Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Craig Mitchell, Associate Professor of Cultural Studies, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) began its participation in the Oikonomia Network in 2010. Our ON program is housed in the Richard Land Center for Cultural Engagement, which I direct. The center was established in order to open doors for the study and research of ethics, public policy, and other cultural and philosophical issues. It was named in honor of a visiting professor at the seminary and past president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; Land is author of numerous books, including “The Divided States of America: What Liberals and Conservatives Get Wrong About Faith and Politics.” Since 2010, the Land Center has focused on the theology of work and economics, which affects every aspect of life. This topical focus fit the mission of the Land Center like a hand in a glove.
Because of our large and diverse student body, it is hard to put together a course that will interest a significant number of students. So I decided that the best way to get their attention was through a number of extracurricular events. We began our work by starting an ongoing series of six luncheon lectures each academic year. At each luncheon, one of our professors lectures on an aspect of the theology of work and economics. About 50 students attended our first luncheon, and with each luncheon attendance grew. By the end of the 2010-11 year, we had 100 students in attendance. For those who are interested, these lectures are available on our website.
After the success of the luncheons, I began to see opportunities to reach people beyond SWBTS. I came up with the idea of our Summer Institute, a campus event similar to Acton University. Each year since 2011, the Land Center has made the Summer Institute a reality. Twenty pastors, professors, and denominational workers come to SWBTS and learn about the theology of work and economics. We have recruited faculty members from all six Southern Baptist seminaries, as well as pastors and denominational workers from across the nation. The result has been that more than 60 people have had their eyes opened to the theology of work and economics. Before the event, most of them never gave the subjects much thought. After the Summer Institute, most attendees have become enthusiastic evangelists about the integration of faith, work, and economics.
The next approach to reach people at SWBTS was a simple idea to make use of the many good documentaries on work and economics that already exist. We began our Documentary and Discussion nights, held six Friday evenings each academic year and showing documentaries like “The Call of the Entrepreneur” or “Demographic Winter.” We provide the pizza and soft drinks, and 30-50 students normally attend.
Last year, the Land Center held the first Business as Missions conference in the SBC in many years, helping to re-establish the importance of business and economics to Southern Baptist missions after years of neglect. While some approaches can reduce business to merely an instrument of evangelism, we talked about the value of business for creating human flourishing and freedom, not in opposition to valuing missions, but in tandem with it. Over 100 missionaries, practitioners, students, business people, and others showed up for this event. Because of its success, the event has now become an ongoing program.
This past January we held our first Winter Institute, focusing directly on helping professors in SBC seminaries integrate theology and economics into a variety of classes. We looked at model syllabi and heard presentations on these issues. Attendees continue to report that they are finding opportunities to apply what they learned in the institute to their classroom readings and assignments. We will conduct the Winter Institute again next year.
The Land Center also held its first Urban Economic and Ministry Conference this past March, prompted by feedback from black pastors who participated in our Summer Institutes and indicated that fellow pastors were seeking an alternative to liberation theology. Some 50 pastors attended. Most wanted to learn more, so this event will be held again next year.
The success of our work has led to growth. SWBTS President Paige Patterson appointed Evan Lenow as the associate director of the Land Center; Lenow also occupies an endowed chair in stewardship at SWBTS. Like me, he has been appointed as a research fellow at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Trey Dimsdale serves as the Land Center’s research fellow and was also made a research fellow for the ERLC.
In the coming year, the Land Center plans to introduce a few new events, including one targeted toward women’s ministry, and another focusing on curricular integration in New Testament classes. We are continually working to improve the quality of our events so people will keep coming back. This year we convinced 14 SWBTS professors to attend Acton University, which resulted in even more of them want to get involved in this work. More and more faculty and students are seeing the importance of the theology of work and economics. There is also growing interest from the SBC leadership. The partnership between SWBTS and the ERLC paves the way for Southern Baptists across America to have the opportunity to study and research ethics, public policy, and other cultural and philosophical issues.