Presentation: A Tale of Two Congregations, Part Two

Phil Kenneson
Phil Kenneson

Posted by Inagrace Dietterich


What would it look like if the church in creative ways became the locus for imagining and creating good work in its neighborhood?

This and the previous post by Phil Kenneson make explicit how congregations and parishes might serve as the primary context in which we reframe and reshape Christian imagination about and engagement in our daily work.

A Congregation of “Good Work.”


I want next to turn our attention to a congregation that is seeking, among other aspects of its missional life, to encourage and support “good work.”  I want to tell a bit of their story not because they have it all figured out; they would be the first to admit that they don’t.  But they have been seeking for several decades to live more fully into God’s mission in and for their neighborhood, and I believe their example might encourage us and stir our imaginations.

This church in Indianapolis began in the late 1800s and grew quickly in the early 20th century to the point that, around 1970 (and before the notion of “mega-churches” was commonplace), it was a congregation of about 1100 people. In fact, it was one of the largest in the country at the time. I won’t rehearse their whole history, but like a lot of cities, the demographics shifted over time as many families moved out of city.  In response, a lot of city churches moved their congregations to the suburbs. This particular congregation remained, though shrinking in membership to about 250 members while being viewed as a mission outpost for the suburban churches. As a result of this well-documented “white flight” that took place across urban landscapes all across the United States during the second half of the 20th century, this congregation found itself in what was widely regarded as a blighted neighborhood, surrounded by neglected and abandoned property.

Deciding to Remain in the City.

The congregation’s decision to remain and be a presence there was not an easy one. What would it mean to remain? Who were they now? What was their identity? What they soon became was a service agency. Suburban churches would come in on weekends and do service projects. They had a food pantry, a furniture pantry, and a clothes pantry where urban residents could receive second-hand cast-offs from their now distant suburban neighbors. The church was full of old furniture and clothes. What the congregation realized over time was that this “service agency” mentality was not really helping their neighborhood, nor was it really bringing a greater measure of wholeness and life to anyone involved.

At this point, the congregation made the important decision to step back and ask themselves some hard questions. They realized they needed to make space for a serious conversation about who the church is called to be and who God was calling them to be as a congregation there in that specific place. Decades ago it was commonplace for churches to have Sunday evening services. This congregation decided that this Sunday evening time was probably the best opportunity they had to gather and talk as a family. So 20 years ago they began a conversation every Sunday night about the nature of the church, about who they were, and about who they were called to be, and about what it might mean to live out the gospel incarnationally in that particular place. That Sunday night conversation continues today.

We should not romanticize this weekly conversation. It was hard and contentious. They lost a number of members. When they started asking fundamental questions about the Christian faith, they discovered that they didn’t actually agree about matters they had always assumed they did agree about. As the conversations continued and got more difficult, they worked diligently to be open and honest with one another, but there was no denying it: this was hard, even painful at times. Over time, they began to come to a consensus about their God-given calling: God was calling them to be a part of God’s mission and to be a sign, a foretaste, an outpost of God’s reign in that neighborhood.  They began to ask questions about what that might look like. And they began to ask what it would look like if they really believed that God had given them all the gifts they needed to be faithful co-workers with God in that place.

Paying Attention.

Working togetherThe congregation was down to about 180 members at this point, a small congregation by most standards. The first thing they did was to pay attention to what was right in front of them. They began to notice, for example, that they were in a neighborhood that itself had many gifts even though very few people recognized them as such. Nearly everyone thought of it as a blighted part of the city with little or nothing to offer. So they began a number of initiatives they hoped would help them begin to see their neighbors and their neighborhood differently. They held neighborhood meetings, listening and taking inventory of the manifold gifts around them.  Rather than hiring a youth minister as their second staff person, they hired a member of their congregation who was savvy when it came to construction, hiring him as a development organizer. And they started a non-profit Community Development Corporation(CDC).

Their focus was on paying attention to what God was already doing and what gifts God had already given them. They realized they had a woman in the congregation who was living on minimum wage and was going to be evicted from her house. There were eighteen people in her household, including a number of neighborhood children she had taken in. The congregation asked themselves: What gifts, what assets do we have as a congregation to address this situation? After deliberation, they took one of the abandoned houses near the church, moved out the furniture being stored there, and completely renovated the house. The woman and her family moved into what was essentially a brand new house.  And then they realized two things: one, that there were all kinds of people in the neighborhood who needed better housing; and two, that all these run-down properties in the neighborhood that before had seemed liked problems, now appeared as assets.  So they began to see part of their mission of shalom-making as providing good housing and providing good work for people in repairing and refurbishing houses in their neighborhood.

Utilizing God’s Gifts to Develop a Neighborhood.

Over the years they have completely refurbished and remodeled 40 houses within a two block area of the church. As a result, more and more members of the congregation began moving into the neighborhood immediately surrounding the church property. Today, about three-fourths of the congregation lives within a two-block radius of the church, mostly on two nearby streets. Together they want to be God’s presence, an incarnational presence, in that neighborhood. And that they are. They have also done repairs on over 200 additional houses in the neighborhood, with the CDC serving as an employer, offering people an opportunity to enhance their skills and the opportunity to do meaningful work.

The church was also gifted a few years ago with an old school which sits adjacent to its property. Considerable resources were devoted to transforming the former school into much-needed housing; it now contains 36 units of mixed income apartments.  Some tenants pay above market price, some pay market price, and some low-income tenants pay below market price, all living together in the same space. They have also refurbished another nearby building, creating 30 affordable senior apartment units. These environmentally conscious apartments are projected to generate more energy than they use.

One final aspect of this congregation’s creative foray into neighborhood housing is worth noting. Not only has the congregation provided housing and opportunities for meaningful work to their neighbors, but because these properties are owned by the CDC, they also control the cost of this housing to insure it remains affordable. Likewise, they have control over who their tenants are, insuring it continues to be a mixed neighborhood and thereby resisting the gentrification of the neighborhood.

In addition to housing, the congregation has also been a force for good in the neighborhood when it comes to education. Years ago, two women in the congregation decided they would like better daycare and Pre-K options for their children. There were a lot of young working mothers in the neighborhood and there were limited options for their children. Because the church had this huge building, most of it being unused throughout the week, the women asked if they could borrow a room so they could teach their children and other neighborhood children. And so they did. Over time, they have grown to become one of the top early childhood programs in Indianapolis, serving over 200 children every day. They also employ 40 people full-time with only about ten being from the church.  Even though churches who run such programs are not required to be licensed in Indiana, the program voluntarily meets all state regulations and all their teachers are licensed. They also seek to be a good neighbor by offering enrichment opportunities for children enrolled in the preschool. For example, recently they took 100 of those children on a three-day camping trip. This outing not only gave parents a much-needed break, but also offered a lot of these urban children their first opportunity to experience nature in this way.

This congregation for many years, through its CDC, has also run a mowing service, cutting lawns and landscaping a number of city parks. This small business allowed them to hire low-skilled workers and offer them a living wage.  They also have a robust bookkeeping business that serves primarily non-profits.  In each case, they think about and practice the economic side of things very unconventionally. When you are hired you have a frank and open conversation about how much you need to earn to live. And then they try to meet that. So people working the same jobs do not necessarily make the same amount. Some workers actually earn more than their supervisors. And income levels and salaries can fluctuate over time, depending upon current financial obligations. So if employees have student loans to pay off they might make more until they pay them off, at which time they may agree to take a reduction in pay to support others. This counter-cultural approach to economics focuses attention on how much people need and not on finding your identity and worth in your annual income. Such an approach is rooted in trust, since you are simply asked to be honest about how much you really need to live; no one checks up on you.

Becoming an Instrument of God’s Shalom.

GardensThis posture of trust and risk is also displayed in the congregation’s willingness to dream boldly about how they might be an instrument of God’s work of shalom in their neighborhood. The congregation is not afraid of short-term failure and not every venture they have started has been a success. On the East side of the city there are a lot of old, abandoned factories. One such location nearby was used in the past to make batteries and so the ground on which the site sits is completely contaminated.  Rather than simply seeing this as a problem, the congregation has chosen to view the site as an asset and has thought creatively about how to use it for the good of their neighbors. Because this part of the city is a functional food desert with little or no healthy food available nearby, members in the congregation have started growing hydroponic vegetables in this old factory, with vegetables raised in this way growing in a liquid solution rather than soil.  In this way, the congregation is seeking to provide their neighbors healthy food at an affordable price while at the same time redeeming a piece of property that for many years was little more than a visible scar, a daily reminder of how their neighborhood had been abandoned. But this project is not without its own risks. The money raised for this venture came from families in the church taking out mortgages on their own homes.  These loans have been run through the CDC, and so these families will never make a profit from this venture (that was not the point), but will at best have their loans repaid over time.  But there is, of course, the real possibility that this venture will fail and their loans will not be repaid. They are taking a real risk in making available the resources entrusted to them for the good of their neighbors. They are a people living on the edge, not afraid to trust God and not afraid to try things that might fail.

Making a Difference.

Neighborhood working togetherThis relatively small congregation is making an enormous difference on the East side of Indianapolis. You can’t live in that part of town and not know about this congregation, but few people outside their little corner of the world know anything about them. They are the first to say they are not doing this work by themselves; rather, they are always seeking to partner with other community organizations in the area. They are very much in conversation with their neighborhood, trying to be good neighbors rather than saviors. They are here for the duration, not coming in on weekends and then going out to the suburbs to live. This church is a real sign of the kingdom, leading people do ask, “Why are you here?” “Why are you doing this?” This is a most fruitful dynamic within which to talk about the good news of Jesus Christ.

This congregation doesn’t like to talk about themselves and they are nervous when people try to hold them up as a model for anything.  They are simply trying, day after day, to be faithful to their calling to be an agent of God’s life-giving Spirit in their surrounding neighborhood.  But even so, there is a lot about their embodied life that can stir our imaginations. They are, by God’s grace, a beautiful incarnational presence in that neighborhood. They help people of all ages recognize their gifts and then help them put them to work, using them in life-giving ways. Their approach to ministry and service always begins with what God has already given them rather than in terms of what they might feel compelled to do. They are constantly asking: If God really has given us everything we need, indeed, an abundancemore than what we need—here in this place, how do we best use those gifts to join God’s mission in the world?

How did they come to this transformation?

The congregation was influenced by early rumblings in the missional church conversation. They also, early on, were a part of the Ekklesia Project, a network of pastors, scholars, laypeople, and congregations seeking to learn from one another how best to live out the gospel in our time. They also had other friends who were helping them think theologically about the nature of the church, including intentional communities around the country such as the Bruderhof, and the Center for Parish Development. They are deep learners, who are willing to learn and then risk putting that learning into action in order to keep learning how to be kingdom people. They take scripture seriously in their life together, once devoting a year studying the book of Ephesians, imagining together what it might mean for the daily lived experience of their congregation if God really was through the church making known the manifold wisdom of God. They believe that is what they have been called to do, to be used by God to bear witness to God’s desires for all of creation. They are still meeting every Sunday night, engaging in their ongoing conversation and discernment, and this conversation is always open to anyone who wants to participate. Their life together is organic, slow, and messy. Yet as noted above, the way they seek to be the church has real life implications for every sphere of life, including the shape of daily work, and those thoughtful decisions and practices have a shalom-making ripple effect across their congregation and into their local neighborhood and community.  My hope and prayer is that in sharing a bit of their story, we all might be inspired to seek ways to live out God’s call to be a foretaste of God’s kingdom in our own neighborhoods, seeking creative ways to be used by God’s Spirit to bring a greater measure of healing and wholeness to a broken world.

Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. What are the pros and the cons of a “service agency” mentality?
  2. How did the Sunday night conversations make a difference when the congregation began paying attention to their neighborhood?
  3. How did paying attention to God’s gifts within their neighborhood differ from a service agency approach?
  4. In what ways has this congregation become a foretaste and instrument of God’s reign?
  5. What are some initial steps your congregation could take to become a “congregation of good work”?


inagrace_smThe Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

Presentation: A Tale of Two Congregations, Part One

Phil Kenneson
Phil Kenneson

Posted by Inagrace Dietterich


What might be some creative ways in which the church itself can become the locus for imagining and creating good work, and perhaps especially for the neighborhood in which it finds itself?

This post and the next by Phil Kenneson will make even more explicit how congregations and parishes might serve as the primary context in which we reframe and reshape Christian imagination about and engagement in our daily work.

The Role of the Church.

printer_friendlyIf God’s mission is to bring healing and wholeness to all of creation, to create a people who embody (even if imperfectly) what shalom and human flourishing might look like, it seems unimaginable that this will be possible if we do not adequately address our daily work. Good work was part of God’s original design, and so any renewed or restored humanity in Christ must also address this central aspect of human life. The church can no longer afford to convey (largely through its silence on the matter) that our daily work is tangential to our calling as the body of Christ.How might congregations and parishes begin to give proper attention to this vital aspect of human life? Clearly we need considerable teaching, encouragement, and support around this matter. We need a richer and deeper theology. We need sustained reflection on how our culture has shaped our understanding and practice of work for good and ill. And perhaps most importantly, the church needs to communicate clearly that the issue is not simply how to be a Christian at work, but how our work itself may play a role in God’s mission.

A Typical Congregation.

In telling this tale of two congregations, I’d like first to briefly profile what seems to happen in many if not most congregations, and then tell the story of another specific congregation that approaches these matters quite differently.  My hope is that the contrast will stir our imaginations to consider how our own congregations might come to see “good work” as central to God’s mission of shalom.

My very unscientific survey suggests that issues of our daily work, especially remunerated work, are addressed explicitly in congregational life in a relatively circumscribed way.  Many congregations will routinely encourage their members to “be salt and light” in their workplaces and to view those workplaces as opportunities for mission and relational evangelism. In a similar way, many Christians are reminded regularly that allowing Christ to be Lord of all of life extends to the workplace, and so attention should be given to being a responsible employee and employer.  With the advent of ubiquitous communication systems like email and texting and the shifting expectations about constant availability and the never-ending workday, conversations about so-called “work-life balance” are likewise becoming more common in congregations.  And finally, although most congregations avoid offering explicit guidance to their young people about the kinds of work for which they might be best suited, the clear signal given by most congregations (which echoes the larger societal voice) is that any legal work can be suitable and done to the glory of God.

As every good parent knows, we teach our children as much by what we don’t say as by what we do say, and so it’s perhaps important here to note what most congregations teach (unwittingly) by means of their silence.  Beyond the longstanding privilege granted to the work done by professional clergy and missionaries, very few congregations seem willing to wade into serious discussions about “good work” and what might count for “good work” from a theological perspective. In this respect, the church mirrors the larger cultural view that instrumentalizes work, finding work’s value less in the work itself, but in the (largely financial) benefits work delivers. As a result, church members could be forgiven if they sensed the church cares little or not at all about what kind of work they did as long as the work was legal (and perhaps not tied to the alcohol and sex industries), and they were faithful and generous in giving to the church. This message is also amplified by the paucity of guidance that most congregations offer their young people with regard to vocational discernment.  In other words, most young people rightly assume their church doesn’t really care what kind of work they do, because if they did care, they would surely help them discern what to do with their lives.  But few churches do, so most young people assume that little or nothing theologically substantive is at stake in these decisions.

Discerning Gifts.

As an aside, and as a Christian college educator, let me hasten to add that I don’t believe our Christian colleges do this very well either. One of the great burdens of young people in college is to choose their vocations. Most people throughout history have not had this freedom, but it is both blessing and curse. It is a huge burden continually to be asked what you are going to do with your life. How is a person supposed to know that at age 22? People keep saying, “You can do anything you want,” but that’s not nearly as helpful as it might seem. And it is particularly unhelpful if we as Christians believe that God has entrusted to every person gifts that might be used well in God’s work of shalom.

One of my deepest convictions is that God has actually given gifts to every human person that if cultivated well can be used by God to create a greater measure of healing and wholeness within all of creation. If this is so, this places a huge responsibility upon us as Christians and as congregations to help people identify, cultivate, and manifest those gifts for the life of the world. I fear most congregations are not engaged in this vital work.  We all too often think we are doing our young people a service by letting them be completely free to choose the kind of work they will do. Many Christians would be deeply surprised at how many young people intensely long to be guided by the wisdom embodied (but too often lying fallow) in their congregations.

When churches and Christian colleges are involved, I fear too often the extent of that involvement stops at administering batteries of tests and assessments to help them discern their gifts.  There may be a place for this, but what really matters to most us is what people who know us well see in us. If you have any doubts about this, ask yourself this simple question: If you have a strong sense of your own giftedness, how did you come to know this about yourself?  Because you took a test?  Or because over the years, people implicitly or explicitly identified and validated your giftedness? My hunch is that for most of us, it’s the latter.  And if this is so, how might we come to do this more intentionally in our congregations?  Such a practice presumes, of course, that we know our young people in our congregations well enough to be able to say, “Here’s what we see as some of the gifts God has given you.” And then we need to help them begin to imagine how they might use those gifts to bring a greater measure of wholeness to the world.

Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. Why should Christian communities address the issue of “good work”?
  2. What blocks the church from considering how work itself may play a role in God’s mission?
  3. What do you think is needed to enable the church to deal more effectively with work?
  4. In what ways does your congregation deal with issues of daily work?
  5. What does it mean to “instrumentalize” work?
  6. What more could the church do to offer guidance for young people in discerning their gifts for “good work”?


inagrace_smThe Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

A Tale of Two Freedoms

Phil Kenneson
Phil Kenneson

Posted by Inagrace Dietterich


What might it look like to use our freedom to live more and more into God’s economy? What implications might this have for our daily work? How might this shift the way we think about work and enter into our daily tasks?

This post identifies and unpacks two freedoms:  freedom FROM and freedom FOR.  The next post will explore the more particular freedom of the Christian and draw out its implications for daily work.


God’s kingdom, the new creation, has an economy that is consonant with what God is doing and that reflects God’s own character. This is God’s own mission. Yet we find ourselves in the midst of a different economy, one formed by the assumptions and priories of American culture. We can’t simply wake up one morning and live fully in God’s economy. How do we open ourselves up to live more and more into God’s economy? We are called to live every day as a response to God’s grace and as a witness to God’s desires for all of creation. This is part of our sanctification, part of what it means to live more fully into the way of Jesus. As we are being formed more fully into the image of Christ, we live more into our full humanity, which includes living more fully into God’s economy.

Freedom FROM

One way of thinking through this is to explore more fully the question of freedom. This word is and has been a kind of buzz word in American society from early on in our history. As a result, talking about freedom in our culture as a Christian typically brings all kinds of baggage with it. We begin, therefore, by reminding ourselves of how the language of freedom is routinely used in American culture.

Personal Freedom as Freedom from Constraint.

When people in American culture talk about freedom, usually what is meant is freedom from constraint.  In personal terms, this is the freedom to do what we desire.  We can do anything, everything, or nothing. We consider ourselves to be autonomous, independent individuals; nobody can tell us what to do.  So freedom from constraint, at least within the limits of the law, is a cornerstone of American society. As long as we are not demonstrably harming another person or their interests we are free to do whatever we want to do. There will, of course, be disagreements about what counts for harm and therefore about the limits of our freedom, but most people agree that citizens should be granted as much latitude, as much freedom, as possible.

Maximizing individual liberty is at the heart of Western societies and their economies. To be clear, however, this agreement about the important role of freedom is not a substantive agreement about what such freedom is for; rather, it’s an agreement premised on the assumption that we cannot agree on the specific good or goods we should pursue with such freedom.  So because we cannot agree on what the good is, we set up procedures to make it possible for each individual to pursue what he or she thinks the good is. Freedom means pursuing my own understanding of the good, my own understanding of happiness, as long as this harms no one else.

Such personal freedom presupposes the power to make choices, yet this freedom may, ironically, be the source of our greatest bondage. The most dangerous bondages are the ones we don’t even recognize as enslavement. What happens when our imaginations have been so colonized that while we may have choices, all of those choices remain deeply rooted within a single framework, a single way of thinking about our lives and what will count for happiness and success?  How many people, for example, feel free not to pursue the American Dream?  Not to strive to be successful in the eyes of the world?  Not to spend one’s life accumulating more and more things the world says we simply must have to be happy?

Political Freedom as Freedom from Oppression.

Given the importance of personal freedom in American society, it’s not surprising that the language of freedom also plays a central role in American political discourse. We are told that our country stands for freedom here and around the world, and we are repeatedly reminded that “freedom isn’t free” and that countless persons across time have sacrificed their lives for our freedom.  And even though we rarely stop and ask exactly what this freedom is that we celebrate and defend, it’s hard to imagine anyone being against it.  Freedom is like apple pie and motherhood.

Best we can surmise, this political freedom is personal freedom writ large.  If individuals are to be as free from constraint as possible, so our society as a whole is to be free both from external and internal forces that would impinge upon our ability to be self-governing and self-directed.  This contrasts with those societies whose citizens find the shape of their daily lives fundamentally shaped by either internal or external forces of oppression.

Although few would disagree that political freedom is something to be cherished, we rarely reflect on all the ways in which such freedom is secured and sustained. As a society, the stories we tell about freedom suggest that our civil order could only have been created, sustained, and ordered through bloodshed. (When, for example, was the last time you heard someone extol the incalculable debt we owe to elementary school teachers for protecting our liberties by teaching citizens in our republic to read, and write, and think?) As such, there is a huge mythology around the notion of freedom, and not just for our country, but for every country that values freedom. Such mythology not only justifies the past, but justifies what we should be willing to do in the future to defend this freedom as we have come to understand it.

Yet for those of us followers of Jesus who find ourselves in societies that tend to think of personal and political freedom as the highest good, and therefore the protection of it being almost self- justifying, we might pause to reflect on a couple of sobering truths. While it is true that certain kinds of freedom (say, so-called freedom of religion and expression) are to be rightly valued, it’s sobering to remember that the one whom we worship and serve, as well as his Jewish forbearers, lived under various oppressive regimes their entire lives. What are we to make of the fact that when the God of the universe chooses to become incarnate in human life, this God freely chooses to live under Roman occupation?  Such political oppression does not seem to have thwarted what Jesus understood as his mission. He was still a free man in many important respects. Even in recent history we have seen such freedom-in-the-midst-of-oppression replicated.  For example, during the heyday of the Soviet Union, there were more Christians worshiping on any given Sunday morning in the USSR than there were in Western Europe. This suggests that personal and political freedoms as they are often understood, while certainly not to be gainsaid, are not for followers of Jesus the be-all and end-all of life. This is perhaps most clearly understood once we see how negative freedom (freedom from) is almost always best understood as in service to positive freedom (freedom for)and how when the former is divorced from the latter, the former is often reduced to little more than license.

Freedom FOR

Once we shift the discussion about freedom away from simply “freedom from” to “freedom for,” we find ourselves in a much different and far richer discussion. The tradition of the church has long assumed that the freedom we find in Christ is not simply negative freedom, freedom from something, but also a positive freedom, freedom for something. True freedom is not simply freedom from constraint, but being liberated for something. The Israelites weren’t freed from Egyptian bondage just because God thought freedom from constraint was a good in itself. They were freed in order to worship God truly and fully and to enjoy the human flourishing that such right orientation would make possible.

Now it’s true that to be truly free for something usually demands we be honest about that which may constrain us from fully exercising our freedom. Yet as suggested above, it’s not enough to focus simply on freedom from without pressing on to ask what are we freed for. Christians have long insisted that it’s not enough for us to be simply free from something.  Indeed, the Apostle Paul insists that our calling is be liberated from the bondage of sin so that we may become servants of Jesus Christ and the fully human life Jesus Christ makes possible. Too often the gospel can be reduced to our being freed from the consequences of our sin in the life to come.  Although this is good news, it’s only a part of the good news. God has not only freed us from the consequences of our sin, but God has also freed us from the power of sin so that we might live more fully into our true humanity—to live into life as God created it to be. Yes, we needed to be freed from our sin, but this was not the sum total of God’s purpose. We were freed so we might together live more fully into God’s fullness. This is our freedom in Christ.

In a similar way, the Apostle Paul reminds us that we as humans live under the shadow of death. The fear of death drives a lot of human action, and it is part of what we are called to be liberated from in and through Jesus Christ. It’s within this context that we understand the martyrs of the church. While many consider it noble and honorable to die for your country, many regard dying for your faith and its convictions as silly or foolish. For followers of Jesus, laying down one’s life only makes sense in light of Jesus having conquered death. Thus death and the fear of death no longer have a hold on Christians; they no longer constrain or limit them. We are freed to live boldly because death is not the final word. Such freedom from the fear of death makes possible a certain kind of freedom for: freedom to risk living into a way of life that embodies God’s design for human flourishing. God didn’t just cancel death in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Rather, part of the good news of the resurrection is that new possibilities are now available because the fear of death has been overcome. In this there is great freedom.

Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. When you think of “freedom” what comes to mind?
  2. How does American culture shape our view and experience of freedom?
  3. What is the difference between “freedom from” and “freedom for”?
  4. How does the gospel shape our view and experience of freedom?


inagrace_smThe Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

A Tale of Two Economies, Part Two

Phil Kenneson
Phil Kenneson

Posted by Inagrace Dietterich

convo2016logo150GOD’S ECONOMY.  Continuing from the last post, we are now comparing and contrasting two different “economies” broadly understood. For many of us, simply hearing the phrase “God’s economy” might strike us as odd. When we hear the word “economy,” we think of such things as money, the Federal Reserve, or GDP. That’s simply the way the word economy is typically used in our day.


The phrase “God’s economy,” however, harkens back to a broader meaning of economy. The Greek word from which we get the word economy is oikos. It’s the same root from which we get words like ecology and eco-system.(It’s worth considering how often our society pits concerns about “economy” against those of “ecology,” but we should remember they have the same root.)The Greek word oikos means house, household or habitation. And the other part of this compound word economy comes from the Greek word nomos, which has to do with law or ordering. So at its root, the word economy has to do with ordering the household.

The question at the heart of an economy, therefore, is about how any particular “household” should be ordered, whether that be at the micro or macro level. All of our own households are ordered in ways that seek to insure that people in that household have what they need. There are, of course, many different ways of doing that. Likewise, a neighborhood, a church, a city, and a nation-state also have their own kinds of economies, their particular ways of “ordering the household.”And of course in our day we also hear much talk about the global economy.

So a central question with which Christians must wrestle is this: when Jesus comes and announces that the reign of God is breaking in, that this new social order called the kingdom—this new way for people to live together under the good reign of God—is at hand, does this new social order have its own economy? Does the reign of God have its own way of “ordering the household,” or will any economy do?

To begin examining this important question, we will first remind ourselves of how our “normal” everyday economies function, and then we will compare that to what scripture and the Christian tradition suggest about God’s economy.  In most cases, what appear on both lists are things we have heard most of our lives; what is most interesting is comparing the two lists, especially since most of us find ourselves operating (or aspiring to operate) in both economies.


Normal Economy.

We begin with three things that are inseparably linked in normal everyday economies. They are so commonplace we hardly need to list them: earning, owning, and resources.

  1. Earning. The practice of earning has central place in any economy we can imagine. We have been told our whole lives that there are no free lunches. For most of us, significant amounts of time and energy are devoted to earning a paycheck, earning a living.
  1. Owning. One of the primary reasons we engage in earning is so we can own. Earning a pay check makes owning things possible. In capitalism owning also makes earning possible. If you have access to capital, you can create earning opportunities for others and yourself. Thus we do not just earn to own, but potentially we also own to earn. This linking of owning and earning, despite its shortcomings, can be a powerful economic engine.
  1. Resources. Earning and owning are difficult to imagine apart from various kinds of resources, both natural and human. We should note that the language of “resources” doesn’t encourage us to think about where they come from or what particularly they are for; they are simply resources to be used. If we look out the window, we might see miles of trees that could potentially become lumber, paper, or a myriad other things. Earning and owning are also difficult to imagine apart from what we typically call “human resources.”Many of us work for organizations that include HR people among their vital staff.
  1. Saving, investing, donating, etc. What do we do with this stuff that we work so hard for? We can save it, invest it, give it away, or pretty much anything else we desire, precisely because we own it. That’s the point of owing something: we can do with it whatever we determine is in our self-interest. Here we should note we are using “self-interest” the way economists use the concept. The concept isn’t synonymous with selfish interest; rather, “self-interest” means that my decisions are governed by what I believe is in my interest to do, rather than having them being governed by someone else’s interests. I might, for example, determine for any number of personal reasons that it is in my interest to take care of my neighbors. But that’s still my interest, not necessarily anyone else’s.
  1. Protecting and guarding. An enormous part of our economy—our household ordering–goes toward protecting and guarding what we’ve worked so hard to earn and own. The levels of complexity here are mind-boggling, and include everything from the very basic technology ofa door lock to such things as financial institutions, insurance policies, and the rule of law encoded in contracts such as mortgages.
  1. Securing an uncertain future. If we are honest, much of the point of all of this economic activity noted above is to secure an uncertain future. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. If you can’t think of a frightening scenario that will keep you up at night, turn on the television and someone will help you land on one. There’s a lot of fear being pandered to because it is good for the economy. Our economies are ordered to reflect this uncertainty, this lack of a guarantee regarding the future. For example, everyday hundreds of people die in unforeseen accidents, and no one expects the rest of us to take responsibility for the aftermath. That’s not the way our collective household is ordered. There may be a bit of social security available, a bit of a societal safety net, but for the most part we know that this by itself is unlikely to be sufficient. And so most of us have been shaped to believe it is our responsibility to take these matters into our own hands in order to do the best we can to secure an uncertain future, leaving many of us with considerable anxiety and fear about the future.
  1. How much is enough? But all of that leaves us with a problem: how much is enough to secure an uncertain future? I imagine that on most days Bill Gates thinks he has enough; he is remarkably generous. Yet most of us aren’t billionaires and we can imagine scenarios where a health catastrophe, a weather event, loss of job, illness, or any number of things could wipe out whatever hedge against the future we have built. So it feels like you can never have enough. The threats are always bigger than the available resources.
  1. The Story of Scarcity. One of the reasons it feels like there is not enough is because our society as a whole tells a powerful story of scarcity. Economists talk a good deal about scarcity. In fact, many define economics as the science of scarcity. Because human desires and wants are unlimited, yet resources are limited and finite, human beings are always going to want more than there is available. How is that scarcity to be managed? That’s the task of economics, which begins by assuming that there isn’t enough.
  1. The Point of Life: Get Yours. We rarely say it this baldly, but in our normal economy it’s pretty clear that the point of life is to get yours. There are no free lunches. No one is going to give you what you need, you’re going to have to earn it. For example, jobs are regarded as scarce commodities. No one is going to give you a job; you’re going to have to hustle for one and there are simply not enough jobs to go around. In fact, a lot of economists think we need 5% of the population to be unemployed because that puts the proper check on inflation for the other 95% of us.

God’s Economy.

As with our “normal” economy, we begin our exploration of God’s economy with a basic triad: receiving, stewarding, gifts.

  1. Receiving. The basic posture of the Christian life is one of reception. How many times have we heard in our congregations: “Everything we have we have received at God’s hand”? In my Methodist congregation we insist that during communion we come with cupped hands. We don’t get to grab for this life-giving bread; this gift is placed in our hands. Open hands is the proper posture before God. There is nothing that we do not first receive. This is a radical notion, not least because receiving is fundamentally different than earning.
  1. Stewarding. Stewards are not owners. Rather, stewards manage that which has been entrusted to them. The Greek word oikos noted earlier is also the root for the words our English Bibles translate as “steward” and “stewardship.”A steward is a household manager. This means that a steward is much more than a servant or slave, for a steward acts in the place of the owner. The owner and steward must have a close relationship since the steward must make judgments based on the owner’s desires.
  1. Gifts. Gifts are fundamentally different from resources. Little about resource language encourages us to think about where they come from and what they are for; they are simply there to be used. Gift language, by contrast, always encourages us to think about where a gift comes from and why it was given. To receive a gift well, you have to know why it was given, not least because gifts create some of the basic bonds that nurture and sustain relationships. Here again we see the tension between these two economies. You can’t earn a gift; it is given. This raises a fundamental question about the character of the world we live in: Does the world come to us first of all as gift, or as the result of our own efforts? And to be clear, with God’s economy we are talking about much more than money. In fact, as we will see, most of the life-giving gifts that circulate in God’s economy are much more interesting than money.
  1. God’s Interests. In God’s economy, we are encouraged to make God’s interests, God’s desires, our fundamental framework for our lives. What is God doing in the world? What does God desire? Is it possible that what God has placed in my hands might be used to further God’s ultimate desire of healing and wholeness for all of God’s creation? If the gifts I have been given include my abilities, passions, aptitudes, and life-experiences, what might it mean to direct these gifts toward God’s desires and purposes for the world? This would be radically different than simply doing what our normal economy encourages me to do, which is to auction off myself and my abilities to the highest bidder for my personal gain.
  1. Kingdom Risk-taking. Rather than guarding and protecting what we have worked so hard to earn and own, in God’s economy we are encouraged to take risks for the kingdom with all that has been placed into our hands. This is the central lesson of Jesus’ parable of the talents in which the last servant is castigated because he refused to risk. He’s been asked to be a steward but he is paralyzed by fear. Such fear, though understandable, begins to dissipate when we realize that God has not only called us to be part of God’s work of healing and mending, but also equipped us, gifted us, to do so. This frees us to take risks.
  1. Living Into God’s Promised Future. Rather than devoting our life energies to trying to secure for ourselves an uncertain future, we are called to live into God’s promised future. We don’t, of course, have a master plan for that future, but we do know that God is making all things new, creating a new humanity, bringing into existence a new creation, reconciling all things. Because of Jesus, we know where history is ultimately headed.
  1. God’s Abundance. Although our normal economy instills in us the constant fear and anxiety of never having enough, God’s economy is founded upon God’s gracious generosity and overwhelming abundance. In biblical terms, “abundance” means “more than enough.” One of the reasons American culture finds it difficult to experience true abundance is because we have no functional notion of enough. Simply put: if you have no notion of enough, you can never experience more than enough.
  1. The Story of Abundance. Christians have a story to tell about abundance that has nothing to do with the prosperity gospel. The gospel story of Jesus feeding the 5000 destroys the ancient myth of scarcity. The God we worship and serve is not a God of scarcity, or a God of just barely enough to go round; rather, our God is a God of more than enough. In the gospel account everybody had their fill and there were 12 baskets of leftovers. If people in their everyday lives experience scarcity, this is the fault of God’s creatures, not the Creator.
  1. The Point of Life: The Joy of Partnership. We are called to take joy in this remarkable invitation to be part of God’s work of re-creation. We are called to use our Spirit-led creativity, minds, and energies to discern how best to marshal what God has entrusted to us to participate joyfully in God’s work of re-creation. What more could we possibly want out of life than the privilege of working with God to bring a greater measure of healing and wholeness—a greater measure of shalom—to a broken world?

In the next posts, we will explore how we can live as a people more fully into God’s economy, and in so doing, live more fully into our full humanity, bearing witness to God’s desires for all of creation.


Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. When you hear the word “economy” what comes to your mind?
  2. What difference does it make to talk of God’s economy?
  3. How do the first three aspects of normal economy (earning, owning, resources) shape your perspective of work?
  4. How do the first three aspects of God’s economy (receiving, stewarding, gifts) shape your perspective of work?
  5. What constitutes “good” work within the normal understanding of economy?
  6. What constitutes “good” work within God’s economy?


inagrace_smThe Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.


A Tale of Two Economies, Part One

Phil Kenneson
Phil Kenneson

Posted by Inagrace Dieterrich

We now turn to comparing and contrasting two different “economies” (broadly understood). One economy, which we might call our convo2016logo150regular, everyday economy, is grounded in such fundamental practices as earning, owning, securing, and protecting. The other, which we might call God’s economy, or the economy of the open hand, is grounded in very different practices such as receiving, stewarding, risking and being vulnerable. Is it possible for the people of God to inhabit both economies? What might it look like for congregations to live more and more into God’s economy?


Last time we devoted ourselves to trying to sketch out very quickly some of the deep assumptions spoken and unspoken that the dominant culture delivers to most of us about work. (A Tale of Two Ends) We named such things as viewing work as a necessary evil, that work is primarily focused on pay or compensation, and that we are often, as a result, encouraged to live for the weekend. We are also taught that hard work leads to success. We devoted considerable time to reflecting on how our culture encourages us to view work as one of our fundamental identity markers. What you do for pay largely defines you in the eyes of other people, if not in your own eyes. Such identities are likewise bound up with issues of social status and hierarchy. As a result, our own sense of self-worth is often inextricably linked to the work we do for pay. We also took some time to unpack the ways our culture encourages us to “instrumentalize” our work, regarding our work primarily as a means to some other (usually financial) end.

Because we are formed to think of work primarily in terms of it being a means to some other end, it’s difficult to think through what might count for good work beyond issues of remuneration. In other words, there’s little incentive in our current conversation about work to ask if certain work is worth doing as long as most people believe that what distinguishes any job as “good” is whether it pays well and has decent benefits. For many people, as long as something pays well and is legal, who cares about whether it is good work or not?

If Christians find some of these fundamental cultural assumptions about work worrisome, what might we suggest in their place?

Might Christians view work differently if the practice of work were grounded in a different story about the world and our place within it? What if we encouraged our fellow Christians and their congregations to see their work within the larger story of God’s mission in the world?

A Missional Perspective about What God is Doing in the World.

shalomChristians tell a story that God is on a mission: God is reconciling all things in Christ. If you had to pick only one word from Scripture that summarizes God’s goal in that mission, that characterizes the shape of this in-breaking kingdom, you could do worse than picking the Hebrew word “shalom.” God is bringing a reign of shalom, a kingdom of shalom. Most English translations typically translate shalom as “peace,”but such a translation is inadequate for very particular cultural reasons. In Western cultures particularly, we define peace negatively. This is not to say that we think of peace negatively, but that we define it as the absence of something. So peace is defined as the absence of war or conflict. That’s a negative definition; we define peace by what it isn’t. But in Scripture shalom is actually a positive notion; it is not first of all the absence of something, but the presence of something. It is the presence of completeness and wholeness. That’s a very different thing. All of us have experienced situations where we weren’t in open conflict with others but there was no wholeness present. You can, for example, have a cease fire in your family and yet be nowhere near shalom. God’s desire, God’s mission, is to bring into existence a new social order, a new kingdom, a new reign of wholeness. That’s what God is doing in the world. The story of Scripture is that creation is in some sense fundamentally broken, that we as human beings are alienated from God, from each other, from ourselves, and from the rest of created order. God is on mission to bring all things back into wholeness and completeness.

Participating in the Kingdom or Reign of God.

The news of God’s mission is astonishingly good news, and yet the astonishment doesn’t stop there, for the church itself has been called to join God on this mission, to participate with God in that work of bringing healing and wholeness to God’s good creation. Jesus calls this new social order that God is bringing into existence “the kingdom,” “the reign of God,” and Jesus announces that it is near. And so we pray that God’s kingdom would come more fully whenever God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, longing for that day when all things will finally be made whole. We are right to believe, therefore, that any time part of creation, part of humanity, part of all that God has made is moving toward greater wholeness that in some sense God’s kingdom is becoming more and more present in that moment. This is why Jesus could say things such as, “If by the finger of God I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God is in your midst.” In delivering them from demon possession and its brokenness, Jesus was delivering them toward greater wholeness.

To be clear: the reign of God is not fully here in the present, but it has broken into our world and the church has been called to be a sign, a foretaste, a servant of that reign. As such, Christians don’t themselves build the kingdom, that’s God’s work. We do, however, as N.T. Wright suggests, build for the kingdom. The Book of Revelation suggests that something of our work on earth will be gathered up by God and endure, finding a place in God’s renewed creation. How our work finally has a place we cannot say, for we are servants, not the master builder, but we labor trusting that the master builder can sanctify our work in ways that allow us to in some small way participate in God’s mission bringing healing, wholeness, and completeness to God’s creation.

Contributing to God’s work of Shalom.

Two final points before we press on to explore God’s economy and how it may differ from everyday economies. First, we must not allow our tendency to think of work as “gainful employment” or “remunerated labor” to lead us to ignore all the ways we might participate in God’s mission of shalom outside of the work we do for pay. There are countless kinds of work we engage in every day that aren’t for pay, and yet it can be good work contributing to God’s work of shalom. For example, most of us would like to think that being a parent, or a good friend, or a good neighbor might be some of the most important work that we do, contributing to some measure of healing and wholeness to those around us.goodwork

And second, let’s not underestimate the potential power of starting with a different set of working assumptions about work, a different framing story within which to understand our working lives.To begin by asking what God is about in the world and how have we been invited to participate in that mission is to shift the conversation to a very different place. This different starting point, these different sets of assumptions, foreground a very different set of concerns that would otherwise never find a place in our conversations about work. We have been given the privilege of partnering with God to bring a greater measure of healing and wholeness to a broken world across our entire working lives. What an exciting gift, what an exciting opportunity, we’ve been given.


Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. How is “good” work defined within an instrumental view, where work is a means to an end?
  2. Where is God and God’s work within the story of work told by our dominant culture?
  3. Read Isaiah 2:1-4, Isa. 11:1-9, and Rev. 21:1-5. What do we learn about God and God’s work within the world from these texts?
  4. When you hear the word “peace” what comes to mind?
  5. In what ways can the Hebrew image of “shalom” stimulate us to tell a different story about God and God’s mission?
  6. How does the work of the church contribute to the kingdom or reign of God?
  7. Why is it important to clarify God’s work as we think about human work?


inagrace_smThe Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.