One of the unresolved stories of the 20th century is that of the changing role of the laity in the church and the world. The American (and largely Christian) version of this story is full of denominational subplots, ecumenical endeavors, and a bewildering dance between clergy and the people they serve. As the 20th century unfolded, at times the dance seemed to be a harmonious waltz, at others the clergy and laity seemed to be moving separately to different musical idioms, and at some moments relations looked more like a wrestling match than a graceful ballet or a crisp tango. Today, many wonder if the dance has stopped. Another possibility is that it is taking on a new form.

In his new book, God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement (Oxford University Press, 2007), David W. Miller, executive director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, tells of the large and complicated social movement that has reached widely into American and international life—the quest to find the connections between the worlds that modernity had sundered: faith and work. In essence, he tells a tale of a great spiritual hunger that exists in the lives of many moderns and post-moderns—a hunger for wholeness, a deep need for integration, a pervasive struggle to find coherence and meaning in our daily lives.

What Miller calls the Faith at Work story is a response to the creations of modernity—cities, assembly lines, great concentrations of wealth, new corporate structures, labor movements, and great social dislocations. In the latter part of the 19th century, he explains, two streams of effort arose to address these challenges. The first focused on transforming the structures and institutions of modernizing, urban America. The second focused on evangelism and personal transformation. These two strands danced with each other through each of the first two waves of the Faith at Work movement (from 1891 through the early 1970s), and continue their dance today. In each wave, countless new organizations and networks were created, new media were employed to build connections, and new leaders, both clergy and lay, attempted to bridge the Sunday/weekday gap.

By the ’70s, though, Miller finds that much of the original impetus toward relating faith and the work of most Americans had been overwhelmed by social forces and the institutional needs of the clergy, the denominations, and even the ecumenical agencies that had once seemed especially open to lay leadership and concerns. As denominations downsized in the last third of the 20th century, almost all of the desks or commissions that had been created earlier to foster the ministry of the laity disappeared. Much of the focus of mainline Protestantism and the World Council of Churches (WCC) moved from the daily life challenges of workers to global and macro-economic issues. Theological discourse, especially in the mainline, became increasingly technical and suspicious of capitalism, global corporations, and business itself. As it did, a language problem emerged that we still struggle with: the worlds of business and theology do not understand each other.

A general pattern of silence in the churches and the theological schools about the relation of faith to business prevailed by the time the third wave began to form in the ’80s, Miller writes. But this wave is different. In this new wave, Miller finds a tremendous amount of energy being devoted to relating faith and work, but the vast majority is going on outside the institutional and official life of organized religion. For instance, just one new directory of Faith at Work organizations cites more than 1200 devoted to this quest. Further, while seminaries and national denominations may not be as open to Faith at Work issues as Miller would like (few develop special chaplains to the world of business the way they do chaplains to hospitals or prisons), the business schools of the country, and management organizations like the American Management Organization, are creating many programs to explore spirituality and work issues. Bookstores feature many new spirituality and work publications, and the Internet is hosting a growing number of electronic networks and Web sites dedicated to similar purposes. More than 1900 workplace chaplains belong to just one organization, Marketplace Chaplains, and major corporations like Tysons and Coca Cola are building this new kind of chaplain into their corporate structures.

The questions Miller raises for those of us who lead congregations, denominations, or seminaries is whether this third wave will continue to take place largely outside of our institutions, whether the clergy and the denominations will once again put other priorities ahead of the Faith at Work quest or even make new attempts to control the movement, or whether our institutions and leaders can learn new ways to support, deepen, and respond to the efforts that are underway. In short, can we learn a new dance? One need not agree with Miller’s entire argument to want to. In fact, I hope that many will bring forth more creative examples than Miller cites of ways that good ministry to the realms of work and daily life is going on in our congregations. But the question of whether we will ignore, resist, or contribute to a third surge of attempts to bring faith and work into an integrated whole is one that merits fresh thinking by all of us.

Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is president of the Alban Institute