in Generous Justice, “Ultimately…the prophets blame the rich when extremes of wealth and poverty in society appear (Amos 5:11-12; Ezekiel 22:29; Micah 2:2; Isaiah 5:8).”
Most people in U.S. churches would qualify as “the rich” from a global standpoint, but they typically feel ill-equipped to do anything about poverty. What can a cashier at a convenience store expect to do for people in poverty? The income barely pays the bills at it is. That is where we need to rethink what we do and why it matters for the kingdom.
The Everyday Works study helps people see at least three things: First, their everyday work is a gift from God that provides purpose, joy, and provision (i.e., it’s God’s way of helping them stay out of poverty themselves). Second, it’s a way for them to serve people through what their work provides. Third, their everyday work provides an avenue for them to extend opportunity to others.
Expanding opportunities for others and inviting them into our circles – our economies – is a major focus of this curriculum. Not everyone can be directly involved in battling poverty in the most impoverished areas of the globe, but everyone has a network of relationships, skills or social capital they can leverage for the good of others. In this way, we all have a role to play, big or small, to address poverty. We all have a circle, and we can all be intentional to expand that circle to include those who might be marginalized.
The Everyday Works curriculum covers a broad range of topics, but one of the threads that weaves through it all is our collective calling to love God and serve our neighbor through our everyday work. As people embrace the truth that God is with them in their work, they can begin to ask new questions about what God has for them in that work. They can see their everyday work not just as a meaningful way to pay the bills, but even more so as a place of discipleship and mission for the kingdom.
God has opportunities, large and small, for every individual and every church to look out for people in need, people on the margins, and people who just need a new sense of hope. He invites us to join him in his work, if we’re willing to rethink the role of our everyday work in his plan. That’s the goal of the Everyday Works curriculum, to challenge and inspire followers of Jesus to embrace his mission in his name.