“In the Kingdom of God, work is collaborative.”
This was the opening remark from Dr. Greg Forster, chairman of the 2018 Faith@Work Summit in Chicago that my wife and I attended from October 11-13 with close to 500 others.
My initial thought was that this was a good way to welcome us. We were there to collaborate with one another. It occurred to me that he may have been alluding to the idea that the work we do for the Kingdom is done as God’s co-laborers.
I want to take a little time to reflect a bit on some new things I learned and old things that were reinforced during this time. I also want to share some of the experiences that moved me to tears. Lastly, I want to focus on what it is that I sense I need to do because I attended this event.
Before I dive deeply into how the presence of the Lord affected my head, heart, and hands, let me provide a brief summary of what the conference was about and for whom it was intended.
This year’s summit was the third one of its kind. The first one was held in 2014 and was followed by one in 2016. (See my reflections on the 2016 event here and here.) Interestingly, these events were not sponsored by just one organization. They were initiated to bring together a variety of faith and work groups and practitioners to highlight what God was doing in this movement of His Spirit and to get a vision of where to go next.
This year’s schedule was full of a diverse group of keynote speakers and workshop leaders who addressed a variety of relevant issues facing the church concerning faith, work, and economics. The speakers came from church-based or parachurch organizations, academia, and professionals from various fields such as business or medicine who had inspiring stories of how God used them at work. Attendees, like my wife and I, came to learn more about how to integrate our Christian faith in the workplace and to connect with fellow believers for encouragement and new ideas.
There were a number of items of interest to me that I captured in my notes. An investment banker spoke on the value of being a steward, and that his employees were his most important asset. A doctor mentioned the value of being faithfully present with someone in pain. We were challenged to consider that advances in artificial intelligence might radically change the landscape of employment for many workers in a variety of fields, displacing thousands of workers who will need compassion, retraining, and financial assistance from the local church. Several speakers emphasized the dignity of all people, not just all workers, as we have had a tendency to express. One leader taught that humility is developed by working a job we feel is beneath us. Another’s exhortation tied in with the last – “God wants us in broken places.”
In addition to the keynote speakers and panel discussions, three optional workshops were scheduled on Friday and Saturday. The one I went to Saturday morning was the best. It was entitled “Connecting How We Read the Bible to Faith at Work in Practice”, and facilitated by Mark Greene, Executive Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. He challenged us to look closer at the context of biblical passages to see that many of them are set in workplaces or reflect the occupation of the writer. For example, we examined Ps. 144:1, “Praise be to the Lord my Rock who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.” As a table group practical exercise, we noticed a number of things that are often overlooked. God personally provided training and education of this Soldier by the name of King David. God’s presence enabled the worker (Immanuel labor). God helps him fulfill his calling. It was very good session.
Although many of the speakers challenged me intellectually, there were a couple of sessions that particularly grabbed my emotions.
On Friday afternoon, they scheduled a one and a half hour music, worship, and reflection time. The service featured songs about work, which came out of the Porter’s Gate Worship Project recorded in the summer of 2017. This collaboration was developed to address the lack of hymns and contemporary worship songs that directly address the concept that God is present in our vocation. Several songs were difficult to sing through the tears that came so freely. One song in particular, “Day by Day”, grabbed by my wife and I. It described the value of ordinary workers, such as servers, teachers, and lawyers as they do God’s work in our midst. Another song, “Your Labor is not in Vain”, tied together God’s presence and our work.
The first speaker emphasized changing a dominion focus on work to one of communion. Once again, this confirmed my own thoughts on God’s presence affecting our work. He stated, “This is not just a movement of promise, but of joy.” The second speaker gave us a great word picture of worship being like the heart – it pulls us in to the life of Christ and then sends us out to the world.
After that, we watched a documentary film, which highlighted the work of one executive in a steel manufacturing foundry in Pennsylvania in the 1970s whose faith directly affected the workplace. He brought peace amidst labor union strife, racial tension, and harsh working conditions. By consistently treating his workers with dignity and respect, he demonstrated Christian love in action. This put the national spotlight on his company, bringing glory to God.
Finally, what did I take away from the conference? Mainly, I was assured that my active involvement in this movement is something that I need to continue. I do not know exactly what the Lord has in mind, but I will continue to write and see where He leads. My labor is not in vain.
Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.