Book Review of Visions of Vocation by Steven Garber

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Published in 2014 this book is already a classic in the field. Mostly because it’s written by Steven Garber who runs The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture. The author has been all over the world teaching on vocation and is one of the most influential and most respected voices on this topic.

The main points of the book are the following:

  • The world is a difficult place to live in.
  • We have to choose what we will do with the difficulty of our lives.
  • If we follow culture, we’ll turn numb and disengaged to the difficulty around us.
  • Christians are obligated to care for the world as God has cared for us through God’s covenant relationship.
  • We can’t just know or decide what needs to get done, we need to act according to the Gospel.
  • We need to avoid the two great alternatives to the Gospel: stoicism and cynicism.

While that’s a spoiler-alert, it’s not really a spoiler alert because while this book makes “points” its about much more than the points. The book is mostly meant to be a journey of walking through people’s stories to understand what these truths look like in real life.

This book is meant to evoke curiosity, grief, compassion, inspiration, surprise, perseverance, and encouragement. Only Steven Garber could write a book like this. It felt more like a memoir than anything else. Reading this book is like walking with Garber through life listening to him reflect on his most important relationships and the most meaningful books in his library.

The referenced literature within the book is vast and represents many different genres. The real-life stories are from all over the globe. The stories are great and many of them are dramatic. But I wish there were a few more normal, ordinary people highlighted within the pages.

Garber talks a lot about the difficulty of living an ordinary life and of persevering through suffering but his stories are typically un-typical. Kinda felt like I was watching a TV drama which is more like watching life-on-stereoids than ordinary life. This isn’t bad I suppose, but I got a bit weary of the hype by the end of the book. I don’t mean that every story is disney-esque, just that the majority of the stories involve very bright people, very traveled people, very unique people. I wish there were more ordinary people highlighted, because then I think this book would speak more to ordinary people. As it is, it seems geared more for influencers in society rather than the normal every-day folk.

Regardless, this book is really valuable and should be read by leaders, managers, CEOs, pastors, artists, and other cultural influencers. Garber is extremely articulate and culturally-savvy, able to weave Gospel truths into life in a special way. I didn’t feel like I learned a lot, but I felt a lot. And in feeling, I was drawn closer to the reality of how difficult the world is, and how good the Gospel can be as we seek to draw closer to God in our work.

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Book Review of What’s Best Next by Matt Perman

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This is a really unique book. It helps us develop a distinctly Christian understanding of how to get things done. This book is all about Gospel-Productivity. The author finds it odd that there is so little Christian teaching on productivity because Christians say they believe the gospel changes everything – how we go about our home life, work life, church life, community life, everything.

Yet there has been little Christian reflection on how the Gospel changes the way we get things done. Ultimately, Perman believes this lack of teaching is a failure of Christian love. It’s a failure of love because part of the biblical conception of love is giving practical help to those who need it, and in our modern society this more and more “needs to involve concrete insight on how to get things done and stay above water without burning out…”

If love is the guiding principle of the Christian life, and generosity is the chief way love manifests itself in our world, then our productivity is an important matter. So in Part 1 of the book, Perman begins with why it’s so important to have God at the center of this conversation. Only God frees us from the challenges of confusion, ambiguity, overload, and lack of fulfillment. Part 2 offers a Biblical rationale for a Gospel-centered productivity. Parts 3-6 delineate a process for becoming more productive, and Part 7 summarizes the big picture of how our Gospel-productivity can bless organizations, society, and the rest of the world.

Throughout each chapter are recommended further resources for learning. There is a LOT to learn from this book. It’s a pretty quick read and is formatted to be practical. Chapters are filled with easy-to-grasp instructions: “3 different types of calling,” “4 ways to reduce chaos in your life,” “5 components of effective delegation,” etc. Amidst all the helpful nuggets found throughout this book, my favorite is when the author distinguishes between effectiveness and efficiency.

Perman explains that when most people think of productivity, they think of efficiency – getting more things done faster. But while efficiency is important, it is meant to be secondary. More important than efficiency is effectiveness – getting the right things done. Efficiency doesn’t matter if you are doing the wrong things in the first place. While efficiency is important, it works only when we make it secondary to effectiveness.

In Chapter two, Perman gives us six reasons we need to put effectiveness over efficiency.

  1. You can get the wrong things done. More important than how MUCH we get done and how FAST we do it is whether we are getting the right things done at all.
  2. Efficiency doesn’t solve the problem of a hectic life. While traditional time management suggests efficiency brings control, and control brings peace and fulfillment, this equation never works. Simply speeding up doesn’t help if you aren’t going in the right direction in the first place.
  3. Becoming more efficient can actually make things worse. This is because when you become more efficient, you tend to do more things – and if you aren’t doing the right things in the first place, you have just become an expert at doing more of what doesn’t need to be done at all. In Peter Drucker’s words, ‘The most unproductive thing of all is to make more efficient what should not be one at all.”
  4. The quest for efficiency often undermines the true source of effectiveness in any organization – the people. For example, many organizations suffer from the myth that the best way to make a profit is to be militant about cutting costs. The problem is that this is often done in ways that undermine employees, making work harder and more frustrating, thereby lowering morale. The lower morale, in turn, translates into lower overall productivity for the organization (and higher turnover, a very inefficient expense!).
  5. Efficiency is often the enemy of innovation. Many studies back this up – typically, the more a company focuses on efficiency, the less innovative they are.
  6. The quest for efficiency often overlooks the importance of intangibles, which are now the main source of value in our knowledge economy. Things are replicable; people aren’t.

I think I already knew most of this somehow, but I never really thought about it quite like that before. So the process of reading through the argument clarified for me not just the truthfulness of the argument but the importance of these truths for how I live my life and choose to prioritize my time each day. That’s how a lot of this book was for me. Not brand-new material, but his sustained arguments bring clarity on topics I thought I already understood, but didn’t.

The author is very passionate about this topic and is well-thought out and researched. More than any other reason, I enjoyed this book because it is so unique. 350 pages on Christian productivity! I’m pretty sure there is nothing else like it on the market.

Not a book for everyone, but if productivity is your thing, or you want it to be your thing, or you want to understand how productivity fits within a Gospel lifestyle, then check this one out.

Book Review of Every Good Endeavor by Keller and Alsdorf

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In this book Keller and Alsdorf seek to show the Bible’s answers to three questions:

  1. Why do we want to work? That is, why do we need to work in order to lead a fulfilled life?
  2. Why is it so hard to work? That is, why is it so often fruitless, pointless and difficult?
  3. How can we overcome the difficulties and find satisfaction in our work through the Gospel?

In answering these questions the authors show just how big the Gospel is. Near the end of the book, they show some of the essential “mind shifts” that move a person toward a fuller application of the gospel in their work:

  1. Change FROM individual salvation TO the Gospel changes everything (hearts, community, world).
  2. Change FROM being good TO being saved
  3. Change FROM cheap grace TO costly grace
  4. Change FROM heaven is “up there” TO Christ will come again – to THIS earth.
  5. Change FROM God is value-add to us TO In God’s providence, we could contribute to his work on earth.
  6. Change FROM idols of this world TO living for God
  7. Change FROM disdain of this world TO engaged in this world
  8. Change FROM “bowling alone” TO accepting community
  9. Change FROM people matter TO institutions matter
  10. Change FROM christian superiority TO God can work through whomever he wants (common grace)

This book is classic Keller. He brilliantly exegetes huge swaths of Scripture throughout, showing the importance of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther to the topic at hand. The authors also explain key Scriptural concepts showing how wisdom, righteousness, slavery, shame, sin, and sabbath all enlighten our understanding of the Gospel as it relates to (and in many ways, redeems the concept and experience of) work.

I agree with everyone else. This is a must read for anyone wanting to learn about what God has to say about work. It isn’t pie in the sky. It isn’t idealistic. It’s real. It’s practical. And best of all, it’s Gospel saturated, from front to back.

Book Review of Work Matters by Tom Nelson

Work Matters

How does the Gospel change the way we work? Nelson answers that question in this book a million different ways.

For one, the Gospel changes the way we approach our work.  Too often we compartmentalize our lives into separate categories: This is my work stuff, this is my God stuff, this is my family stuff, this is my recreational stuff, this is my friend stuff, etc. But in the Gospel perspective, work isn’t just a category of our lives, it’s a God-inspired calling. Our work lives are just as important as anything else.

The Gospel also gives us a renewed energy for work. We are reminded the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence joins the followers of Jesus everywhere we go – even to work. Especially at work! As Dallas Willard has put it, “The place of discipleship is wherever I am now.” The Holy Spirit is always guiding us, empowering us, interceding for us and producing in us characteristics of Christ-likeness. Not just at church or at home or when we are with our friends, but also in the workplace.

Nelson writes this book to show us how valuable work is to the Kingdom of God and what it looks like to faithfully follow Christ in our workplace environments. In God’s Kingdom, work is about more than financial remuneration, making a profit, economic self-interest, or career advancement. Work is about much more in a Gospel perspective. Christians can work in order to foster the common good and can seek to better the welfare of the city. Through faithful work, Christians can demonstrate radical love, compassion, justice and grace to everyone they come in contact with.

I loved this whole book, but especially chapters 5 and 8. In Chapter 5 Nelson deals with the struggle of feeling like our ordinary work is mundane and meaningless. I’ve been there. Many times. But we shouldn’t forget, this was also true of Jesus’ work!

Nelson discusses the fact that Jesus spent most of his life working as a carpenter and Nelson asks, “How did Jesus’s brilliance fit in with a carpentry career? At first glance this doesn’t seem to be a very strategic use of the Son of God’s extraordinary gifts or his important messianic mission…” (88). Until we realize that Jesus’s humble service in the workplace was the training ground for the glorious display of servanthood in an upper room in Jerusalem.

It’s striking that the One who had masterfully fashioned humans from the dust of the earth was making chairs for people to sit on in their houses” (90). Just as carpentry was an important part of Jesus’s training, so our ordinary work trains us to follow God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength. Our work is not accidentally useful for shaping us more into Christ’s image. Rather, our ordinary work is intrinsically valuable to God and teaches us to worship God through a lifestyle of ordinary-but-powerful faithfulness to God and neighbor. Tom Nelson makes it clear that the Gospel completely changes our perspective on what work is, why work can be valuable, and what God can do through it.

I also enjoyed Chapter 8. In it Nelson discusses how to discover your occupational calling. Nelson recommends we ask at least four specific questions:

  1. How has God designed me?
  2. What life experiences have shaped me?
  3. What circumstances surround me?
  4. What do my wise counselors say?

These are really good questions for anyone feeling unsatisfied in their current job, looking to change jobs, or simply wanting to understand how God wants to utilize their specific gifts and passions in their current workplace environment.

After reading this book I’m more convinced than ever that work isn’t meant to be simply a separate category of our lives, simply what we do from 9-5. No, work is much more.

Work is meant to be a central conduit for the Gospel to spread to the world. The Gospel changes our approach to work, it changes the way we work, it changes why we work, and it helps us persevere in our work.

In short, work matters to God!

Work is more in the shadow of the Gospel.

And this is good news for all of us.

Review of God at Work by Gene Edward Veith Jr.

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This book is a perfect introduction to the Biblical theology of vocation. It’s quick to the point and doesn’t get tangled up in many of the complexities. At only 164 pages, it’s the meat and potatoes, baby. What else do you need?

In his preface, Gene Edward Veith Jr. dedicates this book to George Strieter who first introduced him to the “paradigm-shaking implications of the doctrine of vocation.” This Strieter did by starting his own publishing company in order to reprint Gustaf Wingren’s book, “Luther on Vocation.” Wingren’s book opened Veith Jr.’s eyes to things he had never seen before, helping Veith Jr. see his Christian life in a completely different way.

However, there was a problem. Wingren’s book was a complex, specialized theological treatise, somewhat heavy-going for “those of us who do not have a theological or pastoral vocation.” In this book Veith sets forth what he learned from Wingren and Luther in much simpler terms for the lay-man and woman. After all, Veith says, “it is we laypeople who most need to understand the nature of our callings in the world.”

Veith Jr. more than most others I’ve encountered who are writing in the same field shows this subject to be intensely practical and easy to understand. Yet somehow this book is far from simplistic. This book is essentially a summary of Reformation (and specifically, Lutheran) vocation theology which is some deep stuff, but this book remains a really easy read.

As a result, this book could be recommended to most Christians in the pew as a source of deeper learning and for encouragement to remain faithful in the day-in and day-out grind of our jobs. After all, this faithfulness-within-vocation is a major part of what it means to follow Jesus with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength.

One of the main truths of this book gleaned through much of the stories is that God works through the ordinary work of normal people. One of the main ways God’s Kingdom comes on the earth is by us working faithfully for the sake of our cities. As the theologian Gustaf Wingren puts it, “God does not necessarily need our good works, but our neighbor does” (38). Whether it’s the bagel you ate this morning, the trash that was picked up for you, or the senator who voted on recent legislation, God’s people are recipients of God’s grace when we experience the results of good work in the world. No matter how big or how small. One of God’s main ways of blessings this world is through the ordinary work of humans for one another. This is true of our neighbors and it is true of us.

As the Reformation theologians emphasized, there is an intrinsic equality of vocations before God. Of course, in our societies we humans make hierarchies. But Acts 10:34 makes it clear, “God shows no partiality.” God is not impressed with social status, wealth, possessions, position, and all other marks of human prestige because God delights to exalt the humble (Luke 1:52-53). For God, the first shall be last and the last shall be first (Mark 10:31). This means virtually ALL types of ordinary work can be high callings from God to bless the world. In the Kingdom of God, equality reigns.

Reading this book will entrench at least two more foundational truths into the reader:

  1. God is working out there in the workplace. A robust theology of vocation recognizes the fact that God doesn’t wait for us to do work before God begins working. God is always already doing something. Even before we get to the job-site. This is a profound truth that is easy to overlook, but changes everything once we see it. Rather than putting all the pressure of work on our own shoulders, we begin to work with new expectations, wondering how God will use us to propel what God is already doing in and through our workplace.
  2. When I’m working God is working in me. We can easily forget how important the mundane, ordinary “9-5” is in God’s Kingdom. If we aren’t careful, we may even begin to act like God isn’t interested in what is going on during that time. But that is far from true. A Biblical doctrine of vocation shows us that God is doing much in our own lives and in the people around us as we work. As Veith Jr. says on pages 58-59, “Our Christian calling is to be played out in whatever our daily life consists of…the present is the moment in which we are called to be faithful.” God isn’t off-duty when we are working. Actually, it’s the opposite. As we work, God works in us.

I don’t know how the Biblical doctrine of vocation could be summarized any better than how Veith summarizes it on pages 74-75 of his book:

“When the planes smashed the World Trade Center, thousands of office workers rushed out of the building. Against the stream, police and firefighters were rushing inside. When the towers collapsed, hundreds of them, who had gone into the doomed buildings to rescue whoever they could, lost their lives. 

Afterwards the firefighters, police, and rescue workers worked round-the-clock in the wreckage, desperately trying to find someone alive, engaging in backbreaking, exhausting physical labor to find clues and recover the bodies. 

Here is real heroism, everyone agreed. Professional athletes and movie stars, accustomed to adulation, said with one voice that they are nothing – these cops, firefighters, and other workers at Ground Zero are the heroes. Interestingly, when the heroes took a break long enough to be interviewed, they modestly put aside the praise. They said, ‘We are just doing our jobs.’

THAT is the doctrine of vocation. Ordinary men and women expressing their love and service to their neighbor, ‘just doing our jobs.'” 

 

Review of Kingdom Calling by Amy Sherman

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Amy Sherman wants to see the church in its “full-blown kingdom capacity” – deployed across all domains of our culture. She believes church leaders should have a major role in helping this happen, and thus church leaders are the target audience of this book.

Two events inspired the author in this initiative. First, Sherman read Michael Lindsay’s book Faith in the Halls of Power which found many influential evangelical business leaders perched atop their career ladders displayed a profoundly anemic vision for what they could accomplish through their work for the kingdom of God. How sad. Sherman wondered how this could change.

And right before reading this book, Sherman was also deeply moved by a sermon from Tim Keller who spoke about Proverbs 11:10: “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices.” These two experiences inspired Sherman to further help churches “rejoice” their cities. This book is a means to that end.

This book is all about how to understand and encourage vocational stewardship, which Sherman defines as, “the intentional and strategic deployment of our vocational power – knowledge, platform, networks, position, influence, skills and reputation – to advance foretastes of God’s kingdom” (20).

Sherman encourages congregants to move toward their “vocational sweet spots.” This process takes time and looks different for different people, but all people in the church should be encouraged to begin that journey. While every person is unique, Sherman believes church leaders need to provide a system that helps their people to examine their gifts, passions, “holy discontents,” and the dimensions of their vocational power. We can’t expect congregants to steward well that which they don’t recognize they possess (116).

In Chapter Seven the author explains that while spiritual gifts assessments are important, they are insufficient on their own. Other tools are needed to help congregants think more holistically about themselves and how God would work through them in the world. Sherman encourages a conversation around tools like SHAPE to get the conversation going. But even this isn’t enough. More than self-discovery in our gifts and skills, we also need to think about the different dimensions of our vocational power.

Church leaders should facilitate opportunities for their members to walk through processes of identifying at least seven elements of their vocational power. These elements are the following:

  1. Knowledge/expertise
  2. Platform
  3. Networks
  4. Influence
  5. Position
  6. Skills
  7. Reputation/Fame

If this process of self-discovery (ch. 7) is combined with cultivating the character required for vocational stewardship (ch. 8) people can be deployed to utilize their vocational power through four different pathways (chs. 9-13). This helps people to see not only why they should “rejoice” their city or how they can do that specifically, but also where this can happen.

Part three of this book is devoted to explaining the four pathways and showing church leaders how to facilitate growth in each category:

  1. Pathway 1: Bloom – Promoting the kingdom in and through daily work
  2. Pathway 2: Donate – Volunteering vocational talent outside your day job
  3. Pathway 3: Invent – Launching a social enterprise
  4. Pathway 4: Invest – Participating in the church’s targeted initiative

I most appreciated Sherman’s systematic approach to this topic. While spiritual growth happens organically, the church should be prepared to help people move closer to Christ in their vocations and this takes careful intentionality and strategic planning. These recommended pathways are helpful tools to help people discover their own Kingdom callings and capabilities in the workplace.

These processes are by no means meant to be impersonal. My other favorite part of this book are how many stories of real people Sherman includes. Through the numerous real-life stories the reader is able to appreciate both the beauty and difficulty of living faithfully for Christ in the workplace as well as how unique this journey is for each person.

When I asked my friends which books I should read to help me understand the integration of Christian faith and work, this book was by far the #1 most recommended resource to begin with. I can see why. As a church leader interested in helping the congregation move closer to Christ in our work, this book was very helpful in giving me an overall framework for getting started.

Upcoming Research in the Area of the Theology of Calling/Vocation/Work

In the next few months, I’ll be reading some books to learn what it means to think Christianly about work. I’ve been wanting to do this for years, and am so excited to finally get started! The books I’ll be perusing are the following:

Theology of Work Resources .jpg

There you have it. A shelf filled with treasures!

I created the list of these books on a Google Doc with accompanying amazon links to each one. Can be seen if you click the following link:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Jy8QrHuQfSAYH1w1lMDKCB6w-UiowQ0-xr2NhA-heDA/edit 

Let me know if there are any good books on this topic I’ve missed. I’ll add em to my list.

Here we go! Let’s do this!