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Does Theology Have to Be Practical?

young boy stressed with workTeach theology long enough and you’ll face countless forms of the same basic question: What does this have to do with real life? Will it affect the way we do ministry, how we share the gospel, or what we do every day? How is it relevant to the problems and challenges the average person faces? You know, is it practical?

And the deep suspicion lying behind such questions is that most theology is rather impractical. Theologians spend all their time wrestling with things like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and whether we should say that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or from the Father alone. Unless we can explain why these things matter for the everyday lives of regular people, we should stop wasting our time and get on with more important issues.

I’ll admit that part of me resonates with such concerns. If we can’t explain why theology matters, we have a problem. And it should matter for everyday life. After all, that’s where we do all our living. So there’s a sense in which I want to say a hearty “Yes!” to the question of whether theology should be practical, but only if we carefully redefine what that means.

4 Reasons for Thinking that Theology Is “Practical”

[This is the beginning of my newest post over at Christianity.com. Head over there to check it out, and let me know what you think.]

Imitate Me

I occasionally joke about wanting some groupies, or maybe a few minions. People who think I’m so cool that they follow me around all day and try to be just like me. But the real upside, of course, is their willingness to run errands and facilitate my various plots to take over the world.

Kopf 2 26h

In more serious moments, though, I realize how arrogant that sounds. We’re all deeply flawed people. Who in their right mind would be so self-aggrandizing as to think that others should strive to be just like them? Even thinking that probably demonstrates that you’re not worth following, doesn’t it?

Imitate me. The height of arrogance.

Yet that’s exactly what Paul says multiple times in his various letters (e.g. 1 Cor 4:16; Eph. 5:1). Where does he get off trying to make us into his little groupies? If we’re going to understand what Paul means when he says “Imitate me,” we need to keep the following things in mind.

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The Rise of “Emerging Adulthood”

Emerging adulthood is now viewed by many as a distinct stage of life in America, one that covers the period between high school and “real” adulthood. And according to Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, it’s a stage of life that is powerfully shaping the way people in their 20s view the world, how they understand the church, and how they approach their own formation.

Adorable Kids in Over Sized Suits

At a faculty workshop at Wheaton College earlier this semester, Smith gave a fascinating summary of recent research on emerging adulthood and its significance for understanding and ministering to young adults today. Here are some of the highlights. (Keep in mind that these are all sweeping generalizations. Smith was quite clear that none of this will apply across the board to any particular young adult or even to distinct sub-groups of young adults. But these are pretty clear characteristics of the life stage as a whole.)

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Breaking the Silence: When Christian Leaders Speak Openly about Depression

There is still a stigma around depression that silences many Christian voices and prevents them from letting anyone know about their painful, personal struggles. A stigma that destroys people by making them suffer alone.

In his presidential speech at Wheaton College’s convocation ceremony this year, Dr. Phil Ryken pushed back. And he did so by sharing honestly and transparently about his own struggles with depression last spring, struggles serious enough that he said at one point that he thought he was “losing the will to live.

He focused most of the talk on sharing some of the things that helped him through the struggle, which I’ll mention below. But there wasn’t anything ground-breaking. He relied on friends, family, church, everyday routines, and of course, God. The power of his talk wasn’t in anything radical that he said, it was in the radical fact that he spoke at all.

I hear more and more Christian leaders talking about depression, which is a good thing. When they do so, however, it’s usually about depression as an abstract concept (people often get depressed), the struggles of some other Christian (Luther was depressed), or at best some personal struggle with depression in their own distant past (I was depressed a long time ago). But it’s rare in my experience for a Christian leader to bare themselves openly about a current or very recent bout with depression. And that’s precisely what Dr. Ryken did, modeling for us the kind of humble and honest dependence that should characterize the body of Christ as a whole.

You should watch the entire talk, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” But I’ve highlighted some of the main points below.

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Roller Skates and Pearly Gates: Children’s Music as Theological Formation

The songs we sing have the power to shape us in important ways. They run through our minds when we’re not paying attention, subtly shaping our thoughts and guiding our imaginations.

And recently there’s been a rise in awareness about how important this is for the corporate worship of God’s people. After all, if we’re going to “speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:18), it’s probably a good idea to make sure we’re doing it well. So there’s a lot of talk about how worship shapes us, how important it is for worship leaders to be theologically aware, and how we need to pay attention to the lyrics of our worship songs.

But I wonder if we’re paying as much attention to the songs our kids sing.

I recently ran across a quote from Karl Barth on the powerful and influential role that children’s music played in his own development. According to him, they were “the textbook from which I received my first theological instruction…in a form appropriate for my immature years” (from Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts [Wipf and Stock, 2005], p. 8).

How often do we think of our children’s songs as a theological textbook for young minds?

[This is the beginning of my latest post over at Pastors Today. Head over there to read the rest, and let me know what you think.]

6 Reasons Pastors Need Learning Communities

Most pastors understand the importance of learning continually. There’s just so much you have to know to be an effective pastor, and the rapid pace of change in the modern world has only made that more difficult. So the pastors I’ve known all push themselves to keep learning and growing. Excellent.

The problem is with their approach.

Focused student reading book

With just a few exceptions, most of the pastors I know take a self-directed, independent approach to their continuing education. They stay sharp by reading books, listening to sermons, and preparing to teach others. They’re constantly learning, but mostly on their own.

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with independent learning. Most of the greatest minds in history did the bulk of their learning on their own. I do the same.

Interestingly though, few pastors would advise the average Christian to do the bulk of their studying/learning alone. That’s why we encourage people to join small groups, Bible studies, Sunday school classes, and more. But as pastors, we seem to think that we’re above all that, skilled enough to do it on our own. Sure we’ll throw in the occasional pastors conference, but that’s about it.

And although there’s tremendous value to independent learning, there are some inherent dangers as well. Dangers which suggest that we should supplement our independent learning with some good, old-fashioned group learning. In other words, pastors need learning communities too.

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When Servant Leadership Goes Wrong

Christian leaders are called to be servants. We understand that. After all, Jesus made it pretty clear that he wanted leaders who would follow his example as one who touched lepers, washed feet, and bore the burdens of a broken world.

But what if being a servant isn’t always a good thing? Or, said a little differently, what if there are various ways to be a servant, and some of them aren’t quite what Jesus had in mind?

A while back I asked a group of teenagers to discuss which of Marvel’s Avengers best exemplified the biblical idea of a servant. And quite a few of them went with Tony Stark (aka Iron Man). After all, he dedicates a considerable portion of his wealth to helping humanity, and he routinely puts his own life on the line to save random strangers. And to top it all off, at the end of Avengers (spoiler alert!), he sacrifices his own life to save the world. You can’t get much more Jesus-like than that! (Granted, he didn’t actually succeed in sacrificing his life, but he gets points for trying.)

For many of my students, then, Tony Stark exemplifies servanthood. But here’s the problem: Stark only exemplifies a particularly dangerous and toxic form of servanthood, but it’s the one that we often find the most attractive.

[This is the beginning of my most recent post over at Pastors Today. Check it out and let me know what you think.]

The Danger of the Overly Simple Sermon

Simplicity concept.Many sermons are a lot like popular sitcoms. And I’m not referring to the fact that pastors seem to think that a good sermon has to start with something funny, although that’s an interesting connection in its own right. I have something else in mind, something deeper.

As many have pointed out, sitcoms are great for suggesting that even the most complex problems can be resolved in just 30 minutes. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s betrayal, innocent suffering, finding a soul-mate, or social injustice, give a sitcom thirty minutes of your time and they’ll present you with a gift-wrapped solution for whatever ails you.

Of course, we’re smart enough to recognize that sitcoms are more about entertainment than edification. So we don’t worry too much if they over-simplify the complexities of life.

But what about when we hear the same thing in a sermon?

That’s the beginning of my most recent post over at Christianity.com. Check it out and let me know what you think. Thanks!

We Won’t Solve Biblical Literacy with Bible Trivia

For some time now, people have been rightly concerned about the trajectory of biblical literacy. Talking to those who have been teaching Bible/theology for many years, they all say that one of the greatest challenges they face is that people just don’t know the Bible like they used to. So they spend far more time teaching basic biblical literacy and consequently less time building on that foundation.

And it’s a real problem, one that affects people’s ability to understand the whole scope of what the Bible has to say, how that relates to individual stories and verses, and how all of it connects to the challenging issues that people face every day.

But it’s a problem that we will not solve by mastering Bible trivia.

from Wikipedia

from Wikipedia

I had a conversation a while back with someone who was a little frustrated after hearing a Bible teacher lament the decline of biblical literacy. The teacher had asked the study group a few questions, and after no one seemed the know the answers, made several comments about the state of the church and lack of attention to solid Bible teaching. But the person I was talking to was frustrated and confused because she had grown up in a church with solid Bible teaching and did not consider herself to be biblically illiterate. So what was going on?

The problem was that the teacher was focused more on mastery of Bible trivia than real biblical literacy. For example, one of the questions he asked was which gospel is the only one to record the parable of the workers in the vineyard (the one where they all get paid the same). I can’t remember all of the other questions, but they were along the same lines. For this teacher, failing to know details like this means that you don’t really know your Bible.

I have at least three problems with this.

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Don’t Outsource Your Sermon Prep

BrainstormingWe’ve all experienced that “back against the wall” scenario: a week that didn’t go as planned—crises appearing from nowhere as crises are most likely to do—and study time set aside in the face of more urgent tasks. Now exhausted and distracted, you sit at your desk staring at a stubbornly incomplete sermon. You may even begin to wonder if people will notice whether you just rehash a sermon you preached a few years back. Change the title and some key illustrations and surely they won’t notice. Right?

Sunday looming, another solution presents itself. With just a few clicks and some creative searching, you could access the entire wealth of the internet: blog posts, commentaries, even entire sermons. You could be done in less than an hour, leaving space for some badly needed time with your family.

Maybe just this once.

This is the beginning of a guest post I wrote for Pastors Today, a new blog for pastors from Lifeway. Head over there to read the rest and interact with some thoughts from Augustine on outsourcing sermon preparation.

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