Economic Malady, Church Opportunity

A majority of Americans can’t find full-time work. And more than two-thirds of those who are employed full time hate their jobs or consider themselves disengaged from their duties. These are startling numbers, but they represent an opportunity—and an obligation—for the church.

Unemployment and underemployment are widespread. There are 11.8 million unemployed Americans, according to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The United States experienced 54 straight months with the unemployment rate at 7.5 percent or higher, the longest stretch of unemployment at or above that rate since the BLS started keeping such data.

But those numbers don’t paint the full picture. According to the BLS, just 47 percent of adult civilians have full-time jobs. There are more than 8.2 million Americans who want full-time work but can only find part-time jobs, according to the The Wall Street Journal. More than 1 million “discouraged workers” have stopped looking for employment. The American Enterprise Institute reports that a full 30 percent of adult American men are neither working nor seeking work.

Miserable at Work

Given this environment, you might expect those with full-time work to feel fortunate, even ecstatic. Two more studies reveal otherwise. In June, The Los Angeles Times reported on a Gallup survey that found a staggering 70 percent of American workers—roughly 70 million people—are disengaged at work or outright hate their jobs. In addition to the emotional and spiritual toll these numbers represent, Gallup notes that this malaise is a “problem that has significant implications for the economy and the individual performance of American companies.”

A new study from the London School of Economics confirms this widespread dissatisfaction in the workplace. When respondents considered a range of activities—such as dancing, dressing, and conducting household chores—work edged out only one option: illness. According to the researchers, “paid work is ranked lower than any of the other 39 activities individuals engage in, with the exception of being sick in bed.” A Wall Street Journal headline summed up the findings: “Work Makes People Miserable.”

The magnitude of these numbers indicates that Christians and non-Christians alike are struggling with workplace and economic issues. Unfortunately the church often overlooks this problem. Pastor Tom Nelson, author of Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work, writes:

God designed the local church to be a transformed people scattered in their various vocational callings throughout the week. One of the highest stewardships for local church leadership is to encourage and equip apprentices of Jesus for their work. Yet this stewardship rarely gets the attention and commitment it requires.

At a 2013 Oikonomia Network seminary faulty retreat, pastor Dan Scott, author of The Emerging American Church, echoed that sentiment. “American workers are having an increasingly difficult time competing with their Polish, English, Spanish, Russian, Indian, Korean, and Brazilian counterparts in a globalized economy,” Scott noted. “The solution is a spiritual one, although at present few of our churches are offering it because too many of them are focused on lesser things.”

A dualism that neglects to address the workplace—where most Christians spend the bulk of their waking hours—is at odds with the theology of vocation. As British theologian and author Lesslie Newbigin wrote, “The congregation has to be a place where its members are trained, supported, and nourished in the exercise of their parts of the priestly ministry in the world. The preaching and teaching of the local church has to be such that it enables members to think out the problems that face them in their secular work in light of their Christian faith.”

Americans are struggling in the workplace and in the economy. The pandemic nature of these economic maladies cries out for church engagement. Financial challenges, family strife, depression, contentment, effective witnessing, and myriad other areas are affected by these realities. Fortunately, the church is in a unique place to explain Christ’s restoration of work, the meaning of suffering, and the hope and peace that result from putting our trust in him.

How Churches Can Help

Here are three things church leaders can do:

1. Teach and affirm a theology that recognizes that:

  • work is an integral part of God’s plan from Genesis to Revelation;
  • God uses workplace challenges to shape our character and increase our faith;
  • our labor, no matter how menial, serves others; and
  • Christians’ response to work-related circumstances can be a witness—or turnoff—to those around us.

2. Be intentional about understanding the struggles of your congregants.

Nelson, in the short video below, describes his own efforts to ascertain the vocational and economic well-being of those in his pews. Pastors should listen, care, and support, while affirming the intrinsic (not just instrumental) value of work in the context of Christian hope.

3. Assess how effectively your church or parachurch organization is ministering to the unemployed and underemployed within your congregation and community.

Examine whether you are providing encouragement, dignity, and accountability, or merely engaging in what long-time urban ministry leader Bob Lupton describes as “toxic charity.” Look for ways to foster entrepreneurship to creatively meet human need, add value, and further the common good. Engage business people in finding solutions to joblessness and poverty.

When the emptiness and futility of worldly approaches are exposed, people are open to new answers. When material security is threatened, people seek new sources of stability and hope. The church has the message and resources necessary to revive the broken spirit and restore the downtrodden. The question is whether the church will discern this opportunity and take action.

  • Curt Day

    I feel that this post is missing a couple of points. First, business people (owners) can help the employee find dignity by allowing the employees to have greater decision making capabilities inside the business. They can section a set of policies and practices that are democratically determined by the employees rather than using a complete top-down management structure. Churches should remind business people to do this. In addition, business people can sacrifice some of their salaries in order to share more of the profits with their employees.

    In addition, business people can only do so much to help alleviate poverty because of the limits imposed on them by a system that is both global and competitive. Here, the Church should insist that we should replace the economic system with a new one rather than be satisfied with a few adjustments in a system designed to enrich a few while leaving the rest to being vulnerable to job loss, being underemployed, or having no prospects.

    • Chad Damewood

      A little more Jesus please and a little less Karl Marx.

  • Dean P

    I appreciate that TGC and the YR&Y world is starting to acknowledge the economic and employment realities that are still out there in 2013. I feel like this subject got buried a little in the last three years, but the reality is that it is worse now than in 2009. All that said the one thing that this article didn’t cover that is in addition to all of the other data, is the continuing rise of the full-time professional woman. Which is directly connected to the full-time working mother as primary or only bread winner in families. These two factors along with the continuing diminishment of men being able to be the primary financial providers of their families has lead to the ever increasing stay-at-home father phenomenon, which is something that I have noticed has become a bit of an elephant in the room for TGC and many other Reformed Evangelical outlets who have a fairly conservative take on Complimentarianism when it comes to its cultural applications. My point is how strict can guys like Driscoll, Strachen, and Grudem be when reality is showing that economic reality is showing that the conventional model of Daddy at work all day mommy at home all day for all Christians all the time just ain’t the case anymore.

  • Jeff S

    I appreciate Tom Nelson taking the time to address a disconnect from the pastor to the pulpit on Sunday morning. I have been on both sides of the spectrum of preaching and teaching to running a business with several employees. There are various degrees of issues that people in the pews are facing everyday. I think that if you are faithful to preach the Gospel meaning that Jesus’ finishing work is enough then the pews will be encourage to trust only in Him. It wasn’t my job to give the people in the pews “the law” or “the to does” but that Christ is all in all.

  • bondservant

    Dr. Gary North has been talking about this for awhile now on his website – – the church is not only not prepared to deal the upcoming economic collapse/default, but is mostly clueless about what is coming – and believe they’re “off the hook,” so to speak, because “the government will take care of them.”

  • BryanLewis

    It is vital that the church fights to restore a persons dignity through work and their understanding of God’s design for work. Sadly the church, as a whole, is missing out on the opportunity of making work a vital part of the churches reach into our dark world. For far to long, in cities just like mine, we have divorced work from our daily devotion with Christ. Weekly I hear of prayer requests from friends that are weighed down with requests of rescue from work because of the stresses of it rather than praises of gratitude to be placed in such pools of lostness and environments of great need for the gospel. The local church must model the joys of work rather than the burdens of work to a dark and dying world. As qouted by Jeff Vanderstelt, what is unique about work is “we are being paid to do full time ministry wherever we work”

    To that note…

    I would encourage churches to look into, a national organization out of Raleigh, NC. My place of work has partnered with them and many other churches and organizations across America to help individuals learn God’s design for work and how through work our dignity and worth is being restored and learned by participating in God’s design for us to work. Jobs for Life is empowering the local church to serve their city and the employment needs by helping a person find their identity in Christ, learning the importance of character and integrity in work and having healthy community. What makes Jobs for Life effective for the church? It’s the authentic relationships that are being built on the Gospel and the ability to bring the church and business together by partnering to connect the Jobs for Life graduates to employers! Look into it!

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