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Tom Nelson

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Preaching to Your People's Vocations

'How will our idea of work impact the life of a church?' An interview with Tom Nelson

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Tom Nelson pastors Christ Community Church in Leawood, Kansas. PreachingToday.com editor Matt Woodley talked with Tom about preaching's relationship with a Christian theology of work.

PreachingToday.com: Why the passion for preaching on faith and work?

Tom Nelson: My current passion has come out of my past failure.

Recovering a more robust theology of vocation has made a bigger difference in our congregation than anything I've ever done. That's not hyperbole. It changes people's lives.

I would call it "theological malpractice." It wasn't intentional—I graduated from a very fine seminary. I grew up in a Christian home and loved my tradition. But after being a pastor a while, I realized that I was spending the minority of my time addressing what the congregation did for the majority of their lives. This Sunday-to-Monday gap was theological—how I understood how the gospel speaks into all of everyday life. I missed the integral nature of work in God's story in Scripture.

When I realized this 10 or 15 years ago, I stood up before my congregation and said, "Hey, I want you to forgive me because I have not been the pastor I should be based on the vocation God's called me to, that I've not spent the amount of time that I should equipping you for what you do Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. That's going to change from now on."

How did your congregation respond?

Well, early in my ministry people would say, "Pastor Tom, I'm not a missionary. I'm not a pastor. Tell me that my work matters. I feel like a second-class citizen." I didn't really hear them then theologically. I heard them trying to connect Sunday to Monday, but it didn't click.

When I woke up to how I was failing them theologically and pastorally, they got excited. Their calling to the arts or to the home or to a corporation or to a school is not a second-class calling. God is really about that. People appreciate the affirmation and my honesty that I missed it for a long time.

Tell me about the theological foundations for vocation.

Vocation is integral to the whole Christian story. It's integral to the Imago Dei image of God and the Missio Dei, the mission of God in the world. I'm inspired by the bookends of the story. Early on, I didn't think deeply about the early chapters of Genesis and the trajectory of that for biblical theology. Nor did I look carefully at the end of Revelation. And so I missed the connectedness of the material in between because I hadn't spent enough time on a rich theology of God's creation.

Vocation is woven all the way through the Scriptures if we look for it. It's a very thick thread in Genesis 1 and 2. God presents himself as a working God. The first verb of the Bible is bara, which is God working. When I slowed down and really looked at the trajectory of God's story from that, it helped me see how work is fundamental to what it means to be human, that work is integral to God's creation design. This theme runs even through Genesis 3 and the story of the Fall. God promises to restore this fallen creation and our place in it. Both the curse and the restoration include work.

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October 02, 2013  5:14pm

Tom, I'm starting to hear more and more of this from different 'forward thinkers' in the faith and I'm delighted to be hearing it. Unfortunately, my own church (institution) cares absolutely nothing for what I do Monday to Sunday, only what 'ministry' I can serve in on Sunday and whether I'm occupying a seat in the sanctuary at 10:45 am. It's a very sad state of affairs there ... but because there are people like you, there is hope! Thank you for thinking this through and listening to God around this concept.

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