Katherine Leary Alsdorf: We're made to work
People are called to work, not just to provide for themselves, but to help the world flourish, says the collaborator on Timothy Keller's recent book "Every Good Endeavor."
January 29, 2013 | People work for a variety of reasons: money, security, power, success. But work -- at least, from the perspective of the gospel -- is not about accruing benefits for ourselves, says Katherine Leary Alsdorf, the founder and director emeritus of the Center for Faith & Work at New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
“The gospel story of work says that we’re made to work,” Alsdorf said. “And the reason we’re made to work is to do the work that God would have us do to help the world flourish. Apart from doing that kind of work, we’re not fully human; we’re not living the lives that God meant us to live.”
Established in 2002, the center is Redeemer’s “cultural renewal arm,” helping members integrate faith into every aspect of their lives, personal and professional. Drawing on that work, Alsdorf assisted Redeemer’s senior pastor, the Rev. Timothy Keller, in writing “Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work,” published in November by Dutton.
Alsdorf said more congregations need to pay attention to work and the role it plays in people’s lives.
“Work should be as important in the missional focus of a church as family is,” she said.
Alsdorf spoke with Faith & Leadership recently about “Every Good Endeavor” and the challenges of integrating work and faith. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: What is the state of the workplace today? How do people feel about their work?
We have some crises in the workplace. There is a lack of work, especially for young people, and a nervousness about where people fit in work that has been growing for 20 years.
Creating work opportunities is our responsibility as a culture and as individuals, but it’s not something that we’ve owned for a while. That’s now hitting pretty dramatic proportions, which recent graduates are feeling most.
The book talks about a new story for work, especially regarding our expectations of work. Some of that results from the problem and the promise of the American dream.
On one hand, we have a culture that lets more people do what they’re gifted to do than ever before. On the other, we expect that we should always do better than our parents. So work moves from being about serving the world to "What I can get from it?"
There is also a longing for meaning in work. People are disconnected from the end purpose and therefore the importance of their work.
It’s easier for the head of a company to find meaning in work, because you meet with the end customer; you see the changes your product makes in that customer’s business or life. But if you’re further removed, it’s often hard to find meaning in your little piece of what you’re contributing to.
Q: What does “Every Good Endeavor” bring to the discussion about work?
The gospel story of work says that we’re made to work. And the reason we’re made to work is to do the work that God would have us do to help the world flourish. Apart from doing that kind of work, we’re not fully human; we’re not living the lives that God meant us to live.
So the disconnect that happens when people don’t have a sense of meaning in their work is really a disconnect from God’s purpose for us to help the world flourish.
When we created the Center for Faith & Work at Redeemer, we started with the premise that the gospel changes everything. The good news of what Christ did for us on the cross affects not just our eternal salvation but how we live here and now.
But how the gospel gets worked deep into people’s hearts and lives is a function of who they are and their context. We have a lot of highly educated people in our congregation. Maybe a third are immigrants or children of immigrants, Asian immigrants, whose parents sacrificed to come to this country and raise and educate their children here.
Some of the stories that they operate from are shaped by their parents, or by the expectations of what is supposed to happen when you go to college. But then they arrive in New York post-education, and the realities of work hit them in the face.
Maybe they’re doing work that they’re not gifted at. They were smart enough to go to college and get good grades, but once they’re in the work itself, they feel like, “I can’t spend the rest of my life doing this.” So they have to go back and ask, “What did God make me to do?”
Other times it’s an expectation of comfort, security, power, success or financial stability that really isn’t of God. That takes the focus away from working for the work’s sake to working for the sake of how you can benefit from it.
Of course, work is supposed to give us the means to provide for ourselves. But if we’re doing the work primarily to accrue benefits to ourselves, then we’re really working in opposition to the way God made us.
We’re going to run up against what happens when you’re not paying attention to the owner’s manual of who you are as a human being -- a lack of significance and meaning in what you do. You start to feel chained to the career or to the job.
Q: What do you tell people who say, “That’s why they call it work”? You and Rev. Keller don’t accept the post-Eden account of work as something we’re condemned to do to earn bread by the sweat of our brow.
Yeah. We take post-Eden more seriously than the world at large. We also would define work as pre-Fall. God gave us work to do before there was sin, before man sinned. He gave us work to do to contribute to human flourishing. He gave us work to do to create beauty. He made us as creators in his image. He gave us jobs to name animals and classify things.
Work in itself is good, but there is no question that sin has changed the nature of work. If our expectation is that everything should just be hunky-dory, that’s an inadequate view of the Fall. That’s an inadequate view of what happened when we became sinful, when the world became broken.
That can be difficult for a young person to discern. Sometimes their problem is they’re doing work that isn’t a good fit or doesn’t contribute in a meaningful way. Other times it’s that they’re truly not prepared for the realities of sin, the realities of brokenness in the world.