At Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, we are seeking to discover in fresh ways how the gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to live as a multiethnic body of Christ. As an outgrowth of gospel faithfulness, we desire to integrate faith with the world of work, economics and justice in a way that recognizes the individual opportunity and responsibility we all have to live as the image of God for his glory, and also the broken systems in which we all live. Each person is created in God’s image with the calling and capacity to contribute to the common good, and we also labor and suffer under unjust systems and practices that harm everyone. Our desire is for the Christian community to increasingly understand and resist those systems, which are often shaped by the powers and principalities. We are engaging this effort in our internal coursework, external curriculum and extracurricular programming, and we are seeing our alumni take the work into their communities in strategic ways.
Within GRTS degree programs, a number of courses in our Theology, Bible and Ministries areas engage topics relevant to this subject. For example, our theology professors seek to help students develop a theology of work that views all vocational callings as good and meaningful in God’s eyes. If a peanut farmer provides peanuts for my son’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich, God has used him to love and serve his neighbor. My son and I are grateful! As Michael Wittmer writes in his book Becoming Worldly Saints, we are free to enjoy God’s creation without guilt and without thinking we are wasting our lives on “worldly” things. God gave us many gifts, and he wants us to enjoy them. Students explore these themes in our theology sequence, and our Bible professors engage students in texts related to the powers and principalities, wealth and poverty, justice, hospitality, generosity and more. Likewise, our Ministries courses challenge students to consider how they can help congregants identify and flourish in their callings as an intentional step in their discipleship.
Outside our degree programs, we were honored when RightNow Media selected our Everyday Works curriculum for their platform. (I’ve written more fully about this resource in a previous ON spotlight). In April 2018, each of the four parts of Everyday Works became available within RightNow’s channel on work:
- Part 1: “Work is Good” with Michael Wittmer, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary
- Part 2: “Live the Kingdom” with Amy Sherman, Sagamore Institute
- Part 3: “Flourish for Others” with Rudy Carrasco, Murdock Trust
- Part 4: “Expand the Circle” with Peter Greer, Hope International; and Pastor Artie Lindsay, Tabernacle Community Church (Grand Rapids)
Since completion of the Everyday Works curriculum, we have continued to explore these themes in our on-campus events for local pastors and ministry leaders. For example, in Parts 3 and 4 of Everyday Works, our speakers discuss the ways prejudice, racism and flawed strategies perpetuate cycles of poverty. In our Talking Points program, we picked up that theme and are seeking to help local leaders build bridges and shared understanding across cultural and racial/ethnic lines. We are currently in the middle of a three-part series of conferences on the theme “Justice + Unity: Toward the Healing of a Fractured Church.” We held the first event in April 2018, the second in October 2018, and we’ll finish in spring 2019.
Our goal with this series is to explore the biblical themes of justice and unity, the ways the body of Christ is fractured along racial/ethnic and gender lines, and to consider what it might take to heal those divides. In particular, our desire is to understand the practical and structural realities that impact marginalized communities, and how more affluent communities can be part of the solution. Relationships of trust must come first, so we want to encourage and foster those relationships among pastoral leaders. We believe these relationships are critical for addressing the causes of poverty, segregation and distrust in the church.
In other extracurricular programming, our Kern Scholars are completing a program enhancement on economic wisdom that includes a capstone project during their fourth year of MDiv studies. Each student proposes a project in their ministry context that applies or further studies the integration of faith, work, economics and justice. Last year, our graduating Kern Scholars completed a number meaningful projects. For example:
- One student led a seminar at his local church on the value of work, gaining a hard but realistic picture of people’s understanding and the challenge of helping them rethink old assumptions.
- Another student took a small group through Parts 1-2 of the Everyday Works curriculum and helped individuals grasp their callings more deeply. They discovered that a photographer spending hours editing photos and a computer tech troubleshooting issues really are meaningful callings in God’s eyes!
- Another student took his missional community through a reflective study on consumer practices and choices that perpetuate or work against economic injustice.
That last student, whose name is Andrew, is now serving at Tabernacle Community Church in Grand Rapids. He has joined other GRTS alumni who are engaged in numerous efforts to flourish their community. For example, Pastor Artie Lindsay of Tabernacle and Justin Beene of the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation have launched an effort called the Grand Rapids Nehemiah Project. These strategic efforts go beyond what a seminary alone can do, and we celebrate the good work they’re doing in our city.
Recently, Andrew had this to say about how studying these themes in seminary prepared him for this work:
What is discipleship? What does following Jesus encompass? The Kern Scholar enhancements and capstone project compelled us to reckon with what we already knew – that Jesus wants all of us – but it really introduced us to the feet and arms of those ideas. It gave “all” specificity, practicality and wisdom for leading disciples into their workplaces and communities equipped with a vision for flourishing when God is king. Yes, God is king of over his church (where many Christians know to be Christian), but he also wants us to bring our churchly selves – our God-is-king-over-creation-selves – into spaces where he is manifestly not king. And he wants us to do it with great love, but also with great wisdom, innovation and technical expertise so that people truly reap restoration and flourishing. God is commissioning us as Christ-followers to step into every part of this broken world with good news…and some gardener’s tools and cultivating know-how.
Personally, too, because of my capstone project, it has caused our family to consider brand new questions about what it means to participate in a consumer economy as a disciple of the God who cares deeply about workers, wages, justice, the goodness of the earth, profits and industry process. This has made discipleship an exciting adventure for us and has led us into new territory and decisions that we could never have foreseen making.
We are grateful for Andrew, Artie, Justin and the many other GRTS alumni and students who are seeing the connection between the gospel, vocation, discipleship, justice and working toward the greater common good in their spheres of influence. It truly is an adventure to discover the ways the gospel calls us to be transformed into a new kind of people – a transformation that involves all aspects of life.