Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Serving like Stephen

Most Christians don't understand the godly significance of their 9 to 5 jobs

Issue: "Syria's pain," Sept. 8, 2012

On Labor Day, we should honor those who serve the Lord 9 to 5. But if you think I'm talking only about pastors and preachers, then you need to meet a man named Stephen.

Acts 6 opens with the Greeks complaining that their widows aren't getting enough to eat in the daily distribution. The apostles, meanwhile, are working so hard to feed the widows that they can't find time to preach. And as the church grows, the problem gets worse. So, like good economists, the apostles propose a division of labor: They'll stick to preaching and let the disciples find somebody else to serve tables.

When we talk about "full-time" ministry today, it's the apostles we usually have in mind-people whose daily work is devoted to preaching and teaching. The problem is that most of us aren't preachers, and probably shouldn't be. Most of us are much better at jobs that fall into the "non-preaching" category. To put it in the language of Acts 6, most of us are table servers. And most of us have no idea if this work matters to God.

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So does it?

Consider the apostles' job description for table servers. They're looking for "men of good repute, full of the spirit and of wisdom." Men like Stephen, "full of grace and power." A man so full of the Holy Spirit that he saw the heavens opened and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. This is the kind of man the early church had in mind to serve tables.

Now, the Bible is pretty clear about feeding the hungry and caring for widows. But what does serving tables have to do with investment banking? How is Stephen's story of any encouragement to the guy selling sprinkler systems? Feed, clothe, heal-that makes sense. But bond trading and landscaping?

Most of us in the pews don't understand the significance of our work because most of us in the pulpit don't know how to explain what it means to serve tables in a modern economic context. The Bible says feed the hungry. The pastor says volunteer at a food pantry. The small business owner goes on believing that Monday through Friday has nothing to do with Sunday.

Food pantries are important, but they're not the reason far fewer of us go hungry today than ever before. Most of us have jobs in which we never hand food to anyone. And, strange as it may sound, that's exactly why so many more people have plenty to eat. Fewer go hungry today because some of us lend money to farmers so they can buy new tractors. Fewer go hungry today because some of us design even better tractors, or tinker in workshops to keep the old ones running. Fewer go hungry today because some of us look at spreadsheets to figure out how companies could spend less money on tractors and produce even more food.

Jesus told us to feed the hungry. That's what bankers, engineers, mechanics, and consultants do every day. They're table servers.

We live in a world where many people, often unknown to one another and devoted to all sorts of specialized tasks, work together in vast networks to feed and clothe and heal in ways nobody ever thought possible. When we participate in one of these networks-however remote our job may be from the hand that administers the bread or medicine-we help to fulfill God's creation mandate. Acts 6 offers an incredibly encouraging message about the significance of our daily work. But we won't see it until we learn to see beyond superficial understandings of what it means to serve tables.

On Labor Day, when I remember those who serve the Lord 9 to 5, I'll think of pastors, but also table servers. That means Stephen. That means store clerks, CEOs, stay-at-home moms, lawyers, accountants, plumbers, graphic designers, authors, civil servants, and computer programmers. That means thousands of other laborers whose contributions to advancing God's Kingdom are no less real for being less visible. And, chances are, that means you.

-Brian Brenberg is an economics and business professor at The King's College, New York City

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