The Great Recession and the Faith and Work Movement

Ten years on from the Great Recession, the faith and work movement finds itself growing in momentum and impact. Alongside our effort are other movements that have challenged our collective sense of America and how she is governed: the unique candidacies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the #metoo movement, Marches for Women, the Tea Party, Black Lives Matter, and more.

Faith and work leaders can only hope to have as great an impact as the aforementioned campaigns. Yet, if successful, historians will look back on this era as one of great revitalization in the American church. If so, might the same historians see the faith and work movement to be a response to the Great Recession and the financial panic it caused around the world?

Philip Gura’s research on the Panic of 1837 suggests so. Gura writes in Man’s Better Angels: Romantic Reformers and the Coming of the Civil War that this antebellum crisis unleashed the abolition movement and a number of other efforts that revolutionized society.

Gura’s work explores the lives of seven social reformers: George Ripley (utopias, transcendentalism), Horace Greeley (politician, newspaper founder and editor), William B. Greene (anarchist and free banking), Orson Squire Fowler (child labor, temperance, equality), Mary Gove Nichols (equality, health reforms), Henry David Thoreau (author, naturalist, abolitionist,), and John Brown (militant abolitionist). Described as “prophets of a new moral order,” these men and women sought to restore America’s greatness as they tackled what Lawrence Buell calls, in describing Gura’s book, “runaway capitalism and plantation slavery.”

John Stauffer affirms Gura’s suggestion, writing that the 1840s “functioned as a kind of centrifuge, inspiring new visions of reform in all directions, pushing the nation further and further from its cultural and institutional center.” The reform and upheaval of the 1840s set the stage for the Civil War.

A brief survey of our faith and work canon and institutions suggests the movement is indeed riding a wave sparked by The Great Recession. Would Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf’s Every Good Endeavor have been so widely sold and distributed if published in 2002 as in 2012? Tom Nelson’s Work Matters was published in 2011. The Theology of Work Project began in 2010. Ballor and Flikkema’s Abraham Kuyper: Collected Works in Public Theology project was begun by a group of scholars in 2011. The editors’ introduction to Kyuper’s works begins with the following prescient sentence: “In times of great upheaval and uncertainty, it is necessary to look to the past for resources to help us recognize and address our own contemporary challenges.”

In 2008 both Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s Gotham Fellowship and Princeton University’s Faith and Work Initiative began. Our effort, The Collaborative for Cultural and Economic Renewal, began in 2012. The Faith at Work Summit appeared in 2014. Made to Flourish formed out of the Kern Pastors Network in 2015.

We can only see the major societal shifts going on around us with plenty of hindsight. Yet, if the faith and work movement is riding the momentum of the Great Recession there are three implications.

First, the tenth anniversary of this financial crisis is now upon us. When our movement is not as fueled by a crisis, from whence will the movement’s next inspiration come?

Second is maturation. The term ‘whole-life discipleship’ continues to catch on as faith and work gurus discover the implications of integrating one’s faith and work, and the methodologies for such integration. For instance, The Collaborative’s methods, such as unique content creation and effective distribution, deep and formative discipleship formats, hard metrics to demonstrate outcomes and evaluating effectiveness, cross-department ownership, are being adopted by other ministries in the church creating more resilient disciples.

Finally, diverse faith and work expressions and a multiplicity of theological and methodological positions are to be expected. We already see different schools of thought forming concerning cultural renewal (Crouch and Hunter), target audience approaches (Made to Flourish and Oikonomia), and institutional expressions (academic in-house centers, foundations, churches, and publishing houses). This is a good thing, and not be regarded as competition or diffusion. This, actually, is what makes for a movement rather than a fad.

In response to Gura’s book, Scott Sandage asks, “When democracy itself seems to go off the rails, do you give up and compromise your principles or double down on them?” The faith and work movement is part of Christ’s church in America doubling down on some theological and methodological basics, and retooling for effectiveness. At a faith and work gathering someone posed a question concerning the core of the faith and work movement: “Is it a missional movement, an evangelistic approach, or new way of doing discipleship?” Yes. And will it not be victory when the church is reformed, effective and relevant in the 21st century due to this movement?

Dr. Case Thorp is leader of The Collaborative for Cultural and Economic Renewal and the Senior Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando.

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