Reflections on the Karam Forum, Chicago

Along with PJ, Scott, and Gerry from the ON Steering Committee, are Keith, Gary, Keith, Dave and I, representing five theological colleges in Australia at the inaugural Karam Forum.

Along with PJ, Scott, and Gerry from the ON Steering Committee, are Keith, Gary, Keith, Dave and I, representing five theological colleges in Australia at the inaugural Karam Forum.

In early March I had the opportunity to go to the Karam Forum, held at Trinity International University. I was the lucky recipient of a scholarship from Reventure. Here are some reflections.

Gathering with 180 other people whose desire is likewise to affirm workplace Christians in their ordinary work, is a heady experience. Particularly when quite a few of them have written seminal books on the subject.

There was Bill Peel, who has written Bible studies and produced DVDs on connecting with non-Christians in the workplace. Scott Rae, who with Kenman Wong wrote "Business for the Common Good", a wonderful introduction to a new vision for economic and workplace transformation.

Will Messenger was there, telling me the story of the "Theology of Work Project". Initially it was going to be a book, looking at all the verses in the Bible that deal with work. After examining 859 passages, in context, it is now a commentary covering the whole of the Bible. The website receives 350,000 hits a month.

I chased Amy Sherman ("Kingdom Calling") around the campus of Trinity International University, in-between speaking engagements, pitching my idea of exploring what workplace Christians need to learn to be effective for God at work.

I was embarrassingly effusive in front of Tom Nelson whose book "Work Matters" is impressive, but it was this article in "Leadership Journal" in February 2014 that had really struck me:

"Against a backdrop of pindrop silence, I asked the congregation I served to forgive me. Not for sexual impropriety or financial misconduct, but for pastoral malpractice. I confessed I had spent the minority of my time equipping them for what they were called to do for the majority of their week. 

"With a lump in my throat, I feebly grasped for the right words. I wanted to confess that because of my stunted theology, individual parishioners in my congregation were hindered in their spiritual formation, and ill- equipped in their God-given vocations. Our collective mission had suffered as well. I had failed to see, from Genesis to Revelation, the high importance of vocation and the vital connections between faith, work, and economics. Somehow I had missed how the gospel speaks into every nook and cranny of life, connecting Sunday worship with Monday work in a seamless fabric of Holy Spirit-empowered faithfulness."

I also spent a couple of hours with Alistair Mackenzie, an effable New Zealander whose "Zadok" paper on how the church can equip workplace Christians had inspired my own work with churches.

There were two big surprises flowing from the conference:

• The content that was being given there was not particularly new. It was Faith and Work 101, an introduction to the concepts of sacred secular divide, and to the need for churches and theological colleges to respond to the opportunities to affirm workplace Christians.

• We in Australia are not very far behind. Or, perhaps I should say that we face the same challenges: churches that are reluctant to move beyond a sermon series. Colleges where this teaching is on the periphery rather than integrated into the teaching. A lack of insight in how integrating faith with teaching subject areas can be done in an integrated way, especially in areas such as business.

There was some excellent content. Amy Sherman’s ideas for enlivening teaching and utilising innovative assessments was especially useful. Kevin Vanhoozer’s encouragement to focus on Christ as the centre, and his challenging of the artificial fragmentation of curriculum into Bible, Theology, History and Practical, were breaths of fresh air. Tom Nelson’s TED talk with a vision for the impoverished in our community was inspiring. As was Vincent Bacote’s exhortation to engage the world of our working with imagination, hospitality and hope.

However, it was the networking and conversations that proved most fruitful. Even the unexpected opportunities, like chatting with Mandie about her fresh expression church plant in a pub, or with Timothy about his innovative use of Logos software, or Devan’s desire that Christians speak and present professionally.

Part of the networking was the chance to gather as a group of five Australians from theological colleges in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane; to compare notes and resources, and to discuss innovations in our own teaching and college interactions.

We travelled on the magic carpet of the generosity and vision of Lindsay McMillan and Reventure. It was an eye-opening ride.