Not being particularly socially gifted, I cannot rely on sheer intuition to generate successful social encounters. Others dance in and out of conversations with a graceful ease that I can only covet. Those they engage more often than not walk away glad of the interaction. It’s not that I am so socially inept as to constantly produce cringeworthy scenarios (that I am aware of anyways!). Carrying a conversation does not trouble me too much. Picking up one, however, is another story. Even the thought of having to initiate a social encounter creates a kind of emptiness in my gut, a vacuum that sucks any confidence I have mustered.
Overcoming this natural deficiency has required a bit of work. Basically, I have to mentally survey my upcoming setting and, based on that setting, access whatever questions have proved fruitful for conversation in the past.
For example, as a new college student, I recognized that about fifty percent of students were from out of state. Thus: “Where are you from?” A seemingly easy question, but one I loosed in my holster should I meet someone new. Of course, you could always add “What major are you?” or “What dorm do you live in?” too. As a current volunteer in my church’s student ministry, I access a different list of questions. “How’s your week been? How’s school going? Any extracurriculars?”
This analyze-and-access method might strike some as overly mechanical for something so seemingly simple like having a conversation with a new acquaintance. Probably. But for me, these stock questions have been the starters I need to kindle a successful dialogue. (Of course, I only learned to fan the flame by developing the skill of the follow-up question!)
As a post-college and post-seminary adult for some years now, the most obvious stock question I have mentally trained myself to access at a moment’s notice is “What kind of work do you do?” or any of its variants. More often than not, my conversation partner begins to share the details of one’s occupation.
The varied responses I receive have provoked genuine interest. I want to know what people do exactly, how that functions in the larger scheme of their company, what effect it has on society, if they enjoy what they do and see the value in it, how it affects their social or familial life, how do they do their work specifically as a Christian. If a large portion of our waking lives are spent at work, it seems well worth asking about it. What appears as a mechanical, stock, even contrived question has potential to connect to one’s personal life and even their felt purpose.
Do those kinds of deep connections always follow? Definitely not. Sometimes we never go deeper than the company name, job title, and a brief description of tasks involved. Why a conversation stagnates there who can say, but I have a feeling that at least in some cases my partner is less forthcoming about their job because they perceive it as those things only: a company, job title, and tasks. And those three things result in the one thing that matters most: the paycheck. The job is simply a means to an end which enables them to do the things they really want to do.
Even if the end in sight is to enable one to volunteer their leisure time or give generously, this is not a very Christian way to perceive work. I want to argue that even looking at your work as an opportunity for evangelism limits the Christian scope of work. We must adhere to the Great Commission (or Evangelical Mandate), but we cannot neglect our Cultural Mandate. In my next few posts, I want us to begin to tweak the conversation about work and explain what I mean here.
“What kind of work do you do?” remains a great question, one profitable for building interpersonal relationships as experience demonstrates, but I want us to rethink what this question could really be asking and what our own response to this question might be if the full story of Scripture shaped our thinking. The “kind of work you do” can refer to more than the specific occupational tasks you perform. It just might refer to a way in which you bear the image of God.
What if that is how we thought about the kind of work we did?