Here at the Oikonomia Network, we know what the people want. And so, without further ado: It’s in this video at time stamp 7:18.
Karam Forum 2019 was a delightful experience for Mark Greene, as he said in his alternately side-splitting and moving talk at the close of the conference. Back in England, “you can hardly get a table full of people to talk about this.” To be surrounded by such a large group of leaders dedicated to making the changes theological education needs was a heartwarming experience.
Just as important, Greene said that between Karam Forum and the Faith at Work Summit, he has a real sense that “we have moved on, and we are moving on – that we’re learning things, we’re not having the same conversations.”
Speaking of which: There’s no substitute for being there in person, so if you want to reconnect with our community and keep the conversation “moving on,” please register today for Karam Forum 2020, which is Jan. 3-4 in Atlanta, and reserve your hotel room for the low discount price of $129. Rich Mouw, Greg Jones, Rachael Denhollander and many more will lead catalytic discussions of how our schools can contribute to justice, flourishing, entrepreneurship and discipleship!
How Do We Live Up to Our Calling?
Greene closed Karam Forum 2019 with a talk entitled “The Three-Eared Scholar.” With hilarity and sincerity, he called on theological educators to consider what kind of people they need to be to educate for whole-life discipleship, and what kind of practices or disciplines they would need to be that kind of person. In addition to having an ear to listen to the academy and the church, we need to make it a practice to listen to the “frontline” Christians whom our theology is ultimately designed to serve.
“What kind of life do I need to lead to be faithful to my calling to this movement?” Greene asked us to ask ourselves. “What kind of life does God want me to lead? What’s my ‘rule of life’?” If our calling is to disciple church leaders who disciple people to disciple people in all of life, “what is going to fuel us for that task? What is going to help us stay faithful to our calling?” Especially if you are, perhaps not a lone voice, but part of a minority rather than a majority at your institution who actively seeks this bigger vision of the mission.
Greene reminded us where the frontlines of the spiritual struggle are. He used to work in advertising, literally on Madison Avenue, and “I saw God, the king of the universe, the Lord of every street, do amazing things over that seven years.” Answered prayer, drawing people to himself, healing people, and changing the hearts of even some of the most difficult people on earth. Then Greene went to theological school and now leads the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.
The God Who Loved Me
To explain the work of his organization, Greene said he often uses the most famous representative of postwar British culture, “a man who’s guaranteed to save the world every three years” – James Bond. “James Bond is not widely acclaimed in Christian circles, for reasons I hope you understand. And if you don’t, I suggest you change churches immediately.”
Bond has many good and bad qualities. But when he goes out to save the world, he is:
- Properly briefed
- Properly trained
- Properly resourced
- Commissioned by a sending organization – sent out with authority – and
- Properly supported for the important mission he is on.
This is not just about getting the mission accomplished – although it is that. It is also about human dignity. Commissioning and sending the congregation to their mission sends an essential message about “the equality of the ordained minister and the unordained minister.” On one level, Greene suggested, it’s outrageous that so few Christians are well supported by their sending authorities, and there is much pain in the church because of this.
Globally, Greene reminded us, the majority of Christians are not properly briefed, trained, resourced, commissioned and supported. That’s why another famous postwar British hero – Stott, John Stott – founded the London Institute. They do work around the world focused on “how does a good, ordinary church embrace a whole-life vision and then actually, genuinely, begin to make whole-life disciples?” The goal is to help churches move from a two-part mission (neighborhood/local mission and global mission) to a three-part mission (the third being “frontlines/work”).
How Do We See This Change?
Hence the need for us to become three-eared scholars, listening well to Christians in life beyond the church walls. “What kind of rule of life might enable high-caliber scholars like yourselves…to keep on going in this, to create a whole-life disciple-making culture?” Greene asked.
To answer this question, Greene drew from his experience working with local churches. “Pastors ask us: ‘What do I need to change in my practice, in my way of life, if I’m going to be effective in creating a whole-life disciple-making church – and sustaining it?’” Some pastors “get this and keep on going,” while others don’t.
The pastors who get it, and keep going, are:
- Pastors who read the Bible differently.
- Pastors who have different conversations.
- Pastors who go to different places.
Three key markers that manifest the change in the daily life of the local church and its congregation are:
- What do people talk about when no one’s telling them what to talk about?
- What do people pray about when no one’s telling them what to pray about?
- What do people see in the Bible for themselves when no one’s telling them what to see?
In short, “what’s the conversational culture?”
As scholars, Greene suggested that we in the Oikonomia Network also have a workplace ministry in our own frontline – our schools. “It’s not so different” from the challenge that our congregants are facing. They are striving to practice God’s mission in their context, and so are we as scholars and educators. The evangelism factor is different, because we work in a Christian workplace. But the aspiration to change systems that need changing – the process of helping catalyze insights and recruit colaborers – is not so different. Our schools are our mission fields, as scholars with a vision of theological education for a bigger mission of God.
Really Seeing That God Is with Us
What is required to be a resilient pastor and a resilient disciple, in context? “Workers don’t just need a rich theological vision for workplace shalom, they need a rich theological understanding of the resources available to them in the triune God.” We need a sense that God is present with us and provides for us in daily life.
Greene points to the story of the shipwreck in Acts 27, where Paul doesn’t just seek saved souls, and doesn’t even just pray for immediate deliverance – a helicopter to pick up the survivors and drop them off in Rome. Through both prayer and work, he strives in practical ways to meet every type of need he sees in his context – physical needs, emotional needs, spiritual needs. He challenges the power of the state (the centurion), the power of expertise (the ship pilot) and the power of money (the ship owner). He gets his power from God, who not only sends us on mission but empowers us for that mission.
“‘Well, that’s the apostle Paul, he’s special.’ Yes he is – and God is more special!”
Greene told the story of Alan, a senior banker in a top-four global bank. This bank had a toxic culture, and Alan had been praying to leave. He was put on a new team and told to fire one of the employees right away. Instead, over six weeks, he gave each of the 45 team members half an hour of his time to talk about anything at all. It turned out the person Alan was supposed to fire wanted Alan’s job and his boss’ job. Alan offered to work with that employee to set him up for the career success that he felt (with reason) he had been unjustly denied. Alan discovered that this person was not only highly effective, but had all the client relationships within his team. The boss who wanted him fired didn’t know it – the company would have lost £185 million firing him!
Through love and theological insight, Alan dramatically reversed the productivity of the team. It went from failing to successful. The HR department demanded to know his secret, and he said, “I just talk to people.”
HR still wants to know Alan’s secret. He’s told them, but they don’t understand it. It is spiritually discerned.
Meanwhile, a superstar on the team revealed an ongoing family trauma to Alan, and broke down in his office. Alan offered to have that man laid off; he could afford it, and he agreed. He spent a year with his family before returning to paid work.
Before Alan told Mark this story, Alan had said: “I don’t know why on earth God has me in this place.” After telling the story, he said: “Maybe that’s why I’m there.”
Maybe! That’s the measure of how far we have to go in equipping people like Alan to understand what God is doing through their work.
Shona worked for the Royal Bank of Scotland after they were badly hit by the crash in 2008. She was assigned to help cut costs. They had a line in the budget worth £1.5 billion – “which is a lot of money even for a big bank” – for bad consumer debt. The bank had written that money off, because people wouldn’t be willing to pay, and couldn’t be forced to pay in a cost-effective way. So Shona made a video about how seriously indebted people feel about being in debt, showing her colleagues that many people in debt genuinely want to pay. She found out that the phone protocol was to talk to these clients for no more than seven and a half minutes. Shona said the bank should give the call operators up to an hour with each client. Colleagues objected, saying the operators would just talk about fashion and sports; Shona replied that the call operators – like the clients – would want to live up to their callings (and if they don’t, we need new operators). She wrote protocols for calls of up to an hour.
Over three years, the bank recovered £500 million. And a lot of people were liberated from debt.
“She saw the opportunity because she had a fundamentally different view of people,” Greene said. “This is why doctrine matters!…And that understanding of human beings, every church can give everybody, because it applies in every situation.”
Mark was upset with Shona for not telling him this amazing story sooner. “Well,” she said, “I was only doing my job.”
The Three-Eared Scholar
Greene said that people need “the ability to read their own lives through the lens of the Bible.” Helping others to do this is an essential skill that theological educators equip our students with.
“But that kind of conversation only happens if you seek it. Because that kind of conversation with a layperson is off their agenda – they’re not coming to you for that.” And because they are impressed or intimidated by your theological knowledge, they will defer to your setting of the subject.
Small groups focus on pressure points, not kingdom priorities. Approaches tend to be short-term and reactive. Where kingdom priorities drive the focus, development can be proactive rather than reactive, and deal with the short, medium and long term. But “this is very hard to do. You have to intervene, you have to change the conversation.”
To stimulate this change, we have to live in close contact with people and learn their experience of life. “It doesn’t happen accidentally.” This practice was key to Stott’s famously powerful preaching, even though it isn’t in his book about preaching.
What can you do to become a three-eared scholar?
Visit people in their workplace context. Go into their “frontline” and pick up what’s there by experience. Greene pointed out that God sent Jeremiah down to the potter’s workplace to give him a theological insight from watching the potter. Presence leads to observation, which leads to depth of understanding, enriched relationship, and finally enriched preaching, prayer and training.
We need to permanently broaden the scope of our conversations, to consistently deepen our appreciation of people’s daily lives. “The conversations are too narrow for this movement to succeed,” Greene said. Broader conversations will enrich our own Bible reading, open up a new imagination and fuel our teaching.
Greene concluded by referring back to his list of the three marks that distinguish pastors who get it and keep going. To be scholars who get it and keep going, we need to be:
- Scholars who read the Bible differently.
- Scholars who have different conversations.
- Scholars who go to different places.
Check out this wonderful Karam Forum 2019 talk, full of humor and poignance. And consider joining us in Atlanta for Karam Forum 2020!