Tom Nelson is the senior pastor of Christ Community Church in Leawood, Kansas, a church with five campus locations. Nelson is the author of “Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work.” Tom and his wife, Liz, have two grown children.
You’ve been in vocational ministry for more than 30 years. How has the meaning behind work changed?
In the past, work was more about a paycheck and providing for one’s family than about aligning with one’s passion.
“Work used to be primarily a transaction,” Nelson said. “In other words, remember the old Disney line, ‘Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work we go.’ I think it was just like a necessary evil. Many people saw work as an economic transaction, what they had to do to pay the bills, and that’s not all bad. But I do think there’s a bit of a shift in our culture. It is more tied to meaning. The good thing is that we see work is important, and we were created for work, but of course the danger is it can be so deeply tied to our identity. It’s kind of a mixed bag. The bottom line is work needs a new story and is profoundly given to us in Holy Scripture.”
Talk about the Sunday-to-Monday gap.
It’s easy to think of worship as singing songs and listening to a sermon on Sunday mornings, while work is something we do Monday through Friday. However, the Creator never compartmentalizes our lives.
“We often think of worship and work as separate,” Nelson said. “What’s unhelpful about the distance of those two words is the Biblical story brings those together—before sin and death enter the world—as seamless.”
>Before the Fall: Nelson said Genesis 1 and 2 give us a journal of God at work.
“First and foremost, we are introduced to God in Scripture as a working God,” Nelson said. “We are made in His image, and that idea of image in the Hebrew text means to reflect and connect. Part of that reflection is having a relationship with God, but we are also vocational. Work is a big part of what we do every day.”
>The Fall: Nelson said sin in Genesis 3 corrupted our work with “thorns and thistles”—hard labor, conflict between coworkers, seasons of sweat and overworking, workplace politics.
“No matter what age we are or where God has called us, we enter that Monday world that is contested by the evil one,” Nelson added. “So, we enter a battle zone. The danger for us is we can either be so pessimistic about work that we don’t see how God can redeem it, and we can learn through suffering, or we can frame in our mind a Utopian idea of, ‘I’m going to have the most perfect job. Everything is going to be great. I’m going to love it. I’m going to get paid a lot of money.’ The language I would like is we walk into Monday with ‘hopeful realism.’”
>After the Fall: Despite this “mixed bag” of work’s beauty and brokenness, Jesus redeems any job.
“Wherever we are, whether we’re paid or not paid, changing diapers or changing companies, I think it’s important to understand that our work is a primary way we are formed and shaped,” he said. “I want to know that my workplace—difficult, not fun, exciting, exhilarating, whatever it is—that God has placed me there under His sovereignty as a primary place to worship Him. Spiritual formation doesn’t just take place on Sunday. God designed it to take place in the majority spaces of our life. One of those majority spaces is our work. There’s a great commercial that says, ‘We shape our work, and our work shapes us.’”
Nelson said Jesus can use our work to work in us.
“Jesus is a worker,” Nelson said. “He’s many things, but the vast majority of His time on earth as the sinless Son of God, He is working in a carpentry shop. He dealt with a lot of difficult customers. So He understands work in a fallen world. He dignifies work. The majority of His parables are on work. His teachings are on work.”
How can God use retirees?
Nelson said Genesis 2:15 is the “human job description”—when God tells Adam to cultivate and keep the earth—and is chiefly about contribution for the common good rather than compensation.
“For those who are in that season not receiving a paycheck, their contribution continues in amazing ways,” Nelson said. “Now that calling may shift a little bit, but they’re still called by God to contribute from cradle to grave. It’s really a new season for many, if they have some economic vitality and health, to perhaps be the most fruitful in their entire lives. It just looks different. It’s a time of generativity, what I mean by that is, as we get a bit older, the focus on others should increase. One of the greatest joys of that season is taking what we’ve learned, mentoring others and investing it in the next generation by serving others.”