Gospel & Culture: Work Re-Envisioned

Gideon Strauss is the Executive Director of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California. 

Deep in conversation with about ten young professionals from about 8 different fields around a dinner table in Manhattan a few months ago, I marveled at the ability that these men and women, most of them in their thirties, had in talking about their daily work in ways that are clearly framed by a gospel worldview, without coming across as wannabe theologians or priggish moralists.

“There are no incentives in my industry for a boss not to be arrogant and mean-spirited. I want to become someone who has the character of a leader. Gotham Fellowship [a nine-month faith and work theology cohort at Redeemer] has given me a vocabulary and a community that makes genuine leadership something I can imagine, even if examples of genuine leadership are rare when I look around my industry,” explains an entrepreneur in finance. A yearning for vocational discipleship has these already very busy Gothamites invest several hours a week in reading and conversation, additional hours every month engaging the city in community, and a few weekends of the year on retreat.

In a small summit on vocational discipleship in the local church, which my organization (the De Pree Center) hosted in Manhattan earlier this summer, Katherine Leary Alsdorf, the executive director of the Center for Faith & Work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and David Kim, the director of the Gotham Fellowship, explained that they see vocational discipleship as integral to a life shaped by the gospel.

“We see it as our job to help people move from certain things and to certain things,” explained Katherine. For example:

•    from the salvation of souls, to the gospel changes everything
•    from God is a value to us, to we can add value to the earth
•    from God’s purposes beginning and ending with individual, personal redemption, to his purposes encompassing creation as well
•    from heaven is up there, to the kingdom to come will be on this earth
•    from cheap grace, to costly grace
•    from disdain of this world, to love for this world
•    from “bowling alone,” to community
•    from people alone, to cultural institutions matter as well
•    from Christian superiority, to God can work through whomever he wants
•    from discussions limited to ethics, to fostering a theological imagination for the workplace

While I have been enthralled for years by the effect vocational discipleship can have on individual lives through places like the Center for Faith & Work, and by the potential influence of events like its annual Entrepreneurship Initiative, I was blown away last year by the Center’s first annualGospel & Culture conference. Local churches that offer robust vocational and cultural discipleship as an ordinary part of the life of the church are still rare. The Gospel and Culture conference offers a brief but thorough look at what such discipleship looks like in Manhattan.

Listening to Chelsea Chen perform on the organ of beautiful St. Bart’s church, and to Tim Keller and Richard Mouw outline an inspiring theology of culture, redolent with the gospel; hearing Fiona Diefenbacher’s heart break for the fashion industry, and Max Anderson offering a vision of hope for MBA programs; I thought to myself: this is the stuff of a cultural reformation. This is not just another fad, soon to blow over. This is not some utopian vision of heaven dragged down to earth by human hands, no matter the price. These people are committed to the slow, hard, nuanced work of bearing hope into every corner of their world, by living their everyday work out of motives shaped by the gospel.

No doubt, vocational and cultural discipleship will look a little different in each church and city. In the aforementioned summit, Dan Siedell of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church explained that the considerable differences in vocational culture between Manhattan (“work is an end in itself”) and Fort Lauderdale (“work is a means to leisure”) demand distinctly diverse approaches to vocational and cultural discipleship. The context will be significantly different just a bridge away from Manhattan, in Brooklyn or New Jersey, or in a church plant versus a more established church.

Whatever the unique possibilities and challenges of our particular cities and neighborhoods, it is true wherever the church is present that we need a movement toward vocational and cultural discipleship being a part of the ordinary life of the church. As Steven Garber of the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture put it, “Vocation is integral, not incidental, to the mission of God.”

You can register online now for the 2012 Gospel & Culture Conference, or read the recap of last year's conference by The Gospel Coalition.