Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Report to the Presbytery April 22, 2008

What kind of theology? Claiming a Missional Theology.

I am a theology junky. I love the academic study of theology. Although I was born and raised in a very active church family in a Presbyterian Church, I was never exposed to the academic world of theological study growing up. While in Seminary it is the academic study of theology that captured my heart and blessed me, and it still does. The Presbyterian Church has always made a very important intellectual assumption about church leadership. We assume that the academic study of theology is essential for our pastors and all church leaders.
But we must ask what theology should we study? Like all academic areas of study there is a rich diversity in the world of theology. In my opinion, part of the reason why the Presbyterian Church is so diverse, with such a dizzying array of convictions, perspectives and opinions, is that our church leaders do not have all the same theological grounding. We do not all read the same books. My study of theology has been incredibly diverse and, in some ways, scattered.
I have, of course, carefully studied our Book of Confessions and the historical context of our confessions. The idea of the ‘Invisible Kirk” in the Scots Confession blesses me. I look for and see glimpses of it in our churches. The Confession of 1967’s call to a ministry of reconciliation remains authentic and true for me. I enjoy the Brief Statement of Faith and I have used it extensively in my ministry.
I have studied a lot of church history and the theology of the Reformation Era. I have read a lot of John Calvin. His image of the church and its organization is remarkable. I have learned the important difference between the theology of John Calvin and the theology of Calvinism as it developed in various forms and places.
I have studied a lot of American theology including the American Great Awakenings, the great conflicts in the Presbyterian Church between the Old School and New School, the new light and old light, and the Fundamentalist Modernist controversy before World War Two. I have studied the long history of American evangelical theology. Maybe my favorite theologian is Reinhold Niebuhr. Especially in this election year, it would be good for us all to read Niebuhr again.
I have also studied a lot of Latin American liberation theology and African American liberation theology. In this tradition, Martin Luther King is a very influential American theologian. I appreciate King’s weaving together of American history and the Bible into his concept of the “beloved community.”

My point is this. As I reflect on my own theological education, I realize it is very scattered. One of the great blessings in the church has been the rich diversity of academic theology. One of the great problems, in my opinion, in the church has been the rich diversity of academic theology. There is so much to read and study that church leaders are seldom reading the same things. This, in my opinion, has contributed to our inability to come together theologically with a united heart and mind. Those of us who are immersed in Latin American liberation theology have a difficult time finding anything in common with those of us who are reading American evangelical theology. Those of us who are reading American feminist theology are having a hard time finding anything in common with those of us reading classical European Reformed theology.
From a theological perspective, I am now very excited about the church. I believe there is emerging a new school, a new brand, a new style of academic theology which has the potential to truly bring us together in common conversation. We call it missional theology. I believe missional theology has the ability to truly transcend our culture wars and bring people together. I believe that missional theology, unlike a lot of academic theology, connects theological reflection with the practice of ministry. Missional theology is truly theology for the church. I believe that missional theology is both very biblical and very consistent with our Reformed tradition. I believe that missional theology is also very attractive to young people, especially as it is being discussed in the emergent church movement.
So I bring a modest proposal to us today. Maybe we should start reading some of the same books. Maybe we should try and come together theologically. I suggest the whole genre of missional theology may be a common theme with which we all can connect. I suggest we start with the works of Leslie Newbigin, Darrel Guder and Brian McLaren. Or, for example, we may use the services of Amazon.com where there are 156 titles listed under a search on “missional theology.” Maybe a new theological movement is starting in our midst which, truly, has the potential to bring us together in service to Jesus Christ our Lord.