business man and phone

Really! Work is Worship

by Patrick Lai

The Hebrew word “avodah” (ah-vod-ah) is translated in the English Bible for both work and worship. A better English translation when referring to work is service. God receives work as worship done unto Him. Put simply: work is worship. The similarity between the two clarifies that in God’s eyes our work is worship in that it is not done for our own benefit, but rather as an offering to Him. This means the workplace is God’s place. We are to interact with God and talk about God in our workplace just as we do at church or at home. The workplace is a place of worship where we may express the compassion of Christ in word and deed.

In building a theology of work we need to begin with God’s Word and God’s words.  The Hebrew word avodah is central to understanding God’s view of work and worship. This noun עבדה (avodah), occurs 145 times, making this word group a substantial theme in the Old Testament. The root verb עבד (avad) occurs 289 times in the Bible, mostly in the qal form. This does not include the substantive form, עבד (eved), which occurs an additional 780 times in the Old Testament.  The עבד word group is translated throughout the English Old Testament in three main ways:1. Avad (עבד) is most often translated as “service,” where one submits oneself to another. Examples of this are as a slave to a master (Exodus 21:6), a subject to a king (2 Samuel 16:19), or even a son to his father (Malachi 3:17).  One such use of “service” is found in 1 Kings 12, King Rehoboam is asked by the people of Israel to lighten the taxes his father Solomon had placed upon them. If he lowered the taxes the people then promised to serve (avad) him as king.

2. Avad (עבד) may be translated as “worship,” referring to the worship of YHWH (Joshua 24:14; Ezekiel 20:40) or the worship of idols (Exodus 20:5; Joshua 23:7; Psalm 97:7;). When He calls Moses to lead His people out of Egypt, God gives Moses this promise: “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship [avad] God on this mountain” (Exodus 3:12).

3. Avad (עבד) is also translated as “work” or “common labor.” This word refers to vocations both “secular” (Exodus 5:18; Ezekiel 29:18) and “sacred” (Exodus 13:5; Numbers 3:8; Joshua 22:27), both paid (Genesis 29:27) and unpaid (Jeremiah 22:13). In Exodus 34:21, God speaking about the Sabbath says: “Six days you shall labor [avad], but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.”  

Os Hillman in his study on work in the Gospels points out “…that of Jesus’ 132 public appearances in the New Testament, 122 were in the workplace. Of the 52 parables Jesus told, 45 had a workplace context. Jesus never addressed the sacred and secular divide because such a divide never existed in Jewish thinking. The Jews understood that everything they did in work and in the synagogue was to be done to God’s glory.  This is why quality is so important to Jewish workers. They are not working solely for themselves, but their work is also a worship to God.

Rabbi Ira F. Stone clarifies this when he writes; The Hebrew word for service, “avodah”, is the same word we use for both work and worship. This is not an accident… the true obligation is not merely to worship in words, but to do the difficult work of service.

The workplace is the place where our limitations, our fears and our egoism are revealed to us.  It is the place where our true sinful self is surfaces. Thus it is the place where people are most open to meeting God. We must strive to both teach and model for people how prayer and worship must occur as naturally and frequently within the office, the classroom, the factory, as in the church. This is central to living life as God created and called us to live.

Being conscious of what we are modelling is extremely important.

In my own life time, Haiti may be the best example of the failure of traditional mission strategies. Church after church has poured time and money into Haiti and in 20+ years what has changed?  There are churches everywhere, but poverty and corruption continues to flourish.

Consider Rwanda too. In 1994 before the war broke out, the majority of Hutu and Tutsi people claimed to embrace Jesus. Why then would two supposed evangelical people groups seek to annihilate one another? Two students in my class at Columbia International University were in Rwanda both before and after the genocide. When I posed this question to them, they both elaborated on how the church came into the community and was readily embraced by the people. Their worship and acts of service were vibrant and impressive. However, just as the mission workers practiced a separate secular/sacred life style, so did the believers. Their religion was practiced in the church, at certain times in their homes, like at meals; but faith was never integrated into the daily life and workplace of the believers. Thus, it had little impact on the government and systems of the society at large.

I wonder if a big part of our failure in working among the unreached, is our ability to help new believers to take their faith into their workplace. A person’s work is central to his/her life. The relationships and duties which make up a person’s job, consume them well beyond office hours. Having a healthy desire to do well at your job so as to gain more income, is natural. But unless our Gospel brings transformation into the workplace, I believe we will continue to fail to see significant changes in society. People tend to copy what they see, not what they hear. So unless missionaries are modelling the Gospel in the workplace, I fear that Biblical change is not going to take root in the wider community. We need to be doers of God’s word in all areas of a community’s life and work, not just in church.

Join us for our Summer Series on The BAM Review Blog, summer 2016. We’ve asked BAM leaders and practitioners to write about topics they are passionate about for a series of one-off blogs throughout the summer.

Patrick Lai first and foremost describes himself as a slave of Jesus Christ. During his thirty-one years in Asia, the Lord enabled his team to gather four groups of Muslim believers and start several small businesses. He authored Tentmaking: The Life and Work of Business as Missions, as well as numerous articles on BAM. He founded the OPEN Network, a network of over 700 B4Ters, BAMers, and tentmakers. Currently Patrick and his wife, May, mentor and coach B4T workers in unreached areas and teach extensively around the world on this new paradigm for doing mission in a changing world.

Read more from Patrick in his new book:

B4T Patrick LaiBusiness for Transformation focuses on answering the question: “How do you start a business that transforms communities of unreached peoples?” Starting a business cross-culturally involves thousands of decisions. Until now, BAM and B4T practitioners have been lacking a tool that explains how to start a business that engages unreached people for Jesus’ sake. This book draws on years of experience from scores of OPEN workers who are BAM/B4T practitioners. BAM/B4T are among the faster growing segments of the worldwide mission movement. It is written for new workers and coaches who need practical guidance in setting up and doing business in hard, church-less areas.

BAM is about shaping business for God and the common good; bringing solutions to global issues like human trafficking, poverty, creation care, and unreached peoples. Patrick Lai’s book is an important guide for those who are serious about transformational business, especially in areas where the name of Jesus is rarely heard. This book is very practical with tools, stories and resources. Read it, use it!

Mats Tunehag – Co-Chair, BAM Global Think Tank and Senior Associate of BAM, The Lausanne Movement

eBook now available from Amazon