Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians used to compete with each other. If a congregant was missing on Sunday, her friends suspected she had been lured down the street by a liberal preacher or a shorter worship service.
Today when some congregants come to worship, the minister is surprised they are not at work.
“The church’s job is to teach people that their lives are bigger than their work.”
More and more Americans define themselves by the work they do. They are their jobs. They humble brag about how many hours they work and how many vacation days they did not take. They celebrate burnout and applaud the 80-year-old who refuses to retire.
“Workaholic” is a compliment.
Work is a necessity for most, but for many of the Ivy League graduates in my neighborhood, work is more like a religion than a job. About 45 percent of workers under the age of 40 define themselves by their jobs. An Atlantic article last year declared that “The Religion of Workism Is Making Americans Miserable.” The writer noted: “Finding meaning at work beats family and kindness as the top ambition of today’s young people.”
The rich used to work less than the poor because they could afford to, but the lawyers in my Brooklyn church work more hours than the cashiers in my parents’ Mississippi church. The careers of the young and educated are as much about purpose as paycheck.
Sometimes their jobs lead to fulfillment, but more often they end up dissatisfied. As reported in Fast Company, work has become the religion of choice among America’s Millennials. Hard-working young adults are tired and often unhealthy. Job stress has been connected to diabetes, heart disease, gastrointestinal issues and high cholesterol.
People look for careers like they used to look for spouses. They search for the job they will love forever. They long to feel passionate about their work.
These expectations lead to frustration. Most occupations are not a path to transcendence. Sometimes work feels like busywork. Parts of our job feel dishonest. Work is full of compromise.
While some find a sense of calling in their jobs, the majority need another way. The expectations around what a job should provide are hurting a lot of people.
“The church can be a voice for a more holistic understanding of work.”
The rise of work as a religion has occurred during the decline of Christianity as a religion. According to the Pew Research Center, 83 percent of Americans over 40 have a religious affiliation, while only 66 percent of those under 40 are religiously affiliated. The church has failed to recognize that the elevation of work contributes to the diminishment of the church.
The church is tempted to say, “Come and sit for an hour and be reinvigorated to win the rat race,” but the church’s job is not to help people get more work done. The church’s job is to teach people that their lives are bigger than their work.
The message of the world’s great religions is that people are not what they do for a living. The church needs to give up the Protestant work ethic – the belief that hard work is the key to the best life.
We do not have to give complete devotion to our jobs. Working in order to pay for the time to do things that are more important than our job is a worthy goal. People who choose careers that give them time away from their job may have more fulfilling lives.
The church can be a voice for a more holistic understanding of work, pushing for policies that challenge the supremacy of work – paid parental leave, public spending on childcare, health care that is not dependent on a job, and laws which make working long hours less necessary.
The church gets to say:
“Live with different priorities. Pay attention to those around you. Help the needy. Give to the poor. Share your time. Enjoy your life.”
“Every day is holy no matter what we do for a living. We can open our hearts to the presence of God. We can flip pancakes with the love of God.”
People who do not assume they will find their life’s purpose in their job are on to something. Putting work at the center of our lives often leads to disappointment. Putting love at the center leads to hope.