Faith and Work: What Needs to Be Read and What Needs to be Written

More Christians today are learning how to integrate faith with work, and they want to know where to look for more insight. Maybe you’ve watched The Gospel Coalition’s recent conference or heard about the Redeemer Center for Faith and Work. Maybe you’ve talked with fellow believers in your vocational field about how your faith could affect your work. Or maybe you’ve simply realized that you spend most of your life working, so if you don’t live out your faith through your work, you won’t grow much in grace.

What Needs to be Read

Helping people connect faith to work is a central part of my job, and at least once a month someone asks me to recommend books on this topic. The faith and work movement has been around for decades now, and there is a huge supply of books to choose from, aimed at diverse audiences. Here are my top picks for the general reader.

Tom Nelson, Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work (Crossway, 2011), 224 pages.

If you’re new to the faith and work conversation, this is a great place to start. Nelson builds on the biblical narrative of creation and the imago Dei to show why work is central to Christian life. He also gets bonus points in my book for pointing to specific ways pastors can make space for this critically important topic in the life of the local church.

Beginners who want to delve deeper into the theological background can also check out several other books. R. Paul Stevens’s Work Matters (yes, the same title as Nelson’s book) is a biblical survey showing how the theme of work runs through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Michael Wittmer’s provocatively titled Heaven Is a Place on Earth provides a broad overview of how the doctrine of creation should inform our daily understanding of the meaning of our lives. And Gene Edward Veith’s classic God at Work demonstrates that faith/work integration is indispensable if we wish to uphold the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Lester DeKoster, Work: The Meaning of Your Life (Acton Institute, 2010), 75 pages.

This short but powerful little book shows how the parables of Matthew 25 illustrate a twofold presence of God in our work—by serving the needs of others we serve God outwardly, and by doing our work unto the Lord we shape ourselves inwardly into the kind of people God wants us to be. DeKoster does more than most authors to give voice to those who feel oppressed by their jobs, and brings a theology of the cross that shows the meaningfulness and dignity of even the most broken work.

DeKoster also points to the social nature of our work, arguing that we need not only virtuous workers and managers, but also a culture and an economic system that respect work and its fruits. Work makes human civilization possible, and civilization can only thrive by respecting and protecting the economic sphere. Lay readers seeking further biblical support for this connection between work, economics, and civilization may wish to consult Wayne Grudem’s Business for the Glory of God, Austin Hill and Scott Rae’s The Virtues of Capitalism, Victor Claar and Robin Klay’s Economics in Christian Perspective, and John Schneider’s The Good of Affluence.

Amy ShermanKingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (IVP, 2011), 272 pages.

Sherman and DeKoster complement one another. While DeKoster’s theology of the cross helps us find dignity and meaning in a world where work is broken, Sherman’s theology of the kingdom reminds us that the church can make work less broken. Christians are specially transformed and empowered by the Holy Spirit; in us, the redemptive power of Christ is reversing the curse. Woe to us if our lives don’t reflect that power! Sherman provides both theological background and also practical advice on how Christians can use their vocational talents to shine light into cultural darkness.

One issue that intersects a great deal with Sherman’s kingdom concerns is how the church serves the needy and the marginalized. This area is undergoing a revolution right now, and the topic of work is rising to the top. John Perkins, founder of the Christian Community Development Association, has said that people need two things: Jesus and a job. Recent books connecting work to how the church serves the poor include Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts and Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity; also of interest is a recent reprint of Marvin Olasky’s classic The Tragedy of American Compassion, featuring a foreword by Sherman.

Jeff Van Duzer, Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to Be Fixed) (IVP, 2010), 206 pages.

Institutions matter! The meaning of our work is shaped by the sense of identity and motivation we each bring to it, and also by the cultural context created by businesses and other social actors. Van Duzer was until recently the dean of a Christian business school, and has spent years reflecting on the theological basis of business. In this book, he shows how the institutions of business provide unique and critically important opportunities for people to glorify God through their work; he also takes a realistic look at the many ethical and spiritual challenges that come with business leadership.

The topic of Christianity and business is a well-plowed field with hundreds of books. I would highlight two other books besides Van Duzer’s in this crowded field. Kenman Wong and Scott Rae’s Business for the Common Good offers an ethical approach to business that challenges the two dominant paradigms of selfish individualism and socialistic paternalism, arguing that business can focus on serving the needs of customers and turn an honest profit at the same time. For the manager who wants to know what it looks like to lead with that approach, David Gill’s It’s About Excellence provides a wealth of practical advice.

Timothy Keller with Katherine Leary Alsdorf, Every Good Endeavor  (Dutton, 2012), 288 pages.

This outstanding book is hard to summarize because it integrates wisdom from many different fields: the Bible and theology, social science, the humanities, management theory, and more. Like most of Keller’s books, this one will stretch the average reader. But how else do we grow?

A key theme I appreciated in this book is the idea of cultivation. Our work doesn’t just move stuff around. It is creative and helps the world grow over time. God creates from nothing; we, creatures made in his image, cultivate the raw material he gives us in creative ways. God provides us a world full of potential, and our job is to transform it until its potential to glorify God is manifested.

“Cultivation” comes from the same root as “culture,” and the work of cultivation gives rise to human culture. In addition to reviewing the biblical basis for a theology of work, Keller and Alsdorf show that as a cultural activity, work is shaped by the stories we tell ourselves about the meaning of life. The biblical story reveals the truth about work, yet we cannot simply toss away our inherited cultural stories as mere rubbish; God has made us as cultural creatures who need stories about our own time and place. So a sound theology of work must critically integrate our cultural stories with the biblical story. Keller and Alsdorf walk us through that process with keen insight and considerable experience.

What Needs to Be Written

The topic of culture brings me to a book the movement has not yet produced, but needs to. Connecting faith and work requires us to integrate the biblical narrative with our cultural narratives about work; however, there is not yet a really good book-length Christian analysis of the predominant narratives of work in Western culture.

As a result, our theology of work depends far too much on the analyses of figures like Adam Smith and Max Weber, whose categories of thought are implicitly naturalistic, gnostic, or in other ways anti-Christian. A solid Christian critique of the narratives of work we have learned from these figures would serve the movement—and our culture at large.

  • http://N/A dan

    Greg, doesn’t Calvin chime in on work rather directly? Also, Luther, to some degree (both laying the groundwork of “protestant work ethic”)?

    • Greg Forster

      Absolutely right on both counts, but neither of them actually wrote a separate book just about work, and it’s difficult to direct people to a specific place in either Luther or Calvin’s works that will give you their view in a concise form. There’s not a separate section of the Institutes about work. If you want to know what Calvin said about work, you have to either spend a lot of time reading his books and sermons extensively or else pick up a book about Calvin’s view of work.

      On another note, since you mention Max Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” thesis I will offer two links about why Weber was wrong:

      Weber is totally ignorant about Protestant theology:

      Weber is totally ignorant about capitalism:

    • Thad Jahns

      You may wish to check out Gustaf Wingren’s book, Luther on Vocation, for a great synopsis of the reformer’s teachings on vocation.

  • Darren Blair

    How about some biographies of businessmen who were religious?

    Some of them, like Bill Marriott, legitimately worked their way up from nothing.

    • Greg Forster

      There are actually hundreds of those books, but I’m not well read in that field and am not the person to give out those recommendations.

  • Jeff

    I’m interested in what these cultural narratives about work might be. How is this different from the worldview folks?

  • B Bader

    Many books to choose just 5 here are my favorites
    Beckett, John D. Loving Monday; Succeeding in Business Without Selling Your Soul, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. 1998

    Blanchard, Ken , Phil Hodges, Lead Like Jesus, W Publishing group of Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville TN 37214, 2005

    Hill, Alexander, Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace, IVP Press, P.O. Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515, 2008

    Howard, Bruce D., Charting the Course: Values for Navigating in the Marketplace, Intervarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515, 2007

    Pollard, C. William, The Soul of the Firm, Harper Business and Zondervan Publishing House, 1996

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  •‎ Elijah Elkins

    Great post! Thanks for the resources and insight.

    How does the Faith & Work movement here in America interact with and affect the Global Church? Should we be translating some of these books and be distributing them through TGCIO?

    How are the Faith & Work and Business As Mission movements connected?

    As people are drawn to working for God’s glory in practical ways at their jobs (Faith & Work / Work as Worship), is it worth them then considering doing that amongst the nations (Business As Mission)? What would this look like if many people working to the glory of God here moved to the nations to do the same thing?

  • David Rupert

    It’s not a book — but it’s the most visited site on Work and Faith.

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