Work is the new religion. So what is the role of religion in the new world of work?

Work is the new religion. So what is the role of religion in the new world of work?

Work is the new religion, says the current narrative about work and life. Working hours are up; attendance at religious services is down. The percentage of Americans who don’t identify with any religious group has tripled over the last 25 years, to 24 percent in 2017.

Millennials are even more likely to define their identity through work instead of religion: Thirty-two percent of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation, compared with 9 percent of adults 65 and older. Forty-five percent of U.S. workers under 40 define themselves by their job, their employer, or both.

As we explore the future of work, we’re interested in the relationship between work and religion and spirituality. Both Eva and I grew up without religion and count ourselves among those who have sought community and purpose through work.

But now we see that work is broken: Too many people seek too much from work, and there is a dearth of moral leadership in the world of work and beyond.

So we are curious—in part from lack of firsthand experience—about religion and spirituality: both as a means to counterbalance the dominance of work in life and to shape a better world of work and life. Are there dimensions of what many religious communities aim to offer—inclusion, generosity, empowerment—that today’s work-centric, winners-take-all capitalist paradigm could benefit from?

In response to a Facebook post about this project, a high school classmate put me in touch with one of her church’s pastors, who is launching a coworking space for the young adults in their congregation—in other words, someone who is on the front lines of forging a new relationship between work and religion.

From atheist to pastor

As an atheist in high school, Christopher De La Cruz would not have guessed he would become a pastor. The Sunday after September 11, 2001, he went to mass as usual (his parents had emigrated from the Philippines, and like many Filipinos were practicing Catholics), and the pastor suggested that God was trying to do something good with those 3,000 deaths. “If that’s who God is, God is a monster,” he told me. “I said, literally, ‘To hell with this.’”

He became an atheist and remained one through high school (“I had atheist friends, we talked about how dumb God is”) and into college at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he found himself in many late-night dorm room conversations about faith with his Christian roommates.

One of those friends bought him a copy of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which, much to his surprise, inspired him to pray one night. He still resisted going to church, assuming that “you have to turn your brain off,” until one friend brought him to a nondenominational church that he enjoyed: “The pastor was clearly academically trained, and took the mind seriously.”

After college, he pursued a career in journalism, but kept getting more involved with his church until he eventually decided to enroll at Princeton Theological Seminary. After Princeton, De La Cruz spent three years at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, then came to First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens, in 2017.

From preaching to coworking

In De La Cruz’s first week at First Presbyterian, he assumed responsibility for the church’s grant from the Zoe Project, an initiative of Princeton Theological Seminary and the Lilly Endowment supporting churches that are reaching young adults in new ways.

The Zoe Project took De La Cruz and the other grantees to California to tour a variety of non-religious spaces where young people gathered: spaces focused on entrepreneurship, food, justice, play. “Our job isn’t to suck them into the church,” he explained to me, “but to be with God, with them”—wherever they are.

A visit to a coworking space on that trip inspired De La Cruz and his colleagues to start their own. There are no coworking spaces in Jamaica, Queens, an ethnically diverse middle-class neighborhood. De La Cruz pointed out that “non-privileged people would just as much need, in an economy that’s not helping them, space to do their side hustle.” (Indeed, there is some hand-wringing in the coworking community about the lack of diversity, and new spaces are popping up for workers beyond “white guys in dress shirts.”)

De La Cruz and his colleagues aim to make the space—which they’ve named TwentyThirty Dream Hub—accessible to his community in terms of both price and location.

The religion of work

De La Cruz explained to me how he sees creating a coworking space for people to realize their dreams as entirely consistent with the role of the church: “God grants everyone dreams and visions. Once a vision is there, you have to be faithful to respond to that and make it happen. What would it look like for a spot to equip you in that?” De La Cruz envisions mentoring, networking, and other educational resources for its membership.

“How do we empower folks without idolizing the American narrative of work as the only source of meaning?”

At the same time, De La Cruz acknowledges the danger of TwentyThirty Dream Hub becoming an accomplice in the rise of “workism” as America’s most popular religion: “Money can literally save you from a crappy neighborhood, and from seeing yourself and your community as one of less worth. How do we empower folks without idolizing the American narrative of work as the only source of meaning?” 

Indeed: How can we be empowered by money, without money becoming the only means by which we are empowered?

Part of the answer, De La Cruz believes, is in providing a literal space for spirituality. TwentyThirty Dream Hub will be in the church’s former parsonage house, which has multiple rooms, and he plans to dedicate one room to spirituality and meditation.

“Maybe our prayer is to pray that God will get folks to open up—in terms of a life greater than the bottom line.”

Why don’t we create a space where young folks are, to center themselves and re-explore that spirituality? Without having to throw doctrine at folks, I trust God enough to reach people if they have an explicit space for spirituality, for them to be egged on to ask those deeper questions, whatever the outcome of that is. Maybe our prayer is to pray that God would get folks to open up—in terms of a life greater than the bottom line. 

Indeed, a big part of The Life I Want inquiry is interrogating how much of our life’s purpose we should reasonably seek from work, as opposed to other parts of life.

Purpose at work is important: A new study by Imperative argues that one cannot be fulfilled in life if one isn’t fulfilled at work. But purposeful professions—teachers, medical professionals, nonprofit executives—also have the highest burnout rates. In fact, some have asserted that purpose can be exploited to justify overwork.

For those who are religious and/or spiritual (this recent study splits the two), what is an appropriate and meaningful way to bring those values to work? For those of us who are neither, what can we learn from those who are either or both?

To be sure, there have been examples of where religious beliefs have been used to justify discrimination against staff (refusing to provide certain health benefits) or customers (not serving people on the basis of their sexuality). Needless to say, being discriminated against is not part of living the life you want.

But purpose definitely is.

Where do you find purpose? How do you engage with religion and spirituality, and how does that influence your relationship with work? Tell us at hello@thelifeiwant.co.

Photo courtesy Reverend Christopher De La Cruz, of himself in action.

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