From Theology to Practice


This morning I had the opportunity to take part in the filming of a new video for Mission Alive dealing with the issue of “Moving from Theology to Practice.” (Keep an eye out here and a Mission Alive’s website for the release of that video.) As is often the case, as I was driving back across the metroplex, I thought of a dozen things I wished I had said or said differently.

Partly this is because I felt a little disconnected and disjointed in my interview (we’ll see what wonders they are able to do in editing…) But the primary reason I couldn’t stop thinking of things I wish I’d said is that I believe this subject is So. Very. Important!

Much ink and perhaps a little blood has been shed over finding the “best practices” for ministry…and all too often those quests have been carried out with little thought given to the theological implications of our choices. Worse yet are the myriad of successful practices (where success = large crowds and financial support) built around anemic or just plain BAD theology (see Richard Beck’s excellent series on Why Bad Theologies are So Popular).

We often fail to see the ways in which the unreflective adoption of “best practices” can shape the way we view other people and even the way we view God.

In the case of “bad” theology the problems can run even deeper. Here’s a popular example (and one which I think many people are starting to see through): The loss of a loved one is deeply traumatic – all the more so when that loved one is young. In our attempts to console grieving family, statements are made, such as: “God just needed another angel.”

Aside from the fact that this statement completely misunderstands the origin of angels, it also says some very unsettling and incriminating things about God. It is even more unsettling when these types of statements are made from the “pulpit.” (Some may not agree with making a distinction between what a “normal” person says and what a “minister” claims – but that is simply the reality of the situation in traditionally structured churches.)

Beginning with best practices or unreflective theology works against the goal of cultivating faithful missional communities.

Additionally, it seems that a large number (I won’t pretend to know the percentage) of people involved in church planting are doing so from a largely reactionary and negative mindset. In this case, I don’t necessarily mean “negative” in the sense of having a sour attitude, but rather that our practices and our theology (even if its just implicit) are rooted in negating or reversing what someone else has done.

To be sure, there are some abuses of the past which should be reconciled or flat-out abandoned. However, in talking about moving from theology to practice, an inherent claim is that our thinking about God, faith, church, discipleship, worship, etc., should be generative (developed by what are we FOR because of the gospel vs. what we are against).

Think about it this way: When someone asks about your church planting (or your established context…or your personal faith – this holds true across contexts) how do you describe it? Do you begin with, “We/I aren’t so focused on _____” or “We’re/I’m trying to get away from _____”?

These statements may have their place – particularly when they’re used to clarify false-assumptions about the nature of our community. However, when they become the language of vision casting (formal or informal), warning sirens should begin going off in our heads.

The question that needs more attention in these situations is, “Okay, so what ARE you/AM I about?”

One thing I appreciate about Mission Alive’s approach is the steady commitment to deal substantively with this question – BEFORE formulating a strategy for church planting.

A couple years ago I read John Patton’s From Ministry to Theology. Patton states, “Christian ministry involves not only understanding what we do in light of our faith, but also understanding our faith in the light of what we do.” It is in the context of our dealings with others that our theology is able to be fleshed out and incarnated. I’ve begun incorporating this insight into my own work and teaching – We move from ministry to theology to practice.

This is not referring to ministry as an official position of leadership in a church – I mean ministry as engaging in concern, care and service within an actual place with actual people.

Theology, if it is going to lead to healthy practice, must be contextual theology – it is rooted in what God is up to IN THIS PLACE. To be sure there are cosmic elements to our theology (things that transcend time and place) but even they have contextual implications.

The people we encounter, the trials we go through and the victories we witness are able (if we’re willing to reflect carefully) to shed light on our theology, just as our theology sheds light on them. In her book Teaching From the Heart, Mary Elizabeth Moore addresses the value of case studies in religious education. One significant point in the book is her reminder that there is truth to be found in the case itself – not just in what we bring to it. When our eyes are open to what is happening around us, we begin to realize that God is indeed still at work in this world – and lo-and-behold, God’s actions are still able communicate truth.

I recognize that many people are hesitant to engage in theological reflection. I’ve heard a number of people say, “that’s for academics – my calling is in the field.” Or others are suspicious of the whole process: “I just read the Bible and do what it says.” I vividly remember a conversation I had at a fast food restaurant with a friend who said, “Well, you know I’m able to hear from God more clearly than you because you’ve read what other people have said about it – but I just read the Bible.”

It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard that, but was the first time I heard it from a friend in such a matter-of-fact, non-accusatory way. It was just common knowledge that those who engage in theological reflection – especially if they’ve studied theology -simply can’t hear from the Spirit.

This same struggle has been played out for years between “academics” and “practitioners.” I remember in seminary the tension between those who were preparing for academic careers / PhD studies and those who were preparing to serve as preachers or other local church ministries. One group says the other is too lazy to do the hard work of real substantial theology, while the other group lobs back accusations of being disconnected from the “real life of faith.” (And of course both groups agreed that the missions majors were just plain weird.)

Aside from being a ridiculous game among privileged students (which unfortunately grows into a ridiculous game between privileged professionals) – this whole debate misses anything resembling the point. This isn’t an either/or issue. We cannot hope to cultivate healthy communities of faith without both theological reflection and practical ministry. They are two sides of the same coin – each leading to further insight in the other.

This isn’t to say that we all have to read Barth’s Dogmatics once a year (to my non-nerd friends, Dogmatics is the theological equivalent of War and Peace…great stuff but not a beach-read by any stretch).

However, we must come to grips with the reality that what we do (or choose not to do) will inevitably communicate something about who we believe God to be… At the very least we should pause to think about what that might be.

To be as clear as possible, I’m not simply talking to those who’ve spent the last 14 years pursuing degrees in ministry like this one insane guy I know. Taking the move from theology to practice seriously doesn’t require the ability to read Greek or Hebrew, quote your favorite theologian or describe the history of theological development in the church. (Though, contrary to my fast-food companion, I still think these are valuable contributions to the conversation.)

Theological reflection should inform our practice, it should be considered from within a local context and it is best approached in community. Our churches should be communities of theological discernment – with each disciple contributing the gifts and resources they possess to the process. Theologies which are formed in private can have a tendency to represent our own personal preferences and idiosyncrasies more than the movement of God in this place.

I didn’t really have time, and the context didn’t really allow for me to get into all this in the video…and I expect that about 10 minutes after this is posted I’ll begin thinking of other things I wish I’d said or said differently in this post. But…its a start.

In the meantime, I’d love for others to weigh in on the topic.

Anybody?…

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Posted on September 1, 2011, in Church Planting, ministry, Missional church, missional theology, spiritual formation, spiritual leadership, theological reflection, theology, theology of ministry and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Bret –

    I appreciate the nuance in the move from ministry to theology to practice. You’re right – theological reflection never takes place in a vacuum. Even the great letter of Romans – which many would like to say was Paul’s most pure theological treatise – was written at a very specific occasion in the life of the church network in Rome. We do theology out of our experiences (also a major tenet of Liberation Theology, incidentally).

    I also liked what you said yesterday about theology being inevitable. We will have theological perspective no matter what. Everyone, from the worker at McD’s to the SMU PhD, has a theology or way of thinking about God. The important thing is that we reflect on our assumptions and convictions in light of scripture and in the context of both the Spirit-filled community and our broader community.

    I think you did a great job yesterday. Thanks for joining us.

  2. Thanks Charles. Great point about Romans – without at least a cursory appreciation of the context of Rome and the nature of the conflict between Gentile and Jewish Christians, the letter to the Romans takes on (in my opinion) a very different tone.

    I would say that the lack of contextualized theology was actually a contributing factor in the need for the various theologies of liberation to be developed in the first place. Decontextualized theology will almost always favor the dominant culture/status quo.

    Thanks for the comment!

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