By Gideon Strauss

“We are in the early stages of a Second Vocational Reformation.” When I first heard Uli Chi (the vice chair of the board of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and the founder of the Seattle software company Computer Human Interaction, LLC) make this claim, it brought coherence to a set of observations I had been making over the past few years.

Twenty years ago, most of the Christians I knew accepted a kind of sacred/secular dichotomy in their understanding of work: some work was sacred, God really cared about that kind of work, and the people who did that work – pastors and priests, ministers and missionaries – were the first-class citizens of the kingdom of God; other work was secular, and only really mattered insofar as the people doing that work – people doing the everyday work of making and selling products, crafting and delivering services – were able to leverage their success at work earlier in life towards some kind of sacred significance later in life.

But in recent years more and more often I hear people echo the conviction articulated by Steven Garber (founder of the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture, and author of The Fabric of Faithfulness) that “vocation is integral, not incidental, to the mission of God.” The sacred/secular dichotomy is a mistaken understanding of the way the world works, and a mistaken understanding of how work works.

This week Protestants celebrate Reformation Day. About 500 years ago people like Martin Luther and John Calvin brought about sweeping reforms in the ways in which Christians understand and practice their faith. Among these reforms was an emphasis on the understanding that our everyday work is a prime location in which we respond to the call of God: our work is a part of our “calling,” our “vocation.” That First Vocational Reformation half a millennium ago thoroughly revitalized people’s understanding of the significance of their lives and work,  energized a movement of innovation and enterprise, and initiated a momentum in global economic reform that resulted in a sweeping upward arc of wealth creation across the subsequent centuries. One can quibble over the details of the sociologist Max Weber’s claim that the Protestant work ethic prompted the rise of capitalism, but the spread of the conviction that everyday work truly matters correlates historically with an increase in productivity and practical ingenuity that has lifted large parts of the world out of destitute poverty.

Barefoot work

Barefoot work – holy ground

Twenty years ago, listening to the Protestant Christians I knew, many had clearly lost this sense of calling or vocation with regard to their everyday work. But not all. Business leaders like Max De Pree (former CEO of the furniture company Herman Miller and author of books like Leadership Is an Art) retained this sense of the intrinsic, God-given meaningfulness of our everyday work. Here and there – for example, at the annual Jubilee student conference in Pittsburgh – the original Reformation vision of vocation was steadfastly proclaimed. Jim Lane founded the New Canaan Society to foster deep relationships among men whose lives were absorbed in the marketplace. (I am privileged to be speaking to a small breakout session at the New Canaan Society’s San Francisco Weekend, tomorrow.) Slowly but persistently a Second Vocational Reformation started up.

Roughly ten years ago Chuck Colson with his book How Now Shall We Live? and Os Guinness with his book The Call invited a new generation to join in the mission of God and introduced a vision of everyday life and work oriented to the glory of God, and a significant number of people responded. At about the same time Katherine Leary Alsdorf accepted the call from Tim Keller and Redeemer Church in New York City to start their Center for Faith and Work, which has become the world’s most influential local church-based ministry of vocational discipleship. (Their Humanizing Work conference on November 8 and 9 is likely to be another milestone for the Second Vocational Reformation.) Three years ago Dave Blanchard and Josh Kwon founded the increasingly influential Praxis accelerator for gospel-motivated entrepreneurs. And the stirrings are not limited to North America: Muriithi Wanjau founded Mavuno Church in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2005, a church centered on vocational discipleship and planting similar congregations in cities across Africa. Government economists in China are exploring the implications of the gospel for the marketplace. Pentecostalism is bringing about significant positive changes in the way people understand (and do) their work and exercise economic stewardship in Latin America.

These are instances of a broader trend, a trend that I hope will continue on to affect individuals, workplaces, cities, and the global marketplace.  In my next article I will consider what the Second Vocational Reformation might mean for us as individuals.

Gideon Strauss is the executive director at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and also editor of Fieldnotes Magazine.

Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.

 

One Response to The Second Vocational Reformation (1)

  1. Deb Mills says:

    Thanks so much for the tip-of-the-spear clarity of this article, Mr. Strauss. I’ve been following http://www.marketplaceadvance.com for a couple of years, and have been riveted by the activity of God in the arena of the workplace and across agencies related to fulfilling the Great Commission. Marketplace Advance (imb-sbc) and its partner Skybridge Community (www.skybridgecommunity.com) are very much on message with this and I am thrilled to see how God is moving us all closer together in unity of purpose toward finishing the task.