Deepening theological reflection in the church

How does a congregation go about claiming not only the priesthood of all believers, but also the individual and corporate practice of theological reflection?

By Molly T. Marshall

After my friend Dan Aleshire moved from Louisville to Pittsburgh to join the staff of the Association of Theological Schools, I asked him about the process of locating a new church. He offered an interesting reflection: “I can find churches formed by the therapeutic/psychological model or the corporate model. I am challenged to find a church that is theologically formed.”

I believe that this is a key challenge for churches today. Hardly at the center of culture or community in our day, a church can still hold remarkable promise for nurturing lives of wholeness. While the world stresses power, the church can be a place of vulnerability and transparency, as wise pastor Amy Butler suggests. Perhaps that is its niche; it creates space for welcome and accountability, grounded in gospel wisdom.

I visited a most remarkable church over the weekend, First Baptist Church of Redlands, Calif. Thoughtful, open, intellectually curious, spiritually vibrant and scholarly, it is shepherded by a meticulously intentional pastor, Joe DeRoulhac, who has served there faithfully for 25 years. Nothing happens without clear theological rationale; not surprisingly, the church is flourishing.

Ringed about by the San Bernardino Mountains and spattered with orange groves, this lovely city gives priority to education, health and civic good. The church is a vital part of this community and serves it in countless ways. Attracting a highly educated populace, persons brimming with talent, questions and spiritual hunger, the congregation is lighting many dark places.

Matthew’s Gospel articulates this kind of mission: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God …” (5:16). Among the aphorisms of Jesus, the symbol of light speaks of illuminating witness. God’s people are to point the way to God.

Loving words as I do, I was impressed with felicitous phrases from the mission statement. The congregation aspires to “sharpen the mind, widen the heart, and deepen the spirit.” Full-bodied theology must undergird this pursuit.

Serving as guest theologian, I had opportunity to converse with the major constituencies of the church. Our dialogue was fruitful, and we discussed wide-ranging issues of spiritual formation, interfaith relations, ecology and Baptist identity. Free flowing intellectual inquiry made for bracing exchanges.

During one session on the Holy Spirit, a woman asked: “What are the sources for language about the Spirit?” It was a perceptive question and opened up new interdisciplinary pathways of discourse. I had to confess that some of the new work in neurobiology that is shaping theology was beyond my ken, yet I affirmed the importance of the interface of disciplines. Clearly people were not afraid to ask their real questions there — a sign of a healthy church.

One person characterized the congregation as a safe place for “spiritual orphans.” These are persons who have suffered under dictatorial or abusive pastoral leadership and doctrinal legalism. Clearly, the church has a gift for healing, and it lavishes the resources of the gospel on those suffering this kind of ecclesial history.

How does a congregation go about claiming not only the priesthood of all believers, but also the individual and corporate practice of theological reflection? It must become the quest of the whole congregation, not simply the pastoral staff. In seminary classes we speak of moving from “imbedded” to “deliberative” theology; i.e., the process by which one becomes aware of the theological template formed by appropriating the resources of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

A strong emphasis on narrative reverberates in this church. As persons share their life stories, they discover the places where they have encountered God and found new guidance for their lives. Together they discover and interpret theological language of vocation, ecclesial identity, image of God, covenant, Eucharist, service, hospitality, community and holy presence. The pastor refers to them as theologians, and they rise to the task in this supportive community. They weave their stories with the stories of Scripture and both are illumined.

Intergenerational and multicultural leadership abounds in the congregation, a significant means of theological formation. Old and young stood shoulder-to-shoulder serving communion, singing, reading Scripture and praying. Their joy in being together was palpable. When the worship service concludes, the congregation moves outdoors to a patio for coffee and treats, visible to those passing by. Moving the church closer to the street seems like a good metaphor for public engagement, a vital part of testing theological commitments.

Theological education assists leaders in learning to view the world theologically; however, they cannot be the only “keeper of the fire” in congregational life. For churches to remain visible on the social landscape, they must understand and embody theological patterns of engaging all the dimensions of our complex time. This is the ongoing work of formation in the church, surely an inclusive task.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.