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How can Fellowship Baptists encourage congregational contexts in which members practice theological reflection capable of examining embedded theology?

“All Christians are theologians…It’s a simple fact of Christian life: their faith makes them theologians” (How to Think Theologically, Howard Stone and James Duke, p. 1).

During my twenty-seven years as a congregational educator I worked with laypeople every day, and what I recognized was most church members reject the idea they are theologians! The fact that Christians are baptized into God’s family means they are called to share the Good News of Jesus Christ and engage the journey of understanding Christian faith. As Stone and Duke observe, “Christian theology is at its root a matter of faith seeking understanding.” That sounds like theological work to me!

Faith is both a gift from God and a human response. Theology is a crucial part of the process as humans seek to understand the meaning and implications of Christian faith. Of great importance to thinking theologically is theological reflection. Theological reflection challenges Christians to consider faith understandings, historical church patterns, ministry concerns, and scriptural interpretation in evaluating life experiences and can be employed around any life situation. We ask questions about where God is evident, how scripture intersects with the event, and what we can learn from church history relative to what happened. Congregational or community reflection is a conversation that must happen, as well. It must become our first response to the perplexities of life and our desire to make faithful decisions. Corporate theological reflection is beneficial and encourages lively conversation among congregants that is essential for the church’s well-being. We must learn to appreciate diverse thinking, healthy debate, and creative tension.

Before going on, we must define “faith.” Richard Osmer in Teaching for Faith says, “Faith is a relationship of trust in God whose loving-kindness and faithfulness have been shown in Jesus Christ. This is the heart and soul of Christianity. The essence of the biblical narrative is the story of God’s faithfulness to creation and to humanity, a story that culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God’s faithfulness is what brings Christian faith to life. God is trustworthy, and in faith we recognize and accept this trust” (p. 15-16). Osmer’s description of the four sides of faith is instructive:

  1. beliefs about God serve as the basis of our trust
  2. ongoing, personal relationship with God brings us into relationship with other persons of faith
  1. commitment to God as trustworthy shapes the way we invest our time and energy
  2. awareness of the mystery surrounding God places limits on our understanding and control of God

These four sides of faith, seen clearly, can fundamentally shift our understanding of faith and our analysis of faith in the church. Without this holistic awareness, we can get side-tracked by the idea of “getting our beliefs right” (as if belief and faith are the same thing) to the neglect of other dimensions of faith. Being “stuck” in this way of thinking is damaging to the believer, the Church, and the kingdom. Expanding consciousness about the nature of faith is essential if we hope to nurture trust in God, to assist people in evaluating all of life in light of their faith, and to acknowledge our limited ability to understand an infinite God.

In today’s world, expression and exercise of Christian faith vary from one denomination to another and from one congregation to another. For example, I grew up in a context that taught drinking alcohol is a sin; prohibition was even part of the church covenant pasted in the front of the hymnal. Other Christians did not grow up with this strongly stated lifestyle rule and find no biblical mandate around the prohibition of alcohol. These are certainly differing theologies. Your and my life experiences illustrate faith understanding is an ongoing assignment.

Scholars call theology taught in the faith communities we participated in during our growing up years embedded theology. The term refers to the many ways faith is taught, understood, and assimilated by church members. Certainly every congregation believes its approach and practices are faithful interpretations and applications of scripture. Theological messages are bred into the hearts and minds of congregants. Most of us cannot readily articulate the embedded theology that shaped and formed us. Some people outside the church avoid involvement with Christian communities because they notice a lack of congruence between embedded theological understandings and the words and deeds of Christians they interact with in the “real” world.

Not surprisingly, embedded theology comes to the fore when congregations are confronted with social and moral issues. Christians rise up to defend their theology and express outrage when their convictions are challenged. Of course, pastors and parishioners face these disagreements with the embedded theology they learned. Without challenges to group think and assumed theology, our perspectives are unquestioned and unchanged, and growth is impeded.

What we need today is deliberative theology that encourages careful reflection on our embedded theology in order to understand our faith in different ways. This approach empowers us to suspend preconceived convictions for the purpose of discovering insights our embedded theology might not allow. Deliberate theological reflection is essential in faith communities:  it keeps churches honest by encouraging congregations to be faithful to the Good News in each new phase of life together. Our understanding of God is always imperfect and partial (we see through a glass darkly) so we must welcome the journey of discovery. Each new situation demands fresh theological consideration. “As Christians we are called to pursue growth in faith: by relearning and reinforcing what we already understand faith to be and by expanding, deepening, and even correcting our initial understandings of that faith” (How to Think Theologically, p. 24.).

All Christ-followers need theological templates—guidelines that help us figure things out; fresh lenses through which we see the world. We must not feel smug or safe with (current) rigid frameworks. Theological templates provide ways to organize our reflections about what happens to us during our earthly life. What are our core theological understandings or themes? How is my template shaped by scripture, tradition, reason, and experience? The toughest question might be: Is my theological template primarily informed by my cultural lenses?

Why all this emphasis on theology? Theology no longer seems to be an important consideration for people when selecting a faith community in which to invest. We know denominational labels don’t matter to most church seekers anymore either. We live in a post-denominational and post-Christian world. Most things have been secularized. Many ask what can the church contribute that can’t be answered by psychology, sociology, or economics? Absolutes no longer exist in most people’s minds. Instead of being embraced by faith leaders as a creative opportunity for the church, this phenomenon leads to bitter quarreling over doctrine and social issues. The church has responded to increasing diversity in the world and within congregations by becoming polarized. To quote Paul Jones in Worlds Within a Congregation, “Liberals are pained by what they perceive as inflexibility of conservative dogmatism…Conservatives, on the other hand, are incensed by a liberal tolerance that saviors of indifferentism…Liberalism, although theologically open, appears incapable of evoking the passion of profound conviction. Conservatism, although capable of forcing deep commitment, does so at the price of content so parochial, and a defense so divisive, as to seem derelict of compassion.”

How do we respond to this impasse? What can bridge this gaping chasm? How do we find and foster the seeming impossible combination of “openness” AND “conviction” expressed paradoxically by Jones as “open conviction,” “formed passion,” and “disciplined freedom”? Unfortunately, scripture does not help us address diversity per se unless a singular, literal interpretation is demanded. Thus, the tension between those who “know the truth” and “those still searching” has escalated into warfare. The loser in this battle is the Church (faith followers) and God’s Kingdom (God’s influence now).

For some “diversity” is a dirty word. Diversity is reality and must be acknowledged. Diversity is a good thing and must be embraced. Diversity within the Body of Christ must be welcomed and encouraged. Diversity means “theology needs to be done in ways that start where we are, and so affirm what we are and who we are, (enabling) our movement on to what and who we are to be” (Jones, p. 30). Diversity is not a threat to the church, but differing understandings do demand a framework for understanding how under God we live together and become one in community.

People today seem to be searching. They want something different. They want to learn how to deal with the chaos they experience in everyday life. People have a growing desire to make a difference, to belong, and to be accepted for who they are. What most congregations of “politically like-minded, socio-economically homogenous groups that easily reach consensus” offer today cannot address the needs described above. We need faith communities that relish diversity and see it as a gift, that provide spiritual formation experiences that do not claim to have the only answers, and where theological content focuses on “birthing theological eyes.” The self-limiting, polarized options within most churches today may successfully indoctrinate, but they cannot address the complexities of life people experience in today’s world.

Again I quote Jones, “The goal is not only to support persons in discovering and living into contrasting pilgrimages, but also to test them in depth and breadth…spiritual formation must be the prime rationale for the church of the future, luring and forging persons through alternative sub-communities into that quality of commitment which requires wagering one’s life” (p. 21).

The time to teach congregants how to become good theologians who seek to understand their faith and how it is activated in the world is long past. Vocational ministers must become resident theologians who help parishioners re-evaluate their theological templates, unpack their embedded theology, and empower deliberate efforts to discover new spiritual insights.