by Tom Nelson, author and pastor
Confession is good for the soul, but it’s hard for pastors. At least it was for me. Years ago, I stood before my congregation to make a heartfelt confession. It was indeed difficult to do, yet it would prove transformative for our entire faith community.
More than a decade has passed since that day, but I still remember it clearly. Against a backdrop of pindrop silence, I asked the congregation I served to forgive me. Not for sexual impropriety or financial misconduct, but for pastoral malpractice. I confessed I had spent the minority of my time equipping them for what they were called to do for the majority of their week.
I didn’t mean to engage in pastoral malpractice; my pastoral paradigm had been theologically deficient. As a result I had been perpetuating a Sunday-to-Monday gap in my preaching, discipleship, and pastoral care. I blurted out what my heart had been holding back for way too long.
With a lump in my throat, I feebly grasped for the right words. I wanted to confess that because of my stunted theology, individual parishioners in my congregation were hindered in their spiritual formation and ill-equipped in their God-given vocations. Our collective mission had suffered as well. I had failed to see, from Genesis to Revelation, the high importance of vocation and the vital connections between faith, work, and economics. Somehow I had missed how the gospel speaks into every nook and cranny of life, connecting Sunday worship with Monday work in a seamless fabric of Holy Spirit-empowered faithfulness.
What led to this realization? Let me share just a bit of my journey. I was privileged to grow up in a devoted Christian family and as a young boy experienced a transforming conversion to Christ. I was blessed to be part of an evangelical church that believed and taught the Bible and whose members wholeheartedly sought to love Christ with mind, heart, and hands. After graduating from college, I joined a campus ministry devoted to evangelism and discipleship.
In addition to a decade of parachurch ministry, I attended and graduated from a fine evangelical seminary. During seminary while studying Hebrew my mind and heart were drawn to a Hebrew word that frames God’s creation design for human flourishing. This Hebrew word is tome or tamim. We usually translate tome as “blameless.” The challenge with this English translation is we often associate blameless with an external ethical perfection. But the Hebrew word actually speaks of a broader concept of ontological wholeness.
From the early pages of the biblical story, we encounter the tome or integrated life as the life God designed for us, the life Jesus would come to a sin-ravaged planet in order to redeem. As a young church planting pastor, this theological framework from the biblical narrative still informed much of my thinking. Yet just a few years into ministry, I began to have a great deal of heart-level dissonance. My own spiritual formation was anemic at best, and I was seeing little true transformation in my parish. What I saw behind the nice Sunday smiles was a troubling lack of spiritual maturity, a shallow sanctification shrouding a dangerous disconnect between Sunday belief and Monday behavior.
Something was awry — but what was it? If God had originally designed us to live lives characterized by tome, and if Jesus had gone to the cross to make this kind of life possible, why were so many in my congregation living such fragmented, disconnected lives? Why was our understanding of the gospel not speaking to every area of life? Why was our discipleship not transforming everything we were and did?
Faced with these uncomfortable truths, I began a quest to more fully grasp the kind of holistic faith taught from Genesis to Revelation. I also began to look more closely at Protestant Reformers like Luther and Calvin who not only recovered the authority of Scripture and the gospel of grace, but also connected Sunday to Monday with a rich theology of vocation. Reading the Reformers made me pay closer attention to the bookends of the biblical story — original creation and future consummation. I wrestled deeply with how the gospel tied the entire biblical narrative together. Through prayerful study of the Scriptures, I began to see human vocation as integral and not merely incidental to biblical revelation. I started to grasp that faith, work, and economics were woven together in the fabric of faithful gospel ministry.
As this realization dawned on me, I started to see the Scriptures afresh. Seeing Jesus as a carpenter brought a new fullness to the doctrine of the incarnation and reinforced the dignity of everyday work. Studying the book of Philemon, I began to see more clearly how the gospel transforms not only the worker, but the workplace and work itself.
Looking more carefully at Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan expanded my understanding of what neighborly love truly requires. The Good Samaritan exhibited more than compassion. His diligent labor, wealth creation, and wise financial management allowed him the economic capacity to generously meet some else’s critical need. Jesus’ teaching on neighborly love brought together the threads of faith, work, and economics in a seamless way.
On the day I stood before my congregation, I did more than ask for forgiveness; I promised that, by the grace of God, things were going to change. Our language was going to change. Any hint of language that connoted a sacred/secular dichotomy would disappear. Pastors would affirm everyone’s calling and not just their own. We would abandon the language of “full-time ministry” that had previously been reserved for pastoral or missionary work. We would change how we talked about work. In fact, our definition of work was going to change. It would be understood as being about contribution, not merely remuneration. Our discipleship curriculum was going to change. From cradle to grave, our commitment was to equip our parishioners with a robust theology of vocation and to help them see their vocational stewardship as a high priority of gospel faithfulness.
Our pastoral care was going to change, too. Pastors would not only make hospital visits, we would make workplace visits. We would learn about our members’ work worlds. We would encourage them in their work, we would pray for their work, and we would celebrate their work. We would see our congregants’ work as the primary work of the church. Everyone’s work would be regarded as mission.
How have things changed in our local church congregation? Over the years we have seen greater numerical growth and expansion to a multisite presence in our city. But more importantly, we have seen greater spiritual growth and more effective gospel mission. We now teach a robust theology that informs our congregants’ work, have a regular liturgy that affirms their work, and make relational investment that applauds their work. We are now deeply committed to equip our congregation for what they are called to do the majority of their lives. Our pastoral staff work hard not only to connect Sunday to Monday, but to bring Monday into Sunday. Our Sunday worship services reflect the reality that the gospel speaks to and transforms all of life including our work, and that the gospel speaks to wealth creation, wise financial management, and economic flourishing.
We are still learning and unlearning as we go, doing our best to navigate what it means to narrow the Sunday to Monday gap. But I’m encouraged when I receive an e-mail from a CEO or a stay-at-home mom or a student or a retiree in my congregation who now sees Monday lives through the transforming lens of a biblical theology of vocation. I find increasing joy in seeing congregants embrace their paid and non-paid work as an offering to God and a contribution to the common good. Many of my parishioners have a bounce in their step and a new excitement about all of life. For them, the gospel has become coherent and more compelling. They look forward to sharing it with others in various vocational settings and spheres of influence throughout the week.
With our kids heading off to college, my wife, Liz, wanted to do a major remodel of our kitchen. At first, I was reluctant. Our kitchen was just fine, it seemed. Sure, the green countertops were dated and the cupboards were aging, but I was used to it. It was the only kitchen I knew.
Yet Liz saw something I couldn’t see. Thankfully, I listened to her and we forged ahead with our remodel. I will never forget when I saw our remodeled kitchen for the first time. It was beautiful. Simply designed and wonderfully welcoming. As I stared at our remodeled kitchen, for the first time I realized how ugly and drab it was before. How had I not seen it? How had I been so content to live in this kitchen for so long?
The best way I know to describe the journey our congregation has experienced is to compare it to that remodeling project. Looking back I can’t imagine how I had served for so long with such an inadequate pastoral paradigm. The newly remodeled congregation I serve now is more beautiful in its expression and more effective in its mission. I have the joy of knowing I am being more faithful to my flock. Making the transition wasn’t easy, but looking back, we sure are grateful we did.
Copyright @ 2014 by Thomas Nelson. This article was published in The Gospel Coalition’s Faith and Work section, August 29, 2014.
Read Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Workby Tom Nelson.
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