The faith and work movement will be critically important for the church in the coming generation, and seminaries have an important role to play as the movement faces new challenges and new opportunities. That was the message of Princeton University’s David Miller, author of the definitive history of the movement (God at Work), at Karam Forum 2019. Fernando Tamara and Helen Kim also shared reports from the field to keep theological educators abreast of the movement’s developing needs.
Miller opened his address at Karam Forum by asking the theological educators to give themselves a round of applause – an unusual experience for faculty whose job is to help people cultivate humility. Miller wanted to emphasize that growing seminary engagement with the faith and work movement is a fact of historic importance. One of the great difficulties the church has faced in recent generations has been the disconnect between the theological academy and the world of daily work. The attendance of so many theological educators at Karam Forum was, Miller said, an important sign for the movement.
That’s a good thing, because – as Miller described – the movement is no flash-in-the-pan evangelical fad. The current stage of the movement is only the most recent development in a century-long history of Christians organizing to connect their faith to their work. The movement exists because Christians feel torn between the claims of their faith and the demands of their work – and the movement will continue to exist until the institutions of Christianity (which primarily means churches) take over the work of helping people navigate that tension faithfully.
Miller identified several “external” and “internal” factors that will reshape the movement in the coming generation. Chief among the external factors is new technologies that allow people to connect virtually, lowering the cost of joining the conversation and the barriers to entry for movement institutions to reach people. This new world of low-cost connection is double-edged, as anyone on social media can attest. Other external factors include Supreme Court rulings that make more space for companies to practice faith-work integration, the spread of corporate Inclusion and Diversity offices sponsoring faith-work initiatives in their workplaces, and growing religious diversity in the population.
Internally, Miller said, the movement is seeing a shift from “Wow!” to “How?” For a long time, the main goal of the movement was simply to help people have the basic insight that God cares about their work, often prompting joyful reactions (“Wow!”). Simply helping people to have this insight was difficult enough to keep the movement busy. However, as this insight is becoming more widely and sustainably cultivated with the movement’s greater success, we are crossing a tipping point to a new world in which people go beyond saying “Wow!” to asking “How?” – how can we work more faithfully, and help cultivate better structures of work for all?
That second question, about structures of work, points to another internal shift Miller highlighted. The movement is no longer limited to the individual experience of work, but has embraced the need to think and act economically. Where the movement once spoke only of “work,” it now speaks of work and the economy. This critically important shift positions the movement to take on big questions (ethics, mission, culture and even the identity of the church itself) that it needs to be able to handle if it’s going to fulfill the big promise of God that’s implicit in the insight that God cares about our work.
Miller’s presentation at Karam Forum was followed by two further “reports from the field.” Fernando Tamara of the Jesse Miranda Center shared how growing interest in faith and work among local churches is helping roll back forms of spiritual idolatry that have been allowed to grow in too many churches. Tamara shared powerful eyewitness testimony of how the elevation of pastors to a special spiritual status above the laity is destructive to both, while the ethic of whole-life discipleship liberates pastors to fulfill God’s intention for pastoral ministry. He also helped Karam Forum attendees become more aware of the growing ethnic diversity of the evangelical church in the United States, and the implications of this growth for the faith and work movement.
Helen Kim of the Korean American Community Foundation, author of a widely praised faith and work curriculum for kids, spoke on faith and work for the rising generation. Kim noted that she only put together a curriculum for kids because she couldn’t find an existing product, and was surprised by the widespread attention her curriculum received. (Amy Sherman’s review of Kim’s curriculum ran in the ON newsletter.) This is an important gap in the movement, as the insights of whole-life discipleship and vocation will be far less central if we only introduce them to kids as they approach high school graduation (or, even worse, college graduation). Kim also discussed how younger adults today have been shaped by a cultural environment very different from the one that shaped current faith and work movement leaders. The challenges and opportunities of the rising generation often don’t resemble those for which the movement in its current form was designed.
One of the most important goals of the Oikonomia Network is to reconnect the theological academy to the current needs of the church and the world at large. Check out these talks to simulate insights on how theological education can equip the church for whole-life discipleship in the generation ahead.