Sitting on the clouds forty thousand feet above earth is always interesting. You never know who you will be sitting next to and this is my case today. I headed to California to handle a bit of business for the church. Next to me is a polite woman reading a book. I glance at the book’s title to discover it says, Church Politics. As I reflect upon my reading for the week, I cannot help to ponder what she thinks about the church, what it means to be Christian. I wonder if she would ever step into my church, and I obviously wonder if her church would be a place I would attend. Being Christian means many things to many people, and it often has to do with implicit theology.
In Martyn Percy’s book, Shaping the Church: The Promise of Implicit Theology, the role of expressed doctrine and theology play within the context of the local church only provides part of the story of faith for the believer. While explicit doctrine and theology are important in formation, there is an undercurrent of beliefs that are expressed in a variety of ways that also congeals in the believer’s mind as what it means to be a Christian. These subterranean beliefs within the soul of the church is what Percy would define as implicit theology. Percy states:
It is through the study of implicit theology that the theologian will find individuals and communities ‘working out their own salvation (Philippians 2:12). It will mean careful attention to the roots and ancestry of our polity – to common stories that bind a species together, even as it diversifies and flourishes in emerging and new contexts (Percy, 11).
Percy goes also points out that, “So, central to the understanding of implicit theology is the recognition that practices shape belief and religious beliefs also shape practice (Percy, 10).” Percy will spend the rest of his monograph unpacking how these areas of implicit theology impact sacramental life, the church and the challenge of leading in this space.
Percy strikes upon ideas that I have assumed but could never define. Often, I have spoken about and heard other leaders speak on the DNA of the church. Part of this DNA is formed in implicit theology. For instance, if you pastor (or youth pastor) long enough in the same place, it is inevitable that your flock will look a lot like you. This can be both positive and negative. Language, dress, style is all formed from the implicit beliefs held by the leaders and this has a trickle-down effect. In other words, you (as a pastor and leader) begin to attract who you are.
This is a striking thought if not downright humbling. Furthermore, it is a sacred trust. While implicit theology is unavoidable, the leader must be aware and attune to the signals he or she is conveying. If not managed properly and stewarded with Biblical guidance, it can lead to tragic disasters.
When it comes to implicit theology, my mind immediately drifts towards legalism. How many churches are held in the shackles of slavery due to legalistic implicit beliefs? Sure, maybe the pastor did not preach legalism from the pulpit, but the way he leads his life certainly may convey the message.
As leaders, we profoundly shape people’s beliefs as to what it means to be Christian. This is a great responsibility both from a congregational standpoint and a missional standpoint. It is imperative for leaders to be not only aware of their explicit doctrine, but they must be aware of the implicit doctrine that emanates from their lives.