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August 27, 2014

Choosing To Be Theological Or To Be Missional


To be theological or to be missional

I hope that title seems wrong to you. I hope that you read it and say: Obviously, all true theology leads to mission, and all mission is grounded in some theology. If it’s a God-honoring mission, it will be grounded in God-honoring theology.

I hope you read it and say: Presbyterians know that “truth is in order to goodness”; to suggest that our active participation in God’s work in the world is unaffected by our theology is precisely the “pernicious opinion” that our tradition warns against.

I hope you read it and say: One of the spiritual gifts that Presbyterians bring to the global church is a willingness to join Christian faith and the life of the mind together. Presbyterians are not ever anti-intellectual, because we know that “all the treasures of wisdom and understanding” are to be found in Jesus, who names Himself as The Truth.

I hope you say those things. And yet, I know many of you will not have said those things at all. I know this because during our recent Gathering, I had so many conversations with people about whether theology really matters, whether it’s possible to help members of our congregation see the relevance of the sorts of theological conversations we were having about the Trinity at this meeting, and whether energetic pastors who are fired up about making their churches more missional really care at all about theology. I also talked to some people who loved our theology conversations, but moaned about the pragmatic tone of other parts of the Gathering, wondering if there was anything distinctively Reformed or Presbyterian about the strategies being discussed in other sessions.

The reality is that already there is a division forming within ECO between these two emphases, both of which are supposed to be central to our identity. At this point, we still love being together so much that the divisions are mostly spoken of with amused tolerance and some rolling of the eyes. But if we allow this division to stand, it will grow. We may not let this happen.

In the current issue of Christianity Today, Tish Harrison Warren writes about her struggles to be faithful in leading a Christian-student organization at Vanderbilt University during a time when the school decided to disallow student organizations with faith statements. The administration argued that such statements were inherently discriminatory. If you haven’t read the article yet, I suggest you do. The university’s logic will be familiar to many of us who have been engaged in struggles with the PCUSA over the last decades. In the world of the big tent, the only people not welcome are those who claim that some beliefs are actually true and should shape our behavior.

Harrison Warren’s article makes clear that, at every step in her struggles with Vanderbilt, being theological and being missional were inextricably bound together. Had her group been willing to give up their overt theological commitments, they would have been welcome to remain as a student organization, but such a concession would have destroyed their mission.

We need everyone at the table

The Vanderbilt campus is a microcosm of our culture. If we are attempting to be missional without a clear, articulate statement of exactly what we believe and why, then all we’re really doing is assimilating. The most counter-cultural thing we can do—the action that will most intrigue, engage, and challenge our culture—is to confess our faith winsomely, reasonably, consistently, and lovingly. To confess it as true. To confess it as something that matters and changes our understanding of reality. To confess it as something that changes our prayers and our worship, our work and our relationships, our values and our passions.

Next January, we’re planning a two-day event to talk through our confessional and theological commitments. It’s not a church assembly, so we won’t be making any decisions about our future book of confessions, but I trust that motions will be drafted at this meeting and be brought back to our presbyteries by those who attend—perhaps conflicting motions, requiring our presbyteries to do the work of prayerful discernment. We’ll see what shows up at synod next year. But the event will be a failure if the only people who come are theology geeks who are bored by practical conversations about the work of the church. The event will also be a failure if at subsequent meetings, motions about our theological commitments are passed with a yawn by those who think of theology as irrelevant but are willing to humor those few who care about it.

No, we need everyone at the table from the get-go in order to make sure our theology is connected to our missional identity in a life-giving way. We need everyone at the table in order to make sure that our mission doesn’t die from lack of nourishment. We don’t all have the same gifts, and we’re not all called to the same kind of work. But we’re all called to love what’s true, to be prepared to give an account for our faith, and to have the mind of Christ. Let’s refuse to choose between being theological and being missional. Let’s be both and be both together.

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