Is Theology Even Important?
So I just finished posting the transcript of a podcast which describes a missional theology – or perhaps a part of one anyway. And the question that comes up in some conversations is, “Why does it matter?”
I’ve gone back and forth on how to begin a response to this question because I don’t want to sound like I’m going on a rampage against anyone…not today anyway. 🙂
So I’ll say this. I know many, well meaning people who love God and in whom I see the hand of God at work, who for several reasons find discussions or articulations of intentional theology to be a waste of time. My concern isn’t that they don’t have a theology, because everyone does. Theology is “God talk” – its what we believe about God and what God is up to in this place.
What worries me is that the opposite of intentional theology isn’t no theology, its unintentional theology. A recent conversation with an old friend reminded me of this point. He was describing how an acquaintance recently tweeted about God blessing his new business. My friend noted that this person was already very blessed materially and seems to be content with God continuing to bless him more without any concern for the difficult state of others. My friend made a comment to the effect of, “So why does God care about giving this guy more than he needs when other people have nothing?”
Of course, this is only a sound byte of the conversation. From the larger story, it doesn’t sound like the guy is a terribly greedy person who thinks he should have everyone else’s stuff. However, I do think that there are some consequences at play from unintentional theology. The guy, raised under the “personal relationship with Jesus” mantra seems to have no paradigm for how Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation has anything to do with the plight of others. Jesus came to earth so that I can be saved and salvation is about me going to heaven when I die.
I’ve written and talked about this topic before, so I won’t get on a soapbox. The point here isn’t about the rightness or wrongness of this theology; the point is that, without thinking through the implications of our beliefs, our practice is effected without us even realizing it.
Here is why I believe it is important for the church – even decentralized, organic churches without the resources to pay “professional” theologians – to take theology seriously. If practicing the Way of Christ is our goal, then we need to be serious about considering the ways in which our beliefs about God and Christ lead to (or away from) practice.
I spend a good deal of time with folks who do not consider themselves Christians. It has happened, and I believe it will continue to happen, that these friends see something authentic in our commitment to God, to them and to one another and are drawn to our community.
I don’t think it is necessary for us to form a Christ Journey 101 class that lays out our written systematic theology. Most of these folks would head for the hills as soon as it was suggested. I do believe that, like the disciples of Jesus, we learn in process, as we go along. Learning doesn’t have to take place in a classroom or through a formal curriculum. That doesn’t mean that it should happen on accident or without thought.
Neil Cole, author of Organic Church, Church 3.0 and several others, is a proponent of rapid church multiplication. In his model, which is highly successful in what it sets out to do, new faith communities are started through an incredibly grassroots oriented movement and spread into new homes and coffee shops like wildfire. Leadership is very decentralized (even more so than in our context) and, in fact, he notes that it is common for churches to be born without any awareness of the church planter who “started” the movement…perhaps just a few months and few blocks away.
He has been asked about heresy in this movement, since there is little accountability outside of the small local group which may be comprised completely of new disciples. His response seems, to me anyway, to be very dismissive. He points out that heresy is more common in highly centralized structures because that is where someone who is seeking power can find it concentrated in one place. Decentralized movements are less prone, in his argument, because these power-seeking leaders don’t have a large group of people to influence. Thus, the leaders may take a small group off in a strange direction, but they don’t have a huge crowd to follow them and the heresy, in effect, dies out.
I see his point, in many aspects, it makes sense. I’ve seen the way that certain kinds of unhealthy people seem to seek out positions of power to launch empire building schemes…and I don’t think they’d get much satisfaction attempting that with Christ Journey!
And yet, there are a couple major flaws in Cole’s assessment. His assumption seems to indicate that bad theology is the result of a dangerous person with an agenda. That isn’t always the case. Each of us have some levels of bad theology we’re working through and there are scores of well meaning people with unintentional theologies pulling them in directions that move them away from active participation in God’s mission. It is our connection to the larger community, including but also beyond the friends who gather in our living room from week to week, that allows to hold our beliefs AND actions up for discernment, consideration and continued formation.
If the assumption is that people are blank slates and a simple reading of the Bible, with no outside influence is going to lead to healthy discipleship…I think Cole has missed out on the warning of history.
We all have theological assumptions (good and bad), whether we were raised in a Christian church or not. People in the Bible belt may have heard the “personal relationship with Jesus” mantra. They may believe that God is merely a vending machine for all our wants and wishes. They didn’t put money in the machine before because they thought it was empty, but now that they’re starting to believe…its time to find that roll of quarters. I have several friends who haven’t attended a Christian worship gathering in years (and who only went before that because their parents carried them kicking and screaming) and others that have never “gone to church” who, when they do talk about faith, do so in these terms.
My friends who have been missionaries in Africa talk about the difficulty they had in getting African converts to stop worshiping their ancestors. Studies in the history of African missions (and early missions to North and South America) are full of warnings against colonial approaches that simply transplant Western Christian theology, dress and church polity over the old “pagan stuff.” It doesn’t work.
However, the answer can’t be to simply ignore both the old theologies and new ones and just hope something good comes about. We have to think carefully about our beliefs and their necessary actions; every context is cross-cultural and demands that we treat it with respect and careful consideration. We must ask, “What is the Gospel in this place?” That question will get us nowhere if it is a strategic marketing consideration. It is deeply theological. It gets to the very essence of “God-talk.” What is God’s message of reconciliation to these people? Where is the darkness that is pregnant with anticipation for the light? What are the ancient infected wounds that pump toxin into the system generation after generation? What strongholds of the old kingdom are cowering in a dark corner, praying that the Kingdom of Light doesn’t discover their presence?
These questions are not best answered in a lab, by the scholar’s pen or in a seminary classroom. They are answered by the community of light that is following Jesus into that darkness. And they are questions of theology.
My other concern with Cole’s laissez faire approach to theology and discipleship is that it seems to put rapid multiplication of churches ahead of people; ahead of reconciling the brokenness in the world. This seems odd, given that it is a highly relational context that emphasizes the ability of everyone to read the gospel and put it into practice. However, what if, instead of patiently walking with and instructing the struggling early church, Paul had decided, “Meh, they won’t affect that many people anyway.”
This mindset in effect says that if people are led into some unhealthy theology, its their own fault for listening to bad information…and there are a million other bodies to take their place. I’m not sure that this is significantly different from the modern church that sees each family as a “contributing unit.”
Is the mission of God to start new churches or to inaugurate a new kingdom and a new life? If it is the former, then theology isn’t that important. Just organize folks around the Bible, call them a church and who cares what happens next. However, if the point is new life with a whole new paradigm of what’s up and what’s down, then a more intentional process may be warranted. We are learning to think in new ways, spend money in new ways, interact with neighbors in new ways. If just putting a Bible in people’s hands and calling it victory was sufficient, the Gideons would have completed this task years ago. In case you’re wondering, that’s a gross oversimplification for emphasis, and I feel like I should acknowledge that there is a lot to commend in the work of Neil Cole. He is a leader in the movement to reclaim Christianity as a way of life which engages and embraces God’s Kingdom breaking into this world…
I think there is still a great need for intentional theology that is processed and discerned in the midst of the community of faith. Perhaps what we’ve reacted to are propositions formed in “the ivory tower” that are passed down to be accepted blindly by the masses. Many of us have a strong reaction to rigid hierarchical leadership that, again disseminates the accepted beliefs everyone must uphold, though from the pulpit rather than a distant headquarter.
However, I think that what we’re struggling against here are forms of leadership rather than the need for theology. We who are attempting to follow Jesus into the dark places are more in need of clear theology than those who see their role as simply filling a pew. When people ask us why we put the grill in the front yard, our answer (whether they or we realize) is deeply theological. That answer says something significant to what we believe about God. We need intentional theology.
And we also need good healthy leadership. As much as we may think we want to, we can’t get away from either. So, on Monday, I’m going to post a few thoughts about leadership. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the relationship between theology and leadership. Specifically, I’ll be wrestling with the common assumption that our preachers, teachers and theologians are the primary leaders in our churches, precisely because of their role as teacher. Is that the best approach?
It may be that our resident theologians help guide discernment as participants in the conversation rather than as the authoritative leader. What if the role of preaching, teaching and theologizing was not where we understood the locus of leadership to reside? What say you?