In my first essay on this topic, I introduced how the complementary doctrines of common grace and antithesis can help the church avoid the extremes of either an undiscerning syncretism or an uncharitable separatism regarding the world and culture around us. Moving from the abstract to the concrete, I focused on how these two doctrines clarify the way we understand and experience, first, a powerful vision of a unified humanity and, second, the importance of society-flourishing institutions in an urban context.
This article, the second part of “Sin and Grace in the City,” is a bit of a show-and-tell. I will be highlighting the ministry of the Center for Faith and Work (CFW) at Redeemer Presbyterian Church (RPC) as an example of how the concepts presented in Part One have been particularly embodied in our church through a five-year-old initiative called the Gotham Fellowship. As a disclaimer, what will be presented here is meant to be more descriptive than prescriptive. We see our ministry in many respects as a Research and Development lab, working with hundreds of New Yorkers to understand how cultural renewal, guided by a particular theological perspective, actually works (or doesn’t work). As any entrepreneur will tell you, we learn as much from our “failures” as we do our “successes.” Like any endeavour of this magnitude, effective cultural engagement is largely about perseverance and faithful presence, discerning how the Spirit is at work in the world to produce the kind of change that we could never see arising from our own wisdom and abilities.
The Center for Faith and Work is the cultural renewal arm of RPC, working to bring a balanced, gospel-centred, and gospel-informed approach to cultural engagement and cultural renewal. Our vision is to see Christians effectively engage the city with the fullness of the gospel’s redeeming power—renewing hearts, communities, and the world. At the Center, this vision of renewed Christians engaging the city and its culture is implemented by a strategy of connecting, equipping, and mobilizing. I will focus on one particular ministry of CFW—The Gotham Fellowship—as an example of how we connect, equip, and mobilize Christians for more effective engagement with the city.
In his book To Change the World, sociologist James Hunter emphasizes that societal change does not happen through the genius of a particular individual but through overlapping networks, particularly elite networks. In Part One of “Sin and Grace in the City,” I addressed the power of a unified humanity that is so evident in a city like New York, and Hunter’s work substantiates and clarifies the disproportional, society-shaping influence that overlapping networks exert in shaping and influencing culture.
Along those lines, we began this Gotham experiment over five years ago to bring together Christians from varying backgrounds and vocations committed to engaging the city. Rather than focusing on a particular industry or profession, we wanted to convene a diverse group of New Yorkers, mostly in their mid-twenties and thirties, each with their own professional affiliations and networks. We carefully selected from a pool of applicants to create this kind of vocational diversity. Tap dancers, investment bankers, government employees, psychology professors, playwrights, corporate lawyers, Broadway actors, oral surgeons, concert organists, and Starbucks managers would equally have to commit to each other for the entirety of the nine-month program. For many of our Fellows, this was the first time they had meaningfully interacted with people from the various vocations represented.
The level of commitment we were requiring for this new program was unprecedented for our church. In a highly commitment-phobic environment, would New Yorkers be willing to covenant with each other for nine months, sacrificing the sought-after resources of time and money? Borrowing from the Biblical concept, being in covenant together was an important aspect of Gotham that we wanted to highlight and instill to reflect our belief that deep and meaningful change happens through covenantal structures. Let me describe some of these commitments.
With respect to time, each Fellow has to commit to meeting two hours a week, one Saturday a month, and three weekends in the year. In addition to these meetings, there are daily devotions, which take about thirty minutes each, as well as reading assignments, which take an additional two to four hours a week. If you do the math, the program requires about 450 total hours—approximately nineteen full days—during a nine-month period. Keep in mind that all of our Fellows have full-time jobs, many working seventy- to eighty-hour work weeks. All this also comes at a financial cost of $2250, and in return they do not receive any kind of formal credentials—no academic credit, just personal growth in community and the hope of seeing their faith meaningfully integrated into their larger world. Given this level of commitment, we had some serious concerns about the viability of this novel program.
Five years later, we have been astounded to see the number of applications increase each year. To keep up with the growing demand, the number of admitted Fellows has gone up from twenty-four to thirty-six and now again to the current class size of forty-two. The “connecting” aspect of the Gotham experiment has become a major draw for applicants. The investment of time and money seem well worth the benefit of the kind of diverse, intentioned community created by this program. Each year we hear from our alumni that the vocational diversity of the group increases their appreciation and love for the city. They begin to concretely connect how each profession contributes to the welfare of the city and the Jeremiah 29 calling to seek its good.
What is it that we do during these nine months to foster a communal vision for the city? Our focus is not merely teaching a theology of faith and work, but taking this theology and making it applicable—connecting rich theology to real-life change. Our approach recognizes that lives change as meaningful content becomes connected to life context. To describe what this looks like, I’ll focus on one critical section of our curriculum, heart renewal.
I addressed in Part One, what makes Christian work distinct is not only what we accomplish but also how we go about doing it. Does our work stem from an arrogant pride of wanting to be like God or from a humble stewardship that cultivates what God has entrusted to us? The real-life answers to these questions are never clearly one or the other. We are a hodge-podge of conflicting and competing desires that often go unexamined in a workplace environment. Often, our workplace is just that: it’s the place we work and earn our paycheck. We don’t think of how God is at work in our work to help us experience the life-transforming power of the gospel. We want our Fellows to become more aware of and attentive to the underlying heart motivations that inform their work behaviour, their criticisms and complaints. We ask ourselves: How can the gospel make us more aware of our underlying desires in order to renew them?
Our curriculum includes the reading of seminal theologians who have shaped and informed our understanding of the gospel. Primary sources, such as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Owen, are then combined with projects and exercises that dissect work situations to help us understand how to meaningfully apply the theology learned. It’s one thing to read Owen write, “be killing sin or it will be killing you,” but when we begin to connect that exhortation with specific workplace frustrations and habits, we become aware and convicted of how deep our brokenness runs. Through the Holy Spirit, we realize that we are neither the captains of industry nor the masters of our fate, and in the laboratory of our workplaces struggles we begin to experience the deepest part of us cry out for rescue. It is at this point that deeper heart transformation can begin, as the concept of grace becomes life-giving reality. Critical to equipping our Fellows are the projects and exercises that connect real-work situations to the powerful, heart-renewing work of the gospel.
This gives you a window into the kind of equipping we believe is essential for deep transformation. We believe theology matters, but we combine it with gospel-centred devotional and spiritual practices along with projects and exercises that ensure these historic doctrines and disciplines are connected to the present realities of living in New York City. At the risk of sounding reductionistic, we want to equip the whole person, inclusive of their hearts, heads, and hands—renewing how they feel, think, and act. Using this equipping philosophy over the course of nine months, our curriculum moves from how the gospel changes our hearts to how it changes the communities in which we participate and finally how it changes the world around us. Through each part of the curriculum, the gospel dynamic of death, resurrection, and glory provides the unifying glue that holds personal, communal, and world renewal seamlessly together. Renewal at each of these levels is completely dependent upon the reality of the gospel so that if Christ were not raised, this all would indeed be in vain.
We hope to equip our Fellows for a specific context and purpose. In the words of the New Testament writers, we recognize that we are people living in exile, and living in New York City makes this particularly clear. I described in Part One a distinction between what I called “exilic discipleship” and “Jerusalem discipleship.” One of the key differences in these two perspectives of discipleship is the outward orientation that the exilic paradigm engenders and fosters. In a “Jerusalem” paradigm it is easy to spend more and more time in the church, especially with the proliferation of church programs. Our margins become saturated by the Christian world to the point where we have no meaningful contact or relationships with the world outside of Christianity.
In the Fellows Program, we want to produce “exilic disciples” whose expectations are shaped not only by the reality of New York City but also by our larger redemptive historical context. New Jerusalem firmly awaits us, but until that time of Christ’s return what should characterize our days is not the elusive search for security and greatness, but rather a faithful presence in the world as we discern the leading of God’s Spirit to engage us at appropriate levels of society. To that end, we spend a few months developing a “public theology.”
Many Christians may have a theology of salvation and perhaps even a theology of the church but few understand how God relates to the world outside the church. Does God care about Goldman Sachs and investment banking? Does God bother to check in with what’s happening on Broadway? As Christians, should we care about the latest trends in fashion? Should we get excited about Shakespeare in the Park, promoting it on our Facebook walls? For most Christians, we may have intuitive answers to these questions, but we are far from being able to give any Biblical or theological explanation.
Public theology attempts to draw on Biblical principles that emerge from the larger narrative of the Bible, taking longitudinal themes to try to meaningfully connect the ancient world of the Bible to our modern, pluralistic context. One particular, expression of public theology has been articulated by Abraham Kuyper, and one of the most helpful doctrines which was instrumental in his approach to civil society was the concept of sphere sovereignty. At Gotham, we take the theology of sphere sovereignty to create a basic “anatomy of a city/society.” Analogous the human body, when we begin to understand where the critical organs and systems are and how they function, we are in a much better place to more accurately understand the problem and begin to move toward some form of treatment.
Building on Kuyper and the research of anthropology and sociology, theologian Max Stackhouse presents a model of society, highlighting four foundational spheres that function as critical organs and systems that promote societal health. They are the spheres of family, economics, government, and the arts. Through this model we being to understand the inter-connectedness and inter-dependence of these spheres, including all the industries that spin out of them. In other words, we begin to see how our society is connected in profound ways so that when one sphere fails it dramatically affects the others.
In Part One, I spoke of the importance of institutions and how the church needs to help give her people a vision for why God would care about these institutions and spheres. When God calls his people to seek the good of the city, we need to understand what that means given our specific context both at the macro-level of civil society and the more micro-level of the particular city/town in which we live. We need to do research on our cities to understand the historic development of the characteristic industries. Cities look the way they do today because of contingent resources, opportunities, and connections. All this information significantly equips us to better understand what renewal might look like in our cities. The apparent complexity of our world should not discourage us from this type of responsible due diligence because effective mobilization of God’s people will be enhanced by it.
Gotham starts with theology, and through projects and exercises, bridges the gap between theory and application. In the third portion of our curriculum that focuses upon world renewal, our Fellows complete a Cultural Renewal Project to help them think through one area of their work or the city where they experience brokenness. This project begins with identifying a particular area of brokenness and then moves toward developing a Spirit-led imagination to guide the consideration of what renewal could look like in this area. God is indeed doing a new thing, and we recognize how limited we are in our own wisdom and ability to renew culture. It is when we make ourselves available to God that we begin to see what he sees, both in terms of the brokenness and also the potential for renewing change.
The Cultural Renewal Project ends with a presentation from each Fellow to the rest of their cohort, outlining what’s broken, how they imagine change, and what concrete steps can be initially taken toward this change. As each presentation is given, there is a sense of inspiration emerging from the insight and creativity that they see in each other’s articulation of brokenness and renewal. The goal of this project is not to create some concrete venture, though a few have materialized; rather, it is to give our Fellows the experience that God is indeed at work in this larger space of their work and the city.
With over a hundred alumni, we are now wrestling to understand how we can further mobilize this growing number of New Yorkers who are now connected and equipped theologically and practically with renewal dynamics. As we look into the future, we are quite excited by the possibilities that arise out of this new mezzanine level of Christian lay-leaders. Our own imaginations are being prodded to consider how a city can change when a church is committed to the proper connecting, equipping, and mobilizing of its members. While we still have a long way to go in this endeavour, we believe that some significant steps have been made in preparing God’s people for active engagement of a city filled with sin and grace.