By Robert Shearer, Bethel Seminary San Diego
During the course of this post, a full summary of the Colloquy Reading Group, Working with a Purpose, will be brought to bear. This summary will include the overall experience of interacting with the people in the group, the discussions brought forth while in the group, feelings towards the books themselves, and a final thought on the entire reading group as a whole. Given that this paper is a personal reflection piece, it will include personal terms and phrases not typically seen in a purely academic work of literature. Which by all accounts, should render it more authentic to the feelings of the author.
For the eight weeks that I met with the group, I often had almost the same critique, “am I being too hard on my group members.” For the chemistry of the group was the typical grouping of kind, Christian college-students who typically do not wade into structure-based arguments with each other. So during the weeks, I would often ask myself if I were being too hard on my group members because once embroiled in a debate, I get passionate and sometimes can come off as sharp. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that my group members are weak, or that I’m demonstrative, no, not in the least bit. I’m simply affirming the baseline of the group members.
Now the group originally began with more members than it finished with, which is a natural phenomenon that happens in projects. Of the members in the group, there were maybe three of four members that I truly wanted to hear more from on a continual basis. These distinct group members brought insight, freshness of thought, and an understanding of both the books and the context that they might be applied. Interestingly enough, but I can’t make too much out of this, these individuals were graduating seniors or seniors graduating in the following year. Now the remaining members of the group were mostly comprised of first-year seminary students. Again, I’m not saying this is bad, just an observation. So as the group progressed, I found myself listening with real patience and devotion towards the individuals who I naturally wasn’t inclined towards. I wanted to give these fellow group members my undivided attention, so as to possible learn something from them. More often than not, the few distinct group members again enlightened me than the remaining lot.
Now as previously mentioned, there were a few distinct group members that led some interesting discussions. They brought clarity and an in-depth analysis that sparked my interest and fanned the flames of my intellect. One such group member spoke about his difficulty in finding meaning with the work he was doing. He found himself not quite finding his stride with work, and struggled to relate it towards any missional purpose of Christ. I related so much to that critique. During the course of my life, in the various careers I’ve had, I often asked the question as to how what I was doing related to the overall Kingdom of God. I felt like what I was doing didn’t matter to God much. So when my group member shared that this was a real struggle for him, I related on a much more meaningful way than I had ever anticipated. This also struck me, due to the current ministry vocation that the individual was enrolled. I learned that being in ministry doesn’t necessarily shield my thoughts about the validity of my work. In my present vocation of children’s pastor, I have to remind myself as well that I’m not just putting on a Sunday-show, rather bringing the Gospel to the future generations. It’s work, with a purpose, a very high purpose at that.
During the discussions, I benefited from the experience that each of the facilitators brought. I found that having a different facilitator for each book brought direction to the conversations, thus ensuring that the conversations didn’t end up being a facile blurb about how everyone liked the book and no one offering any critique. One such enriching discussion came from one of the Bethel professors who was offering her critique on an author. She was able to recognize the theology the book’s author employed, thus enabling a thorough exposition of the book’s content on a deeper level than any other student had been capable of. Such depth and breadth brought light to the various books that made the discussions that much more enjoyable.
For this reading group, we were charged with digesting four books and one small booklet, all centering around working with a purpose: His purpose. The books are, in no particular order, Timothy Keller’s Every Good Endeavor, Amy Sherman’s Kingdom Calling, Gene Edward Veith’s God at Work, Daniel Finn’s Christian Economic Ethics, and Glen Scorgie et al’s booklet Work with Purpose. I personally did not enjoy all of these books equally. As such, I will provide a brief overview of the each book, but my personal favorite books will receive more attention than some of the others.
I shall focus on Timothy Keller’s book, Every Good Endeavor. Keller, having authored a good number of titles in his writing career, sets out to connect our work with God’s work. I appreciated the simplicity of this book. Keller laid out in a very simply his main points of God’s plan for work, our problems with work, and the Gospel and work. It was easy to follow the progression of logic, which was strengthened by Scripture of course. One of my favorite lines in the book was when Keller said, “So the modern idol of individualism has tended to raise work from being a good thing to being nearly a form of salvation” (Keller 2012, 139). I couldn’t have said it better, and it’s especially true in America. More often than not, people have this sense about them when discussing work, often times propagating an air of busyness and importance. People feed off of these two in America, and Keller brings it to the light as idol worship.
Another favorite quote from Keller that I found incredibly insightful and poignant is found in his section on a new concept for work. “Without an understanding of common grace, Christians will have trouble understanding why non-Christians so often exceed Christians morally and in wisdom” (Ibid 195). This was one of the points that I drove into the discussion with passion. That non-Christians, when acting with grace apart from their own self, end up doing so with less expectation than the Christian, which ends up meaning more than the actions of the Christian. For Christians, we act out of an abundance of love poured from God, or a mandate from Scripture. The non-Christian does not act out of a reaction, rather they divorce themselves from their own being to think of someone else, and then act accordingly. This selflessness takes a level of morality and wisdom that few Christians reach early in their life, a point not lost with Keller. Overall, Keller’s book doesn’t present itself as a condemning work, leaving the reader feeling downtrodden. I found it quite the contrary, invigorating and with promise. It spelled out the problem quite clearly, cited plenty of examples of Scripture to compare and contrast, then gave the proverbial ladder to climb out of the hole. Keller did an outstanding job connecting the readers’ work to that of God’s work.
The four books that we were charged with digesting for this reading group proved to be more than just academic; they were extremely practical and helpful. I enjoyed the lively discussions of the group, the fun lunches that were provided for us, and the facilitators of each book. I found these vocational books to help me reframe my viewpoint on the work that I do as something more glorious than just paying the bills. I am serving and loving my neighbor, something that Scripture affirms as my direct calling (cf. Mark 12:30-31).
Finn, Daniel K. Christian economic ethics: history and implications. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013.
Keller, Timothy, and Katherine Leary Alsdorf. Every good endeavor: connecting your work to Gods work. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012.
Sherman, Amy L. Kingdom calling: vocational stewardship for the common good. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011.
Veith, Gene Edward. God at work: your Christian vocation in all of life. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2011.
Image © kaboompics | pixabay.com