The Oikonomia Network’s annual faculty retreat featured provocative and stimulating talks from three leaders of the faith and work movement. Access their talks and slides here:
- David Miller, “God Bless Us, Every One: The Past, Present and Future of the Faith and Work Movement” (audio)
- Amy Sherman, “In and For Community: Helpful Models in Theological Schools” (audio and slides)
- Amy Sherman, “In and For Community: Helpful Models in Local Churches” (audio and slides)
- Paul Williams, “Theological Education: From Scholastic and Clerical to Ecclesial and Missional” (audio and slides)
Amy Sherman, senior fellow at the Sagamore Institute, gave two excellent talks on educational partnerships and how churches have infused an emphasis on faithfulness in work and the economy into their communities. Her second talk concentrated on local churches who are trying to infuse an emphasis on vocation and work into the DNA of their congregations and what lessons theological education can learn from them.
Sherman began with an instructive before-and-after story about Perimeter Church, a large Presbyterian church in Atlanta, GA. It was one of the members of the first Vocation Infusion Learning Community (VILC) in 2012-2013. The VILC is an initiative that gathers small teams of church leaders in face-to-face retreats aimed at helping them to understand vocation and whole-life discipleship, and then infuse these concerns into all aspects of their church life.
Before their involvement with VILC, Perimeter had leaders who affirmed that Christians should think about their work in a Christian manner, and talked about cultural renewal and seeking the good of their city. But there was not a central or consistent emphasis on these topics. The closest thing was their “Work, Live, and Play” initiative. It ran sporadically and the program primarily concentrated on “friendship evangelism.” When the leading staff member was reassigned, the program faded away.
Then in 2011, Travis Vaughn became director of cultural renewal at Perimeter. A few months into his job, Travis heard about VILC, and in his application letter to the program stated:
We are beginning to work through our equipping classes to build a healthier theology of vocation into our resources as well as rethinking our training to focus on a more narrative approach to Scriptural teaching. All of this is more theory than actual practice. We are really just at the beginning of a new direction.
Vaughn wanted to be a part of this learning community because he thought it could help dive deeper into these topics. So after participating in the VILC from 2012-2013, the church leadership began to wrestle with the four-chapter gospel (the paradigm taught at VILC). This wasn’t a totally new idea for them, but disciplined thinking about what it meant practically for their programs and discipleship was new.
Gradually, Perimeter’s leadership realized that it needed to reshape everything the church was doing. With this, Perimeter began making major strides in infusing and emphasis on vocational stewardship and cultural renewal. Sherman emphasized that the change was not overly dramatic, but was nonetheless real and tangible.
The church changed its officer training for elders and deacons, having them read Far as the Curse is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption by Mike Williams. Perimeter brought in Michael Goheen, co-author of Drama of Scripture: Finding our Place in the Biblical Story, for a weekend of lectures and discussions. Then in 2013, for the first time in thirty years it did a five-week sermon series on vocation, titled “What Do You Work For? Your Place in the Larger Story.”
Sherman shared how Vaughn and his team capitalized on that opportunity by recording short video testimonies from church members in a variety of marketplace vocations and showing them over the course of the five-week sermon series. In conjunction with the sermon series, they also implemented a special five-week small group program; congregants could go to a small group organized by vocation to talk about what was being taught from the pulpit.
This shift created energy and began to influence the church’s adult education ministry. In particular, Vaughn and his team of lay leaders developed a summer course that ran in 2013 and 2014, which included lectures and break out groups that were organized by channels of cultural influence. Then, in 2014, they piloted the Restorers Fellowship, a nine-month discipleship program for young adult professionals modelled on Redeemer Church’s Gotham Fellows.
Perimeter also began collecting vocation demographics. As they put together their membership directory, they asked individuals to identify the channel of cultural influence in which their work fit. They found that the three channels that people were most involved were business (47%), education (21%), and healthcare (19%). So they sponsored faith and work forums on each of these topics, and followed these forums up with a summer discussion book group on Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf’s Every Good Endeavor.
Then Perimeter launched their annual “Gospel at Work” day. This program involves pairing each Perimeter staff member shadow a church member in the marketplace for a day. The basic goal of this initiative is to foster dialogue and to help increase the understanding of workplace realities.
This year, Perimeter has laid out nine signature initiatives that it will pursue over the next several years. One of the nine, a multi-million-dollar project, involved building a multi-church leadership center for cultural renewal. Importantly, they define cultural renewal as: “recovering the biblical purposes of calling and vocation, so that our life and work glorifies God, integrates our God-given gifts, desires, and abilities, and serves the common good in the places that God sends us.”
Perimeter Church went from talking and thinking a little bit about cultural renewal to becoming a church that has infused a passion for these topics in its leadership, preaching, adult education, small groups, and its city-focused mission. Perimeter Church is taking the flourishing of Atlanta, through the transformation of its various social sectors, more seriously than ever before.
From this story, Sherman proceeded to ask what lessons that have emerged from the VILC about how churches have infused good practices and learning on work and the economy into congregational life, and what seminaries can learn from these practices. She shared five lessons.
1. Leaders need exposure and education by way of experiential pedagogy
Sherman said the VILC deliberately works with an incarnational, show-and-tell pedagogy. It is vital to not just talk about ideas, but also to show how these ideas get embodied in individuals and institutions. Participants make site visits to places like an intensive discipleship program at Redemption Church in Phoenix, Az.
Readings are great, but experiences are better. In exit interviews, every year the readings are highly graded, but the experience requires more than reading. One pastor summarized it well: “The VILC was more than just hearing ideas it was experiencing them. The venues provided different ways of seeing the teaching actually worked out.” Ideas have to embedded and modeled, and made visible so people can see and imitate them. Only through imitation carried out over time does true transformation happen.
Sherman emphasized that wherever possible, seminaries should integrate more experiential and hands-on experiences. Many theological educators already do this, such as by bringing in marketplace leaders as guest speakers or taking students out of the classroom and into the workplace.
2. Pastors and congregants need to learn about whole-life discipleship together
It is not enough for pastors alone to understand the need for vocational integration. VILC teams are composed of more than just clergy. Lay members need to be learning alongside the pastors in real time, and have to catch the vision as well, because this leads to more fruitful implementation. Furthermore, learning alongside laity usually changes how the pastors conceive of how they are going to teach and equip their congregations. The pastors receive real-time feedback about their ideas and sometimes realize when they should take the back seat. Seminaries can assign students to work with marketplace leaders, have them develop resources with marketplace individuals in their churches and support DMin projects on this topic.
3. Theology matters
Sherman emphasized that certain foundational theological teachings need to be established for any church or community that hopes to successfully implement vocational integration. These include understanding the goodness of creation, that God’s mission in the world entails the renewing of all things, and how the Church is to bring transformation and renewal not only to individuals and families but also to whole communities and social structures. Good theological resources are needed, and of course the church leadership needs to live and breathe these truths.
She said the practical implication is simple: Teach good theology because it matters!
4. Beyond teaching, there has to be celebration
In 2011 and 2014, the Barna Research Group conducted surveys to find out how much faith and work was being preached from the pulpit. In 2011, they found that around one in four pastors said they were preaching on faith and work, and in 2014, almost nine out of ten said they were preaching on it. However, the same study found that only 22% of churchgoers understand their work as being as important as what the pastor and the missionary does. This is a clear disconnect. While there is increased teaching and preaching on faith and work, it isn’t fully working its way into the hearts and minds and of those in the pews.
Sherman talked about Jim Mullins, a pastor in the second VILC, who identified a lack of celebration of vocational success as a source of the disconnect:
At our church we preach the lordship of Christ over all aspects of life. We offer classes on a theology of work and we repeat our favorite phrase every Sunday: “All of life, all for Jesus.” But the message about the broad scope of the Gospel didn’t seem to be fully getting through to the point of helping people actually shape their work by their faith and see their work’s connection to their faith and to God’s big story. I realized the problem wasn’t with what our people heard, but with what they saw. Our congregants frequently heard teaching about the importance of vocation and all of life discipleship but they weren’t seeing anyone’s work – apart from the pastor, missionary, or non-profit work – publically celebrated.
Members of the VILC have celebrated those in the marketplace through commissioning services or visiting workplaces owned by their congregants and giving liturgical office blessings. Additionally, they have tried to think well about what their church communicates visually, and some churches have pictures of their congregants at work in their halls.
Sherman said seminaries can provide students and pastors with songs, prayers and liturgies that celebrate the everyday lives and work of congregants. Professors can assign their students to come up with a commissioning service, to write prayers and liturgies or interview congregants about their work.
5. Churches must actively work at implementation
Until an idea gets legs, nothing will happen. Perimeter Church talked about doing something for decades before they actually did anything. Churches need to find something to do! Sherman spoke of how some churches are providing practical help for underemployed and unemployed individuals. Some are sending short-term mission trips that are vocationally based; all of a church’s artists or IT workers go on a mission trip together.
Seminaries can assign their students to find out about these programs and write about them. Have students ask about why their church started a program and how it has gone. Or seminaries can create independent study classes for students to create a blueprint about a new ministry they would start at their church or how they would infuse these ideas into existing ministries at the church. Assignments need to help students think about how a theology of vocation and discipleship will shape how they do youth ministry, outreach and everything else.
Through these five lessons, Sherman showed how seminaries can go beyond simply speaking about an enlarged theology of mission and discipleship. There are ways for educational institutions to encourage students to discover what this theology means for liturgy, adult education, worship – every aspect of a church’s life together. Through acts of celebration and hands-on learning, seminaries can equip future pastors to equip their members to work for the common good in their daily labors.
Listen to her full talk here.