Our jobs help us serve the needs of our neighbors and lead to human flourishing, both for the individual and for communities. Conversely, not having a job can adversely affect the spiritual and psychological well-being of individuals and families.
For many of our fellow citizens, joblessness is a serious and ongoing crisis. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, as of May, 20.5 million Americans are out of work. While most of those losses are due to the COVID-19 layoffs, almost 1 million have been out of work for 12 months or more. An additional 574,000 unemployed individuals are “discouraged workers” who have stopped looking for work because they believe no job is available to them in their line of work or area, they had previously been unable to find work, they lack the necessary schooling, training, skills, or experience, employers think they are too young or too old, or they face some other type of discrimination.
To help us minister to the unemployed, there are three things Christians should do:
1. Develop a biblical view of work and jobs
Before we can minister to the jobless, we must first understand what jobs are for.
The Genesis account of creation tells us that from the beginning humanity was created to work. God puts Adam in the garden to “work and watch over it.” As Rev. Robert Sirico has said, “The Scripture provides an insight into our nature: We are all, man and woman, called into this life to find our vocation, the work that is uniquely ours and contributes to the flourishing of the wider community.”
For most of us, the work we do at our jobs is the primary way we serve our neighbor. It is also a way that we glorify God. As Gene Veith says,
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to give us this day our daily bread. And he does. The way he gives us our daily bread is through the vocations of farmers, millers, and bakers. We might add truck drivers, factory workers, bankers, warehouse attendants, and the lady at the checkout counter. Virtually every step of our whole economic system contributes to that piece of toast you had for breakfast. And when you thanked God for the food that he provided, you were right to do so.
Because jobs can serve the needs of our neighbors and lead to human flourishing, they are the most important part of a morally functioning economy.
2. Recognize unemployment as a health crisis
Numerous surveys and studies have found that unemployment can have negative effects on communities, families, and a person’s subjective well-being and self-esteem.
For example, research has found that the longer Americans are unemployed, the more likely they are to report signs of poor psychological well-being. A Gallup survey found about one in five Americans who have been unemployed for a year or more say they currently have or are being treated for depression. The survey also reports unemployed Americans are more than twice as likely to say they currently have or are being treated for depression than both those with full-time jobs and those who have been unemployed for five weeks or less.
For young people, the stigma of not having a job may be devastating enough that it is similar to adding 30 years of aging to one’s physical well-being. The Gallup-Healthways Global Well-Being Index found that among 47 high-income countries, the physical well-being of unemployed youth aged 15 to 29 is statistically tied with that of employed adults aged 50 and older—26% vs. 24% thriving, respectively.
A 2011 study of the long-term unemployed published by the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University also found that half of participants experienced shame and embarrassment that led them to isolate themselves from friends and associates. Among the long-term unemployed, 31.1% reported spending two hours or less with family or friends the previous day, versus 21.5% among short-term unemployed adults.
To effectively minister to the unemployed, churches must recognize that joblessness has profound effects on the mental and physical health of the unemployed and minister to those needs.
3. Recognize unemployment as a spiritual crisis
Long-term unemployment is not just a mental and physical health crisis; it’s also a spiritual crisis—and the church is the only institution that can adequately respond. “Fortunately, the church is in a unique place to explain Christ’s restoration of work,” says Michael Jahr, “the meaning of suffering, and the hope and peace that result from putting our trust in him.”
Jahr offers three ways to 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”—charity that leads to dependency, deception, and disempowerment of an individual in need.
- 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. In particular, find ways that you can provide jobs for those in your area or help to train those who need marketable skills.
“The church has the message and resources necessary to revive the broken spirit and restore the downtrodden,” says Jahr. “The question is whether the church will discern this opportunity and take action.”
Jobs are important to the flourishing of the individual, the community, and the economy—which is why unemployment should be a primary concern for the church. Helping people find work that is uniquely their own and contributes to the flourishing of the wider community should always be one of the chief economic concerns for the Christian community.
A version of this article originally appeared in our WORK issue of Light Magazine.