It was an exciting time in the life of Center Church, a small congregation in a vital downtown area in the Northeast. Because of a shared sense that new opportunities for ministry were emerging, a “Millennial Committee” had been charged with developing a structure for the 21st century that would enable the congregation to respond faithfully to its call to be a Christian community in its distinctive context. Committee members took their assignment seriously and worked for months gathering information and suggestions from the neighbors and other members of the congregation. The result was a long and ambitious list of visionary projects. “Looking at it,” one member recalls, “one could not help feeling that a church capable of doing all these things must be thriving, full of energy, and enlivened by the Spirit.”1
As the time to implement these ministries approached, however, energy waned. People came to meetings with long weary faces, if they came at all. Finally, the convener turned to one of the senior members and asked what she thought about the plans. “I’m sorry,” the member responded. “I don’t mean to be negative, but when I look at this list, I feel . . . so tired.”
Her admission released a flood of similar confessions, as others claimed in with their own sense of being overwhelmed and exhausted, not only by their church commitments but also by the daily stress of life at home and at work. One by one, they acknowledged that they could not really muster enthusiasm for the congregation’s future plans. And they confessed that this made them feel guilty. At this point, one of the newer members of the congregation asked the question that turned a potential gripe session into an opportunity for theological reflection. “Is this what it means to be churched?” he asked. “Believing you should do all these things and then feeling worn out and guilty because you can’t? Is the Good News we celebrate?”
Fortunately, the committee did not just forge ahead with its institutional agenda. Instead the members decided to put their ambitious list of projects on hold to spend time getting their bearings straight with respect to the “Good News” that had drawn them together in the first place. They resolved to take time to think deliberately and explicitly about their own lives and their congregation’s life in relation to God.
Examining Our Lives Theologically
Beliefs about God permeate the life of every congregation. In worship we hear stories of God’s dealings with our forebears, sing songs of praise to God, and experience the blessing of God. Nearly all congregations teach children and other newcomers the central tenets of their faith, and many repeat a historic creed in unison at every weekly service. Members make congregational decisions and relate to one another with the name of God on their lips and ideas about what God intends on their minds. And even when they are not using words, much of what congregants do—bringing an offering, visiting a homebound friend—embraces specific notions of who God is and who we are in relation to God. Moreover, most congregations would agree that their beliefs are crucial if they are to keep their bearings.
Yet sometimes these beliefs—articulated in various denominations in specific doctrines, creeds, or biblical interpretations—recede into the background like familiar wallpaper, taken for granted but unexamined. Reflecting on them at greater depth would take time—and we Americans usually prefer to use our time getting things done, especially when our activities are intended as acts of service to others. Moreover, we sense that exploring our lives theologically would be no easy matter. The creeds and doctrines that summarize central tenets in the Christian theological tradition set forth complicated concepts in words that are not part of the everyday vocabulary. Many theological books seem difficult and abstract. And in our pluralistic context, some congregants surely suspect that getting too deep into these concepts might well expose theological differences within and beyond the congregation that they would rather avoid.
Why is it important to think theologically within and about the congregation? We know it’s time consuming. It might even be dangerous. Why not just go out and do good?
Theology—Critical and Constructive
First Church of the Brethren, a congregation of Chicago’s West Side, learned the importance of theological reflection in the midst of going out and doing good. Gilbert Bond, then a member of the congregation and now a theology professor, tells the story in an essay he wrote for Practicing Theology.2 Bond’s account provides an excellent example of how theological reflection can become an arena for self-criticism when congregational mission goes awry—and also a source of constructive renewal for mission.
Bond’s story begins with the good intentions of this congregation, which had shrunk to a fraction of its former size and glory after the exodus to the suburbs of most white members. Hoping to serve its neighborhood, the congregation enrolled with the government as a food-distribution point for welfare recipients. But “something kept subverting our best intentions,” Bond recalls. Shielded from close contact with the recipients by heavy tables, church members carefully checked ID cards to make sure that their supplicants really were poor before handing over chunks of surplus processed cheese that they would have been reluctant to eat themselves. Eventually some began to notice “a seething underbelly of resentment” on the part of those they intended to help—a resentment that finally erupted in a violent collision between an angry young man from the neighborhood and a pious older woman from the congregation. Fortunately, no one was injured physically. But this congregation’s sense of itself was seriously wounded, as members sadly concluded that they had become partners in a society’s dehumanization of those who are most in need.
“After tears angry and sorrowful, prayers halting and hurting, we closed the food distribution ministry down,” Bond writes. “With painful discernment and honest conversation and confrontation, the members of the ministry realized that in spite of our best efforts, our ministry was inherently violent.” This outcome went against one of the most distinctive and dearly held convictions of their Anabaptist heritage: “dedication to nonviolence as the fruit of loving obedience to Jesus Christ.” The confrontation challenged them to take a critical look at their relationship as a covenant community to “the world” around them, and thus to revisit and rethink their self-understanding as a community gathered by grace and sent into the world as a suffering servant.
“That violent Saturday called us to ourselves,” Bond writes. His story, which begins with tables where the members of the congregation sat while checking ID cards, ends with the relocation of these tables to the fellowship hall, where they were set with food and encircled with chairs so that members of the congregation and people from the neighborhood could eat together. In between came theological reflection, a process of deliberate and explicit inquiry into the congregation’s understanding of its relation to God and, in the light of God, to others.
The Congregation’s Knowledge of God
Thinking about God and about our world in relation to God is an ever-present dimension of the life of faith. To be sure, such thinking is not always explicit and articulate. Sometimes it is far more apparent in a person’s ability to take the next faithful step than in her ability to explain coherently why she took it. Every congregation I have known has included someone who seemed to “know” God like this, as if an understanding of God’s grace were knit into her bones. Asking such members about their theology, we are likely to receive phrases from childhood hymns or brief testimonies to the goodness of God. But who can know the quality of reflection undergirding them, after years of silent pondering, inner dialogues with a preacher, and early-morning devotions?
The practices in which entire congregations engage together—prayer and governance and hospitality and stewardship and more—can be theologically rich in a similarly inarticulate way. These practices bear genuine knowledge of God and our relation to God; theology is knit into their patterns and proclaimed in their every move. Practicing hospitality, we live out answers to questions about who we are in relation to God and one another. Practicing Sabbath, we embody specific beliefs about who created the world and set the captives free. Participating in such practices, we respond to and seek to reflect God’s grace. Yet we also fall short, or come upon new situations that make it difficult to see what the next moves are, or allow the practice to become corrupt.
“Theological reflection arises within the ordinary workings of Christian lives to meet pressing practical needs,” the theologian Kathryn Tanner notes.3 Much of this reflection takes place in an unorganized fashion, as ordinary people figure out how to take the next steps in complex, historically situated practices that are inherently ambiguous, inconsistent, and open ended. Yet ultimately, as in Gilbert Bond’s Chicago congregation, “hard cases make a church attend to what it means by what it is doing.” Tanner observes, “Being witnesses and disciples means establishing through effort-filled deliberative processes what Christianity stands for in our own lives for our own time and circumstances.”
Remembering Who We Are and Where We Live
Let’s return to the moment when theology erupted during the meeting of the Millennial Committee. Then new member’s question—“Is this the Good News we celebrate?”—called this group to be explicit about the substance of their faith and to remember the rock on which their lives were founded. Led by the pastor and two lay members, they studied Scripture, traditional Christian texts, and contemporary theology. And again and again, they found themselves pondering a word they had often used but had seldom stopped to consider: grace. What did it mean for them to say that salvation comes “by grace through faith”? What might the “grace-filled benefits of faith” be for them as people who confess the saving power of Christ? And how might these benefits relate to “the practical patterns of living” that structured their daily lives together?
Serene Jones, a professor at Yale Divinity School who happened to be a member of the Millennial Committee (but not a leader of the study process), highlights two themes that profoundly shifted the way the committee came to understand its call to restructure the congregation’s life and the exhaustion everyone felt in the wake of this call—the doctrines of justification and sanctification. Jones notes in an essay that this United Church of Christ congregation had been powerfully influenced by the Reformed tradition’s understanding of the twofold character of grace, an understanding that was new to some members of the committee and familiar to others. Surfacing these basic convictions at this crucial juncture in their work was liberating and empowering. If they were justified by God’s grace, they remembered, they were set free by pure gift rather than by anything they might do or not do (including the visionary projects on their list). Yet God’s grace also “sanctifies” those whom it embraces, forming in them what Jones calls “a pattern of living that reflects the structure of that freeing love.” The freedom granted by God’s grace has a shape to it. Eventually “the committee as a whole discovered in its renewed engagement with justification and sanctification that these concepts define—at least at an ideal level—our most basic disposition toward all we do.”4
“When we began to truly grasp the depth of God’s love for the world and the freedom that is given to us in that love, we not only felt the burden of our list lifted from our shoulders; we simultaneously came to see our list as a joyous response to the love that so freed us,” Jones writes. “We came to see our plans for the future of the church as plans that bore witness to the gracious embrace with which God holds us. As such, our plans shifted from being a list of how we might save the world to a list of the ways we were witnessing to and celebrating the reality that God saves the world. Our relativized practices were subsequently reinvigorated by the very grace that rendered them unnecessary.” Another member of the committee put it this way: “When we begin to see that what we do as a church doesn't matter ultimately, we are freed to see how very much our practices do matter.”5
Jones notes that doctrines—such as justification and sanctification—serve as the “territory within which Christians stand to get their conceptual bearings on the world and the reality of God therein.”6 Remembering these doctrines changed the “lived imaginative landscape” upon which this committee would continue its work. Remembering God’s grace, the participants came to see themselves differently. And taking time for theological reflection, they remembered that their world, their city, and their congregation belong to God.
Theology for a Way of Life
In the final chapter of Practicing Theology, the theologian Miroslav Volf calls on academic theologians to do theology “to serve a way of life.”7 When pastors take up their vocation as “resident theologians” within the congregation, they do theology in the same spirit with which they lead members in theological reflection for the sake of the integrity and faithfulness of their way of life. Theology, however, is not limited to these high profile leaders. Rather, it is a necessary dimension of every Christian’s life of faith—a dimension that flourishes in community, within the context of honesty about our failings and shared hope for the world, nourished by the reading of Scripture and the wisdom of those who have formed this community graced by freedom over the centuries. We practice theology best, that is, in congregations that deliberately make room for theological reflection.
This article draws on insights from the book Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass, eds. (Eerdmans, 2002). The book's development was sponsored by the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith. For more material on congregations and theological reflection on Christian practices, see the project Web site, www.practicingourfaith.org.
1. The story of the Millennial Committee is told in the chapter by Serene Jones, "Graced Practices: Excellence and Freedom in the Christian Life," in Practicing Theology, 51–77.
2. Gilbert I. Bond, "Liturgy, Ministry, and the Stranger: The Practice of Encountering the Other in Two Christian Communities," in Practicing Theology, 137–156.
3. Kathryn Tanner, "Theological Reflection and Christian Practices," in Practicing Theology, 228–242.
4. Jones, "Graced Practices," in Practicing Theology, 54.
5. Jones and an unnamed member of the committee, 66.
6. Jones also explores doctrines as "dramatic scripts" which Christians perform and by which they are performed, 74–75.
7. Miroslav Volf, "Theology for a Way of Life," in Practicing Theology, 245–263.