Thinking and Rethinking Work: Spotlight on Grand Rapids Theological Seminary

By Darrell Yoder; reprinted from the Oikonomia Network newsletter

At Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, we are nearing completion of two multi-year projects related to the work of the Oikonomia Network. These two projects have focused on helping students and local pastors develop a biblical theology of work and to pursue faithful approaches to economics and poverty.

Local Pastors and Churches

First, for local pastors and churches, we have developed a video-based curriculum for small groups entitled Everyday Works: Rethinking What You Do and Why It Matters for the Kingdom (releasing this month here). This study provides a series of video clips that engage topics like theology, vocation, business, economics, poverty, community development and more. Our panel of speakers include:

  • Rudy Carrasco, Partners Worldwide
  • Peter Greer, Hope International
  • Pastor Artie Lindsay, Tabernacle Community Church (Grand Rapids, MI)
  • Amy Sherman, Sagamore Institute
  • Michael Wittmer, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary

We had at least three major outcomes in mind as we developed this curriculum. First, we wanted to help people in the church (and the pastors leading them) rethink their understanding of “work” and begin to see their regular jobs as an avenue of both discipleship and mission. We want people to discover that even the most mundane jobs they endure are seen and blessed by God as expressions of meaningful love and service for others. Michael Wittmer and Amy Sherman provide a theological foundation for work and a vision for how we can steward our “everyday work” for the Kingdom of God.

Second, we wanted to help people take that theology of work and apply it to issues related to economics, poverty and community development. We wanted to challenge Christians to identify (and if necessary rethink) their assumptions about poverty and people who are poor. By reflecting on the economic systems we live in, we can develop an approach to poverty that is filled with equal parts compassion and justice. Rudy Carrasco, Artie Lindsay and Peter Greer explored practical wisdom on economics and how to think about poverty alleviation both locally and globally.

Integral to this discussion is the topics of race and racism, which efforts at poverty alleviation eventually confront. Our speakers waded into this conversation with grace and clarity. Race is a fraught topic for many, and churches in the majority culture can be tempted to avoid engaging the challenges, seeking instead to be generous from a distance. That disconnected approach is unnecessary. Churches from diverse settings have the opportunity to build relationships across cultural divides if we come with patience, humility, a priority on relationships (rather than immediate results) and a biblical theology of work and the imago dei. Our third goal with this curriculum was to provide basic insights for any follower of Christ or church to take next steps in this effort with grace, wisdom and empathy.

The format for the Everyday Works study is a series of sixteen short video clips that are taken from 45-60 minute presentations. These video clips provide groups with discussion points, and those who want to dig deeper can access the full presentations. Our video crew also teamed up with a local rapper and a sand artist who used their “everyday work” to capture the major themes of the curriculum verbally and visually.

Lastly, although this curriculum is written for small groups, we anticipate it will be useful in the classroom as well. Our undergrad faculty are reviewing the material for ways they can build it into the undergrad experience at Cornerstone University.

All of the Everyday Works material is available online for free here. Print and DVD copies are also available for purchase.

Seminary Students

Students at GRTS engage a theology of work in multiple places in the curriculum, including our Program Introduction Seminar and Systematic Theology sequence. These courses are required for all students. Alongside that curricular engagement, students in the Kern Scholar Program at GRTS participate in a co-curricular enhancement regarding discipleship, flourishing, and economics. This enhancement structure provides workshops each semester, attendance at Acton University and funding for a capstone project.

The capstone project, which students complete during their last year in seminary, is proving to be one of the more effective ways to help students move from theory to practice. Students submit proposals, outlining their project and requesting funds to cover related expenses. Fourteen students completed capstone projects in the Spring 2017 semester. These projects included:

  • A Sunday School class for young adults, piloting the Everyday Works curriculum
  • A teaching series and small group experience for InterVarsity students
  • Small group experiences using For the Life of the Worldand PovertyCure (from the Acton Institute)
  • A teaching series with a large high school youth group
  • A “Cross-Cultural Wisdom Workshop” at a local church, seeking to inspire and prepare people to serve refugees

The opportunity to design a project that fits their own context has helped students develop greater clarity and deeper conviction about the need for this movement. One student taught a Sunday School class using the Everyday Works curriculum and shared the following from his experience:

I learned from this project that this is generally an area of Christian theology and formation that is neglected. There is still a clear belief in congregations that pastors and missionaries are the people who are really serving God. The rest of the church is not as important in God’s eyes. However, I also learned that the integration of faith and work can be a very powerful aspect of Christian formation. For many of the participants, this was a very encouraging study because they began to see how their jobs provided them unique opportunities to love and serve other people. Previously, they had been overburdened, bored, or dissatisfied in their jobs. However, I began to see some of them change their thinking about their job in such a way that they recognized its importance to others, both directly and in the broader economy…I also realized how the church tends to treat the poor. I recognized in myself and many other participants acknowledged an intentional and purposeful desire to avoid the poor…I saw a big change in my own heart and in many participants to acknowledge that the poor have dignity and skill, which we often ignore. This study was very transformational in instilling the belief that all people have dignity and creative potential.

Another student, who intended to launch a poverty initiative from his project but discovered they weren’t ready, reflected on his experience this way:

It’s easier to think you know the answers than to realize you don’t have the answers. The community in need probably does, and it’s going to take much more of a long-term, committed process than most Western suburban churches are comfortable with. We want things that are efficient, quick, and have a lasting impact only long enough to be able to see it in the rear-view mirror as we drive back into the suburbs. Long lasting impact requires much more, and it first requires a realization that “it’s not about me.”

The pairing of classroom instruction and applied experience helps students see the need for this work and the potential fruit for real people in our churches. However, it also invites students to experience themselves the difficulties and barriers that make whole-life discipleship, compassion and justice challenging in the real world.

Darrell Yoder oversees the Pirsig Fellowship at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, including recruitment, retention, and program implementation. Professionally, he is most interested in pastoral ministry, preaching, teaching, discipleship, writing, and collaboration between the church and the academy. Outside of work Darrell enjoys distance running, camping, hiking, grilling, coffee, guitar, and playing soccer and basketball.

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