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

Who Needs Theology?

Written by: on October 16, 2014

I never cease to be amazed at the reactions people give when questioned about their theology. In my experience, those who say they love theology are in the minority. In fact, many people are highly suspicious of those who would call themselves theologians. I was appalled, but not surprised that “A 1994 poll funded by the Murdock Charitable Trust and published in Christianity Today set out to discover churchgoers’ priorities when seeking a pastor. Both laypeople and pastors rated “theological knowledge” last out of five qualifications most important for a good pastor.’”[1]

A couple of years ago I met with a leader in world missions to discuss the process of selecting national leaders to oversee clusters of church plants. One qualification I listed was that the person should be solid theologically and doctrinally. I felt that this was a reasonable quality to look
for in a person who would be developing pastors and lay leaders. To my chagrin, I received a reprimand for even suggesting it. I was told that what was needed was a person with a charismatic personality and that theology was highly over-rated.

Why do we receive such a caustic reaction when we mention theology? Why do people say that the quickest way to ruin a good pastor is to send him/her to seminary? If “at its most basic level theology is any thinking, reflecting or contemplating on the reality of God-even on the question of God”[2], why does the very thought of theology bother so many Christians?

I believe that much of the negative reaction to theology can be attributed to the dichotomy that we feel between head and heart. Many people feel that we must choose to follow God with either the head or the heart, with fact or faith. This extreme can be seen in Grenz and Olson’s model of the five levels of theology. The concept of head or heart can be seen in the extremes of folk or academic theology. Since academic theology “is often disconnected from the church and has little to do with concrete Christian living”[3], it is assumed that all theology ultimately leads one to a dead Christianity.

Because we all think about God, we are all theologians to some extent. The real question is, what kind of theologians are we? In my experience, most people who embrace folk theology would not even recognize that they do have a theological stance, making it easy to criticize those on the opposite extreme in the camp of academic theology.

Grenz and Olson do a good job of explaining the different levels of theology and the contribution that each one makes to the other. It is interesting to note that the extremes of folk theology and academic theology are the ones that are the most divisive and contribute the least. These are also the levels that most people would think about when speaking of theology (although many people in folk theology would say that they embrace no theology).

We need to do a better job of defining theology for those with whom we work and help them see that, “Good theology… brings the theoretical, academic, intellectual aspect of Christian faith into Christian living. In so doing, theology becomes immensely practical-perhaps the most practical endeavor one ever engages in!”[4] I believe that with a proper understanding of lay, ministerial, and professional theology, the Christian church would embrace the idea that we all need theology. I also believe that with a proper understanding of folk theology and the idea that we are all theologians, many people would welcome the opportunity to “think” more about God and our relationship with him without the fear of losing our “heart” relationship.

 

[1] Stanley J. Grenz & Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology? an Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996, Kindle Edition), Location 33-34.

[2] Ibid., Location 70

[3] Ibid., Location 275-276

[4] Ibid., Location 375-376

About the Author

mm

Brian Yost

Brian is a husband and father of three. He works with Free Methodist World Missions and is currently serving in Latin America.

12 responses to “Who Needs Theology?”

  1. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Brian, It is funny how “theology” does get diminished in the typical North American church. Bible knowledge is elevated, ministry involvement is promoted, but theology seems to become “only for the Holy of Holies” or diminished as irrelevant to the average Joe and Jane. The irony of this observation is that in my personal life and story it would be growth in my theological thinking that has had the most profound in affecting my life and faith. It will be interesting to see how Dave’s “Pub Club” goes with the primary focus being theology vs. a more traditional bible study. Good post, thanks for the thoughts from your experience.

  2. mm Jon Spellman says:

    My Master’s degree is in Practical Theology. I always chuckle a little to myself when I see it hanging on the wall because it implies, by virtue of the degree title, that there is such a thing as “impractical theology.” We had to make a clear distinction so that no one, when they see the evidence of my three years in seminary, would be confused. I’m not a mere theologian, I’m a practical one! Most Christians think of theology as just that, impractical. They don’t see how thinking about God and his interactions with humanity have any real bearing on their lives in the real world. Maybe we can help people see how deliberating, considering, conversing about God is immensely practical.

    J

  3. mm Travis Biglow says:

    Blessing Brian,

    It is sad to say that many church leaders feel that Theology is not important to being a good church leader. I even fell into this because I seemed to always run into people who wanted to argue about it too much. But this book reinforced how a felt as a young preacher when i loved churched doctrine. We need solid and sound Theology. We should never go into a way of thinking that at anytime puts a low emphasis on theology. I really thank God for sound teaching and sound doctrine in my denomination. Yet even the denominations handbook has gotten away from sound teaching by not honestly dealing with controversial scriptures. I find it highly hypocritical but I think the Lord has us in a time and on the way to solidifying sound doctrine in the future! God bless you brother!!!

  4. Dawnel Volzke says:

    Brian, your statement, “many people would welcome the opportunity to “think” more about God and our relationship with him without the fear of losing our “heart” relationship.” We live in a world where people want more knowledge and information…they can research anything from their phones and constantly seek out information. This being said, I agree that people have need and a desire to learn more…yet why aren’t christian leaders responding to this? It seems that many churches (at least in the U.S.) are still too focused on looking good and presenting messages that “feel” good. I’d hate to think of the mess my life would be in if I only relied on my heart knowledge and emotions… I hope we are at the beginning of some serious change within the greater body of believers…it is time for some transformation!

  5. mm Dave Young says:

    Brian,

    Shocking! That solid theology and doctrine would be so discounted when selecting a national leader of church planting. Good example reinforcing one of the main arguments of the book, that there is a common negative reaction when it comes to theology.

    I appreciate you drawing out how much of this comes from the common delineation that we make between “head” knowledge and “heart” knowledge or experience. I’m certainly liable for promoting heart knowledge and experience over head knowledge.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  6. Mary says:

    My initial response in reading your post, Brian, is sadness for how quickly we dismiss the need for good theology, as the hiring board seemed to do. For someone who does the honest work of looking at and articulating his/her theology, that person usually reflects the kind of character that is desired in a new hire. But alas, how quick we are to want the flashy, the culturally relevant person who has little substance behind the reasons for life and work choices that impact not only that person but those within his/her influence.
    Then the second response is how hopeful you continue to be in our ability to be good theologians. In your final comment about how people “would welcome the opportunity,” you demonstrate a theology that doesn’t give up on people, something that might be based on how you view God.

    • mm Jon Spellman says:

      I think it is probably connected to the ongoing misperception about theology. Here again (In the case of Brian’s example) the thought is “let’s get a real organizational guy, a real systems leader kind of guy… All that pointy-headed academic stuff isn’t really needed to lead church planters!”

      I’m reflecting on today’s announcement that president Obama appointed a political insider/lawyer/lobbyist to be the new “Ebola Czar” because of the same kind of thinking. The rationale is that this leader needs to be an expert on logistics and requisitions and creating partnerships rather than actually knowing anything about the disease itself. I understand the logic, really. But isn’t it much the same? Starting new congregations is a patently theological pursuit! But because of the misconception about what theology is, the thoughts of “leaders, systems, organizations, movers and shakers” carries the day.

      Interesting…
      J

      • Dawnel Volzke says:

        Very, very insightful Jon.

        I am typically one who agrees that a leader doesn’t always have to be a subject matter expert, rather must engage the right people with this knowledge. But, false theology is often propagated through “the thoughts of “leaders, systems, organizations, movers and shakers” carries the day.”

        • Jon Spellman says:

          Dawnel. I hear what you’re saying and find myself torn as well. I also generally feel that a good leader is someone who understand people, how they interact and how to get the best out of them but something about this week is messing with my thinking on this… Something about theology seems to be special, somehow different. Maybe we’re overthinking, I don’t know.

          J

  7. mm Nick Martineau says:

    Brian,
    I really love your last sentence, “I also believe that with a proper understanding of folk theology and the idea that we are all theologians, many people would welcome the opportunity to “think” more about God and our relationship with him without the fear of losing our “heart” relationship.”

    What does an individual need to do to create an atmosphere to see that happen?

    I really think people fear losing their “comfortable” God. Teaching someone that folk theology is just the starting point allows them to start a journey and that relieves fear.

    The mission statement of our church is Bringing People Closer to Jesus. For us members this is a never end journey of growing closer but I can tell I need to do a better job emphasizing that this is not just a “feel good” thing but a head thing too.

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