Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What's Theology Got to Do with It?

A book came to my attention the other day. Anthony Robinson of the Alban Institute wrote a book back in 2006 titled What’s Theology Got to Do with it? His primary point in the book is that today’s churches have very little real theology (understanding of God) behind most of what they do. In most modern churches, he argues, you’ll hear a lot of talk about God (as in “God-talk”), but very little of a substantive nature of what the church is really about; that is to say that most modern congregations have no real theology of church – a people called out from the world by God to be His own peculiar people with their own peculiar ideas and practices and behaviors and agenda. Rather, he says, when modern churches start reflecting on what it means to be and do “church,” what you get is a thoroughly secular litany of systems theory, leadership studies, conflict management, and marketing strategies, none of which has anything to do with God. Apparently, you don’t have to have a theology of church these days to do “church,” at least as many modern churches understand “church.”

A professor at one of the most prestigious seminaries in the country recently remarked that most seminary students she sees these days have no discernible ecclesiology (theological understanding of the church) at all. “For my students,” she says, “the church is a voluntary not-for-profit organization run like a local franchise.” Robinson put it more succinctly. He said that today’s concept of church is derived largely from the culture: an entertainment industry complete with audience ratings; a seller of spiritual goods and services; a religious club for people with shared experiences; a special interest group gathered around certain social or political agendas; or simply a gathering place where people have their ‘needs met,’ whatever they are, whatever that means.

It's safe to tell it now. I was a pastor once at a church that was hiring a new minister of youth. As senior pastor, it was my job to meet with the search committee and task them for their search. I met with the committee and told them that the primary role of the youth minister was essentially the same as that of the senior pastor; namely, to move persons farther along the way toward becoming fully devoted disciples of Jesus Christ. It was just that a youth minister focused on disciple-making with adolescents and youth, rather than adults. Given that role and function, therefore, I told them that it was vital that they pay particular attention both to the prospective candidate's theology of the church and theology of ministry. No matter what other "skills" this person might happen to bring to the church, I suggested, if they did not see themselves and their chief role as being fundamentally in the disciple-making business, they would not help us as a church to fulfill our mission and purpose; namely, to make disciples. When I finished a woman on the committee, mother of two teenagers, looked at me and said: "Theology of ministry? Why do we need to know that? I just want someone who knows how to plan after school programs for our youth so that my kids will have a place to go where I know they can hang out and not do drugs."

Now I know what you're thinking: "But that's not my church." Oh really? Laypeople, ask your pastor to articulate for you his theology of church. Pastor, ask your laypeople to articulate for you their theology of church. Pastor, ask your staff to articulate for you their theology of church. Oh, they can tell you about the latest book on conflict resolution or crisis intervention or leadership theory or "emotional intelligence" (translate that "manipulating people to get them to do what you want them to do"), and they can tell you all about the latest gimmick for marketing the church to the target population or improving customer satisfaction, but when it comes to a theology of church...the silence is deafening.

Contrast that with the New Testament concept of the Church. The word “church” comes from a Greek word (ecclesia), which means “a people called out.” Do you hear the counter-cultural echoes in that? The church is not a club, or a social service organization, or an entertainment venue, or a place where I get my “needs met.” In the New Testament, the church is a community of people gathered by God to learn daily what it means to follow Jesus Christ. Peter put it this way: “Once you were no people; but now you are God’s people” (1 Peter 2:10).

Everything the church does, from baptism to weddings to funerals to fellowship, ought to be an opportunity to clarify and communicate, both for ourselves and the world, just what a remarkable, counter-cultural difference it makes to be a Christian. "I'm a Christian; I don't believe in a sui generis, eternal, omnipotent Nature; I believe in Creation. I'm a Christian; I don't believe in Luck (Lady or otherwise); I believe in Providence. I'm a Christian; I don't believe that human failings are merely a matter of "Oops" or "Uh Oh;" I believe in sin. I'm a Christian; I don't believe in conflict resolution; I believe in confession and repentance and forgiveness...."

I know it seems a lot to ask these days, but some of us out there actually want a church with a theology, because some of us are silly enough to think (and this will sound strange to some) that the church ought to be about God.


Tim Marsh said...

Dr. Stacy,

Sometimes I think that we (ministers, clergy, etc.) have only ourselves to blame.

All we need to do is review Fundamentalist-Modernist debates of the 20th Century to see how far off-base both "sides" were.

Such an ecclesiology that you speak of will only evolve slowly. However, I hear more of the counter-cultural community in teaching and writing. Hopefully, it is making the way to the pulpits.

Our church is going through Dan Vestal's It's Time in the spring and our Diaconate has already spent 6 months on it! We have had interesting conversations. And, as Vestal pointed out, changes in ecclesiology are slow and painful. It may take new congregations and strong leadership in traditional congregations.

As the last 2000 years have shown, God has all the time in the world for the church to finally "get" his message and act upon it. I only hope that I can be a part of making strides toward that end.

Thank you for another thought-provoking post. Blessings!


R. Wayne Stacy said...

Thanks for your comments, Tim. They're always insightful.

I hope you're wrong, however. I hope the return to a NT ecclesiology will not, as you say, "evolve slowly." It need not. All it takes is for some pastors, who themselves have a theology of church and ministry, to stand up and say to their own congregations, "Enough of this silliness! We're going to be the Church!"

That, contrary to the psycho-silliness or managerial manipulation served up in most of the popular "leadership books" out there, is real pastoral leadership.