…Back to (a Theology of) Work We Go!

Newsflash…Young adults are leaving the church. Ok, it’s not really news to anyone familiar with church attendance trends. For generations we have seen young people raised within the church depart during their later teens and twenties. But most returned once they married and had children. It’s sometimes called the “driver’s license to marriage license hiatus.”

What is new is the mountain of recent research by respected groups like Barna, Lifeway, and Pew indicating young people who leave are no longer returning. The hiatus has become an exodus. Why? David Kinnaman at Barna outlines six reasons in his research. And others have pointed out that young people are waiting much longer to get married than in the past, thereby delaying the felt-need to return to church. (Al Mohler’s solution to declining church attendance is to convince young people to get married sooner despite the much higher rate of divorce among young marriages. Kinda like motivating people to get a physical by breaking their legs.)

Books and blogs are filled with recommendations about how to reverse the exodus of young adults, and I have no silver bullet solution to offer here. But I do want to explore one area I believe many churches have overlooked- vocation.

Our religious lives, our communion with God and formation as his people, primarily plays out in two spheres of our lives–family and work. Our closest relationships (marriage, children, parents) are where we experience the joys and pains of life most acutely. They are where we practice, or fail to practice, love, patience, forgiveness, kindness, etc. So it would make sense that we utilize family relationships as a key context for discipleship–learning and applying the teachings of Christ.

For the last few decades the church has readily accepted the centrality of marriage and family. In fact, most churches have organized their entire philosophy of ministry around the nuclear family with age-segmented learning, marriage enrichment courses and retreats, and biblical instruction geared toward healthy household relationships. The evangelical church has learned to indeed “focus on the family.” And while there are problems with the way this is sometimes executed, which I will not address in this post, for the most part it makes sense if you are married with children.

And that is the problem.

With more young adults delaying marriage longer, and with most churches implicitly or explicitly designed to serve families, there is little reason for a single 28 year old to engage. Realizing they cannot rely upon family felt-needs, but still wanting to reach young adults, some churches reach for the only other tool in their box- mission.

We’ve been told that Millennials are the “activist generation.” They want to make a difference in the world by wearing (red) products, singing U2 songs, and going to banana republics as short-term pigeonaries. So we try to engage them in our churches with missional rhetoric and projects. And at times this can be effective, until compassion fatigue sets in and securing social justice proves to require more than a text donation.

But the missional approach relies on a young adult’s spare time, extra resources, and expendable energy. It doesn’t capture a core identity issue the way family-based ministries do. When a church helps a 40-year-old mother with her struggling marriage and anxiety-driven parenting, it is applying Christian faith to the center of her life and identity. Missional ministries that try to engage a single 30-year-old don’t accomplish this because they ignore what’s at the center of his life to nibble at the margins. And what is at the center for most young adults? Vocation.

It is the second significant venue (after family) in which our lives and beliefs are exhibited, and for those without spouse or child it is usually the venue. Despite being a significant focus of Reformation theology for centuries within the Protestant tradition, contemporary churches are largely silent on the issue. How does Christian faith impact my relationship with my wife? How can Scripture inform my parenting? What does Christianity say about sex, managing in-laws, or household finances? Most churches could probably answer these questions relatively quickly and comfortably. But what about these:

What does it mean to be in business to glorify God and bless others?
How does Christ want me to engage the health care sector?
Does being an artist matter to God?
How do I serve in the public school system as a follower of Christ?
Apart from not being dishonest, does it matter how I run my business?
I’ve been offered two jobs, how do I discern which one to take? Does it matter?
Can I be a soldier and

be a Christian?
Does my work have any meaning apart from the money I earn and give to the church?

My guess is most church leaders would have to think a lot longer to answer any of these questions. We have not been trained or conditioned to consider a person’s vocation as a central part of their lives or spiritual formation. It is not a venue most churches value or equip their members for. But work is where most adults (young and old) spend most of their time and what occupies most of their identity. Without the ability to connect faith to either family or work, there is little remaining to engage young adults other than entertaining gatherings or a celebrity in the pulpit.

My friend and former colleague at Leadership Journal, Brandon O’Brien, recently wrote a series of posts on Out of Ur about his experience teaching a religion class at a local community college. The diverse religious backgrounds of the students allowed Brandon to explore how they felt about their faith. He writes:

In one assignment, I asked the students to reflect on how religion might hinder or help them attain their personal and career goals. This is where I found the biggest surprises. Predictably, students who weren’t sure about their spiritual convictions found the question hard to answer…. But those students who do consider themselves religious—most of them Christians—saw their religious beliefs having very little impact on their personal or professional goals…. Students were stymied to come up with a way religion could play any role at all in the parts of their lives that really matter.

We shouldn’t be surprised that most of these young adults drop out of church. Earlier in his posts, Brandon notes that none of his students reported having negative experiences in the church as kids. In fact, most recalled generally positive memories. But the church simply had nothing to say about their vocations. Faith, even for the faithful, didn’t impact their work.

No, developing a theology of work and vocation-based-discipleship is not a silver bullet to slow the exodus of young adults from the church. But I am increasingly convinced that it is a significant blind spot for much of the Western church that must be remedied.

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  • January 24, 2012


    Agreed! This has been my experience as a Millennial. I’ve never left the church and had a good experience growing up but when dealing with my first major career changes after college, I felt totally lost and did not feel like the church offered me good directions on how my faith and work could integrate. I started doing my own research on calling and it has been so valuable to my spiritual growth.

  • January 24, 2012

    Joel Zehring

    There’s a self-help radio show host that has some good thoughts on the spiritual implications of vocation and financial gain. I’ve learned more listening to his radio show recordings than from all the church education I’ve received.

    Rabbi Daniel Lapin: http://www.rabbidaniellapin.com/index.php

  • January 24, 2012

    Michael Welchert

    Eugene Peterson’s book The Wisdom of Each Other does a great job addressing this in one small section.

    We spend most of our time in vocation so it only makes sense to make it our mission.

    I worked as a bi-vocational pastor for nearly 10 years.

  • January 24, 2012


    I really enjoyed much of my time in my 20’s in the church. As I entered college, I had some struggles and questions about my faith, however came to the point where I couldn’t deny what I’d grown up believing. Still for about a year after coming to that point, I felt stagnant. I went to a good church, enjoyed everyone around me, but there was something missing. I could have easily walked away, but at that point, I made the decision to get involved. For me, I got involved in children’s and youth ministries. My faith began to flourish and I’ve never looked back.

    Now, married and in my mid-30’s, I reflect on this time and realize that it was by getting involved that my faith began to grow. So often we look to the church to provide what we need and if it’s not meeting our needs we leave. We need to look for opportunities to meet the needs of other people by being involved on a regular basis. The Christian life involves sacrifce, commitment and service. This is lost on those leaving the church because it doesn’t meet their “needs”

    Natasha’s comment was great, she never left the church, but sought out for herself what she could do. Could the church do more? Absolutely, and those are some great Bible study and teaching topics, which should be added to a church’s teaching cycle in some way. I believe that millenials are leaving because they haven’t been TAUGHT otherwise. With divorce rates increasing, they have watched their parents run away, rather than remaining committed when things got tough. They have seen their parents switch churches if they didn’t like the pastor’s teaching, the worship, the person next to them. More and more, the values of commitment and service are lacking, replaced with an attitude of “what’s in it for me?”

    That’s my ranting – from someone tired of hearing about why people are leaving, when there are many opportunities to serve and stay plugged in.

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  • January 25, 2012

    Christian Overman

    This is one of the best posts I have read on the practical reasons why “theology of work” should be restored to the local church. Excellent!

    Getting “theology of work” back into the thinking of the local church is not easy. Tying it in with the fact that young people are leaving is a smart starting point. Keep at it.

  • […] …Back to (a Theology of) Work We Go! […]

  • January 27, 2012

    Will Messenger

    Excellent piece. It’s not limited to unmarried people. I think it applies to most men of any stage in life, and a lot of women too, I expect. If the church doesn’t help me in my work life, it’s neglecting the greatest part of my waking hours, at best, and engaging in “the greatest act of self-marginalization” (Robert Wuthnow, Princeton) even accomplished, at worst.

    The Theology of Work Project (www.theologyofwork.org) provides free, online materials exploring what each book of the Bible contributes to understanding and engaging in non-church work. It also is developing material about key topic in the workplace, including an exploration of calling and vocation (http://wiki.theologyofwork.org/Key_Topics_Articles/820_Key_Topic_%232_-_Calling/820.10_Key_Topic_%232_-_Calling_Overview_Article ). These could be useful to
    to pastors and to Christians in business, government, education, medicine, media and other workplaces.

  • January 30, 2012

    Andy Mills

    This is an important contrbution to the debate about the relevance of the church. The “theology of work” has to be effectively addressed, or else the church stands to become increasingly less relevant, not only to Millenials, but to all members. As Co-Chair of the Theology of Work Project, we have devoted the last four years to building a comprehensicve research library as to “what the Bible says about work.” We are making it freely available to the Body of Christ at http://www.theologyofwork.org. Take a look at our Biblical Articles and Key Topics. I’d recommend the paper on “Calling” and 2 Corinthians to get a feel for our work. Enjoy!

  • February 2, 2012

    Marcus Goodyear

    It’s good to see Will and Andy here in the comments. Their efforts on the Theology of Work project are wonderful. We adapted some of it on TheHighCalling.org last year to help people think about work and theology.

    They key argument here that I like here, Skye, is the one about identity. Appealing to people as families worked for the church because it tapped into their core identity as mom or dad. (I’m guessing that worked better for moms than dads.) Any effective appeal to current generations needs to tap into a similarly powerful identity.

    Like it or not, most Americans find their identity in work.

  • February 10, 2012


    You’re on to something here, Skye. I’ve felt this for a while. Thank you for your insights that help put language to my own vocational saga that desperately needs renewed thinking in the ways of Christ.

  • February 21, 2012


    The church continues to treat the Millennials as high schoolers who can’t think, at least in their opinion. Shuffle them off to missions is a horrible idea. I speak from experience as one who has recieved them. Willing to work but it was just a trip, not a pursuit of a calling or dream. They sure did appreciate actually being treated like a responsible adults who wanted inclusion and answers that were based on reality of truth not some warmed over revision of the youth program which was great then but this is now a few years later. So we spent lots of time validating, teaching and trusting. Again, they are actual adults who want to experience some authentic growing faith that is transforming their lives within a body of believers that he / she can identify with, be respected by and appreciated. Hopefully they left better equipped and prepared for the next step in thier lives. This should be happening within the church at home as well. I am working on an article right now that addresses the church and millennials. Folks, we are losing them and they DO NOT want to be lost!

  • February 22, 2012


    Lutherans have long addressed this issue with what we call “The Doctrine of Vocation.” We recognize how all work is spiritual in that it is our calling from God and our duty to our fellow man. Instead of approaching the issue like American consumerists with an entitlement complex who ask, “what can I get from society,” we rather prefer to ponder, “what can I contribute to society through my labor?” When asked by a shoemaker what he should do, Martin Luther replied, “Make a good shoe, and sell it for a fair price.” This reminds me of many who came to John the Baptist with similar questions. The thing is, most people kinda instinctively know what the right thing to do is, in terms of cooperating with society. But few are content to live within such a restrictive box. I don’t think that our solution is for pastors to switch gears from “life coach” to “career advisor.” It’s probably better to teach people to think in a Christ-mannered way about where the exert their efforts; not in service to the church, but in service to their fellow man.

  • […] Skye Jethani argues convincingly that Western churches have a blind spot when it comes to recognizing the need to address how faith impacts vocation. […]