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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Folk Theology in a Media Saturated World

Written by: on November 30, 2018

“He may not come when you want him, but He’s always right on time”, the preacher shouted while the congregation applauded.  This saying is popular in many Black churches and provides comfort to those suffering, knowing that God will eventually come through with answers to prayer.  Although this saying is not specified in the Bible, it has become part of Folk Theology in the Black church.  Who Needs Theology: An Invitation to the Study of God by Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson define Folk Theology as, “unreflective belief that revels in subjective feelings brought on by slogans or legends and that resist examination” (Grenz and Olson 1996, 28).  The Black church is not the only church where Folk Theology can be found, it is used heavily by many preachers in the media as well.  It is hard to resist Folk Theology because it finds solutions to uncomfortable situations where we do not understand God.  However, today more than ever, the church needs sound theology.

When I decided to attend seminary, I encountered many objections to theological education.  The main objection was that it was going to take me away from God.  People believed that I would lose my faith, only believing intellectual theories about God found in journals and scholarly books. Grenz and Olson present a spectrum of theologies including folk, lay, ministerial, professional, and academic (Grenz and Olson 1996, p. 26).  Academic theology, taken to the extreme, can be as unhelpful as Folk theology, eventually leading to a lack of faith since it can encourage cutting reflection off from faith, only believing what can be understood (Grenz and Olson 1996, 33). This extreme type of Academic theology is what my friends feared I would obtain.  It is important for pastors to learn theology at the academic level and then engage in theology somewhere along the spectrum such as on the ministerial or professional level in order to help the congregants understand the truths of the Word of God. Teaching congregants to use Bible tools such as concordances and commentaries can assist in aiding in the development of mature lay Christian thinkers (Grenz and Olson 1996, p. 31).

Today more than ever, with people having access to countless television and media preachers, there is a need for solid Biblical and Systematic Theology taught by the local pastor. Folk theology spreads through the media with catchy religious phrases repeated as gospel and often quoted back to the pastor who is attempting to teach their congregants sound theology. Some in the church view those they see in the various media sources as experts above their pastors sometimes not seeing their pastor’s theological education as a valuable source of expertise.

Vanhoozer & Strachan, (2015), in The Pastors as Public Theologian: reclaiming a lost vision, seek to solve the problem of a lost vision of pastors as theologians. Strachan discusses a Biblical theology of the pastorate relating the pastor to the Old Testament offices of Prophets, Priests, and Kings believing the prophet like the pastor is to declare the unchanging truths about God and address the changing times to the people of God, giving God’s perspective (Vanhoozer & Strachan, 2015, p. 45).  Strachan further shows how as a priest the pastor shares the good news of reconciliation in Christ and hence life with Christ, as well as modeling the set apart life (Vanhoozer & Strachan, 2015, p. 51).  Finally, Strachan teaches the pastor like the king exercises wisdom in the leadership of God’s people, leading the people with humility and prayer (Vanhoozer & Strachan, 2015, p. 48). In this model, theology has the purpose of serving the congregants and helping them become more like Jesus, and not just gaining knowledge about Jesus for knowledge’s sake.

It is my desire to help Christians learn that they need theology in this culture and climate of media saturation.  I am not against the media as a means of spreading the gospel message, but I believe that it is the pastor’s duty to teach theology by the means presented in our culture.  As stated by Grenz and Olson, “The theological art involves an interplay among three tools, which in their differing ways function as sources and norms: the Bible message, the theological heritage of the church and contemporary culture (Grenz and Olson 1996, p. 101). We cannot let the contemporary culture and its leaning toward Folk theology outweigh the Bible message along with the theological heritage of the church.  It is clear that we all need sound theology and as pastors, teachers, and leaders, it is up to us to make sure theology is taught today.

References

Grenz, Stanley J., and Roger E. Olson. Who Needs Theology: An Invitation to the Study of God. England: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J., and Owen Strachan. The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.

About the Author

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Mary Mims

I am a licensed and ordained Baptist minister and have worked with the children and youth for the last seven years. I have resided in the Washington, DC area for the last 30 years, but I am originally from Michigan. I am also bi-vocational and work at the US Patent and Trademark Office in the Scientific Library.

5 responses to “Folk Theology in a Media Saturated World”

  1. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Excellent blog, Mary! I cringe when I hear platitudes recited to gain a following (and sell products) knowing the damage it does to people. My mother is 92, lives alone, and watches Christian television all day. Those she consumes have instilled such fear in her she has purchased their “end of the world” supplies and sits with the blinds closed. It is such a sad way to come to the end of her life.

    On the other extreme I have had sad interactions with those that lost their faith through the academic study of theology. I will never forget the opening session at Portland Seminary of my Master’s program. The dean at the time said, “If you walk across the stage at graduation and you do not love Jesus more than you do today, then we have failed!” They did not fail, three years later I had a deeper love for God than ever before. That’s the goal of theology for me, that my love and life would reflect Christ and others would see it and believe.

  2. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Mary,
    Thank you for sharing your unique insights and perspective. I especially appreciate your insight into the Black church perspective. I was called to preach in a Pentecostal denomination and have always loved and admired the art of Black preaching and worship. But you are so right, Folk or populist theology is not limited to the Black church. I just coined this term of populist theology as I perceive it to be whatever is popular with the masses, and why perhaps media preaching is so rife with “whatever sounds good” and “whatever sells.” I am so sorry you faced so many objections to your pursuit of a seminary education, but this is why you are so uniquely qualified and passionate about communicating good theology to the local church. I accept the challenge along with you to make sure that sound theology is taught to the church today. Let us encourage one another as we pursue this theological journey together. Many blessings, H

  3. Mary, you’ve hit the nail right on its head and with a Big Bang! The media is rife with all manner of folk Theology and I appreciate your concern that I also share. I minister among the poor of the poorest and I can tell you that the folk Theology is so popular. The masses are so easily taken by the populist folk Theology teachings. Some of these teachings on television are extreme and have at times attracted the attention of the secular government to intervene. As ministers, we have been advocating for self regulation within the church fraternity where a regulatory authority is established by the church fraternity across denominations and the initiative is drawing support. Our hope is that the authority will have senior ministers with sound theological training will hold all churches accountable to what they’re propagating. There’s however objection from those who hold that such regulation is limitation of the freedoms that have been guaranteed by the constitution. Thank you for highlighting.

  4. mm Nancy VanderRoest says:

    Great insight, Mary. Thanks for sharing your enlightening post, my friend. I appreciate your statement that “we cannot let the contemporary culture and its leaning toward Folk theology outweigh the Bible message along with the theological heritage of the church.” And I agree with you: theology is necessary in order to be able to speak God’s Word to others. Without a theological basis, we cannot share God’s true message to the world. Powerful preaching, Mary! Thanks for sharing….

  5. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    I wonder how much influence the marketable mega church movement has pushed us towards greater use of folk theology? In an age where slogans and memes are increasingly the norm, I think one of the greatest challenges is enlisting a platform for teaching theology that will hold the attention of the average church-goer. I also continue to wonder how much theological education should be included in a message that I desperately want to be accessible to my less educated (and equally valuable!) congregants? How do we educate theologically while still being a faith that privileges the poor and illiterate?

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