Convergent Practical Theology: Part 1

Cross Crosslet (Daily Prayer, Book of Common Worship 1993)

“[Lord,] you come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways . . . LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (Is 65:5,8)[1]

“The church, born at the foot of the cross, is called to be the community of those who stand under it, who model their lives on it. Such a vision of the Trinity, revealed in crucified love, has profound implications for every aspect of Christian life.” (Br. Gregory Collins, OSB)[2]

On a brisk fall day, various men and women from all over the Midwest file into a stately church modeled after a monastic abbey. They gather over food and conversation, sharing what God is up to in their lives and in the parts of the world where God has planted them. After a while, this diverse and motley crew of elected leaders of the regional church body, the Presbytery, is called to business: What shall be the goals of our various ministry teams and committees this year, and what are three goals for the Presbytery as a whole? As the assembly breaks up into small groups, the air is thick with an electric charge . . . something is different this year, something is sparking. All too soon, the time came for groups to send their spokesperson up to the podium and report to the whole group. Some common themes, observations, and needs are being voiced, and the energy of the crowd becomes enriched even more. Of the feedback proffered by the groups, community is the underlying word. How do we be in relationship with one another? How do we move from being a connectional church body to being a communion of congregations and leaders? What does it mean to embrace the kingdom of God? Most importantly, How are we, the elected leaders of the Presbytery, going to lead the regional church in this time of discontinuous change in society and in the church in general?[3] As this began to sink in among those gathered, a great sigh is expelled and the people turn to prayer.

In my study of congregational mission and leadership over the past five years, the above scenario is now becoming more common in some denominations in the United States, especially those which have regional judicatory bodies. Many are finding the old forms of leadership are no longer very effective, and the ways of being and doing church are even less so. There may be many precious jewels within our current ecclesiologies, as well as various practices, forms, and ordered patterns. They are what has shape our shared life to this point. But, many people are also finding numerous hard clumps of dried out clay previously assumed to be jewels within these ecclesiologies, practices, forms, and ordered patterns.

I have seen some of these clumps of dried out clay as a minister member in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).[4] This dryness is the result of layers of functional ecclesiology often taking precedence in shaping our missional identity. A good example would be the amount of time, energy and resources spent around perfecting, executing, and defending our polity and policies. By elevating the various practices, forms, and ordered patterns above (and many times against) our catholic, protestant, and reformed ecclesiology, we have weighed down our Christian order and tradition at the expense of our active participation in the mission of God. This may also be endemic to other mainline denominations in Western first-world countries. This clay, when left in our own hands instead of God’s, eventually runs counter to our God-given identity rooted in the mission of God.[5]

When we embrace and foster our missional identity, we begin to incarnate the essence of being a Holy Communion under the cross, as well as becoming a called priesthood of all believers through our baptism. When we lose our missional identity and the sagacity of grace God communicates to us through Word and Sacrament, we forget that we are constantly being called to be an evangelizing people within our various contexts and engage the world with grace reflective of God. We are no longer a sign of God’s consummated mission when we lose our missional identity.

When it comes to leadership development in both our congregations and seminaries, we have fallen short of equipping and resourcing pastors to help their congregations embrace their God-given missional identity. In addition we have not done too well orienting our future pastoral leaders to frame and practice theologically social sciences which help us engage the world. In today’s world, theories such as social systems theory, social networking, innovation diffusion, organic community, and organizational development are crucial if the church’s primary and secondary theologies are to be viable. Recognizing this, many church bodies and judicatories currently are re-organizing so they may find their identity and being in relation to the triune God, and embrace their call to participate in the mission of God in the world (i.e. being a missional body).

For today’s congregations and regional church bodies, like a presbytery or a synod, and its leaders to be missional, they, as a communion and as individuals, need as a capacity the ability to live out a call rooted in the scripture and sacred theology. For instance, the two quotes at the top of this page are prime examples for framing an identity and purpose for a Christian community. The two texts also shape an argument for the importance of what I call convergent practical theology.

From the prophet Isaiah, we are called constantly to remember who we are and to be relentlessly formed and reformed by the hands of God alone.[1] Furthermore, the Benedictine brother, Gregory Collins, offers us his meditation on two icons of the Holy Trinity, one from the Eastern Christian tradition and the other from the Western Christian tradition.[2]  Brother Collins sees the church, or the assembly of believers, born at the foot of the cross and witnesses of God’s self-sacrificing love. This assembly is called to be the community of those who stand under it. As individual believers and as a community we are called to model our lives on this act of pouring ourselves out for each other as we embrace the mission of God. At the foot of the cross and in community, we, through the work of the Holy Spirit, make real the vision of the Trinity and the reality of God’s Kingdom being consummated. This vision of God in mission with, in and through us affects every aspect of Christian life.

This example framework calls us daily to remember God’s way of living, how to be a community of the cross modeled after the Holy Trinity, and shaped by the Holy Spirit. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, the Spirit is moving. As we are open to the Holy Spirit we will be transformed and our minds renewed.[6] By living our theology (primary and secondary) and practicing social science theologically, our minds are renewed and the community formed nurtures a new imagination for being and doing church. Or in other words, we are living out a convergent practical theology.

In this series of post we will explore the idea of what happens when sound social science converges with sacred theology, and how this new approach helps Christians and Christians communities and organizations adapt better to not only the changing times, but also where God is calling us to be in mission.


[1] See Is 64:5, 8.

[2] Gregory Collins, The Glenstal Book of Icons: Praying with the Glenstal Icons (Dublin: Columba Press, 2002), 130.

[3] In regard to discontinuous change, see Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2008), 1-7; Alan J. Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk, The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World, 1st ed. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 6-9.

[4] Hereafter, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will be abbreviated at PC(U.S.A.).

[5] Missional  is the act of being rooted in the mission of God. See Craig Van Gelder, The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 30.

[6] Rom 12:2.

Adapted from Christian Boyd, Formed and Reformed as a Community Under the Cross (Luther Seminary, 2010).


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