Greg Gilbert, Senior Pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church, in Louisville, Ky., and entrepreneur Sebastian Traeger, have co-written a book answering tough questions about life and work, adding clarity and a theological framework to the faith and work discussion. The book is called, The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to Our Jobs (Zondervan) and is available January 28.
I asked Gilbert and Traeger to share more about their book and how it might benefit the church.
Why did you decide to write The Gospel at Work?
Traeger: Too many Christians make an idol of their work: caring too much about it, relative to the gospel. Too many Christians being idle in their work: not caring enough about it, especially in light of the gospel. We wanted to help Christians see God's purposes for their work and how the gospel relates to it. Doing this will counter confusion Christians have as well as make them better, more faithful–and I think fulfilled–workers.
Was your partnership strategic? (Note: Gilbert is a pastor and Traeger an entrepreneur) Did you think it was important to provide both perspectives?
Gilbert: Yes, it was very deliberate! [Sebastian] has been in the professional world for decades now, and all these questions are ones he's faced every step of the way. As a pastor, I've faced most of them, too (as any pastor will tell you, this is a 50-plus hour a week job), but I've also spent years studying what the Bible has to say to us about every aspect of our lives–including our work. Sebastian and I have been friends for years, we've been talking about these things for years, and we just thought that together, we might be able to bring some careful biblical thinking to some profound questions about how to be a faithful Christian in the workplace.
Traeger: I'm an Elder at my church…so yes, a non-staff Pastor. Greg is a close friend and a great writer, so he could help shape the book and make it more poignant. He is a full-time pastor who shares the same vision as me for building up Christians in the workplace.
Why do you think it is important to discuss faith and work?
Gilbert: Because God in his love and wisdom has created us to work! Our work, our jobs, our careers–those things are not just incidentals or necessary evils that we tack on to our spiritual lives. Our jobs are a massive arena in which God matures us as Christians and brings glory to himself. And like any such arena, this one brings big challenges to us in terms of whether we'll remain faithful. Will we turn our work into an idol, and start thinking that it is the most important thing in our lives? Will be become idle in our work, and lose sight of God's purposes for us in it? Or will we remember that ultimately whatever we do, we do for King Jesus? Idolatry and idleness are ever-present and deadly traps for us in our jobs, and discussing with other believers the meaning and implications of faithfulness is the only way we'll be able to approach our work as God intended.
Traeger: A few reasons: 1) The gospel should impact the way we work and it should motivate us. 2) It's a huge part of our lives. 3) It's a great way to talk about discipleship and following the Lord. 4) There isn't a lot out there about applying biblical wisdom to the nuances of our work. 5) The workplace is a great mission field – and it's becoming increasing hostile
How has your faith shaped your work ethic?
Gilbert: Just like it is for anybody else, maintaining a healthy work ethic is a challenge for me. From one day to the next, I can fall into idolatry, manage to crawl out of that hole, and then find myself falling into the opposite hole of idleness! But I try to keep in mind the Bible's teaching that the work I do is always ultimately done “not as for men, but for the Lord.” When I remember that, it keeps me from thinking that my work is going to be able bring some lasting happiness to me—after all, my joy is secure completely and only in Jesus. And it also keeps me from slacking off in my work, doing it half-way or with a bitter heart. After all, no matter the particulars of what I'm doing, I'm doing that thing today because this is what my King has deployed me on this particular day to be doing!
Traeger: The big idea of the book – who you work for, is more important than what you do – has been extremely important for me. It's helped me tackle any job – even ones I've considered mundane- as though I'm working for the King, because I am. It's also helped provide context and humility for when I've been 'in charge' helping me to serve those under me because I'm ultimately serving a King.
Was there something that clicked or an “aha” moment where you realized that you had been separating your faith and work or has this conviction and way of thinking always guided you?
Gilbert: I think some understanding that God cares about every detail of my life, including my work, has been with me as long as I've been a Christian. But I don't think it was until Seb and I started talking deeply about these issues that I realized how incredibly profound and practical and gritty the implications of knowing that I work for The King really are. From choosing a job, to how we treat co-workers and bosses and employees, to how we define success, to how we think about calling and long-term career, the reality that I'm a servant of the King has incredible clarifying and encouraging power.
What is some advice you might give to a person who finds it difficult to find significance in their work?
Gilbert: Ha! I'd tell them to read The Gospel at Work! Because what you'll find there is (I hope) an encouraging, practical, in-the-dirt meditation on the fact that what you do is far less important than who you do it for. Once you grasp that truth, then it cuts the root of both idolatry of work and idleness in work–two problems that lie at the heart of probably 90% of the troubles Christians have in their jobs.
It seems that often pastoral ministry can be elevated. Do you think this is the case? Do you think that it affects the way we work?
Gilbert: Sure. A lot of Christians think that if they're not doing church work in particular, then their job is insignificant and not important to God–or at least not as important to Him as their pastor's job. When that kind of thinking sets in, you can really quickly find yourself being idle in your work—not caring about it, doing it half-way, grumbling through your week, and generally being a terrible witness to Jesus in the process. But I don't think that's the way we should think about it at all. The fact is, just as God deploys people in the local church to various roles (think 1 Corinthians 12), in the same way He deploys his people in the world to do all kinds of different things, and He cares deeply about every single one of them! Wherever you have been deployed at this stage of your life, whether as a salesperson or a doctor or a barista or an office-holder or an assistant or a teacher or a parent or a homemaker or a pastor–or even unemployed right now, for that matter!–remember that this is where your King, in his wisdom and sovereignty, has chosen to deploy you for this time of your life. Therefore your job now is to serve Him faithfully in that assignment. Does that mean the King will never change your assignment? Certainly not! He may change it tomorrow; he may change it ten years from now; he may keep you deployed in one assignment for the rest of your life. But as long as he has you here, do your work well. You work for the King!
How might the church grow in discussing these topics?
Gilbert: I think it would be a great topic for churches to give some deliberate time to thinking about in small groups, book clubs, Bible studies, Sunday Schools, etc. The question “What does it mean to be a Christian in the workplace?” is one every faithful Christian asks, and it is a huge and a right question. Churches should be out front in helping people think through that question well.
Traeger: It starts with the Bible: studying the Bible and understanding God's radical claim and call on our lives – every part of it. Then, applying this to our workplaces. I think where churches can grow is going past the basics – of course you should do your work for the Lord – and into the specifics. So what does this mean for choosing a job? Is it ok to quit a job or fire someone? Does it mean being passive or is there a role to be outspoken and competitive? Should I feel bad if I'm 'just a salesperson' instead of a missionary? What do I do if I'm stuck in what seems like a dead-end job where people are hostile to the gospel? What are the implications of all of this if I'm only 18?
There's a lot more that we need to help people think about once we teach them the core. The book is an attempt to begin to do this, but, hopefully, we'll be out of a job one day as churches build all this into their teaching, Sunday school classes, small groups and discipling relationships!
Along with the book is a set of conferences by the same name. The Gospel at Work conferences, organized by Traeger, are held in various locations throughout the U.S. To find out more or to inquire about hosting your own Gospel at Work conference, find them on their website.