On the first Sunday after Easter, pastors and seminarians across the country will begin to deliver sermons on joy as part of a preaching series sponsored by the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.
YCFC, which is affiliated with the Yale Divinity School, has launched a campaign, titled “50 States of Joy,” to encourage pastors across all 50 states to preach about the value of joy. As part of the campaign, which officially begins April 23, pastors can submit a minimum of four sermons related to joy in either the youth or intergenerational ministry categories — “The Theology of Joy and the Good Life” and “Joy and Adolescent Faith and Flourishing,” respectively. Submissions for the nationwide competition are due in June, but the campaign and preaching series itself will continue until August. Currently, 21 states and four countries have committed to the campaign.
Angela Gorrell, YCFC associate research scholar and the project’s coordinator, said joy is an “understudied and underappreciated emotion.”
“We believe focusing on joy is an important aspect of revitalizing Christianity in the United States,” Gorrell said.
According to Gorrell, the campaign and competition are part of the YCFC’s project, “The Theology of Joy and the Good Life,” sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation, which attempts to answer questions about the essence of joy and its relationship to the “good life” through research and outreach.
Miroslav Volf, theology professor at the Divinity School and director of the YCFC, said that, in an age when people are prone to depression and the need for self-achievement, people often lose sight of joy. He argued that though pleasure is ephemeral, joy is much deeper and long-lasting. Volf hopes that this series will allow people to reflect on how to nurture healthy and effective lives with joy.
The campaign grew out of a conversation in 2016 among the project’s pastoral advisory board, which was formed as a way to link the YCFC’s emphasis on scholarship and research with cultural settings, especially churches. During a discussion about the possibility of a nationwide joy-related sermon competition, Allen Hilton GRD ’97, a former Divinity School professor, minister and founder of the nonprofit House United, suggested that YCFC should try to recruit at least one church from every state to preach a series on joy.
In an interview with the News, Hilton said he thought the initiative would increase the number of churches participating in the YCFC’s campaign of joy as well as help churches bring people together in the face of increasing political polarization. He emphasized the importance of listening to perspectives from a diverse range of churches, adding that he hopes the campaign will allow people to do so by providing them with the opportunity to listen to sermons from all over the country on the campaign’s webpage.
“We know that religion has a reputation for dividing people, … so my idea was what if we turn that around and make the church an agent of unity, make the church become a help to our nation as we try to make a more perfect union,” Hilton said.
According to Volf, the “Theology of Joy and the Good Life” project was made possible by a $4 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Michael Murray, senior vice president of programs at the John Templeton Foundation, said the project falls under one of the foundation’s seven funding areas, “Life, Love and Virtue,” which focuses on research about how the cultivation of virtue can lead to “flourishing” lives.
He said the focus on joy for this project in particular relates to the rise in research on the topic of happiness in the past years, which is often disconnected from theological concerns, focusing more on increasing experiences of pleasure and decreasing those of pain. By focusing on joy, Murray said, the foundation wanted to see if “the theological conceptions of flourishing and well-being” provide people with anything more than the conceptions derived from the more prevalent happiness research.
According to Hilton, one of the YCFC’s primary focuses, even before receiving the Templeton grant, was “God and Human Flourishing,” so it was an easy transition to focus more broadly on how human flourishing relates to joy.
Both Murray and Hilton discussed the importance of public engagement and outreach of the work being done at YCFC and, in particular, the incorporation of these research findings in congregations and churches. Hilton said many of the people who plan to sign up for the sermon series, but have yet to do so, plan to preach the joy-related sermons as a summer series rather than a post-Easter series. He expects that by the summer, the campaign will have a church or congregation from each state.
“In a nation that does not have a whole lot of common ground right now, joy is a common-ground kind of issue,” Hilton said. “It’s a part of what we all hope for, so it makes a good subject on which people who disagree elsewhere can agree, and that’s why we think this can be very powerful.”
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