“We bring our culture into our worship.”
Wednesday I sat at our international student lunch talking with Gaetan, a civil engineering student from Democratic Republic of the Congo, and that was his statement to me. We were not discussing Shaping the Church: The Promise of Implicit Theology, by Martyn Percy, we were just talking about how people worship. Gaetan spoke further about the need for people to be engaged in worship in some fashion (singing, dancing…).
This statement did not come from reading a theology book, but rather was an expression of experience within the church in a particular context. Sitting before me was a living example of implicit theology.
Shaping the Church studies and compares implicit and explicit theology. The book helps us to be honest about out stated theology and the influential undercurrents of our unstated theology. The latter is often formed as we work out what it means to be church within our cultural settings. The book looks at the two-way street of influence between church and culture.
Dr. Percy writes, “The opening section of this book primarily focuses on spiritual and ecclesial phenomena that are normally taken for granted.”  In the conclusion he says, “Implicit theology pays attention to the normally neglected and often overlooked dimensions of ecclesial life that are constitutive for belief and practice.” He tells us that implicit theology gives us the opportunity to “ponder the significance of many things we might take for granted…” 
It was this idea of what is “taken for granted” that particularly caught my attention. In Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes Richards and O’Brien tell us “…the most powerful cultural values are those that go without being said.”  Every denomination and every local congregation has its own culture and values (explicit and implicit). Given that Dr. Percy writes about the ways in which culture affects the church, and vise versa, we may infer that the most powerful theology is that which is implicit.
I am intrigued by the parallels between studying implicit theology and the study of cultures. It is a wonderful challenge for Christian leaders to follow: “Thus, theologians and ministers eventually learn that they cannot rely on theological blueprints to determine how congregations could or should be in contemporary culture. In this respect, theology needs to work with fields such as congregational studies, by helping the church to become exegetes of texts, congregations and the local culture of a given context.” 
Implicit theology may have the most powerful influence on our practices, and because of that power may also be the most dangerous. This book compels us to be mindful and vigilant regarding implicit theology: not dismissing it or pretending in our idealism that the Bible is our primary influence. Rather we must pay close attention to how it affects who we are and how we live-out our theology. In fact Percy says, “Strictly speaking, the vast majority of theology should be the study of the implicit rather than the explicit.” 
What truly affects our theology the most: Scripture or circumstances? I would like to believe that my theology flows from the Bible. But I must be honest and admit that there have been a few times when I have been searching diligently for a phrase I remember from Scripture only to discover that the phrase isn’t in the Bible at all, but rather in a song or hymn. I have assumed that something I believe to be the clear revelation of God, is fact something extra-biblical that has been woven into the practical theology of church.
When considering the honest realities of implicit theology, I am compelled to ask if Scripture interprets life, or if life interprets Scripture. Yes, culture affects the church and our theology. Yes, as culture changes what the church looks like in the world changes. Yes, in reality, our theology is “cooked” in the slow-cooker of contemporary life. But in which direction does the primary influence flow? It is a Scandal of the Evangelical Mind if we do not exegete carefully when studying the relationship of church and culture.
Dr. Percy writes about the need to deal with implicit theology if the Anglican Church is to continue on together. My experience in the Presbyterian Church USA and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church supports his notion. For several decades conservatives and progressives spoke the same explicit theology within the PCUSA. The problem was we used different dictionaries to define our words. Our implicit theologies differed completely although the explicit theology seemed to be the same. For hundreds of congregations within the PCUSA the dissonance finally became too painful and our implicit theologies compelled us to “exit,” having exhausted “voice” that fell on deaf ears. (I wrote of this previously in my blog on the Hirschman book. Percy gives me another angle from which to understand what we went through.)
Through those times of transition we were forced to ask, “What exactly are the forces, currents, practices and ideas that shape the church? How does a congregation or a denomination understand its identity, on the one hand, in relation to the providence and revelation of God, and on the other, in relation to the context and culture in which ecclesial composition inexorably occurs? What is the relationship between the acknowledged propositional truths that order ecclesial identity, and the more hidden and mellifluous currents that might shape the life of the church?” 
Shaping the Church reminds me again of the sometimes-awkward dance pairing the church and contemporary culture. The realities of implicit theology always have been, and always will be with us. In this book we have been reminded again of our need to “do theology” well.
1. Martyn Percy, Shaping the Church: The Promise of Implicit Theology (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2010), 15.
2. Ibid., 172.
3. E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders To Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2012), 12.
4. Percy, 19.
5. Ibid., 17.
6. Ibid., 1.