When the COVID pandemic shut down the world in 2020, there quickly emerged a difference between blue-collar and white-collar workers. Those in white-collar jobs were easily able to transition into working remotely from a laptop at home. But blue-collar jobs, such as building, cleaning, and cooking, cannot be done over a laptop. You can’t cook a burger online, or lay concrete remotely, or clean a house through a screen.
After my carpentry work dried up, I began delivering food for DoorDash. As I drove around delivering burgers to accountants and analysts in their homes, I saw amongst the deserted roads carpet cleaners in their work vans, construction workers baking in the sun, and fry cooks taking a smoke break. We weren’t heroes—we were just going back to work to pay the bills. But our work, by its nature, required flesh and bone, sweat, blisters, and elbow grease.
It is striking that, during the pandemic, the work of the church so easily fell into the category of white-collar, laptop work. This happened for a couple of reasons. First, most pastors are highly credentialed and well-educated, placing them within the white-collar category. Second, the new norm of passively attending a Sunday service and treating it merely as a weekly “event” is easily reproduced within the digital sphere. Many churches already make screens central to their service. Why not just watch the service on your screen at home? Why go back to church at all?
We need to return to seeing the work of the church as primarily hands-on, in-person work. While I love online sermons and worship music, it does not capture the incarnational, sacramental experience of church. The church lives in the necessary reality of our, and Christ’s, flesh and bone embodiment. You can’t get baptized online. You can’t receive communion remotely. And you can’t exchange the sign of peace or be anointed with oil through a screen. As we encounter God through these embodied practices and liturgies, we are, in turn, shaped to see Christ, the church, and ourselves in the truth of our embodiment. Without these practices, we are shaped by a digital, consumeristic gnosticism that devalues the embodied existence given to us by God.
What might it look like to treat the work of ministry and church as more hands-on? A few practical suggestions come to mind.
The Daily Office. While Roman Catholic priests have their daily Mass requirements, Protestant pastors and churches must reclaim their duty to the Daily Office, the daily work of the church. Every morning and evening, the work of God should be their primary daily responsibility, through public prayer and reading Scripture. No more event planning and screen time. No more closed church buildings during the week. Laboring in prayer and fasting should be the priority.
No More Ministry Bubble. Churches should prioritize hiring new pastors that have blue-collar working experience. Alternatively, seminaries should have certain manual labor requirements, such as cleaning the hallways, tending the seminary grounds, or growing the food to be eaten in the cafeteria. Too often, pastors who have only known the “ministry bubble” have little vision for discipleship in the working world. A pastor discipled in the mixed life of prayer and work will better be able to minister to his working congregants and invite them to “follow me as I follow Christ.”
Sacramental Revival. All Christians, especially low-church evangelicals, need to rediscover sacramental worship. Weekly communion (with consecration); baptism during the service (not after); kneeling for confession; the use of oil and holy water during prayer ministry. This is what sacramental revival should look like, at a minimum. Screens should be removed. For churches who insist on live-streaming, sacramental worship will nevertheless make it clear that those who watch at home are missing out on the essentially embodied experience of church.
What would the fruit of such an endeavor look like? It might mean that the focal point of the church’s activity throughout the week will shift from the printer to the altar. It might mean that pastors will spend less time on their laptops and more time interceding, discipling, and evangelizing. It might mean that lay people will cease to see church as just a weekly event and more as a daily calling. If there is a next pandemic, we must resist the temptation to go online. We should take necessary precautions while finding creative and sacramental solutions. For Christians, praying together face-to-face is as essential as breathing. The hermit is the exception. For the rest of us, we are like coals in a fire. On our own, we grow cold, and the fire goes out.
I hope to bring this kind of blue-collar approach to the church I lead, to reach blue-collar workers in our area who have been disaffected from a genteel and white-collar Christianity. I hope to create a church that can be a haven of reality for the coming generation of digital refugees. We must all turn off the screens, embrace the real, and come back to church.
Seth Hedman is a cabinet maker and pastor of Garwin Methodist Church in Garwin, Iowa.
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