This the latest in a series of articles sharing insights from a joint curricular development initiative of the ON, the Theology of Work Project and three ON schools (Asbury, Assemblies of God and Western).
Check out the ON website’s new Curricular Integration page, with editor’s picks and other resources sorted by discipline.
Among faculty teaching homiletics and preaching courses, the common concerns seemed to be to help students:
- Develop exegetical and hermeneutical competence
- Connect the message of the Bible relevantly to everyday life and work
- Develop effective communication skills
Our conversations revolved around these concerns, applied specifically to the integration of faith and work perspectives into preaching.
We noted that none of the course outlines we looked at included topics or assignments or textbooks that specifically addressed faith and work connections. In some cases, this is because faculty are only beginning to think about these issues. In other cases it is because faculty are not sure where to find relevant resources. In no case did faculty express resistance to exploring these connections, although we did discuss how they might explain to students why this is important.
Our conversations focused on the following issues:
1. Where are the exegetical and hermeneutical texts and Bible commentaries that seek to explore the Bible from a daily work perspective?
These themes are seldom explored in the classic texts and commentaries used in preaching classes. The homiletics professors we talked to either did not know of the Theology of Work Bible Commentary or had not used it in their teaching. A significant part of our discussion was devoted to exploring how the TOW Commentary might be used in teaching and assignments and explaining how the online search tools make it easy for students and preachers to use.
2. How do we help preachers start reading the Bible with workplace eyes?
A common theme in this series is that “reading the Bible with workplace eyes” is not our default setting. People don’t notice work in the Bible because they’ve learned not to notice it. In previous articles focused on biblical studies, we provided examples that seek to address this. Noticing aspects of the text that have been obscured by the habit of reading the Bible largely for how it applies to churches was an important part of our conversations with faculty.
We also discussed how engaging and compelling sermons become when preachers do this effectively. We provided examples of Haddon Robinson and a number of other preachers and teachers discussing this process of bringing the Bible to life. It seemed clear that reading the Bible with workplace eyes is a skill that, once learned, contributes enormously to effective preaching.
3. Do we ask, “What might this mean for life at home, at work and in the community?” each time we preach?
One faculty member said: “As part of the preaching team in my church, I meet every week with the other members of our preaching team to reflect on what we learned from last week’s sermon and to explore together how next week’s preacher might approach their sermon.” I inquired, “Do you ask, ‘What might this sermon have to say about the daily working lives of our people?’” The response was: “No. We haven’t thought about regularly asking that question.” This would seem to be an opportunity missed.
Another faculty member said: “It’s easy to feel self-conscious about the fact that I’m out of touch with the life in the marketplace today. I don’t feel expert enough to say anything.”
In response to this comment and others like it, Will Messenger shared this story several times, based on his experience teaching at Gordon Conwell Seminary:
Amazingly, we found that 80 percent of church members are happier with a flawed, open-hearted attempt to engage their world, than with a perfect application. Haddon Robinson and I assigned pastors in the Doctor of Ministry program to spend a day at work with a member of their congregation, and then preach a sermon about what they observed. Afterwards, we asked them how the sermon went. Typically they said, “I thought it was one of my worst sermons. I felt very unsure of my examples and conclusions.” Then we asked, “What did your congregation think?” “I had more comments on that sermon than any in the last five years” was a common response. “Several people said it was the best sermon I ever preached.”
We also talked about some other practical suggestions:
- Rather than offering a workplace application of the sermon yourself, invite a person a few days before the sermon to think about an application in their working life and prepare them to talk about this for two or three minutes as part of the sermon
- Andy Stanley says:
I frequently show a five-minute video interview with someone in our church whose life and stories from work illustrate the principle being taught…One of the reasons I use those videos is because most business people look at a pastor and think, “What do you know?” Pastors don’t deal with stockholders, market share, economics. We don’t answer to a boss nine hours a day. I feel I have to build credibility early. And I cannot make the mistake of saying, “I understand what it’s like,” because I don’t. So I take the other approach and say, “I don’t understand. I don’t work in your world, and I won’t pretend. But here are some people who do.” The video testimony brings credibility to what I am saying.
- Interview someone about their faith and life at work. This interview can be related directly to a theme that is being developed in the sermon. You can find more ideas about vocational interviews in church here.
4. What matters most for clear communication?
We didn’t get into long discussions about the science of homiletics. But one piece of advice from Haddon Robinson about the need to always keep in mind who we are trying to communicate with would seem to be very important.
Haddon Robinson was asked: “In any congregation sit people with incredibly varied backgrounds. How do you apply well to each one?” Haddon replied:
We tend to apply a passage to people like ourselves. If you’re 35 and you associate with young professionals in the church, you’ll tend to keep those people in mind. It’s helpful to make a grid of the people in your church in terms of things like age, marital status, housing situation, net worth, education. After you determine the principle in a passage, you look at the grid and ask, “What does this say to a single person in her fifties who works in a grocery store and lives with her parents?” It may not say anything, but you continue asking that question for each grouping. When I prepare, I imagine about eight people standing around my desk. One is my wife’s mother, who is a true believer. In my mind, I also picture a friend who is a cynic, and sometimes I can hear him saying, “Oh, yeah, sure.” I picture a business executive who thinks bottom line. I have in my mind a teenager, whom I can occasionally hear saying, “This is boring.” I look at these folks in my mind and think, What does this have to say to them?
5. Can you show me some specific examples of preaching about work to help me develop my communication skills?
Some of the most helpful collections we have found are:
- A curated collection of more than 30 sermons about faith and work from the Made to Flourish Network
- 120 sermons about Vocation and Work downloadable from the Gospel Coalition website
- Six series of sermons from different preachers introducing faith and work themes from the Theology of Work website
- Four sermons on work from Jeff Haanen downloadable as podcasts
- One 11-week sermon and small group curriculum series on “Our Life’s Work” based on the book of Ruth. This demonstrates one church attempting to go beyond the entry-level message that “God cares about your work” to dive deep into complex workplace issues such as stress, immigration, hiring, unemployment, and job satisfaction. On this page you can listen to full sermons, read the sermon notes, and download related questions for small groups.