“So what makes you think you are qualified for this job?” someone asked in me in an interview. “After all, you are a theologian applying for a missiology professorship and your dissertation topic is on a theology of work.” This candid remark is telling about a common view of missiology. It also points to questions about the nature of theology, who it is for and how it should be developed.
In my opening post I wrote about the metaphor of theology from the balcony and the road. As I introduced it I left this model rather abstract—more of a theology about a theology from the road rather than an example of what theology from the road looks like. Let me show the practical difference this has made in my own work.
Moving from the Balcony to the Road
When I was preparing my dissertation at Fuller Seminary and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, I followed the traditional method of biblical, historical, and systematic reflection on my topic, which was of a theology of work. I traced the biblical teachings related to the mission of God and analyzed the major historic theological treatments of work to the present. In short, I spent plenty of time in the balcony.
I knew, however, that it was crucial not to stop here, but to look at my topic from the ground, through the realities of ministry. So I sought to learn how three churches, in three different cities, are engaging in discipleship formation. I wanted to witness how these communities were equipping Christians to pursue their daily work as part of God’s mission. Here I explored two main questions. First, how did these churches attempt to form Christians for their daily work? Second, how did these teachings and practices play out in the lives of Christians as they engaged in their work? Over six months I interviewed 77 parishioners of these congregations, attended their meetings and services, and talked with staff and congregants in a variety of settings. These conversations put me directly in the path of daily life and ministry in these local churches.
Why We Need a Theology of Work From the Road
This time spent on the road was invaluable. My experiences in these churches and in the interviews left a deep impression on me as a theologian and altered the way in which I approached this subject. Much of what I heard and reflected on related to work, and how we approach and carry out our work as vocation, as a calling—and this will be one (but not the only) area of further reflection at this blog. One of the most crucial insights that arose from undertaking to do a theology of work “from the road” was this: while the topic of work is not the most pressing issue facing the church today, it is perhaps one of the most strategic areas in which local churches can engage. Through taking vocation seriously, local churches are able to play a role in forming disciples who embody ways in which the sovereign rule of Jesus touches down in in their spheres of influence.
We need more than a theological treatment of the value and importance of work. We need to see work as an integral part of God’s intention for humanity as well as his mission in this world. Theologians need to take up their study by embedding themselves in the daily life of local churches where this discipleship formation is taking place.