My denomination Vineyard Churches UK and Ireland, asked me to write an article about the benefits of theology for our church movement. In other words to try to explain why engaging in theology could help us as church movement.
I hope it also works more broadly, in helping any Christian to understand why theolgoy is important and can help us. Take a read and let me know what you think?
Why bother with theology in the Vineyard?
When I first joined VCUK, I was studying for a theology degree at the London School of Theology. People at church on meeting me would often lament that this must be a real test of my faith. When they found out that my fiancée was studying theology too we were often immediately offered prayer. There seemed to be an assumption that studying theology was something that led to a test of faith, rather than the development of it.
Not all were like that, with other leaders encouraging us with our studies. But overall we were left with the impression that theology was at best neutral and at worst a distraction from the real work of church planting; or worse.
As my years in church planting progressed, so did my interest and studies in theology. Again as I embarked on further post graduate studies, well -meaning church planting colleagues would advise against it. I should either be a church planter or an academic, you couldn’t do both it would seem.
My story is only anecdotical and many in Vineyard have encouraged my theological studies, and to be honest I understand why many think theology more a hinderance than a help. All too often those who engage in theological study are left with esoteric text books and interactions with the strange creature that is the theology professor. Those interactions leave them wondering ‘what has this to do with leadership and church planting?’.
And maybe we have often valued those with PhDs who have brought theological support to our movement, for statements of faith, position papers, and understanding the Kingdom of God. But too often we have not seen how theology can help the more rank and file of our movement in church planting, leading and development of our faith.
The rest of this article is a summary from a training session I have undertaken at various HUBs around the UK with Vineyard Churches. The substance of the material is a suggestion for how and why we might find theology helpful in our Vineyard movement. I have grouped my thoughts into 10 topics and themes, in no particular order, that come out of my experience as a church planter and someone with a doctorate , and who teaches theology to church leaders.
1. The lived experience of faith
Whilst there might be many wonderful things living in the western world, we have inherited some problems. One of those problems is the way we separate theory from practice. We see this in the old adage of ‘those who can’t do, teach’!
There is an increasing realisation that those of us who practice, do so around deeply held convictions and beliefs. Even if those beliefs are something unconscious that we can’t articulate to others. And at the same time there is a realisation that those who spend more time reflecting and thinking about theory, have practices they inhabit and undertake all the time already. And between these realisations there is a growing realisation of how reflection informs our practice and practice informs our reflections, each benefitting the other.
In other words, theology can be a dialogue between our lived lives of faith, and our understanding of the traditions and resources of the bible, and church. Each enriches and helps the other.
Thomas Taylor (1738–1816), appointed by John Wesley in 1761 (and having an itinerant career longer than Wesley), shared his Evangelical faith over several decades throughout Wales, Scotland, and England (with 22 circuits in England alone). Thomas Taylor spent most of his time on horseback travelling to and engaging in exhausting and extensive ministry. If anyone had the excuse not to study it was Thomas Taylor. Instead he undertook to read whilst riding between locations. At the end of his life, he had taught himself biblical greek , and become an expert in the patristics amongst other fields. It was those studies that enabled him to reflect on his ministry and continually grow and bring fresh leadership for so many years, to each location he visited.
Thomas Taylor has inspired me, and helped me. Helped me to see that no matter how busy I am with the realities of daily ministry, that even learning ‘on the hoof’ can lead me into fruitful and long term ministry. Learning theology and the practice of ministry do go together richly.
2. Types of theology
So at it’s best, all the different types of theology, some you may have heard from, spring from reflection on different aspects of the Christian life, and the different resources available to us. This is where we get Biblical Studies, Systematic theology, Ethical Theology, Political Theology, Philosophy, Pastoral Theology. All of these are ways of having that conversation between the resources of faith and its practice in the real world.
For those of us starting out in theology, it can seem daunting to have to ‘boot’ up some basic understanding of all of those conversations. But once we have ,it enables us to reflect more richly and deeply on the faith we are living. And I mentioned earlier, we all already have understandings about the bible, ethics, pastoral care, etc. But do we know why we hold them and if they are helping or hindering us? The study of theology can help us go deeper with our faith, beliefs and practices, as much as aimless study can disconnect us from those realities.
3. Theology as learning not qualification
Here I have in mind that we have an engagement with theology, not to receive a qualification, but for an education -to learn more about beliefs and practices of the Christian faith. For some of us, engagement in theology and the ability to teach to others requires a qualification. But in the first instance we are all called to explore and resource our faith more fully.
4. The boot -up process of theology
There are lots of ways to study theology. Online, in class, intensive, night classes, private study, reading, audio lectures etc. But what ever means we use to undertake theological reflection there is a start up, and ramp up process. Learning scales and arpeggios with a musical interment, gives us the skills to play increasingly challenging pieces of music. And improvising comes from the ability to do set pieces with great proficiency. The same is true of theology.
Or it’s like learning a language. We only have deep and spontaneous conversations if we have practiced the learning of language deeply and broadly, knowing vocabulary and grammar. When it comes to theology this can seem frustrating, and we can end up focusing on the one topic or idea that we ‘get’ or like. If you have experienced that, or when you do, can I encourage you to persist and continue with the booting up process, and learn the skills needed to access resources that can seem tedious and frustrating at the time.
And there is no way around this, but theology often involves reading, and writing, and thinking; it always has. But there is lots that takes place around that with sharing, praying, leading and ministry!
5. Theology for our spirituality and faith
My first day as a full time paid pastor, I had a complete nervous breakdown. Unable to even speak, overwhelmed with exhaustion and anxiety, I was in a mess. The doing of church planting, being bi-vocational with a young family was too much for me.
Yet in the midst of that time, I realised I had so many questions, despite already having a theology degree. It was then that I discovered the consolation of theology. I took the pain and loss I was experiencing to the cross, but studying about the cross. I remember that with anxiety God felt so absent from my life, so far away, after so many years of being close to me.
Yet in my theological readings, I came across the idea of the apophatic. The cataphatic is where we know God through positive things. The apophatic is where we know God through negating concepts. In other words, knowing God is not just when He seems present and clear, but when He is far off, and unknown. The apophatic is a tradition in the Christian faith, since it began -that the times we grow in faith are not just when God is close but when he seems far away.
Then related to that, I had struggles with how my beliefs seemed to have to be a like a brick wall built on certainty. It was a relief to find out that in Christian theology there have been other ways of having faith, than certainty. In theology this is the study of epistemology, how we know things and theories about knowledge.
Then I was also wrestling with ideas of the atonement. Was the gospel just about getting people to pray prayers to go to heaven when they die? Reading about the varied, rich and multiple ways Christians have understood what happened on the cross, helped me immensely.
More recently I have faced the suicides of both my parents. Estranged from each other for many many years, they took their lives six months apart from each other, using their suicides to blame me for their lives, in letters and emails.
As I switched off my mother’s life support with my brothers, I remember praying ‘Lord is your cross big enough for this?’. All that previous reflection and theology of the cross, came to me at that moment. Not as theory, but as my confession and questions of faith.
6. Theology for understanding our mission and context
I think we all know our world has been changing rapidly. We are in the midst of the global credit crunch, whilst we have experienced development in post-modernity, globalisation, and the rapid changes in technology, along with many other things.
What does it mean to be a Christian at this time, and at this place I find myself? This is something Christianity has always asked itself for the last 2,000 years. To answer those questions theology can help us. More so, if we use the resources of the world around us to understand the times we live in, they might seem helpful but we can become captive to something that we later regret. Too often the church has taken its understanding of itself and the world around it from the wrong things , and left a new generation to respond to those problems.
It is missional theology in particular that can help us understand why the UK is not a Christian country, and how we are all missionaries in a non/post-Christian context.
7. Theology for discernment
As a church planter I regularly have people come to me with the latest idea and resource for the Christian life and church. A book I must read, a podcast to listen to, a conference to take part in, a program to adopt, or a church to visit.
How do we assess those things when they come along? How do we decide what is godly, biblical, or at the least something we should take part in that extends what God has called us to, instead of harming it?
Too often the measures we use are, is it fun, do people like it, does it work (gather people), what fruit does it bear (which can take a long time to see and know), or do we rely on gut feeling? But if we want to ask is it biblical, does it align with our movement’s theology and values, is this what God is calling us to? - we need tools for discernment. And theology can help us with those.
8. Theology for leadership
Theology can help us learn from other Christians in history. Learning leadership that is biblically and theologically informed. Most books on leadership, popular book be they Christian or secular, are full of theology already. What kind of human being does this book on leadership give rise to? If we use this leadership program for our church, what kind of church will we become, what understanding about God and the world will it create in us? To ask those questions is to do theology.
9. There are lots of way to explore and enjoy theology
Whilst I’ve suggested that doing theology requires some boot time and core disciplines, there is at the same time, lots of watt to get into theology. It’s better to start somewhere than nowhere. Take a course on the New Testament, or Christian Leadership, or Pastoral Theology, or Church History. Read a book, listen to a podcast, go to a conference, study online or with others. Just do some theology.
And as you do it, have fun. Fun learning and fun connecting to your life, ministry and experience. See where God takes you with it.
10. Theology is already a vital part of us
I’ve already mentioned that we have theological convictions and beliefs as part of all we do, already. The issue is what theology will shape and form us, not if theology will shape and form us.
If we look at our Vineyard moment we see how John Wimber made a space for ministry in between pentecostal Charismatics and non- charismatic evangelicals. An experience and space between Protestants and Catholics. That wasn’t by accident, it was from Wimber’s theological reflections. We might not be a John Wimber, but we can take time to learn how and why our movement has practiced those things. And it can give us confidence in how to do the same.
Our understanding of the Kingdom came from theological reflection by early leaders in the Vineyard. You and I might say we believe in the Kingdom, but do we know what that means and why? Do we know why Vineyard ministry times usual involve standing quietly waiting on the Holy Spirit? This was not something John Wimber invented, but experienced when he became a Christian within Evangelical Quakers in the USA.
All you already do is packed full of theology…how you pray, worship, order your life, prioritize your commitments. These things reveal your theologies (life and beliefs about God). Doing theology allows us to reflect on those things and see what is already there and what could be there.
So, a starter for 10, with many more good reasons as to why we should engage with theology as a church movement. If you think about it you’ll probably come up with more, and therein be doing theology already .