This week I have had several occasions to relate to local church pastors who are also seeking to do theological studies.
It troubles me that for so many there has been something like Lessing’s ‘deep ugly ditch’ between ministry and theology.
Constantly I hear people speak of theology and then of ‘practical’ concerns or disciplines.
My conviction is that rightly understood, there is nothing more practical for a pastor to be doing than theology.
I am further convinced that if pastors were more creatively engaged with theology, or with their ministry in a theological way, much of what is said against ‘the institutional church’ by the ’emerging church’ movement would be dealt with, and (equally) much of what is said by the emerging church movement would be challenged to become more adequate, as an understanding of church.
Pastors of congregations are called to enable and facilitate the life of the local church as a theological community: that is, as a community seeking to articulate its knowledge of God, its continuous knowing of God, a relational knowing, in context.
What does this mean about the nature of theology, or as I prefer, theological reflection?
This is how I put it to a class this week: Theological reflection means participating constructively in the continuing conversation of God with the world – through the church.
It is a serious question whether this phrase ‘through the church’ means that the conversation between God and the world is mediated to the world through the church, or is undertaken only within the church, or whether theology itself is only undertaken within or through the church. I am not prepared to limit the theological conversation in any of these ways. Rather, I prefer to leave that phrase intentionally ambiguous, or (I prefer to suggest) polyvalent. It all flows in many ways and possibilities.
Pastors, then, are theologians. Even those who pretend not to be, or who resist theology, are in fact demonstrating a theology, an understanding of God. In practical terms, pastoral work is a continuous outworking of the ways we know and relate to God. It is a form of God-talk.
We can be intentional about this. Indeed, for me this is the most exciting way of thinking of the church.
The church itself is the community in which the conversation between God and the world comes to expression. That is how I think we should define the church. Wherever this conversation, this relational knowing, is emerging, taking some expression, there is the church.
This means that church, and theology, must always be contemporary: a happening in the present, and free to happen in the present, not bound to or by the past—even though it is may be shaped in part by past forms, traditions and insights.
Second, such theological community, church, must also be contextual: it always happens in a specific place and time. It happens in the world, but in this or that part of the world. It is a conversation between the community’s experiences and understanding of God, from the Bible, from experiences, from traditions, and the present challenges, needs and potential of the situation. So the group may have a ‘gospel’ tradition which speaks of healing and reconciliation: but now it has to work out what this really means, in relation to its own place and people: asylum seekers, indigenous people, marriage breakdown, family violence, and so on.
Thirdly, theology in this sense is communal: it is undertaken within the community and for the community, but also by the community.
This is why pastors are theologians: but not the only theologians in the community. We are facilitators and resource persons, for the ongoing life of theological discovery which is (could be, should be, can be) the church.