Does Theology Even Matter Anymore? Dear Lord, Yes!

Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash

Things are bad. Maybe they’re so bad that theology doesn’t even matter anymore. I don’t think so, though. Be patient with me. I’ll get around to telling you why. But first, I’ll have to tell you how I got there.

Matt Ward informed me congregations have overwhelmingly felt the effects of this dreadful year–its pandemic, contested election, racial tensions, lockdowns, culture war battles and on and on and on–and suffered church conflict, budget shortfalls, precipitous attendance decline, waning influence, and pastoral impotency. Stress reveals fault lines; crisis reveals character. A bad year uncovers and accelerates bad things that have been lurking there all along. Suffering shows us where we stand. Prosperity often hides ills, or at least distracts us from shortfalls.

Dr. Ward shares the bad news before proclaiming the good news. What’s the good news? There are theological reasons for gratitude and thankfulness. Trials and trepidation and suffering and sorrow are never pleasant while they are being endured, but Christianity is a home to heralds and bringers of hope, for the message itself is one of resurrection. Pastors can lead the way during dark times. They proclaim, model, exhort, encourage, and exhibit faith in God as they lead their congregations through hardship and horror. They do this in difficulties large and small. This isn’t the first global crisis the church has endured in its history. It won’t be the last.

How do we make our way through? God is a waymaker, as we sing. Our reality is bad, but we can face that reality by placing it within view of a greater reality, the reality of God. Ward writes, “Let’s be extremely honest about our circumstances. They are not good. And then let’s be extremely honest about our God. He is very good. That will lead us into thanksgiving.”

Dr. Ward grounds the practice of thanksgiving in the character of God. He warns us against glib behavior. He cautions against sentimentality. He encourages truth-telling. These are good reminders, all.

In making his argument, Ward points to Roger Olson, who near the end of October raised the question as to whether theology matters anymore at all. Ward led me to Olson; thus our question, and my answer. Olson states:

I became a theologian because I felt called to it, so I can never regret it. On the other hand, sometimes I feel like it has been a huge waste of time and effort on my part and that because I really, really wanted to speak into the lives of ordinary Christians, pastors, churches, and inquiring minds of seekers after truth. Instead, it seems, the vast majority of people, even my own family members and friends (not all but most) have never shown any interest in what I do. It’s viewed largely as “ivory tower,” speculative, merely academic, a waste of time.

Now, when eager young men and women come to me expressing interest in becoming theologians I applaud them for their passion but warn them that their family and friends and even their churches will probably distance themselves from them. I tell them they will feel isolated and unappreciated—except by a few people who think like they do—namely, that truth about God matters and the pursuit of truth is a good thing even if it is vastly under appreciated—especially in religion.

Olson is a theologian who serves George W. Truett Seminary. I really respect the man. I think there is truth in his conclusions. I think he’s right to offer his experience as a warning. I think he’s right to bring the romantics among us down a peg or two. I’ve been reading his work for years. I do not regard his conclusion lightly.

I just happen to disagree.

I believe Dr. Olson’s efforts have likely yielded much more good than he perceives. I believe that pastors and pastor-theologians, like Dr. Olson, are called to the work with no guarantees of respectability or even “success” as most define it. These persons should not expect esteem, even though they might long for it, nor should they expect the occasional happenstance of one’s pursuits becoming the center of table conversation; if it ever does, that can make for quite a memorable evening. I think Dr. Olson is right to name the work of theology and the theological aspects of pastoral ministry as mostly thankless work, mostly quiet work, mostly overlooked work.

But that does not mean it is not important work, that it is work that does not “matter.” Theology is always operative. It is inescapable, always on. It matters.

Like Olson, I don’t have stats to back up my claim, only a sense or intuition. I bring twenty years of anecdotal evidence. I bring theological convictions. My experiences in the church and now in the academy, as well as within my family, tell me theology matters.

Some care about theology more than others, but in each of those contexts, theological answers are given to complex problems and theological questions are raised at critical moments. Questions are more often practical than abstract. Some questions are answered; others left open. I’ve seen good theology, bad theology, academic theology, folk theology, practical theology, historical theology, heterodoxy, orthodoxy…you name it, I’ve seen it in effect, toward good ends and, unfortunately at times, bad ends.

Things can matter when we don’t think matter, and even when we don’t think about them at all.

People who’ve walked alongside me, if they really sat back and thought about it, would be able to name ways in which the ideas that we talked about in congregation, the practices that we shared, the worship moments or breaking bread once a quarter and maybe one or two more times each year on Christmas and at Easter, the words of testimony offered or the homilies given at weddings and funerals or the vows that were affirmed at baptism, well yes, they “mattered.” They meant a lot.

They made meaning and they gave shape to our life together. They provided direction. Shaped convictions. Formed character. And then influenced countless thoughts, feelings, and actions. The theology we did together, the theology that informed what we were doing together, made a world of difference, a difference as vast as that spanning the gulf between world and kingdom.

Theology continues to matter. Our theologians continue to matter, too. Pastors are some of our most important theologians, and while many congregants do not think of what they do in congregation as theology proper, they are each being equipped with an operative theology, as well as the requisite tools to raise theological questions and to form theological answers.

A little over fifteen ago I read a little book by Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson named, “Who Needs Theology?” [affiliate link] That little book convinced me that we’re all theologians, that I’m a theologian, and that every person that I minister to and with and among is doing the work of a theologian, even if they don’t call it that. Because Grenz and Olson made a theological argument along these lines, I grew more confident in my own identity as a theologian, while also shifting my perspective on life and ministry, on my work among the people of God.

Let me say this: Dr. Olson shaped my work in serving countless people, Christian and otherwise, as a Christian minister; his voice shaped my philosophy of ministry among “ordinary” Christian people.

How so? Because of the influence of Olson, Grenz, and many others, I concluded that all people bring experience, tradition, and reason to the task of theology, and that we all, together, can read the Bible and seek to interpret the Scriptures in light of the person of Jesus and, by the gift of God’s grace, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

I came to the deep conviction that I should preach and teach while assuming that the work of salvation and redemption and sanctification were possible among all hearers, but that outcomes ultimately belonged to God. The degree to which our witness was either strong or weak, as the people of God, was beyond my ability to fully know or perceive–too much is hidden, seen only by God. I only knew that I was called to be a witness, to seek God, to follow Christ, to walk by the Spirit, to do the work of an evangelist, to be a sower, to tend the sheep, to turn the soil.

Theology is funny work. Stanley Hauerwas noted that one of the challenges within the university is that universities are unsure what to make of theology as a discipline. Secular colleges and universities no longer make space for theologians, only scholars of religion. Many Christian institutions are unsure of what to do with their theologians, for, hoping for respectability within the wider guild of the academy, they fear their continued choice to fund theology departments is a potential source of embarrassment.

In the church, theology is funny work because while it is always taking place, it is not always named as such. It’s just working itself out, minute by minute and day by day, worship service by worship service and, Lord help us, conference by conference and convention by convention and business meeting by business meeting.

In our lives, theology is funny work because we aren’t always aware when, where, how, and why our theological convictions are operative, but they always are, underneath, scripts running under scripts.

Despite its funny way of working, theology matters. Oh, Lord yes, it matters.

Gratitude in the Wilderness

Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash

For us in 2020 we are in a different sort of wilderness. Things are not the same as they have been in the world, in our families, in our neighborhoods or our churches—and there’s no telling what things will look like in the future. On top of the pandemic we’re dealing with political division, economic uncertainty, and the heightened awareness of racial injustice where many continue to lament, long for, hope, and work for change.

Many of us as individuals and communities have experienced other times of wilderness in our lives, as well.

The remembrance we practice in these times is not always cheery and optimistic. Gratitude in the wilderness is a hard fought practice. It recognizes and gives thanks for what God has done in the past, cries out in pain for the way things are now, and calls God to act in the present in accordance with how God has in the past.

So when life gets hard and times get dark and confusing, remember how God has been at work in your life, in your family’s life, and in the life of your community in the past. Continue to give thanks for it. Cling to it. Be a witness, pass it along, and hold each other up.

And do the difficult work to look for where God is at work in the present.

Emily Beth Hill, “A Table in the Wilderness

If you were to choose a biblical motif to attach to this year, I suppose you cannot do much better than wilderness.

Hill is right: the people of God have always been a community of memory and remembrance, witness and testimony. We look back. We look around. We look ahead. We learn how to do this in and through the biblical story.

The biblical story provides us with markers, clues, schema, ways of understanding and meaning making, ways to make sense of what is taking place in our present moment. The biblical story, as has been said, is not only something to look at but to look through. As God has been faithful in the past, God is now faithful in the present, and will be again in the future, for God is eternal, the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Without being glib or dismissive, without minimizing present sufferings, without diminishing the hurts and burdens we’ve endured this year, look for those things for which we can be thankful, both great and small, and name those things with gratitude, giving thanks to God.

Research Findings: Congregations Are Becoming More Diverse

From the Baylor University press release:

Racially diverse congregations have increased substantially in the United States over the past 20 years, and the percentage of all-white congregations has declined, according to a study by a Baylor University sociologist and two colleagues.

Overall, multiracial congregations — defined as those in which no one racial or ethnic group comprises more than 80% of the congregants — have nearly tripled, with approximately a quarter of evangelical and Catholic churches now being multiracial.

Other key findings:

  • 10% of mainline Protestant churches were multiracial, up from 1%.
  • 22% percent of evangelical congregations were multiracial, up from 7%.
  • 16% of Pentecostals are multiracial, up from 3%.
  • Catholic churches on average continue to be more diverse than Protestant churches with 23% multiracial, up from 17%.
  • Less than 1% of Black Protestant churches were multiracial in 1998 or 2019.

And an important final remark:

Despite these changes, difficulties face racial desegregation in American religion, said study co-author Michael O. Emerson, Ph.D., professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“The path to diversity seems to be a one-way street, with people of color joining white congregations but very few whites joining Black churches,” Emerson said. “Until congregations confront the historic structures that keep racial groups divided, diversity inside congregations may function mainly as a superficial performance.”

For researchers, what would this confrontation look like?

And what are the causal factors that have let to increased diversity, where it has occurred?

With all due respect to Dr. Michael Emerson, and acknowledging scholars are often understated in their conclusions and often bent toward skepticism, increased diversity in some congregations “may” be “a superficial performance.” But it may be something else entirely, like behaving toward a preferred way of being based on a shift in theological convictions and religious values. It may also be a movement of God, or a historical return toward the early diversity of the Christian movement.

That aside, I’m encouraged by the trend.

What Would It Take For Me to Quit Social Media Forever?

An algorithm will probably bury this post. You should share it everywhere! But you are under no obligation. Never. Obligations are nowhere to be found among the terms and conditions of this website.

Alan Jacobs writes:

Here’s your semi-regular reminder: You don’t have to be there. You can quit Twitter and Facebook and never go back. You can set up social-media shop in a more humane environment, like micro.blog, or you can send emails to your friends — with photos of your cats attached! If you’re a person with a significant social-media following, you can start a newsletter; heck, you can do that if you just want to stay in touch with five of six friends. All of the big social-media platforms are way past their sell-by date. The stench of their rottenness fills the room, and the worst smells of all come from Facebook and Twitter.

In your heart you know I’m right: It’s time to go.

I agree that the social media platforms are odious. I don’t know if it is time for me to ditch all my social media accounts officially and forever. Today I was thinking: “What would it take for me to change my mind?”

The truth is that I hate social media services. I hate the way I get addicted, the way I long for likes and favorites and hearts and flattery and affirmation and shares and followers and friends. I don’t like how social media ecosystems have come to manage, shape, and alter our human psychology, to shape our view of the world, to reveal the ways we’re polarized, to intensify our polarization. I don’t like the ways they create the illusion that we’re keeping up, or that we’re connected, or how each service becomes its own broadcast medium, and that then, for some reason, we feel compelled to create content for those providers, to tell stories and provide updates and to compose tweet-storms, and the like.

I feel guilty from time to time that my presence on social media contributes to forces that hold other people there. Odds are you landed here from your social media feed. I like that and I don’t like that at the very same time.

I haven’t been on Twitter for a couple of years, I ditched Instagram this summer, I left Facebook about a month ago. I genuinely believe I am happier person because of these decisions. My accounts are still active. But I don’t log in.

I don’t like the codependencies that have emerged between social media platforms and traditional, old-world media. I find the relationship between Twitter and those who work as professional journalists disgusting. Twitter depends on traditional outlets for content, traditional outlets depend on Twitter as a source of clicks. It is no surprise that Twitter would bend to the demands of the power brokers in traditional media, and that journalists working in traditional media would tailor their trade to the contours of what “works” in social media ecosytems. The cycle is vicious, and devours all, even bystanders.

But as someone who has written on the internet since MySpace, I know and understand the game. Readers live on social media platforms. If you want them to come to your website, you have to open the portal, leave a breadcrumb, open the door, show them the path, leave them a link, create a trail. I’m not wrong. The headline needs to be enticing. The image needs to be compelling. Then, the content needs to be good.

You’ll notice that my website has followers. Visit my homepage, and you’ll see this in a sidebar:

But here is a little secret: 1,303 of those subscribers are connected to my WordPress site via social media channels, mainly Twitter. My audience at my Facebook Page is much smaller. I have twenty-four email subscribers and seventy-five people who follow me in their WordPress feed. Forty-four people receive my occasional newsletter.

This past weekend I was talking to my brother. We touched on this dilemma. From time to time, I have something to say. The social media platforms are often the easiest medium by which to connect with a readership. It is where the readers are, it is the road they take to arrive here. On the grand highways of Twitter and Facebook, more often than not I have to post a billboard and provide an exit. Then it is up to the reader to travel down the information superhighway, stop off at my website, and enjoy the offerings at this here greasy spoon.

So what would it take for me to quit social media forever? To close my accounts? I don’t know. I do, after all, want to develop a readership.

But if one day, on Facebook and Twitter, you notice I’m gone, I hope you’ll track me down, see what I’ve been up to, sit a spell, and read and gaze and rock on.

I think we’d all be better off if we ditched social media, returned to readers and RSS feeds and listservs. I used to bookmark my favorite websites and visit to find out what’s new. That was before social media services learned how to put those enticing clickies in front of my face, to be my aggregator of information.

Do you ever get tired of having a massive supercomputer directly aimed at your brain?

I do.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could see what we had opted to see rather than what our social media algorithmic overlords want us to see?

Sure would.

Another world is possible. Ditch social media. Build another network. Your own.

Laity Lodge: The Reorienting Practice of Birding

Take four minutes and watch this.

Birding can be an expression of the spiritual exercise known as creation awareness, the intentional and thoughtful contemplation of occurrences in the natural world as evidences of the handiwork of God. That’s one approach. Another is to consider the natural world and ask God to provide wisdom through the encounter. The Bible is filled with example, such as what can be gleaned through contemplation of the ant.

Each time Laity Lodge releases a new short film I long to go and experience it for myself. The closest I came was earlier this year, but: COVID. I’ve never been. One day. One day.

An Expression of Christian Hope

Children when you come to my silent grave to see where your lifeless mother was laid,
remember how I loved you and how I worked and labored and patiently waited on you.
But remember this grave can’t always hold this lifeless body of your mother, but when Christ, who is my life shall appear, that this lifeless mother, the body of mine, shall appear with Him in glory.

Children, my labor of works and patience of love, I leave with you.
Be at peace among yourselves.
Behold the love of Jesus.

This is the grave marker of Dora L. Keith, born October 5, 1871, and died February 16, 1917. She is buried in the Round Grove Cemetery, Dublin, Texas.

Dora Keith was my great-great-grandmother. She died when my great-grandmother, Nellie Hazzard, the youngest of her eight children, was six years old.

Dora Keith knew she was dying. She wrote this letter while living, addressing her children. Her convictions fortified her in the face of death. Her hope was in Christ. Her final exhortation, “Behold the love of Jesus,” are words of deep wisdom. To know of and about Jesus is one thing, and a good thing, at that, but to behold him and his love has the power to transform us.

This memorial now stands as a testimony to me, her great-great-grandson over a century later. It also stands as a testimony to you. Above, we read an allusion to Colossians 3:4, which in the King James Version says, “When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory.” She clung to hope in the resurrection. I do, too.