The Church as Some Kind of Employment Center?

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Businessmen shaking hands

To paraphrase the old Burt Bacharach song, “What the world needs now…is jobs, sweet jobs. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.” That was the opening to a recent talk I heard from Kansas City pastor Tom Nelson. We were all relieved that Tom only spoke these lines, instead of attempting to sing them. But his point remains a really poignant one.

Tom was talking about the Church’s role in meeting people’s needs. His church, Christ Community, has as one goal the Common Good of the Kansas City metro area. And Tom’s point is that it is imperative that churches in general, when they minister to people in their neighborhoods, do so from a position of economic empowerment.

But does this mean that the Church is supposed to be some kind of employment center? Well, maybe it does. This wouldn’t mean that the Church is merely an employment center. But the Church is supposed to minister to people’s material needs, along with their spiritual needs. Right? Well, the consistently biggest material need people have is a good job! If the Church thinks it can effectively minister to families’ needs without addressing the need for a good job, it might be fooling itself.

Maybe I’m just feeling a bit raw right now. My wife and I have groups of children from mixed income families in our home each week, offering activities like music and art. We watched this week as two families got evicted from their homes. The prior week yet another family was evicted. We’re not expecting these patterns to change anytime soon. The biggest single reason in all these cases? Underemployment.

It think it’s great when churches open food pantries, and help with emergency needs like a water or electricity bill. Churches are well-known for doing these things. I’m not quibbling with these efforts. But the overarching, long-term need—which simply manifests itself in specific cases of needing a water bill paid or a bag of food for the weekend—is, once again, a good job.

But there are Job Centers and Employment Training Programs that handle that kind of thing. Right? Well, there are also local detox programs and government-sponsored counseling centers. Should churches stop offering recovery groups and stop visiting the bereaved? Whatever work that job agencies are doing right now, there remain people in our communities who are in desperate need right now of a good job. The question is: Will churches seriously work to address this key, material need of families in their neighborhoods?

Maybe you’re thinking it would be great if churches were somehow able to do this. But you’re also thinking that, regrettably, churches can’t really do this. They’re not equipped to do this. Let me offer two responses to this line of thinking: one theoretical and one practical.

My first response is that, in theory, a church should be an ideal place for partnerships leading to job opportunities. In most churches there is a mix of people with a variety of marketplace experiences. And in professing Christ and being a part of the Church body, they’ve already stated their commitment to work together in order to carry out Christ’s mandate to (self-sacrificially) bring life to those in need. These people, in theory, are precisely the people I’d want to see form a team of mentors, apprentices, recruiters, interview coaches, entrepreneurial partners, etc.—providing opportunities for those among them in need of a new or better job. In theory, shouldn’t churches—if they’re indeed comprised of people already committed to loving and serving one another—be the ideal place to receive help with employment? If a church hasn’t thought through how it might do this, then might it be time to start?

And now here’s my second, less theoretical response to the idea that churches aren’t equipped to address people’s employment needs: Happily, some churches are figuring out a way to do this! In the next few weeks we’ll have some guest posts from people whose commitment to Christ has led them down interesting avenues addressing the material needs of those in their communities. In the meantime, if your church has its own story, let us know!

To be fair, I think Burt Bacharach’s original song got the lyrics right. Above all else, people need love: the love of God and the love we can offer them in Christ’s name. But as I’m singing the original lyrics about people in our world needing love, I’ll be mindful that they also need jobs.

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Kevin Kinghorn serves as editor of the Faith and Work Collective blog. He is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Asbury Theological Seminary. His undergraduate work (Emory) was in economics and political science. His graduate work (Asbury; Yale; Oxford) and current teaching has focused on topics within philosophy of religion and moral philosophy. He lives in Mt. Sterling, KY, where he and his wife Barbara work toward community transformation, providing music and art opportunities for children.

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