I did my time in seminary from 1995-1998. And at times, yes, it felt like "doing time." I went into the institution of higher learning with a bad attitude, prepared to do whatever I needed to jump through man-made hoops in order to be allowed to serve as pastor of a Lutheran church. God, in his wisdom, used that time -- in spite of me, and sometimes in spite of the institution -- to do his amazing work. He shaped, informed, and reformed me in many ways during that time. It was hugely valuable to me!
During that time, "systematic theology" was my least favorite thing to study. It felt too contrived to try to systematize God. It seemed to me that systematicians were trying hard to get out of their own context to make an eternal statement about the things of God, and the more I studied the more convinced I became that context is a GOOD thing. If Jesus' incarnation happened in one particular place during one particular moment in history, shouldn't I respect the fact that God has planted me as a theologian in one particular place, in one particular moment in history? So I came to believe that all theology is profoundly contextual, and that this is a GOOD thing.
Back to my systematics class. The systematics classes I took at Luther Seminary used a two-volume set called Christian Dogmatics. The set was organized by topic, so the units in volume one include (after the obligatory "Prolegomena to Christian Dogmatics" -- I am not making this up) the following topics:
The Triune God
The Knowledge of God
Sin and Evil
The Person of Jesus Christ
These were the exciting areas of theology to study. If you were talking about Christology -- the nature of Jesus, and the relationship of his divinity and his humanity, and what it means that he died on the cross -- then you were working at the heart of theology. This was the apex, the really good stuff.
Much later, about halfway through volume two, you would run across another unit entitled simply, "The Church." Paging through my dusty copy of Christian Dogmatics, I find no notes in the margin, no bookmarks left in this unit, no carefully scrawled notes tucked into the text as I find in some of the earlier sections. I wonder, reading a few of its lengthy Latin-laced lines, whether we actually got around to studying it at all. In most theology textbooks, the "Ecclesiology" section (meaning, the study of the church) contained a few dry reflections on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the sacraments, ordination and clergy, and maybe something about the priesthood of all believers. Yawn.
You see, in those days few theologians were thinking seriously about the church. The church just was. It wasn't something you had to think much about. "Ecclesiology" was still the ugly stepchild of theological reflection. Certainly no one at Luther Seminary was taking seriously the rising tide of books written about the church. These were not "theological" books, books quoting from Latin texts and French philosophers, but they were what our profs demeaningly called "church-growth literature," written by common pastors (and even non-pastors!) for use by common pastors (or even non-pastors!).
The tide kept rising. Rick Warren wrote The Purpose Driven Church, which became the precursor to his wildly successful book The Purpose Driven Life a decade later. In the early 1990's Loren Mead was writing about The Once and Future Church and Transforming Congregations for the Future. Carl George wrote Metachurch about this time, and a little later Michael Slaughter wrote Spiritual Entrepreneurs. Even a few Lutherans got into the act eventually -- I remember reading Mike Foss' book Power Surge and Tim Wright's Unfinished Evangelism among others.
But these were not theology books. Theology was written by academics, and certainly theology was not released in paperback. These were just church leadership books.
Over time, though, something began to happen. Somewhere along the way, we (and by we I mean I) began to realize that these writers were slowly reshaping our (my) understanding of what the church was, why it had been created, and how God wanted it to function. It was not that the message of the gospel had changed. Scripture hadn't changed. Jesus certainly hadn't changed, and the Holy Spirit hadn't changed. But the culture was changing, and fast! The church was the intermediary -- the delivery system -- between the gospel and culture, and as the culture changed, the church scrambled to adapt. Churches were changing, and no one quite knew what to do with that fact. Not coincidentally, about this time we started to hear from seminary graduates who lamented that "the seminary didn't prepare me for the realities of serving in the church!" Academia was lagging far behind the needs of the local congregation. Those on the front lines of bringing the gospel to the culture needed advice from others from the front lines. They did not need a dry theological reflection about abstract realities.
Over time these paperbacks began to take on more depth, to do more reflecting on who God was and how God was involved in this interface between church and culture. Sociologists and historians got into the act, not as primary authors most of the time but as consultants and specialized voices to lend perspective to the discussion. Spirituality became an important topic within this body of literature.
Over time we began to read more from people who were reinventing their churches. This was more than the trite advice to church councils (Who Moved My Church was one lamentable takeoff on the slightly popular leadership text, Who Moved My Cheese) and began to delve into truly new ways of doing ministry. What was happening was this: As the church didn't function the way we thought it should function, as it failed the task of speaking relevant good news about Jesus to the culture, some thoughtful people went back to scripture. They started reading their Bibles and asking, "What is the church supposed to look like?"
The answers were shocking. In that Bible, they found no mention of pews or church bells, no mention of special buildings. There was precious little about clergy or church councils or sacraments. It was tough, in scripture, to find advice for how to preach the various portions of the church calendar.
What these thinkers found in the Bible was a description of a church that was less like an institution and more like an extended family. The Bible recommended outlandish practices like sharing resources, bearing burdens, and letting the Holy Spirit guide an orderly form of worship in which each person was a participant, not an observer. So some of these people started "doing" church just the way the Bible described it.
Lo and behold, they found that the culture was strangely drawn to their outlandish way of doing church. You see, one of the hurts in the surrounding culture was that almost no one lived with what everyone was hungry for -- something called "authenticity." Hypocrisy was rampant, and so people became jaded but inside they were desperately yearning for something that they could trust, something that they could believe in. No one wanted to get burned, though. But when they saw these groups of Jesus-followers living together in authentic community, many in the world were drawn to the church.
Ecclesiology today is one of the most fascinating areas of theology, and the best theological reflections about the church are being written by those who are actively leading churches. This is not just literature about how to make your church grow; it is careful, thoughtful reflection from people who are leading life-giving churches during the week with their Bibles wide open. As they lead and reflect and write, we discover stuff we never knew about God. I would suggest Philip Yancey's What's So Amazing About Grace? and Timothy Keller's Prodigal God as two examples of books that start to get at some of this practical reflection about God that makes a real difference in the real world.
So to start moving toward some kind of conclusion of this rambling post, the bottom line (though we're nowhere near the bottom of this shift yet) is that the location of theology has been changing from academia to the local congregation. This is one of the main reasons why, when I have been asked recently whether I want to get a Ph.D. and find a job teaching in a seminary or university, I've smiled and said no. As tempting as it is to think about teaching full time, I firmly believe that the best theological work needs to be in a church, not in a school. I certainly can see myself teaching part-time or, as I've done the last few years, taking a week here and there to go somewhere (notably the Canadian Lutheran Bible Institute, where I'll be a visiting instructor again in March) to teach in an academic setting. But I want to be interacting with the living, breathing church as it adapts and changes to bring the unchanging message of Jesus Christ to a changing culture.
That's one reason I'm so thankful to have been at Central for almost ten years now. This church is working hard to hear the Holy Spirit's voice and follow where we are led. In the last ten years it's meant radical changes to our children's programming, adult programming, student ministries, models of leadership, and much more. It's nowhere near perfect, but an exciting place to work.