What songs should we choose for the worship service? What should we do for our fall campaign? How many minutes should the sermon be? How should we organize the chairs in the worship center?
The list could go on.
Pastors are constantly faced with practical questions. What to do has become the driving force of ministry, and as a result we spend our time trying to figure out how to do it. A vast majority of seminars and conferences today are focused on the “how”. Strategy is the name of the game and the equipment for playing is resourcefulness, creativity and innovation.
When faced with a question of what to do we immediately turn to the equipment above. Unfortunately, what this often means is that our strategy is determined by us, rather than God. In a sense, we lead as functional deists, believing God has left us to do his work in the here and now. By including one key piece of equipment in our strategic method we can help reorient our “how” under the authority and guidance of God. The piece of equipment that needs to be added is theology.
There seem to be two common reasons that theology is a lost piece of equipment in the strategy game.
First, we don’t turn to theology as a legitimate part of our strategy because it takes too long. The problems we are faced with need to be fixed and the programs we want to implement need to happen immediately. Theological reflection takes time. In short, we are impatient.
Second, we do not turn to theology because we have relegated theology to something it is not. We have deemed theology to be a purely academic endeavor. Often we conceive of doctrine as static truth that we mentally affirm and then move on from. Functionally, theology has been left in the seminary classroom. It no longer holds direct import in our day to day ministry. It does not dynamically shape what we do.
So, why should we embrace theology as an essential piece of equipment in the strategy game?
(1) Theology offers a matrix of resources
If we receive theology as a piece of equipment in our strategic decision making what we discover is that it brings a whole host of resources along with it. If we begin our strategy with theological inquiry we are forced to begin with Scripture and with prayer, because we recognize we are not the authority. Theology brings with it the Creeds and Confessions of the Church as tools and guides for making wise decisions. Theology opens us up to the history of the Church as a vast treasure trove of case studies in what to do and how to do it.
(2) Theology points us beyond ourselves
Theology reminds us that we are not inviting God into what we are doing, but rather He is inviting us to participate in what He is doing. Theology places what we do firmly under the authority of God. Rather than looking within ourselves for the answers, we look beyond ourselves to God for the answers. Theological reflection forces us to pause long enough to remember that even in the little decisions we are standing on “holy ground”. As a result, everything we do becomes an opportunity to point to God and bear witness to His work of redemption. In this sense, we are postured as witnesses of the work of the Spirit rather than determiners of the work of the Spirit. However, we cannot point beyond ourselves to God in what we do, if we are not reaching beyond ourselves to God in deciding how to do it.
(3) Theology is reforming
Theology serves God’s reforming work. First, God reforms us as pastors. Every time we make theological decisions we make strategic decisions. Whether we are aware of them or not, we all hold theological presuppositions that drive our decisions. No practical decision is made apart from beliefs about God, humanity, sin, etc. Theological reflection unearths and reforms our misguided theological presuppositions. It also provides us with prayerful opportunities to be personally transformed in the image of Jesus Christ as we come to know God in truth. Second, theology provides us with discernment in shaping the doctrine of our church. Surely, our congregations hold misguided theological presuppositions. Our continued theological reflection provides us with discernment and wisdom in participating in God’s work of redemption in those areas. Without theological reflection we not only fail to discern God’s reforming call for our churches, but we also continue to shape our congregations with our unconscious misguided theological presuppositions.
(4) Theology helps us make the “right decisions”
Orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy. Put differently, right theology leads to right practice. Thus, if we desire our practice (our practical ministry decisions) to be true participation in God’s work of redemption in the world we must begin with theological consideration not merely human ability. If we pastors wish to be faithful ministers of the gospel we must first be faithful theologians of the gospel. Theology guards us from making decisions with programs, with chairs and with music that run contrary to who God is and what He has called us to as the Church. As John Chrysostom reminds us, “The way of orthodoxy is narrow and hemmed in by threatening crags on either side, and there is no little fear lest when intending to strike at one enemy we should be wounded by the other.” Surely, the responsibility of proclaiming the gospel of Christ is not to be taken lightly.
A brief example in closing…
Every element of the worship service involves practical decisions. One decision that is easily overlooked is the location of the pulpit. Perhaps it is positioned in a certain location because that is where it has always gone. Maybe we have actually taken the time to creatively brainstorm where it should be positioned in light of crowd visibility, staging for the worship band and lighting. The pulpit in effect is a meaningless object that can be used to meet our programming needs. Either way, it is not a decision met with a great deal of theological reflection.
So, what would it look like to include theological reflection into our pulpit placement strategy? Well, it turns out John Calvin provides us with a perfect example. Calvin decided to elevate the pulpit. This was a decision not merely born out of practical concerns, but deep theological reflection. For Calvin the pulpit was elevated not to maintain a stature of power for the pastor but rather to constantly be reminded that the message comes from above, from God. The pastor is the first to hear the Word that descends in the sermon and in this sense is the ambassador of God’s message. Indeed, Calvin viewed the pulpit as God’s throne, and as such it served as a constant reminder that we are under His authority and guidance.
Thus, what was seemingly a simple practical decision of pulpit placement served to point Calvin beyond himself to God, helped him shape the theology of his church and engendered a personal posture of dependence upon God. Calvin’s inclusion of theological reflection in his strategy for pulpit placement provides us with a rich example of what we are often missing. Perhaps if we embrace Calvin’s theological considerations we will be more likely to approach our sermons with a posture of humility. Rather than seeing the pulpit as a piece of furniture used to establish our authority, we will see it as a prophetic symbol reminding us we are under God’s authority. Perhaps the pulpit will serve as a sign in our midst of God’s Word graciously descending upon our hearts as we come to worship Him. Whether you agree with Calvin’s conclusions or not, his example serves as a needed paradigm shift in how we make practical ministry decisions.