Transgressing the ‘Gospel of Work’

When it comes to helping their parishioners navigate the increasingly complex secular workplace Christian ministers are playing catch-up.

Simply put, churches have neglected the largest time portion of their parishioners’ lives for too long, failing to realise that alternate “sacred spaces” are shaping identities as much, if not more, than church has been. And with sexual identity politics being promoted in the workplace as part of company policy, the challenge is to find a way for churches to help their people navigate this space.

When churches urge their congregants to bring the gospel into the workplace, they have neglected to realise that the modern workplace is not a neutral venue for the free promulgation of ideas over lunch, but is, rather, an increasingly hostile venue with an alternate gospel, and a vision of human flourishing diametrically opposed to the Christian gospel.

Yet for several decades now people of religious faith have either been happy to go along with the idea that our work is no longer merely a means of material production, but a means of identity production, or are at the very least oblivious to that shift, despite the pressure they feel it exerting upon their lives. And churches have for too long seen their congregants’ work as a means to church income or the primary place of evangelism.

Writing in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson, calls it for what it is – “the gospel of work”, or “workism”:

It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centrepiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.

Note that. Not a sidebar or plug-in to our identity and purpose, but the centrepiece. And while traditional blue collar roles require less work hours per year than in previous times, that decrease has been matched by an increase in working hours among white collar professionals and the college educated.

Thompson goes on to say:

The decline of traditional faith … has coincided with an explosion of new atheisms. Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.

Which means that the non-core work activities within the modern workplace now attract a level of meaning and significance once reserved for the religious realm. What is proscribed and prescribed within an office environment takes on a weight of gravitas it has not historically held.

When work is so all encompassing of our lives, then aspects of work, such as the public social agenda of a large corporation, now become Holy Writ. To defy or deny these agendas is akin to blasphemy.

If we couple this new reality about work with that other great modern ultimate definer of identity, sexuality, (in which our individual authenticity is only fully expressed when we are free to express ourselves sexually), the perfect storm arises for those who challenge both the notion that work is the sacred space for those who lack transcendence, and that the championing of sexual expression is a primary sacred social task within that setting.

“Wear it Purple” day at the firm in support of gay rights is now no longer one in a list of activities that you could take part it, or ignore if you so choose, but a liturgical act that expresses faith in action. All of those years of being told, or telling oneself, that religious faith is a private affair and not for public consumption, is swept aside by this new liturgy.

To transgress, to not wear the right liturgical colours in the correct season, is to declare, openly or otherwise, that you are a heretic. You have moved outside the boundaries of the company social diversity policy, and can no longer be assured of the company’s blessing. Unless, of course, you can give good cause, or if you repent.

If you think this is laying it on a bit thick, then you probably haven’t experienced the chill that many a Christian office worker for a big multi-national has experienced when the celebratory days loom large. In my book, ‘Being the Bad Guys: How to live for Jesus in a world that says you shouldn’t” I explore the emotional, physical, spiritual and career challenges this is presenting to Christian workers in the modern workplace.

The first sign is the poster or the email, the nailing of the theses on the office wall. The second sign is the diversity spiel that comes from upper management, shaped by the HR department and signed off by the CEO.

What do you do? Who do you transgress? Can you throw a sickie? Can you lean into it issue and tell the HR staff you won’t comply. Or do you turn up in something vaguely in the rightish colours if you squint a bit in the sun, hoping that you will be overlooked? KPIs now include promotion of the company social agenda. Will your absence or refusal to participate become part of your next review?

It very much has the feel of Daniel in Babylon in the biblical book that bears his name. Faced with the opportunity for employment advancement if he obeyed the pagan edict to offer prayers and petitions to the king, Daniel refused, and was thrown to the lions.

And while church pastors may extol their people to work hard and honestly to keep these social agendas at bay, it’s not that simple. Pastors are now in the safest workplaces available, because the sexual agenda being promulgated by the culture, empowered and emboldened by legal and political anti-discrimination legislations, is happy if religion as it understands it, “does its thing privately”.

But the secular workplace is not private. And increasing it is “sexular” not merely secular. To fall afoul of the prevailing narrative, or to insist by what you wear – or don’t wear – that another narrative exists, and that its liturgy trumps that of the public office can, and already does, lead to stress and tension at work, sidelining, rejection of promotion or suggestions that this office environment is “not the one for you longterm”.

Christian workers in such settings need their churches to support them through these increasingly complex times. If work has become that important in terms of identity, then a much more robust theology of work must be explored far more deeply than it has before. Work is not simply an easy location for evangelism, if it ever were, and indeed the workplace is becoming a place where any form of religious proselytising is seen as hostile and possibly dangerous to the mental health and wellbeing of other workplace minorities.

Church ministries must act now. If work and sexuality are such a potent combination in terms of identity production, then there is another gospel at work, literally. And unless they prepare the coming generations for that reality, they will not have served them well.

And that must start at the university Christian unions, where the very professional workers and cultural elites that Christians will rub shoulders with for decades are formed. It is hard to retro-fit a robust view of the workplace into a young Christian worker. Start young!

Perhaps the COVID crisis of the last year has taken the heat off this issue, simply by the fact so many people could work from home. The return to the office is not all that attractive to many people, what with the commute, the distractions and the lack of flexibility. Could the ongoing effects of COVID make this stay at home option more attractive to people of religious faith in the big firms who feel the pressure to conform to the social agenda?

That may work for the short term. However a workplace devoid of people of deep religious conviction will inevitably increase the speed of the secularisation process, and further atomise an already highly individualistic world. Work is good, community is good, and work communities while not the final locus of meaning, are a source of it.

There must be a way of navigating this increasingly hostile space in ways we have not yet imagined. There must be a way to challenging the gospel of “Wear it Purple” that encourages people of all faiths who are unsure of how to navigate this space.

Author

Stephen has been reading, writing and reflecting ever since he can remember. He is the lead pastor of Providence Church Midland, and in his writing dabbles in a number of fields, notably theology and culture. Stephen and his family live in Perth’s eastern suburbs, where his wife Jill runs a clinical psychology practice.