Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Why Theology is Necessary for Today's Church

For most of my life, I have had a narrative going on in my mind about being a thinking person and the call to ministry. It was always easy to see how it was good to be a thinking person in the realms of science, liberal arts and even the business world. But in the Christian world--at least the one I was exposed to--the emphasis has always been on the practical side of doing something and not spending too much time thinking about it. What has been celebrated in my tradition is production. I remember one speaker talking about pastors and missionaries having a slew of theology books and how they spent too much time reading and not enough time doing ministry. 

As a result, I have always felt conflicted. I was drawn to a contemplative, reflective and even cerebral way of interacting with God and the church. But many of the people I respected in the church denigrated such things. I remember my first position on staff at a church was that of an interning for a youth pastor who had not had any seminary and he made it quite clear that any cerebral training like that was not necessary for ministry. He was a doer, an activist who was quite gifted at leading youth. And he was a good preacher. His impact on others was obvious. And when I looked at the impact of some of the theologians I knew, I realized that there impact was quite minimal by comparison. At least the direct impact. 

Then I worked for Ralph Neighbour who had quite a bit of theological training, but his emphasis had always been upon producing something in the church. Even he seemed to downplay the importance of reflection and theological processing in the light of holding up the need to produce something in the church. 

But all along, I felt called to something deeper. I felt a yearning to think. I knew how to do this in school within the secular subjects but within the evangelical church, being a thinker was not that valued. For eight years I served as a leader within a charismatic church. I tried to set aside my yearning for theological reflection and be the kind of leader and preacher that fit that tradition, but that which gave me the most thrill was found when I would read Moltmann, Bonhoeffer, Hauerwas, or Pinnock. 

So I was conflicted. I felt a yearning for something for which my tradition did not highly value. So I tried and I tried to be what was valued so as to meet needs within the church. Because I am published within the subject of small groups, change leadership and church structures, it has been assumed that I would be a great small groups pastor. And I tried to be that. And truly it might be hard to find someone who knows more about these subjects, but this role does not fit me. 

Even now I work with two world renown theologians and have tried to play the non-theologian role with them because that is not what is needed. I assumed that since they have the theology part covered that I need to be practical. I have tried to  be one who helps others communicate their theology and make it more practical. And while I have gifts for this role, again the thing that stirs my soul to depths untold is the theological reflection that occurs when I interact with the material. 

So the internal conflict has abounded. I have needed a reframe about theology and the narrative that has been running in my head about the practical import of it. The story has been: I like this; I am good at theological reflection; but it is impractical and not that important to the call of the church because theological reflection has little to do with the real world. So who God has made me to be is not that important to his agenda in this age. Wow! As I write this, I never realized just how much this has impacted my view of myself. 

So I have been a closet theologian, like it was a secret sin to read, reflect and write as I do. I have hidden it because I don't want people to assume that I am arrogant or that I am impractical. And therefore unuseful. I have tried and tried to push away who I am made to be. 

Then in one of my "secret" times of reading and reflecting I came across one of the most impacting statements that I have ever read: 
"Since the gospel is intrinsically a missionary message, and since Mediterranean antiquity was there before it was invaded by the gospel, Christianity is the intruder even in the civilization it co-created. Within the West, it is therefore possible to be a disciple of Socrates and not of the prophets and apostles, though tis is not possible to be unaffected by them. So there will be 'philosophers' who are not Christian theologians. But within Western civilization, and so within the theological enterprise located there, it is not possible to be a disciple of the apostles and not a disciple also of Socrates. Therefore the labels 'philosophy' and 'theology' cannot mark a real distinction for those most likely to read this book." (Robert Jenson, ST 2, 163).

Ok what the heck does this mean? The gospel is not some universal message that can be delivered in a decontextualized way. The gospel is one that is stated and lived in a context. First there is the context of the Story of the biblical narrative. Then there is the context of the theological development that we have inherited. Then there is the context in which the gospel comes to life today. 

Theological reflection is not only important to the communication of the gospel in this age, it is basic and essential. Without it, we are prone to communicate a supposed do-contextualized version of the gospel which is nothing less that an inherited way of talking about God that we have received from another era or place. The gospel is only good news when it is news of God for a specific people in a specific time and place. It is thereby dialogical in that the word of God comes to people who are living in the midst of bad news. This cannot be an abstract universal message. It is always personal, relational therefore specific. 

When it comes to theology, the narrative of the church must change. I can only start with me. Help me Lord to hear this new narrative regarding passion within me for theology. 


Ralph Neighbour Jr. said...

Hmm. My major premise is, as you know from editing my last book, "Theology breeds methodology."

Scott Boren said...

I hear your point and I know your stuff. To be honest, these are simply ramblings of a repressed theologian who heard from my SBC tradition that good theology was not worth the time. And that the emphasis always should be on methodology and theological reflection for its own sake was a waste. When I pointed you out, I was simply, and maybe unfairly, identifying my interpretation of where the emphasis of TOUCH and the cell church lay in my work at TOUCH in the 1990s. I don't want to communicate that I discount your theological work. In fact you have done significant work in this arena, especially in your last book. I was writing more about my experience than trying to point out any objective POV.