Why here? Why now? Pt. I

DIFW Series • Work
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Today we launch Denver Institute for Faith & Work, a new nonprofit dedicated to the integration of faith and work. The journey began a little over a year ago, and since then, God has faithfully gathered leaders, aligned ideas, and inspired a shared vision. We on the board recognize a great debt we owe to those who have paved the way for this new venture:

  • We are in debt to great 20th century theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Francis Schaeffer, and Lesslie Newbigin who called the church faithful witness to the gospel in all of life
  • We are in debt to contemporary thinkers like Andy Crouch, J.D. Hunter and Tim Keller who have called the church to culture-making, faithful presence, and gospel-driven work
  • We are in debt to other faith and work organizations, particularly Redeemer Presbyterian’s Center for Faith and Work and Gabe Lyon’s Q Ideas, which have reminded us work is both a matter of discipleship and cultural engagement
  • We are in debt to those who’ve committed to telling stories of Christians working for the common good, particularly the This Is Our City community at Christianity Today
  • We are in debt to the efforts of institutions of Christian higher education – like Calvin College, Regent University, Wheaton College, and Gordon College – who have sought the integration of faith and learning for generations

So, a big thank you to all who have paved the way for us. Yet today we also feel compelled to begin a new organization. We are inspired both a vision of Christ’s universal authority over creation and far-reaching redemption (Col. 1:15-20) and by a clear understanding of the weighty current needs in the faith and work movement. To those who ask, “Why here? Why now?” we point to the following reasons:

We have not built enough institutions to sustain and grow the faith and work movement. American evangelicals tend to be individualistic and pietistic, which often means we expect individual conversion and holy living to shape culture by itself. By and large, this pattern has followed suit for those in the faith and work movement. Especially in the last 10 years, we’ve multiplied books and conferences on vocation, but we have built precious few institutions – cultural practices and habits focused on a shared moral vision – that can support and spur on the movement over time.

Authors like J.D. Hunter, James K.A. Smith and Hugh Heclo have reminded us that institutions – and the “overlapping networks” they can produce – are foundational to cultural change. (Andy Crouch’s forthcoming book deals with the topic as well.) Yet past a few shining examples nation wide – like the Center for Faith & Work, the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture, or the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics – we lack the organization, finances, programs, strategic plans, and staff (elements of institutional life) to have lasting cultural influence. We need new institutions that can act as both a cultural “place” for stimulating the faith and work movement and a catalyst for spurring on God’s mission as it plays out in our places of work.

There’s a knowledge gap between higher education and the local church. For those who search for it, there is no lack of resources on faith and, for example, technology, the built environment, business, or medicine. Yet most good thinking stays in the halls of academia, and rarely moves to the practitioners in the field, those who daily deal with making new apps, designing residential homes, managing a small business or serving patients as a nurse. Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, has seen a similar yawning gap between academic research and the real needs of communities. Many good ideas are locked in little-read academic journals far away from the organizations, communities and leaders that need them. There is a tremendous need to build communities of local practitioners who can draw insights from the wisdom of higher education and interpret academic insights for the daily vocational journey of Christians in local churches.

Many faith and work ministries have overly focused on business and overlooked other important vocational endeavors. When surveying the faith and work landscape in Denver and in the  United States, the word “marketplace ministries” will quickly surface. To enter into the “marketplace” is to enter into the workforce. This view, however, of seeing all work as essentially a task of buying and selling (the marketplace), has damaged both God’s good purpose for business and undervalued other valid callings. I have been to countless Christian businessmen events that were actually filled with engineers, teachers, physicians, and lawyers. One public middle school teacher at a recent  business as mission meeting told me, “You know what my real passion is? Education as mission.”

I’m not sure how this preeminence of Christians in business came to pass. Perhaps it’s because business leaders have more time and resources to create new ministries. Perhaps it flows from the idea that work is foundationally about making money, and, not, as Dorothy Sayers says, “the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God. (Some have reduced “faith and business” to only making an ethical profit and not fully embraced God’s call for business, which is (borrowing from Jeff Van Duzer) to (1) serve the community through making quality goods and services and (2) build contexts for creative, meaningful work. The result of this has been to offer Christian business conferences that offer good ethical insight but precious little insight into how the products and the organization of the business itself should be offered to God.)

Because of this, there is a dire lack of institutions coming alongside of Christians in retail, art, architecture, the trades, technology, and a host of other fields. Money is obviously important for both work and the economy, but it is the rare scientist or journalist who begins their career thinking they’re getting into their field “as a business.” What is needed is both a broader, inter-disciplinary faith and work organization and more industry-specific events that can help people with the specific challenges of their work and field.

Most faith and work organizations are separated from the life of the church. Faith and work ministries can tend to be anti-clerical. “The church doesn’t understand my work. My pastor has never even once came and visited me in the office. Pastors don’t even know how to handle their finances; how could I trust their leadership?” Because many Christian professional societies and faith and work ministries were launched due to a perceived failing of the church, many have lost their proper foundation in the life of the local church.

Yet when this happens, many initiatives quickly become theologically thin, reducing the “faith” part of “faith and work” to nothing more than a few Bible verses supporting the status quo. Apart from the rich theological underpinnings of pastoral leadership and the proper foundation of Christian orthodoxy, too many organizations never truly grasp the depth of the challenge the gospel poses to a world that worships a pantheon of gods, both at work and at home.

This separation between  faith and work, church and city, gospel and culture, should not be. On the one had, faith and work organizations need to be led by laity. If it’s only led by pastors, it’s theologically rich, yet practically useless, as pastors need laity to translate the gospel into the work only they know best. On the other hand, if it’s only laity leading, it loses much of its power, purpose, and theological vision. The local church is the heartbeat of God’s global mission. What’s needed is a way to practically marry local church and local lay leaders in a common task of cultural renewal through work inspired by the Holy Spirit.

There’s a gap between the faith and work “conversation” and practical action, between ideas and realities. Praxis was launched out of Q Ideas because of this growing realization. Far too many books, conversations, and interesting speakers stay there – in the stratosphere of theory. What is needed is a way to turn ideas into new work – new positions, products, programs and policies. Just as God became incarnate man, so must our ideas become new cultural products, and even new organizations, if they are to influence the world. We need more systems and institutions that facilitate this translation of ideas to realities.

I live in Denver. Geography matters. When it comes down to it, my life is most formed by the networks of people closest to me – family, co-workers, deep friends, church. These people actually live around me. And, as it turns out, our 300 days of sun per year deeply affect our attitude toward both work and leisure. This means at least three things:

  • We need to build a partnership. I love the Center for Faith and Work, but unfortunately, it’s in New York, and I’m not. And Denver – like most US Cities, I’d presume – doesn’t have a culturally-minded ecosystem of Christians like Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC. There are many great pastors with a heart for cultural renewal in Denver, so we had to come up with a model that sought collaboration among many churches, and was not based in only a single church, though was deeply influenced by the local church
  • We need local leadership. Denver is different from Houston or Toronto. And so are the people. Local leaders are best able to contextualize the gospel and apply it to various unique work contexts in the Rocky Mountain region.  Whereas people go to New York to work, they come to Denver to ski. Our geography means people will have different attitudes toward work – and local leaders will be able to take that into account when bringing the gospel into work situations.
  • We need a new institution here, and now. We need not just another speaker or a book (these are great – and we will be hosting many speakers, and reading many books!), but an institution that can act as a new center point for sustaining, growing and deepening the churches commitment to integrating faith and work in Denver.

And so here is the challenge before us. Considering the rich legacy of cultural engagement and fine models of faith and work organizations in existence, how do we (1) create a new institution that (2) brings quality thinking to bear on practical work contexts, (3) is multidisciplinary, (4) unites both church and city leaders, (5) unites ideas and practical action, and (6) does so faithfully and sustainably in Denver?

Our answer? Denver Institute for Faith & Work.

(Read “Why here? Why now? Part II” to learn about our model).

Photo Credit: Speer Street Bridge