Did anyone else grow up going to summer church camp?
Every summer, I spent a week in Hartford City, Indiana, at Lake Placid campground, home of the sanctuary made out of a rusty old airplane hanger. The place had sulfur-infused water that smelled like rotten eggs and also is the site of some of the most incredible memories of my entire childhood. I loved church camp! It made a profound and indelible mark on my spiritual development as a young Christian.
Most of it was beautiful, but there were also some unintended theological consequences. Much of what we learn is caught, not taught.
Each of the four evening camp services had a theme, and the 3rd night of camp was usually “called into ministry night.” The camp speaker would passionately preach about what it means to be called by God into full-time vocational ministry. This was followed by a direct challenge to listen intently! What was God saying to each of us individually about our own calling? He was most certainly tapping some on the shoulder, and we don’t want to miss “the call.”
The service would usually culminate with a show of hands for all those feeling God’s “call into ministry.” About 10% of the hands would go up, and those feeling the call were invited to the altar, where the rest of us gathered around to pray for them. When the prayer time was over, we would all head back to our seats, some carrying “the call” into sacred work, and the rest of us just left to our secular work trajectories.
At least the message of sacred vs. secular was what I heard.
Snack Shop Talk
I remember using those very terms at the snack shop after service. Someone would holler across the ping pong table, “hey Coop, so are you called into ministry?”. “No-no, not me,” I always shot back. “I’m just going to pursue a secular job. I don’t feel called into ministry.” (Little did I know I would spend a dozen years on staff at two churches. God most certainly has a sense of humor).
Let’s be clear, nothing intentionally devious was being perpetrated here, but an unintentional heresy of sorts was being deposited into our Christian worldview.
In seeking to clarify the ecclesiastical pastoral calling on people’s lives, we were unwittingly segregating sacred vs. secular about Christian work and calling as a whole.
This has caused confusion for many believers in the understanding of their everyday work. It’s resulted in marketplace Christians believing their lives are second class. Their “secular jobs” only exist to make money to fund truly sacred activities. They think there’s no meaningful connection between their daily vocations and the work of God in the world. And that’s just bad theology.
Sacred vs. Secular Work Theology
Please don’t get me wrong; there is something unique and distinct about the ecclesiastical call into full-time ministry (I spent 12 beautiful years as a pastor myself!). However, in thinking sacred vs. secular, the holy nature of work is not just for pastors or those employed by a church; it is intended for all Christians!
Did you know our English word “vocation,” which we use when discussing someone’s career choice and what they do for a living, is derived from the Latin word “vocare,” which means calling? The Apostle Paul uses this same word when he references pastors in the church and those who work in the marketplace. There is no distinction.
But my guess is that few of us think of our day jobs this way. We’ve instinctively assumed the sacred vs. secular analogy. Our work was just a way to earn money to pay the bills, support our families, do a few enjoyable things from time to time. Maybe we can give a little to the sacred things in life that really matter. If we’re lucky, perhaps we’ll find a little bit of meaning from it, or at least make enough money to offset the meaninglessness. If not, I guess we’ll have eternity to make up for it.
This is bad work theology.
Your work, in the church or in the marketplace, is vocare. It’s a calling. It’s part of our human vocation as vice-regents and caretakers of God’s creation.
How would it change your feeling when the alarm goes off each morning if you saw your work like that?
If you’re a believer, you have a calling. It’s time to embrace it.
Sacred vs. Secular: Another Way to Think About Your Job
Let me explain things in another way: I hated my food touching when I was a kid.
Ok, perhaps I should be completely forth right. I [currently, right now, as a grown adult] still hate [active, present tense] when my food touches on my plate.
You know, like when the juice from your green beans seeps into your mashed potatoes. That’s wrong. Disgusting. Even as I sit here typing this sentence, I’m fighting my gag reflex.
Those of you who stir together the items on your plate like you’re performing some kind of 8th-grade science experiment claiming “it’s all going to the same place anyway” need psychological intervention. At best, you need to eat at a table where I am not sitting.
That’s why I love those elementary school lunch trays. You know, the ones that have designated spaces for each of the different food items. A big rectangle for your Salisbury steak, a smaller square for your mashed potatoes, a little circle for your peaches, and another square with an inset circle for your milk carton. This is how all food should be served in an advanced civilization.
And while these partitioned trays are perfect for the school lunchroom, they’re a horrible analogy for how we think about sacred vs. secular and our Christian lives. And yet, the majority of Western Evangelicals seem to have embraced the idea that specific partitions of our lives are sacred and other partitions are secular.
The Sacred vs. Secular Divide
This is actually a modern form of ancient Gnosticism. Gnostics believed that spirit was good and matter was evil. This partitioning of life into sacred vs. secular compartments is a form of heresy the Church has been fighting since the first century. We might say it like this:
I work for a CPA firm; that’s my secular job. But I volunteer in Kids’ Church on Sundays; that’s my ministry.
I run a construction company by day, but that’s just my secular work. I lead a small group at my church, and that is my real ministry.
I manage a retail store; that’s my secular job. But I sing on the worship team every other Sunday. That’s my sacred calling.
With the sacred vs. secular approach, there’s an assumed partitioning in the Christian life that defines the work we do for the church as sacred. The work we do in the marketplace is secular. This is simply bad theology, an “abbreviation” of the full redemption narrative of the gospel.
Sacred vs. Secular and the Whole Gospel
Good “work theology” starts with reminding ourselves of the whole Gospel. Take a look at Colossians 1:19-20:
“For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.”(emphasis mine)
There is not one aspect of our lives that the Gospel does not redeem. Through Jesus, God reconciled and made peace with all things. He didn’t just come to resurrect the “sacred partitions” of my life; he came to redeem the whole lunch tray!
The Gospel redeems all things, including the work of your hands.
In Christ, there is no divide in the sacred vs. secular. If you reconcile your work to Christ, your job, whether you’re a teacher, a software engineer, stay-at-home parent, stockbroker, entrepreneur, attorney (yes, even an attorney!), brain surgeon, or floor sweeper at Taco Bell… is sacred!
So, have you ever thought about your everyday job like that?