Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them all that I have commanded you. (Matt 28:19-20)
Christians who take seriously Jesus’ great commission to his disciples to want to make the most of their time to honor God and serve and expand his kingdom. We frequently assume that the best (and sometimes the only) way to serve God is through what we consider strictly ministry-related activities such as preaching, leading Bible studies, evangelism or missions work. Church activities are the ones that matter most, we think, and we commend pastors, missionaries and other ministry leaders for devoting their lives to the most honorable professions. We have even secularized this notion by glorifying non-profit organizations and humanitarian agencies whose missions align with Christian convictions.
In contrast to these “elite Christians” who devote most of their time to vocational pastoral ministry, the average Christian only spends 1 to 3 percent of their week on church-related activities. On the other hand, we spend more time at work than doing any other activity. Does this mean that we spend most of our time engaging in activities that do not matter and have no kingdom impact?
I ask myself this question. I work in data management for clinical trials research. I spend most of my day looking at spreadsheet after spreadsheet; analyzing data points for discrepancies; writing and testing specifications for databases to optimize data capture; poring through study protocols and answering questions from clients, peers and medical centers to make sure all records are entered accurately. Data management sounds mundane to many people, and I often feel like a cog in the giant wheel of pharmaceutical research and development. I can easily lose sight of why my job matters and to wish to work in a field that makes a larger impact in the world.
Despite the occasional feelings of futility, I know that I can glorify God and bear witness to his kingdom — even at my work. In the most noticeable sense, I display obedience to God by using my time wisely, by performing my work accurately and efficiently and by being teachable and willing to help my co-workers. I serve both God and my employer by being an honest and honorable employee. My work also glorifies God because it enables me to provide for my family, save money to preserve my family’s future and give money to the church and other organizations that seek to further God’s kingdom. Work is virtue-forming and provides instrumental value to my family and society.
Clinical trials research is not only instrumentally valuable though; it is intrinsically valuable too. I worship God not only by being a good employee, setting an example for others or sharing my faith at work, but also by simply doing by job. Most vocations reflect God’s nature and work in the world, and that is the case for my job, too. Clinical trials research echoes God’s compassionate work of healing through the development of new treatments to cure or manage diseases. It also mirrors God’s revelatory work through the discovery of the intricacies of God’s creation. Researchers honor God by seeking to learn more of his world. As we learn new things we praise him for his complex and wondrous creation. In oncology research we weep over the effects of sin on his good creation and we attempt to bring healing, which nods toward the future eschatological restoration to come.
Research in general, whether basic or applied, is good because it increases our knowledge. While gaining knowledge for the sake of knowledge is good, we can also glorify God based on how we use that knowledge. In Visions of Vocation, Steven Garber talks about the relationship between knowing and doing. Referring to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, Garber argues it is not enough or even conscionable to “write a brilliant paper proposing a horrific idea . . . and be applauded by one’s professors because the argument is intellectually compelling.” Christians who worship God through research are not minds without souls. We avoid the temptation succumb to the age of info-glut and amass inordinate amounts of data without streaming it through the filter of our moral humanity. Garber continually asks, Now that you know or see, what will you do? We glorify God by conducting research ethically (e.g., affirming the dignity and ensuring the safety of study participants and reporting results honestly) and using the research results to promote the common good.
My primary job is to clean data and help design databases. The results of my work do not come immediately, but they are significant when viewed in the long term. The trial my company offers may positively influence a patient and his or her family. A patient may live a few more months or even years with a cancer study or an experience improvement in their quality of life with a medical device. The patient and the family may find hope. If I do my job well I can be confident that the biostatisticians can analyze the data to determine if the new drug or device can be sent to the FDA. If the drug fails, my work helped ensure people do not take an unsafe or ineffective drug. If it passes, my work helped get a new drug to market that could extend or save lives or improve someone’s quality of life.
Scott Rae, professor at Talbot School of Theology, claims that all Christians participate in vocational ministry. Pastors or missionaries work in pastoral vocational ministry, but other Christians engage in educational, business, construction, hospitality (and more) vocational ministry. Our work may not take place in the church gathered, but as the church scattered we participate in God’s kingdom work by serving him and each other in various spheres of life.
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 Steven Garber, Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 85.
 Scott Rae, “A Theology of Work,” Lecture, Acton University, Grand Rapids, MI, June 17, 2016.