Teaching my two teenage sons to drive is filling me with dread. My angst is not so much about their driving (though that can be harrowing). Rather, I can’t help but think every time we venture out onto the road that I am probably the last in my family to do this, to teach the next generation to drive. If technology proceeds at the current pace, driverless cars will be the norm well before my future grandchildren are ever born. To them, “getting a driver’s license” will seem no more a rite of passage than getting a video-store rental card. To both they will say, “What’s that?”
In many ways, this is good news. Driverless cars will probably be much safer, given how many accidents are due to human error. And yet, I cannot help but think about how many people I know—including in our churches—who make their living directly from driving cars and trucks. I am no Luddite. I recognize that advances in technology are often feared and derided at first but then come to be beneficial to people and societies. My grandfather was a milkman. My children can’t even imagine what that job is, and yet milk today is more plentiful and delivered more efficiently. Still, I wonder about what happens to those people, to those churches, in the meantime?
Driverless cars are just one piece of a larger dilemma. What happens to a view of work when increased automation seems to be constantly “disrupting” careers and even entire industries?
That’s especially true when driverless cars are just one piece of a larger dilemma. What happens to a view of work when increased automation seems to be constantly “disrupting” careers and even entire industries? Unlike previous generations of Western people, ours increasingly has little understanding of the world our parents and grandparents lived in, in which one expected to learn a skill, find a job, and remain in it, or perhaps be promoted upward through it, for life. Those days are gone. Instead, increasingly, younger people find they must compete in a “gig economy” where they may change jobs multiple times in a five-year period, if they can even find work at all.
At first glance, this would seem to be a cultural or political problem, and indeed it is. Forward-thinking economists and policymakers are already debating what can be done. They ask whether a universal guaranteed income, subsidized by the state, is the way to ameliorate the potential devastation here, as well as other proposals. The future of work, though, is also about the future of the church.
When I was serving in local church ministry, I would become especially nervous whenever the local factory would announce the possibility of downsizing. I knew that downstream from that, in just a matter of months, I would be faced with a much heavier counseling load—with marriages especially in crisis. Usually this would be due to the men in my congregation, faced with the loss of work, spiraling into fear of the loss of not just their incomes but their sense of themselves, and of their worth. This would manifest itself in different ways—sometimes in a deep depression in which a person would want to stay in bed all day, sometimes in a pornography addiction, sometimes in an adulterous affair, sometimes in alcoholism or dependence on prescription drugs.
The crisis would start to be economic but would end up being spiritual. What may seem episodic in some places is epidemic in others. Notice the hollowing out of entire swaths of the country; the places where industries once thrived and now are gone. In many cases, what has departed is not just wealth but social cohesion. One church—once a booming, evangelistic congregation—told me that they had no deacons. This church had a male-only diaconate, and they could not find men qualified to serve, who were not too elderly to serve. The reason was that the men in this community were, to the person, barreling through multiple divorces or opioid addiction. Behind all of that is joblessness, with the stress that goes along with it.
The biblical witness shows us that we are not defined in our value and dignity by the work that we do.
We ought to expect something of this, as Christians, since the biblical portrait shows us how work is bound up in human nature. That’s true in creation, where the primal humanity is given a mission, immediately, to carry out (Gen. 1:26-28). This is true also, though, in the new heavens and new earth, where we are told that we will rule and reign with Christ. At the same time, though, the biblical witness shows us that we are not defined in our value and dignity by the work that we do. Many of those “disrupted” by economic changes are not just asking “What can I do now?” but “Who am I now?” The church has an answer for that, and should be prepared to give it.
Driverless cars and other technological shifts may well be good for the world and for the economy, but many are going to be left behind. The church should be the community that cares for those who are hurting, tangibly and economically, as both Israel and the early church modeled for us. Beyond that, though, we must also speak a word of hope for people who have bound up their identities in jobs that are gone, and are not coming back. People won’t just need income, but also a sense of meaning and mission. Jesus has given us that.