By Jasmine Obeyesekere Fernando

Agents of Flourishing: A Discussion Guide

Are you burdened by the complexity of what’s not right in the world? Do you feel overwhelmed by everything that needs fixing? Do you want to explore how our Christian faith speaks to real world problems? In Agents of FlourishingPursuing Shalom In Every Corner of Society, Dr. Amy Sherman shows how Christians can contribute to the flourishing of all human life both through our vocations and through the church.

Dr. Amy Sherman directs Sagamore Institute's Center on Faith in Communities, a capacity building initiative for congregations and faith-based and community-based organizations. She has led several major Sagamore research projects including the first major study of faith-based intermediary organizations; the largest national survey of Hispanic church-based community ministries in the US, the largest survey ever of Christian women on their giving and volunteering patterns, and a six-city demonstration project on financial literacy for urban youth.

Dr. Sherman has been named by Christianity Today as one of the 50 most influential Evangelical women in the United States. Her book Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good was named Book of the Year in the Christian Living category by Christianity Today in 2013.

She earned her BA in Political Science at Messiah College and her MA and PhD in international economic development from the University of Virginia. She volunteered for several years as a Senior Fellow with the International Justice Mission, is a member of Church of the Good Shepherd (ACNA) in Charlottesville, Virginia, and is a passionate UVA men’s basketball fan.

Discussion Guide

Chapters 1-3

1. What are your thoughts on how society’s understanding of human flourishing has evolved over time? Is Miroslav Volf’s description (page 15) of how people think about flourishing today true? i.e. Human flourishing is all about an individual’s experiential satisfaction. Others matter, but mainly by how they contribute to the above.

2. How do you respond to the theological ideas presented? e.g. God’s creational intent for human flourishing, ways flourishing might look like and how flourishing can get distorted. (Chapter 2)

3. How do you respond to the relational and missional purpose of Israel in the Old Testament? i.e. Living holy lives in its varied dimensions imitating their God who is holy & Being distinct in their laws and practices so that other nations are amazed at their difference and wonder about the nature of Israel’s God. (Chapter 2)

4. What did you think about the varied examples from church history where Christian theology impacted Christians to work towards reforming laws and practices in their own societies? (Chapter 2)

5. “The church has something deeply good to say about relationships, something that counters our current culture’s often nihilistic and destructive messages about relationships. Christ-followers know that healthy relationships are at the center of human flourishing. We have a big opportunity to make a difference in pushing back the disintegration of families.” (Chapter 3, page 65)

How do you respond to the idea of strengthening marriage as the strategy of cultivating the good? What do you think about the different ways local churches have participated in this way in their communities?

Chapters 4-7

Chapter 4 – The True: Flourishing in the Realm of Human Education and Learning

1.  How do you respond to the idea that all truth is God’s truth? What are some good and true foundational ideas in your subject area that fill you with awe? Are there new ways you are seeing your discipline? What are the ways you see the glories of God “hidden within nature” or the body of knowledge that you study?

2.  How have ideas from a modern/postmodern mindset influenced your field of study bringing in the malformations of sin? What might be lies masquerading as truth in your discipline?

3.  How do you work collaboratively with people who have a different worldview, who think differently from you with respect to teaching and scholarship? How can you pursue truth for the common good with colleagues?

4.  How can I use my research to make society flourish? How can I use my area of expertise to partner with God, showing common grace for everyone? How do you choose a research question?

Chapter 5 — A Strategy for Cultivating the True: Partner in Public Education

5.  With many of you being moms of young children and being educators — how did you resonate with the multi-faceted examples of congregations investing in public school education?

Chapter 6 — The Beautiful: Flourishing in the Realm of Creativity, Aesthetics, and Design

6.  Page 107 — “Beauty can be a means through which God consoles, calms, and heals his children.” How has this been true in your own experience, whether as a practitioner or an appreciator of design and the visual arts?   

7.  For those who craft a story, poem or play, design a neighborhood, paint or make music or teach literature — how does viewing your vocation as stewarding Beauty transform the way you think about your work?

8.  a) For the creatives — do you see elements of art missing in your field? Are there ways you might contribute to the gap? How do you respond to the idea of brutalism and self-centeredness detracting from Art as it was meant to be?

     b) How do these specific ways of naming sin in one’s discipline help all of us to step back and consider ideas in our own fields of study that might be considered normative, but fall short of God’s intent in Creation?  

9.  How do you respond to the role churches have to play in contemporary society by offering artistically-crafted worship services?

Chapter 7 — A Strategy for Cultivating the Beautiful: Invest in the Arts

10. What ideas might you be inspired to follow in response to a youthful pastor and congregation’s investment in the in the arts in their church and community?

Chapters 8-10

Chapter 8 – The Just and Well-Ordered: Flourishing in the realm of political and civic life

1.  “A thriving community is a place where its most vulnerable members are protected from abuse by those with greater power.” Who are the most vulnerable members of our society and how are they treated?

2.   Are there ways in which our disciplines exploit the vulnerable to advance research, where we are benefitted but their situation remains unchanged? 

3.   The author states that a just and well-ordered society is where power is used rightly and she suggests some areas where power can be stewarded well.  e.g. Honoring the sanctity of life, Practicing fairness, Solidarity with the vulnerable, Just generosity, Our brother’s keeper, Right ordering of relationships — personal and institutional, Diversity in community, Restorative justice

     a) Which of these areas are you especially passionate about and why?

     b) Which of these areas are least on your radar and why?

     c) Are there specific ways you can contribute to a ‘just and well ordered’ college/ department environment?

4.  The author shows examples of sin thwarting the ordering of a just society where we use power to dominate rather than empower. How do you respond to the deformations of sin she identifies in the American context? (pages 147-148). Any additions to this list?

5.  What did you learn from the Church’s contributions in the past to the just and well-ordered?

6.  How can Christians encourage reformation in politics and civic life in the areas the author identifies? i.e. coarsened public discourse, police-community relations, the climate for immigrants. Are there other pressing areas we should address?

Chapter 10 – A strategy for cultivating the just: Be a reconciling community

7.  Racial reconciliation “is central to the Gospel. It is not an add-on or an optional thing.”

     a) What lessons are you learning from the young group of students who trained themselves to learn about racial reconciliation and upon graduation chose to live in community in an impoverished locality using their vocations to serve those they lived among?

     b) What do you notice about how multiethnicity was formed in their church — from being a grand vision to being practically fleshed out? What was their journey? What insights most struck you? Are there any experiences you resonate with?

     c) How well are your own churches developing multiethnic congregations? What is a multi-ethnic church?

Chapter 9 – A strategy for cultivating the just: Advance restorative justice

8.  How do you respond to the restorative justice ministry of the Michigan church? How do you respond to the diagnosis of the American prison system as retributive justice whereas the Biblical model is restorative justice?

Chapters 11-13

Chapter 11 – The Prosperous: Flourishing in the realm of economic life

1.  “Human flourishing requires some degree of economic capacity.” To what extent does this reality influence how we choose our jobs and how we encourage our students in their career choices? What are our attitudes to wealth creation?

2.  How does your work develop the raw materials of God’s creation for human flourishing?

3.  What is our relationship to our "stuff" — house, car, possessions, bank account etc.? How can we be good trustees/stewards?

4.  What malformations in economic life are you most disturbed by?

5.  Contrast the gleaning principle in the Bible (i.e. not maximize profits at the expense of the poor going hungry) to how businesses prioritize optimal shareholder profits. How can business be both profitable and just?

6.  Just as unbridled maximization of shareholder profit can be considered a malformation in Economics, what are you identifying as malformations in your own field of study?

7.  How can we reform our own spending, saving and investing habits?

8.  How do you respond to the church’s contributions in thinking about money, the use of wealth, and the poor?

Chapter 12 – A strategy for cultivating the prosperous: Redeem Business for community good

9.  Like Biznistry, what examples have you seen of Christian communities “capitalizing on the wealth-creating genius of a for-profit enterprise while simultaneously reforming its norms and processes in ways that operationalize biblical truth?”

Chapter 13 – A strategy for cultivating the prosperous: Deploy assets to build assets

10. What assets does your church possess (i.e. buildings, vocations/expertise of congregants etc.) and how can they be deployed to strengthen economic capacity in your city?

Chapters 14-17

Chapter 14 – The Sustainable: Flourishing in the realm of natural and physical health

1.    What resonates most from God’s creational intent? (p. 246 – 250)

2.    As professors, how can we incorporate sabbath rest for ourselves and our students/junior colleagues?

3.    What are your thoughts on the malformations in the natural environment? (p. 250 – 252)

Chapter 15 – A strategy for cultivating the sustainable: Combat Environmental Health Hazards

1.    What are your thoughts on how the California church embodied a theology of place? (Living and "doing church" where most of the congregants lived — in a hazardous environment without the option of living elsewhere.) Any other insights from the story of fighting to shut down the toxic chemical site?

Chapter 16 – A strategy for cultivating the sustainable: Address Food Deserts

1.    What are your thoughts on forming community gardens to fight food deserts, and the relationship between poverty and access to nutritious food?

Chapter 17 – A roadmap for the Work of Flourishing Your Community

1.   In what ways has this book fueled your desire to foretaste a glimpse of God’s kingdom in your city?

2.   What are your thoughts on the author’s non-negotiables in community ministry? (p. 282-284) i.e. relational holistic ministry,  asset-based approach, and stewarding power faithfully

3.   Of the areas we read and discussed, what is the area in which God has gifted you, given you a passion for, or has already placed you to work in?  

4.   If we substitute "city" with "university," "department," or "profession" – how would you describe your "city"? What are its strengths that you can build on and what are its malformations that need to be changed?

5.   Any contemporary stories of how you or people you know have been involved in "seeking the peace of the city"?  

About the Author

Jasmine is WSAP’s book club host and vocation specialist. She hails from Sri Lanka and has a thirty-year relationship with its national university ministry, the Fellowship of Christian University Students (FOCUS). She has also been involved with InterVarsity for twenty years. She has a BA (Hons.) in English from the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, and a MA in International Relations from Syracuse University. She loves writing about theology impacting real life and enjoys British, Korean, and Chinese drama. Jasmine lives in upstate New York with her professor husband and two teenage children.

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