March 26, 2019 was a high-water mark for work and economics at Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS), where The Hendricks Center takes primary responsibility for initiatives on those topics. In celebration of the center’s 30th anniversary, DTS held a conference entitled “Equipped: Ministry That Works,” featuring keynote presentations by Tom Nelson and Timothy Keller.
Equipped was targeted at pastors and church leaders, as well as DTS students who were encouraged to attend. To facilitate their participation, classes were suspended for that day – something that has happened only once or twice before in the seminary’s 94-year history. All told, about 720 people attended the on-campus conference. More participated through livestreaming available at DTS’ extensions sites in Houston and Washington, D.C.
Nelson, president of the Made to Flourish Network and a DTS graduate, opened with the question: “Do pastors really matter?” It was a question he had asked a leading sociologist who has devoted his life to understanding cultural flourishing. The scholar’s emphatic response was: “Yes, they matter a lot! When it comes to virtue and the thick moral ecology necessary for communities to flourish, clergy are the key – both in what they teach and how they live – as they seek the spiritual and virtue formation of others and are advocates for justice and goodness in the world.”
Nelson followed that up by saying that when pastors flourish, local congregations flourish, and when local congregations flourish, communities flourish. The question is, are pastors flourishing?
Nelson’s presentation was a call for church leaders first to be transformed personally by the gospel on a continuous basis. Then their mandate is to cause their congregants to flourish in every sphere of life – the most dominant of which in terms of waking hours is our work. And finally, in and through that disciple-making, pastors and the churches they lead are to seek the flourishing of the communities where they live.
Following Nelson’s remarks, Darrell Bock, the center’s executive director for cultural engagement, facilitated a robust question-and-answer session. The center’s texting system received several score of questions for Nelson. Most of them dwelled on specific and practical ways for pastors to come alongside the workers in their churches – for example, by making pastoral visits to workers in their workplaces.
Another model Nelson uses where he pastors at Christ Community Church in Kansas City is called: “Where Will You Be This Time Tomorrow?” He interviews a worker about their experience on the job come Monday as a way to demonstrate to his congregation the importance that Christ Community places on Christians’ living out their faith in their work.
Nelson was followed by a panel featuring Greg Forster of the Oikonomia Network,
Julius Wong Loi Sing of Moody Graduate School (also a former pastor and Bible translator), and Josh Chatraw, head of New City Fellows in Raleigh, N.C., which works with young professionals.
Among the topics discussed, Bock asked the panel where they think the disconnect occurs between faith and work. Forster highlighted two things: “One is the relational disconnect – and often alienation – between the religious professionals who run our churches and the economic professionals at every level who attend our churches,” adding, “and, by the way, fund our churches!” The second disconnect often stems from the fact that many pastors are naturally gifted to think differently than Christians working in the everyday workplace, “so what we [as pastors and teachers] think is helping may not be what people are looking for. And both people can grow in that.”
Sing cited Barna’s new study, Christians at Work, showing that Christians generally fall into one of three categories relative to how their faith informs their work: Compartmentalizers, who segment their faith as a separate category from their work; Onlookers, who like the idea that that their work matters to God, but don’t really know what to do after that; and Integrators, who are actively growing in their walk with Christ and exploring the difference that makes on the job.
Chatraw pointed out that while celebrating the connections between faith and work, we must always keep in mind a doctrine of the fall (Genesis 3), which tells us that things aren’t as they should be. “If faith and work [never gets] beyond our own kind of Western conceptions – secular conceptions – of human flourishing, I think we’re going to be disappointed.”
In that connection, Chatraw believes the faith and work movement needs to work harder at addressing specific, real-life scenarios and challenges that people face in their work. He observed that the absence of that kind of practical theology has led to pushback of the movement by some, who claim that it is elitist.
Following lunch, Bock hosted a panel case study from leaders at Bent Tree Bible Fellowship, a large congregation of knowledge workers in Plano, Tx. They reported that the faith-and-work initiative there has been in process for twelve years, and only within the past five years has it become visible.
The journey began with small groups in workplaces and then moved to a task force of leaders within the church. The efforts ultimately led to creating awareness and buy-in from senior leadership, including the senior pastor, with the result that faith-and-work topics, themes, illustrations and applications are finding their way into the church’s teaching and preaching.
But the key to all of it, the leaders stressed, has been prayer. “This is not even a prayer walk. This is a prayer crawl,” explained Joy Dahl, who comes out of the corporate world and is now spearheading Bent Tree’s faith-and-work efforts and is also pursuing a D.Min. at DTS. “We are literally moving forward on our knees, laying it before [the Lord] to see what he may open up.”
The final presentation of the day was by Keller, founding pastor and pastor emeritus of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and cofounder and chair of City to City, which is equipping church planters in global cities worldwide.
Keller gave what he called a “helicopter overview” of several ways in which gospel faith affects how we work: it gives us an identity, without which work will ruin us; it gives us a new concept of the dignity of all work, without which work will bore us or trivialize us; it gives us a moral compass, without which work will corrupt us; and it gives us hope in the face of the frustration of work, without which work will crush or harden our spirit.
The impact of the Equipped conference on the participants and the school was not simply intellectual or spiritual, but physical, as well. People using the live streaming and the question-texting systems exceeded the limits of the school’s bandwidth when the wireless audio system temporarily crashed during Keller’s presentation! Clearly, something monumental was happening in Dallas that day. The hope is that the Equipped Conference will have a ripple impact throughout the entire faith and work movement, both nationally and worldwide.