Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
-Colossians 4:23-24 (NIV)
I haven’t heard it so much in recent years, but growing up I sometimes heard someone use the expression “secular work.” Usually, it was used in apposition to “church work” or “full-time ministry” or some other term that denoted what you might refer to as clergy — ministers or preachers, in our terminology. Like, when a person left ministry for some other job, someone might say he had “gone back to secular work.”
It’s funny, my mom was a “secretary” at the church for a while. I never thought about it then, but I wonder if they would have called what she did “ministry” or “secular work”. My son is currently doing an internship with an adoption and family counseling agency that often partners with churches — ministry, or secular work?
Actually, I think there was something wrong with the terminology, and with the assumptions about what ministry is.
Like I said, I haven’t heard that phrase, “secular work,” in a long time. Maybe it’s kind of out of fashion, and that’s for the best. But I still think we sometimes fail to reckon with the idea that the work we do Monday-Friday might be every bit as much ministry as the work a minister, pastor, or other clergyperson does. Maybe it’s that term “secular” that’s the problem. We often use it in contrast with “sacred;” something that’s secular, then, is not connected with religion — and usually we mean organized religion — in any way.
The word comes from a Latin word, saeculum, that means “age” or “generation.” So something that’s secular is of the world, of this age. That’s true, of course, for most of the work we do. It has to do with the world. It’s of this age, as opposed to the age to come. That doesn’t mean it has no value, of course. Doctors work hard to heal people of this age, in this world. Financial advisors help people to plan their retirements in this world. Mechanics repair cars, plumbers fix leaks, bricklayers build walls — all “this age” activities. When a lawyer represents a client, or an advertiser writes a campaign, or a social worker gets a child out of a dangerous situation, or a teacher gives a lecture, their minds are all on “this world” problems, “this age” goals. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the work those people are doing should be thought of as having nothing to do with religion.
So, I’m a minister. That means that I don’t do “secular work,” right? Except, really, I do. Most weeks I help unload a truck full of food that comes from our food bank. Most Sundays I help give that food to people in our community who are food insecure. Yes, we’d love for all those people who get food from us to have a spiritual awakening and become followers of Jesus, but the fact is that receiving that food and then giving it out is a secular activity. It’s a “this world” solution that we offer to a “this world” problem.
Most weeks I make and answer phone calls, visit folks who are sick, talk to people struggling with problems, meet with repair people, and so on. You might be surprised at how non-spiritual — secular — a lot of a minister’s job looks. (That used to bug me sometimes, truthfully.)
While you’re thinking about that, think about how most churches do a lot of stuff that looks, at least at first glance, pretty secular. We put together shoe boxes full of essentials for homeless people. We visit with nursing home residents. We provide candy and games for trick-or-treating kids and their parents at Halloween. We eat together. Our buildings are used by community groups. We collect coats and school supplies for kids. Most churches use a lot of time and resources to do things that don’t seem to have a ton of spiritual significance.
Of course, in being secular we’re just following Jesus’ example.
Jesus came preaching that the kingdom of God was breaking into this world. He demonstrated its coming, too, by healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the hungry, proclaiming good news to the poor. He didn’t tell a blind man just to hang in there until he died and went to heaven, where he’d be able to see. He didn’t reassure five thousand hungry people that their bellies would always feel full in heaven. He dealt with “this world” problems just as surely as a doctor or counselor or banker does. But he did those things in the Spirit of God. He embodied the idea that God could be secular — that he could break into a broken world and make it better as a prelude to the day when he redeems it entirely.
See, I think Jesus would have a problem with our idea that secular and sacred are opposite poles, that they are to be kept distinct and that they have nothing to do with each other. As I hope I’ve pointed out, our experience tells us the same thing. “This age” and “the age to come” have a connection, and that connection is Jesus.
That’s why Paul can tell slaves — slaves, mind you — to work at whatever they’re told to do with all their hearts. Their work might be secular, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t sacred too. It’s work done for the Lord, and it’s work that the Lord will use for his glory. And they will be rewarded for it.
Don’t forget that human beings were made to work. God put us in the world to cultivate and take care of it. It’s in that way that we represent God in the world — that we’re made in his image. It’s easy to miss, but Genesis says that God “finished his work” of creation by putting people in the world to carry on that work. God is a secular God, and he works in this world and this age through his people.
Too often we think of our work as a way to get a check so that we can enjoy the rest of our lives. We make money at work so we can afford to give our families what they need, travel, enjoy some luxuries, and, when it’s time — stop working. Oh, we want to give some of what we make to the church so it can be used for spiritual purposes, sure. But I think we might see our jobs as a necessary evil so that we can have the life we really want.
Yet maybe it’s in working at “whatever we do” with all our hearts, as though serving the Lord, that we find the life God has actually given us. He would continue his work in the world through our work. When a human being creates something, it’s something that can be used for the work of God in the world. When a doctor heals someone, he or she is doing God’s work. When a mom or dad cares for a child, or for an aging parent, God is doing his work of caring through them. When a cook prepares food, or a waiter serves it, they are doing God’s work of service in the world.
I’m so thankful when people give of their time and energy to do work at church, or on behalf of the church. But please don’t think for a moment that the “secular work” you do is any less the work of God in our world. Worry less about what work you do, and where, and for how much money, and think and pray about how you do it. Do it with all your heart. Do it to please the Lord, not because someone is looking over your shoulder. Work with joy and gratitude, knowing that God is at work in what you’re doing — whether you can see how or not.
God has always done secular work. He’s glad that you’re doing it too.