Agents of Flourishing, Amy L. Sherman. Downers Grove: IVP Praxis, 2022.
Summary: An outline of how Christians may pursue Christ’s redemptive mission in six areas of cultural life, encompassing the whole of life.
Years ago, I listened to Gary Haugen, the founder of the International Justice Mission, an effort responsible for the release of thousands of women and children from human trafficking, discuss the breakthrough insight that led to his efforts. He was wrestling with the question of why God permitted so many injustices in the world when he felt God turning the question around and asking, “why do my people permit so many injustices to continue in the world?”
Amy L. Sherman believes that the redemptive mission of Jesus is intended not simply to bring personal redemption from sin but also bring God’s shalom, God’s flourishing into every dimension of life. And she believes that God’s way of bringing this about is through his people, and in the context of this book, through local congregations working within their own communities.
Sherman follows a model developed by the Thriving Communities Group’s “Human Ecology Framework” that identifies six spheres of cultural life that must be healthy for a community to be healthy. They are:
- The Good: Flourishing in the Realm of Social Mores and Ethics
- The True: Flourishing in the Realm of Human Knowledge and Learning
- The Beautiful: Flourishing in the Realm of Creativity, Aesthetics, and Design
- The Just and Well-Ordered: Flourishing in the Realm of Political and Civic Life
- The Prosperous: Flourishing in the Realm of Economic Life
- The Sustainable: Flourishing in the Realm of Natural and Physical Health
Six of the chapters of this book articulate a basic theology for each of these spheres discussing God’s creational intent, the malformations that the fall has introduced, the ways redemption re-forms this and how Christians have contributed to that re-formation in history and challenges in our current context. For example, under “The True” the creational intent includes our design to be learners, the goal of which is to know God and his purposes in the world, that parents are the first “teachers,” that Jesus affirms education, that God teaches us much beyond religious matters, and that common grace means that God desires all to achieve a broad-ranging knowledge. Sherman discusses the malformations of modernity and post-modernity and educational inequities. She then cites the contribution of Christians to making books in the codex form, to literacy, to scientific inquiry, to establishing schools and the early universities, and in the promotion of secondary and university education in the black community. Two challenges she identifies are the anti-intellectualism in many evangelical quarters, even the suspicion of learning, and the withdrawal of evangelicals from public schools, sadly in some cases, when schools were integrated.
Many books stop here. Sherman goes further in offering case studies of what churches have done in their communities to pursue each of these six initiatives. She discusses instances of churches pursuing the good by strengthening marriages, the truth by partnering with public education, the beautiful by investing in the arts, the just and well-ordered through restorative justice and reconciliation, the prosperous by redeeming business for the community good and using assets to build assets, and the sustainable by fighting environmental health hazards and addressing food desserts.
One of the most inspiring stories for me was that of two churches in a low income area of Los Angeles plagued by petroleum drilling operations that failed to provide health protections that would be standard in richer communities. They prayed, they collected information about health impacts, demonstrated publicly and built media awareness while working with city officials, attending public hearings, resulting in enhanced safety requirements that led the drilling company to decide to cease drilling and clean up the site.
What I love about this book is that it moves beyond a broad and biblically grounded vision to examples of how churches have had a redemptive influence in their communities in each of these area–churches across the country. In the concluding chapter, she outlines the steps church leaders can take for similar engagement in their own communities. The language of flourishing crops up in almost everything I read these days. The difference in the case of this book is that it shows how ordinary believers working together have pursued flourishing in a variety of ways that contribute to healthy communities. This work doesn’t gain the notice that scandals and political alliances do. But it pursues the common good and commends the gospel of the kingdom. In my book that is far better than media prominence!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.