In a world that operates as if creation’s resources are scarce, Christians know better, the Rev. Craig Dykstra, senior vice-president for religion at the Lilly Endowment, told a crowd of more than 200 at the third of Union Presbyterian Seminary’s four Sprunt Lectures May 8.
“Though it frequently seems counter-intuitive, we believe in a God who is the giver of all life,” said Dykstra, who has taught at Princeton Theological Seminary and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and who is retiring from the Lilly Endowment at the end of July after more than 22 years to resume teaching at Duke Divinity School.
“This God, the giver of all love and life, is given and restored in Jesus Christ, who came that all may have life and have it in abundance,” Dykstra said. “Our call is to recognize, receive and share that life of abundance. It’s our fundamental privilege and vocation, revealed to our minds and sealed on our hearts.”
The Sprunt Lectures and other activities related to Union Seminary’s bicentennial celebration run May 7-9. The Sprunts began in 1911 through a gift by James Sprunt of Wilmington, N.C. “to bring speakers of outstanding quality to the seminary to discuss aspects of Christian thought and work.” The theme of this lectures is “Seminary and Church … In This Together.”
“Theological seminaries and the church are indispensable to one another and the relationships between them must be intimate and deep,” Dykstra said. “Seminary and church must be engaged together in shaping communities of faith in which we are called and sustained by God’s grace and promised abundance.”
That God’s abundance is realized in community, not in individual lives, is clear in the Gospel, Dykstra insisted, citing the story of the feeding of the 5,000 ― what theologian Parker Palmer has called “the pathway from scarcity to abundance in community.”
The disciples wanted to disperse the hungry crowd, with each person going into nearby villages to fend for themselves, Dykstra said. “But Jesus asked, ‘what do we have here?’ and now the miracle began to happen. Jesus knows that there’s always abundance in community,” Dykstra said. “That’s why God gave us the church.”
Dykstra cited the transformation of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis ― a church that went from prosperity in the 1950s and 60s to near closure in the 1980s and 90s to revitalization in since 2000 ― as an example of a community of faith that embraced the Gospel message of abundance in contrast to the world’s embrace of scarcity.
“This community publicly proclaims ‘God’s extravagant grace,’ ‘We see God’s abundance’ and ‘We believe that everyone is a child of God with gifts to give.’” Dykstra said, “and they have deliberately structured their ministry to embody these values.”
The congregation has a “roving listener” on staff whose job is to spend all his time in the community, listening and learning what needs people have and what gifts they have to offer and bring that information back to the congregation. The church hosts a monthly dinner with no agenda other than to “listen to where the Holy Spirit is alive in people’s lives and to figure out how the congregation can get involved in what’s already going on in the community,” Dykstra said. And the congregation regularly includes a “celebration of ministry” in worship ― lifting up those in the community (not just the church) who are using their gifts to better the community.
“For every congregation there is a way forward through theology of abundance,” Dykstra insisted. “All will be different, but will have four common features” as outlined by Christine Pohl in her book Living Into Community:
1. Maintaining spirit of gratitude
2. Making and keeping promises (covenant making)
3. Living truthfully
4. Practicing hospitality
To create leaders who can help transform churches into “communities of abundant living,” Dykstra said, “takes a kind of teaching and learning that recognizes the deep connection between seminary and church, becoming part of each other’s communities in deeper, more intimate ways” ― what he called “an organic ecology of grace and gratitude” with church and seminary growing into each other.
“It’s no secret that we live in a time of rapid social change, with everything up for grabs, a frantic pace, pervaded with sense of profound scarcity which drives isolation and saps life out of us, and increasing sense of a dead end,” Dykstra said.
“But we in the church know differently. We know we are created, sustained and loved by an extravagantly generous God,” he said. “In God, the future has already come – a way of life abundant. The church and seminary are and must be engaged in the endeavor to make it so.”