Global Church / Theology

What We Must Learn from The Global South When it Comes to a Theology of Work

Las G. Newman is the Global Associate Director of the Lausanne Movement. He served in campus ministry for over thirty years with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). He has been involved in Theological Education and is the immediate past president of the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology (CGST) in Kingston, Jamaica. Dr. Newman is a graduate of Tyndale University College, Toronto, and the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. He holds a PhD in Mission Studies from the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies/University of Wales. He is a member of the Board of the International Fellowship of Mission as Transformation (INFEMIT) and member of the INFEMIT Networking Team.

Recently, two friends from Europe visited the Caribbean island of Jamaica, and, before departing the island, they went to purchase some local arts and crafts in the craft village. As they entered, they were a bit surprised to find a vendor avidly reading her Bible amidst the beautifully decorated items in her stall. As they approached, they were even more surprised to receive a smiling welcome and a cheerful Christian greeting. Several other vendor’s stalls had small transistor radios tuned to Christian stations.

How aware are we that in the global workplace today, only 40% of the global workforce operate in the formal economy? The vast majority of workers (60%) are in the informal sector. In Latin America and the Caribbean, this means that approximately 140 million workers or 53% of the workforce work in the informal sector of the economy, according to a study released by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in September 2018. [1. ILO: Nearly 140 Millión Workers in Informality In Latín América and the Caribbean”:–es/index.htm News September 25, 2018] The ILO study notes that “These workers are not covered by labor legislation or social security. Many are exposed to unsafe working conditions, their training opportunities are almost nonexistent, their income is usually irregular and lower, working hours are more extensive.” [2. Ibid.] Are they part of the Global workplace? What is the Christian influence in this sector of the workplace?

When the Peruvian economist, Hernando De Sotopublished his ground-breaking work, “The Other Path: The Invisible Revolution in the Third World,” over three decades ago, he drew the world’s attention to the challenge governments in the so-called Third World (today referred to as the Global South) have in bringing the burgeoning informal sector of the economy into the formal sector, as they attempt to account for their GDP. [3. Hernando De Soto,The Other Path: The Invisible Revolution in the Third World, Harper Collins, 1989.] In doing so, De Soto brought to light the reality of the existence of significant economic activity among the poor and the risks they face as they struggle for survival on the margins of society. Forced to find a livelihood that enhances the survivability chances of themselves and their families, the poor in urban and rural contexts work hard in scrap heaps and garbage dumps of their communities and turn make-shift work into viable economic sources. Out of such work the life chances of their children are increased as they are able to purchase parcels of food and pay for a basic education in schools.

It’s not hard to see the incredible energy and enterprising work of the more than 40 million poor across metro Manila, Philippines, who scavenge in the garbage dumps of the city to recycle garbage into productive use. The garbage ‘villages’ in Cairo, Nairobi, Accra, Mumbai and elsewhere across Latin America and the Caribbean, have shown similar realities of the poor in the Global South.

At the same time, throughout the Global South today there is a small percentage of young, upwardly mobile urban professionals who are innovating and creating new industries, new cultures, new patterns and new systems of work. You can see them in business enterprises in sections of Bangalore, Nairobi, Accra, Abidjan, Cairo, Manila, Singapore, Sao Paulo, and in many other mega-cities. Encountering this new generation of upwardly mobile professionals (UMPs) is a refreshing and encouragingly hopeful sign. They are an impressive lot. Many are lifting themselves and their communities out of generations of poverty. While this phenomenon is happening on the one hand, on the other hand, the vast majority of youth in the Global South are daily struggling and wondering where to find work. In a tight job market, or in a stagnant economy, or in a failing or fragile state, what are they to do if they have no employment opportunity or hope of finding a job in their young adult life? [4. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 47 per cent of all unemployed persons globally are young women and men and 660 million young people will either be working or looking for work in 2015 (Schoof, 2006). In Jamaica there are high levels of youth and young adult unemployment. According to the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN), Jamaica’s youth unemployment rate is currently 38.3 per cent as at July 2014, close to three times the national average, which is at 13.8 per cent. The age ranges measured for the youth population are 14-19 and 20-24 years.] Throughout the Global South today there is a small percentage of young, upwardly mobile urban professionals who are innovating and creating new industries, new cultures, new patterns and new systems of work. Click To Tweet

What’s going on in the world of work?

In its modern history the world has experienced a series of revolutions from agrarian, industrial, cybernetic, to digital, etc. Impacts of these revolutions on society have produced tremendous social and economic change. According to Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, this is the Fourth Industrial Revolution led by advances in Applied Science and Technology. This New Industrial Revolution is impacting work, individuals, families, and society. According to Schwab,“It is characterized by a range of new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenging ideas about what it means to be human.” [5.;] Along with the phenomenal pull of urbanization, globalization, and commercialization of human productive activity, these have all accumulated to bring profound changes to the meaning, value and future of work. The question everyone is asking is, what is the future of work and where does the Global South fit in? [6. This question has been around in one form or another for decades. See Fred Best (ed.) 1973. “The Future of Work.”Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N. J.  see also Leyland Ryken. 1987. “Work and Leisure in Christian Perspective. ”Multnomah Press: Portland, Oregon. Inter Varsity Press: Leicester (UK) (1989).] As the ILO has pointed out, ‘in developing countries, vulnerable employment affects three out of four workers. The global jobs crisis is one of the biggest security risks of our time. Continuing along the present path, is taking the risk of a world more fragmented, protectionist and confrontational’. [7. ILO: Unemployment and decent work deficits to remain high in 2018:–en/index.htm] How does a Theology of Work (TOW) help the Global South to understand its place and future in the world of work?

A Latin American Model

Throughout the Global South the issues of unemployment, under-employment, and poverty cycles are very persistent issues for the church and society. In Latin America, a theological model has been developed out of a period of bible study and deep theological reflection on these issues.  Amidst concerns for the plight of the poor, this model which combines theological education and practical application to the needs of the poor through what the Latin Americans call ‘Misión Integral’. Originally spearheaded by the Kairos Foundation in Buenos Aires, Argentina, over three decades ago, the program is now driven by the Center for Interdisciplinary Theological Studies (CETI) and serves the entire continent. It began when Latin American evangelical leaders Rene and Caty Padilla, Samuel Escobar, Pedro Arana, among others, who were engaging university students and young, urban Christian professionals in the 1970s, determined to reach out to the poor with a credible model of theological education that served their felt need for social, economic, and spiritual life. Across Latin America, many have been trained and empowered through the CETI program.

The CETI program includes a four-part curriculum that covers four major aspects of life, work, family, church, and society. Each has a vital place in human life. Each deserves serious reflection and appropriate spiritual and practical application. The CETI curriculum has gained international attention and is now being used not only in Latin America but in Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America. The CETI program is offered in multiple levels – from a basic certificate level to the Masters level. The curriculum on work which includes practical engagement with the poor in their communities, includes such topics as “Faith and Work, Technology and Poverty Reduction, Consumerism and Holistic Human Development.”

In the Caribbean, a theology of work is emerging in surprising ways. Churches across the spectrum of denominations are experiencing a decline in the available pool of candidates for the pastoral ministry. The Christian pastoral ministry is being challenged by the perception and, in some cases, the reality that it is not an economically sustainable vocation and therefore reduces the life chances of those who are called to it. Many in the pastoral ministry now engage in bi-vocational ministry [Morgan, 2012]. Pastors who are earnest about fulfilling the pastoral call are increasingly seeking supplemental employment so as to provide a viable financial basis on which to care for the needs of their family. At the same time, most churches are also engaged in some form of holistic ministry or integral mission, seeking to address welfare needs of congregants and community. At least one theological institutions, the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology, has included Theology of Work in its MBA curriculum.

It was instructive and heartening to hear the remarks of Pope Francis as he addressed New Yorkers in St. Patrick’s Cathedral on September 24, 2015. In the city that Sinatra says, “never sleeps”, Francis who is the first Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church from the Global South, challenged New Yorkers (and to an extent, the world, as many New Yorkers are from the Global South, north, and east) to come to grips with the Theology of Work. Francis who received his ministerial formation in Buenos Aires, as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was made the 266th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church on March 13, 2013. And on his first visit to the United States and his first visit to New York (of all places) he chose to speak about the Theology of Work.  He spoke about hard work and the value and meaning of work. “Work”, he said, “was an expression of gratitude to God and service to others”.  He emphasized that work can mean self-sacrifice. It can mean and is used as an act of self-enrichment. But work is also a responsibility to community. Francis warned about evaluating success by the standards of “spiritual worldliness” and encouraged New Yorkers in the taking of rest. “We need to learn how to rest,” he urged, as he pleaded for proper work-life balance. [8. Full text of Pope Francis address in the New York Times:] Perhaps the advice of one coming from the Latin culture of “siesta” should be heeded.

Theology of Work and the Bible

Starting from the book of Genesis, the Old and New Testaments provide many examples of theologies of work. The model of Yahweh as a ‘worker’ in Genesis 1, not only provides the theological framework for the value of work as a creative enterprise, but also for work-life balance. “God saw all that he had made and it was very good” (Gen 1:31 NIV) …”so on the seventh day he rested from all his work”.(Gen2.2). Theology of Work (TOW), therefore, affirms that:

(a) work, as acts of creative endeavor, is important and has intrinsic value, “whatever your hands find to do…”(Eccl 9:10; Col. 3:23),

(b) there is more to work than ‘living from pay check to pay check’ or merely saying I work because ‘I’m just trying to make a living’.

(c) work is God’s design for human beings. It is a part of human life. It involves what it means to be human, “made in the image of God”.

(d) human beings can and should experience joy, fulfillment, and meaning through work. Work is God’s design for human beings. It is a part of human life. It involves what it means to be human, “made in the image of God”. Click To Tweet

Negative Side of Work

However, admittedly, there is a negative side to work that can undermine and diminish human life. Unbalanced work-life relationship can destroy human life and result in spiritual and physical death. In the Global South, as elsewhere, workers understand that work should not be the all-determining value of human identity and self-worth. A Theology of Work should not just be a philosophical exercise but an opportunity to focus on one of the deepest existential realities of human life, the need for human creative endeavors. In the globalized, marketplace world of today, work should be reflected on and its real meaning, including the spiritual dimensions of work, grasped.

Global Job Crisis

It is not only in the Global South. The world is facing a global jobs crisis. We see this being played out on every continent. The global jobs crisis is what has fueled:

  • The Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa.
  • The “Yellow Vest” (gilets jaunes) protests in Europe (France, Belgium, Netherlands)
  • The Migration trends in Asia, Africa, Eurasia, Latin America, and the Caribbean as people are on the move in search of a better life.
  • The rise of Populism and Nationalism and anti-globalization, anti-immigrant, and anti- refugee sentiments

In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) more than half of the total labor force hails from the group of middle-income, labor-abundant countries, including Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.  One common characteristic of employment in this subset of countries is the prevalence of job informality. According to UNDP, 75% of recent labor market entrants in Egypt are estimated to be employed in the informal sector—combining jobs in agriculture, unregistered firms and self-employment with frequent income fluctuations—and the informal sector accounts for about 30% of all jobs across the MENA region. These countries have also traditionally supplied a significant number of workers to the Gulf countries in the form of migrant and expatriate labor. According to International Labor Organization (ILO), youth unemployment in the MENA region stands at 31% and university graduates are making up nearly 30% of the total unemployed pool. Workforce participation and gender gaps currently remain wide across the region, ranging from just over 40% in Kuwait and Qatar to nearly 80% in Algeria and Jordan.

In the South Pacific, available labor pool in the islands is marked by high unemployment in general and high underemployment of women and youth in particular. The labor markets are small, youthful, and largely unskilled. In the formal economy, with few exceptions, the public sector exceeds the private sector as a source of paid employment, and for countries like Samoa, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji, the formal economies tend to be overshadowed by the informal sector of subsistence farmers, small traders, and micro-businesses.

The people in the Pacific islands are amongst the most prone to natural disasters and climate risks, such as tsunamis, earthquakes, cyclones, landslides, floods and even droughts. These natural calamities have devastating impacts on livelihoods, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable, and tend to make life harder for the working poor.

Despite tremendous transformations in the economies of South Asia and South East Asia, more than 70 million children are trapped in various forms of child labor as part of the productive workforce in India, Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Thailand, Viet Nam, Malaysia, and elsewhere. In East Asia, some 67 million women are part of the workforce engaged in the domestic, household labor market.

Lausanne Global Workplace Forum

Why then is the Lausanne Movement calling for and organizing a Global Workplace Forum (GWF) at this time? Given all that is occurring in the world of work today, and amidst this great global crisis, are there opportunities for the Church, Christian Mission, and spread of the Gospel? Yes, there are immense opportunities. That is why the Lausanne Movement has launched a major project called the Global Workplace Forum (GWF). In June, 800 selected Christian thinkers and workers will gather in Manila, Philippines, to wrestle with the issue of what it means to bear witness to Christ and have Kingdom impact in every sphere of society, especially in the marketplaces and workplaces of the world. The GWF will:

  • ENERGIZE Christians in the Global Workplace Movements/Marketplace Ministries.
  • EQUIP and EMPOWER participants with the appropriate tools and resources for tackling issues in the Global Workplace.
  • ENGAGE in partnerships and collaborations towards meaningful and transformational impact to further Kingdom witness in the workplaces of the world and in every sphere of human society, including Government, Industry and Commerce, the Military, the Academies of Learning, the world of Sports, Entertainment, and the Arts.

The Role of the Church

The Church needs a more vibrant presence among the 60% of the global workplace who operate in the informal sector, mostly in the Global South. How does the Church, especially in the Global South, sharpen its influence and enhance work and workplace productivity? A more vibrant and pro-active Theology of Work (TOW) is a necessity for emerging leaders of the Church in the Global South. As the growing pressures of joblessness, poverty, social exclusion, and aging congregations affect the vibrancy and strength of Church life, it is now becoming quite apparent that an adequate and practical Theology of Work (TOW) is a necessity for all demographic groups of society. The Church in the Global South understands this challenge and is finding ways to respond to it as a practical and ethical dimension of its mission. Perhaps the GWF 2019 in Manila might provide some further answers for the Global Church and unlock what Michael Oh, CEO of the Lausanne Movement, calls ‘The Scandal of the 99’. [9. “The Scandal of the 99: Lausanne Call to Global Mission”, Michael Oh, PhD, Global Executive Director/CEO, Lausanne Movement. Interview with Ed Stetzer at Amplify 2018 on Global Mission & Evangelism.]


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