Sometimes confession is good for the soul. At least that is how Tom Nelson opened his address to NTS students last week. Nelson, (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) has served as senior pastor of Christ Community Church in Leawood, Kansas, for more than twenty years. He is also author of the popular book, Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work. He was on campus as part of the Kern Family Foundation, Oikonomia grant. Kern has long supported research and teaching around the themes of faith, work, and economics. Nelson came to encourage students but also to challenge them through his confession and his Biblical teaching.
Nelson’s confession had nothing to do with moral conduct, if anything Tom is a man of deep integrity and pastoral insight. However, the confession had to do with pastoral vocation, when Tom realized after his first ten years of ministry at Christ Community Church that he was focused on the wrong emphases. Nelson realized he had yet to fully help his congregation see discipleship, that day to day following after Jesus, as part of their everyday life… and work. Nelson’s book (written for laity) merely underscores the change of emphasis as Tom began to engage where people live and work as a key aspect of his preaching and teaching ministry.
Addressing NTS students, Nelson began to build a biblical framework for whole life stewardship, particularly anchored in the early Genesis account where God is understood as a “worker” who calls humanity to both productivity (work) and procreation (family). In short, humanity is integral, not incidental, to work both in the garden but throughout creation. Sin entails an aberration of these basic calls, rendering childbirth and work as painful expressions of our daily calling. However, sin does not invalidate the need for both moments of creativity and productivity in everyday life. The Hebrew term Avodah עבדה provides a seamless thread for work and worship in both working in the tabernacle and cultivating the earth. Jenkins states there is no Sunday to Monday gap in the created order through God’s integral design. I deeply appreciated of Tom’s message. In a sense Nelson was reminding students that God’s missional heart is located not only in the worshiping community but also in the family and work of everyday life. So “fulltime” Christian
- Teach a robust theology that informs people’s work (through preaching but also small groups and other educational endeavors)
- Cultivate a liturgical regularity that affirms people’s work (bring Monday back into Sunday worship)
- Provide a relational investment that applauds people’s work (orienting prayers and pastoral work so that people’s work matters in how they think of their Christian life).
Nelson closed with the power of visitation… in the workplace. Tom’s example reminded me of my course in Vocational Discipleship that is designed to not only teach basic economics and close the Sunday/Monday gap… but also empower pastors to visit people’s work “space” (their work habitus), discern basic practices that shape worker’s spiritual lives, and then, building on strengths, provide guidance that can deepen their spiritual journey “through” their workplace. Nelson quoted Dorothy Sayers stating “The only Christian work is good work well done.”
Later Nelson met with NTS faculty seeking to tease out a theology that shapes economic life. Faculty acknowledged both the need for a deeper understanding of work, but also the need for a theological understanding of economics. On place to begin might be less with secular theories of economics but to explore the “economy” of the Trinity, exploring the very heart of God’s relationship within the trinity but also “at work” in creation (where Nelson started). The conversation was rich and helped to tease out that fact that much more work needs to be done on economic theory and theological reflection.
Confession is good for the soul, for life, for work. Nelson’s shift of perspective provided the impetus for students and faculty to ask hard questions of their vocational calling in helping people understand that missional engagement and discipleship must include the workplace as well as congregational and family life.