Bringing Theology Back to the Church

I’ve always been torn between academia and the church. On the one hand, I love to study. I love books, theological discussions, books, Greek, reading, books, and teaching in an academic setting. In many ways I feel like I was made for the classroom. Yes, I’’m a geek. But I like to surf, so back off! But on the other hand, I love the church. I probably love to preach more than teach, and I love trying to live out my theology more than just reading about it. I love books, but I also love people. I love church ministry.

So I’ve been torn between being a theologian and a pastor.

This is why I’m thrilled to be a member of the Center for Pastoral Theologians (CPT; formerly called: Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology). This organization started a few years ago with the robust persistence of co-founder and director Gerald Hiestand, who had a burden to bring critical and cutting edge theological thinking back into the church. Think about it. Who better to think deeply about God than pastors who are burying people on Thursday and marrying people on Saturday? The impetus behind the CPT is that genuine theological thinking and advancement is best done in the social location of the church. When you engage in the day in and day out nitty gritty joys and sorrows of ministry, you tend to “do” theology quite differently. Or in the words of the CPT:

Operating within the historic evangelical tradition, the CPT believes the contemporary bifurcation between the pastoral calling and theological formation has resulted in the loss of a distinctly ecclesial voice in orthodox theology. The CPT seeks to resurrect this voice. In an age that has rightly emphasized the relationship between social location and theological formation, our vision is to bring together a unique kind of pastor-theologian—not simply those particular pastors who desire to pursue a theologically informed parish ministry, but even more, pastors who feel called to function as writing theologians to the broader ecclesial community.

I could not agree more. When egg heads locked up in ivory towers, far removed from real people with real problems and real joys, are the governors of theological thinking, the theological questions (and answers!) are off-centered. But when people in the trenches of ministry dig deep into God’s word to derive their theology while they are bleeding with bleeding people—that’s what it’s all about. That’s where true, flesh-covering, heart-thumping theology comes from. Real ministers digging into God’s word with blood, sweat, and tears. Real tears shed over real people with real problems and real concerns.

Now here’s what’s fascinating. Most of the members of the CPT have Ph.D.’s in theology, ethics, or biblical studies, and are in full time ministry. And most of them planned it this way. That is, they sought out to get a Ph.D. in order to become better theologians in the context of church ministry. They wanted to become local and public theologians in the context of the local church.

I’m writing this post because I’m currently flying to the annual gathering of the CPT in Chicago. I’ve been coming to these gatherings for about 5 years now and I must say that it’s

a highlight of my year. Part of the reason is that the gatherings are in Chicago, and I’m…well, pretty much addicted to Chicago style Pizza. But I also love coming to these gatherings because the CPT has some of the most humble, yet wise and incredibly sharp, Christians I’ve ever met. It’s such a joy to be around these servants of Christ.

Every year we get together and work through a book and topic in order to think sharply and deeply through a particular theological issue that informs our ministries. This year, I’m super stoked that James K. A. Smith of Calvin College is coming to town to share about his vision for thinking liturgically about worship and worldview. We’ve been reading through two of his book, Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom, which are absolutely brilliant and necessary reading for any pastor. And today, James will share with us as we interact with him about his theological vision.

Anyway, that’s what I’m doing for the next few days. Eating Chicago Pizza. Catching up with some old friends. And thinking theologically with James K. A. Smith about cultivating a liturgy of worship!