Frontiers of Faith & Work

The opportunity to bring theology to the very ideas we pursue

Nearly everywhere I go, I hear stories (and often complaints) about how the church has largely missed on vocation. How we are equipped for Sunday’s, but not the rest of the week. But there is reason for encouragement: amongst the next generation of serious Christians, particularly those living in urban centers, a robust theology of work is now increasingly widespread. In fact, within the community where I worship—Trinity Grace Church in New York City—our mission is “Joining God in the Renewal of All Things.”

However, as any orthodoxy is popularized, it’s subsequent orthopraxis — the practice of the theology — must be worked out. As Steve Garber says, “the words must become flesh.” My case in this essay is this: we are only at the very beginning of faith and work application; thus far, the field has been largely focused on what we do at work, and the worthiness of work, and the value of organizational culture.

Our next big opportunity is the application of theological insight at the very idea stage itself; In other words, faith and work at the conceptual level of products & services. It is here that there are many, many frontiers yet to explore, and cultural norms to upend.

Along these lines, I’d argue that the faith & work movement hasn’t really taken hold because it is thus far mostly quite tame. The “radical” world has been left to the African missionary or ministry leader in the inner city. When is the last time you heard of a radical restauranteur or technologist or presentation designer? They are out there (and I hope to write about them), but they are fewer and far between. Yet, listen to Karl Barth:

“The Church exists to set up in the world a new sign which is radically dissimilar to the world’s own manner and which contradicts it in a way which is full of promise.”

If he is right—and he is—then we have to reflect deeply to imagine the Kingdom to come in all things — across every industry and context.

We have to realize that the “renewal of all things” requires not merely an incremental and intriguing angle on startups, or even the right heart, but rather a deconstruction and then reconstruction of our current norms and expectations around entrepreneurship in culture today.

To this end, only as we step back and explore what seems unthinkable can we truly begin to imagine creating ventures that might shift and shape culture. We might think of this as the cultural renewal analogy to Clay Christensen’s ubiquitous disruption terminology. With our short lives and Western privilege, what if entrepreneurs aimed to be cultural pioneers and explorers instead of moguls?

Frontiers are often related to the application of breakthrough; when a scientific or technological breakthrough happens in the lab, we only experience the benefits of it in its “praxis”—once it reaches our senses in some practical way, whether as WiFi or antibiotics.

In other words, human progress cannot be measured simply in a better understanding of the world, but what we choose do with this understanding. This is why technology and economics alone has a very real progress ceiling; beyond a certain juncture it is a neutral cultural dynamic.

In the past half century, a tremendous sum of money has gone into using the field of psychology, the behavioral sciences, anthropology, and more to understand people (or the “consumer” as they call us) so we can be “monetized.” In other words, much of society has been constructed to understand us in order to extract the maximum amount of capital from our wallets.

Over the next half century, might we instead use our increased understanding of humanity and theology to create products, services, and environments that truly allow for flourishing? In this ongoing construction of a virtue based society, we would then be truly joining God in the renewal of all things—our opportunity at redemption, which as James K.A. Smith says, is “the re-direction and re-orientation of our culture making capacities.”

In several forthcoming essays, I’ll discuss not only an effective technique for discovering these types of cultural renewal ideas, but also explore several key thematic areas I believe are wide open for entrepreneurial endeavors.