faith and vocation

Q and A about Opus: The Art of Work

We sat down with Opus: The Art of Work director Chris Armstrong and program manager Ben Norquist to learn more about their vision for this new institute.

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Chris ArmstrongBen Norquist

Chris Armstrong, director, Opus: The Art of Work (left)

Ben Norquist, program manager, Opus: The Art of Work (right)

Why does Opus: The Art of Work need to exist? What void does it fill?

Chris Armstrong: To be “evangelical” is to bring the message of the gospel to the world. But the temptation has been to narrow that message—as if once we’ve sorted our matters of personal justification, our “job” as Christians is done. But what about the jobs—the value-creating, world-serving work, whether paid or unpaid—that most people spend most of their lives doing? Is our gospel big enough to embrace those too?

If we see our workplaces only as places to evangelize others, then what’s God’s purpose in the work itself? Are we just pulling a lever to get a paycheck? Maybe most of us wouldn’t say that. But if we can’t see what God is doing in the world through ordinary work, odds are we’ll slide into the 70% of workers Gallup has found are disengaged in their workplaces. That’s surely not God’s best for us.

Finally, many Christians experience the workplace as an environment hostile to their values and identity in Christ. They sense a lack of integrity in themselves—they’re one person in church, and another person at work. That’s obviously no way to live: the Bible and Christian traditions offer a much more empowering, encouraging, and embracing vision of vocation. But it takes some good old-fashioned, well, work to learn wisdom in this area and apply it to our lives today. The institute was founded to help put hands to that theological plow from across Wheaton’s community—professors, staff, students, alumni, partner churches—and prepare a new generation to thrive in their vocations for the flourishing of God’s world.

Ben Norquist: The current economy is presenting bewildering challenges to our graduates who are looking for both vocational satisfaction and a livelihood. Our graduates are struggling with the weight of student debt while faltering in a poor job market, and furthermore, these vocational frustrations are exacerbating perennial struggles with life purpose (why am I here?) and life significance (will I succeed in making a valuable contribution?) It’s also clear that the church isn’t well equipped to support them, maybe because most pastors have little to no experience in vocations outside of the church. 

If Christians can get this right, if they can carry their core identity as disciples of Jesus with them into their work lives, and if that identity can lead their work processes and decisions, the world will be amazed! They will see the good news in front of them.

Define what you mean by vocation.

Ben: Vocation is an orientation toward the roles that God asks us to play over the course of our lifetimes for his glory and for the good of the world. We are mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, colleagues, leaders, followers, teachers, laborers, citizens, etc. All of these can be vocations, but the first and primary vocation of believers is to love God. 

Notice that a Christian vision for vocation gets a lot bigger and grander than the job-where-we-work-during-the-day-in-order-to-make-money-to-live-on. It’s about the ways God has provided for us to apply our creative energy to contribute to his plans for the world. It is precisely from within these vocations that we have been invited to “change the world.”

Chris: Vocation is not about taking an inventory of gifts, though that can be a helpful exercise. It’s actually about hearing God’s particular call to you—to do the work he prepared in advance for you. It is through people—whether they know him or not—that God does his own work of providing (think farmer, cashier), constraining (think judge, prison guard), and redeeming (think nurse, recycling worker).

Of course, we do need to make a living, which is a part of vocation—but it’s only one aspect of the idea. At its foundation, vocation is first about our relationship with God, and only then about our relationships with people and society. That’s why you’re unlikely to discover your vocation by yourself. To discern the right vocational path, you need the people who know you the best as well as the God who knit you together.

What are our goals for the institute over the next one to two years?

Chris: In years one and two, we’re pouring the foundation and erecting the framework for a new understanding of vocation at Wheaton. This is not an outside-in movement, but an inside-out one. What I mean by that is that it won’t happen by Ben and me standing on a soapbox and shouting (or bringing in speakers to do the same). Rather, it will happen by attracting the energy and wisdom of people from every part of our community—students, professors, staff, alumni—and then handing them the resources to develop new vocational understandings within their own disciplines and roles.

This will look like lots of things—some of which we even already know about! Research grants, the creation of new vocationally focused learning units across the existing curriculum, reading and discussion groups, trips to conferences—in short, a bunch of new ways that students can develop vocational discernment and professors can develop and teach a body of biblical, practical knowledge on faith and work.

Possibly the most important goal for the first two years is the task of planning well. We need, first, to discern carefully and prayerfully our context, task, resources, and potential roadblocks; second, to create an action plan whose aim is to foster a long-term flourishing of faith-and-vocation teaching, mentoring, and research on this campus.

Ben: I want the institute to become a highly valued partner within the Wheaton community, which will take listening carefully to our college colleagues and students as we seek to discern the exact issues, challenges, and opportunities present. It will also mean making new friends among Wheaton alumni and other off-campus groups, because we need them as close partners in order to achieve the range of goals we’ve set for years one and two.

We plan to complete several projects alongside our partners including the Faculty Fellowship program, a multi-faceted January conference on faith and work, traveling workshops for churches, research grants to support faculty who work on these issues, and vocational discernment groups for undergraduate students. We want the institute to be of the best possible service to Wheaton College and to the larger Church as we seek to catalyze thought and practice related to this Christian vision for vocation.

As you look ten years out, what fruit do you hope comes from the institute’s presence both at Wheaton and in the world?

Chris: In ten years, I hope a significant number of our accomplished professors, through the support of the institute, will have moved the ball forward on strong, biblical understandings of vocation within their own disciplines—including framing and answering the “next big questions” on faith and work. I hope a decade’s worth of undergraduate and graduate students, living into leadership in the church and world, will not only be experiencing in their own lives the blessings of a vibrant and healthy understanding of vocation, but also be spreading that understanding to others.

I hope our alumni, as well as pastors and other opinion leaders nationwide, will be recommending Wheaton without hesitation as the best place in the country to prepare not just for any of the nearly unlimited occupations to which a liberal arts education opens the door, but also for a life in which heavenly faith and earthly work are two interwoven threads of one seamless whole.

Finally and most importantly, I hope churches and Christians touched by this message emanating from Wheaton (along with many other emerging centers in the country) will be stewarding their vocations in ways that join in God’s providing, constraining, and redeeming work to bless the world.

Ben: I envision a generation of those influenced by Wheaton and our institute enlivened to practice their vocations with the truly grand purposes that come with being God’s servants in the world. If Wheaton graduates, and Christians throughout the country, let their faith pilot their approach to their work, then the witness of the Church to God’s goodness would flourish in brand new ways that the world is hungry for. 

I also want to see cultures change within our societal institutions—schools, companies, churches, governmental bodies, etc.—by training the next generation of Christians to value and lead in the vocations that have been swept aside by the notion that they are secular and second best. If Christians are well equipped with the vocational skills and knowledge to perform in these arenas, and if they are supported by a robust message that God cares about their work, then our capacity as a Church to illustrate the good news will grow in extraordinary ways.

What is your own personal outlook on the intersection of faith and vocation?

Chris: Actually, I don’t think we can separate “faith” from “vocation.” The Reformers understood that we have two sorts of vocation: the first and most important is our vocation to Christ—which of course includes the gift of faith that we can never earn. The second is our vocation to other people—including our family roles and working lives. It’s the twofold law of love articulated by Jesus: First we love God, and second we love our neighbor.

So we can talk, maybe, about faith and work as two distinct things (although seamlessly related in God’s plan). But faith and vocation are deeply overlapping and interrelated categories—we can’t manage to live out God’s purposes in what we usually think of as our vocations (as parents, workers, employees, bosses) unless we are also living in Christ through faith in what is really our primary vocation as children of God.    

To be clear, this twofold vocation doesn’t mean that we somehow put God first, then family, then work, as if you can separate the three. Rather, God’s kingdom plan is that each of us live out our secondary vocations (family, work) in the constant awareness and operation of our first. Most of us don’t get there most days, but we can be assured that this sort of seamless life is what our Savior wants for us.

Hans Boersma has put it eloquently in his book Heavenly Participation, reminding us that when God comes to earth through the Incarnation, he enters right into our ordinary, daily experience—weaving bits of heaven into the tapestry of our day-to-day lives. What that means is that our vocations, which we so regularly compartmentalize into spiritual irrelevance or at least treat as separate from our faith, are actually the sacred contexts where God advances his gracious plans for the world. Wow.

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