(What follows is the manuscript of a talk that I gave at the 2023 Spire Conference for church leaders in Nashville, TN.)
Those who put together this conference asked me to speak on the topic “Theology in the Wild.” I should confess that the very first question that came to mind was that if you actually happen to be in the wild, is there anyone quite as useless as a theologian? If you’re in the wild, you’re in survival mode. You’re worried about finding food, water, and shelter. You’ve got to start a fire. Honestly, is the guy with the closet full of polo shirts, poor eyesight, and soft hands gonna be your first choice if you need help? I mean, I can read biblical Greek and tell you the difference between an objective and a subjective genitive, but I’m not sure how useful that will be in the wild.
It’s fair to wonder about the place and the purpose of theology in the wild. Some of us might even harbor some suspicion of theology in times like these. We may not dare say it out loud, but we’re tempted to think that theology has its place in the academy—where people write books and teach in sanitized classrooms. But on the messy front lines of ministry, especially in our post-church, post-Christian culture as it is today, it just kind of gets in the way. In the wild, we come to think that what we need is not theology, but pragmatism. We really need strategies to execute. We need programs to administer. We need more efficient structures, better technology, and clever graphic design. Theology is a luxury that we’ll get around to whenever we get the time.
But this isn’t what we observe from Jesus. Do you remember when Jesus was in the wild? Do you remember his temptations? They were all temptations toward pragmatism. Turn the stones to bread. Make a big show of yourself. Pursue great power. Each time Jesus was tempted, he responded with theology. Pragmatism was the temptation, theology was the alternative.
“Pragmatism was the temptation, theology was the alternative.”
This also isn’t what we observe from the writer of Hebrews who wrote his letter to weary Christians who were thinking about giving up and walking away from faith. They were in the wild going through a spiritual desert. Yet this is how Hebrews begins:
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” (Hebrews 1:1-3, NIV)
The author doesn’t start his letter with talk of strategies and programs. He starts his letter with one of the richest theological statements about Jesus in the New Testament. What you need in the desert is theology, not mere good advice. Maybe theology isn’t a luxury. Maybe theology is indispensable in the wild.
“Maybe theology isn’t a luxury. Maybe theology is indispensable in the wild.”
Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer offers a two-part definition for theology. First of all, theology is faith seeking understanding. So, theology is our attempt to understand, among other things, the nature of God, the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the hope of humanity in our brokenness. Secondly, theology is bringing the Bible to bear on all areas of life. We are doing theology when we make biblical sense of our everyday lives. We are doing theology when we see our lives, we see our culture, and we see our world through the lens of the Bible and Christian belief. In this way, theology actually is pragmatic, but our pragmatism is not always theological.
Years ago I had the opportunity to go with a group of students on a ten day hiking trip in southeast Missouri. We were completely off the grid and in the wild. We went eight days without seeing another person outside of our group. Each morning after waking up, our guides would select two people to lead us that day. They would point to a spot on a topographical map and tell them that their job was to lead the group to that spot by nightfall. We had no landmarks or signs of civilization to guide us. All we had was a map showing us the contours of the land to guide us through the wilderness.
More than ever before, we are ministering in a desolated place without landmarks. We feel lost, disoriented, confused, and often anxious. The people who fill our churches are feeling the same things. What they need is not just another program or activity. They need to be oriented by a theology that is able to accurately read the contours of culture and respond with the deep and timeless truths of Scripture.
“More than ever before, we are ministering in a desolated place without landmarks.”
So what are some of the contours of our culture that today’s leaders need to recognize? There are many, but I’ll mention three in particular. These are three pervasive realities of our world that leave us disoriented and needing direction.
3 Realities of Our World That Leave Us Disoriented
Our experience of being human in the world today is radically different than people who lived even fifteen years ago. MIT professor Sherry Turkle has called this the “always on, always connected” generation. We are practically cyborgs. Historically, technology has usually changed slowly enough that we are able to embed it into our lives, but recent changes have happened so fast and so completely that it feels like our lives are now embedded in our technology. This technology disciples us, shaping us into its image. Artificial intelligence looks more and more human while humans look more and more artificial. For all of the promises of digital technology, we are actually being given noisy, distracted, impatient, and increasingly lonely lives.
The ties that used to bind us together as communities have frayed or broken altogether. We’ve been turned into atomized individuals. A couple of weeks ago, I went to the Bears/Chiefs game with my son. One of the impressions that I got from the game—other than the fact that my Bears are basically a junior varsity team—is that the NFL is one of the only remaining institutions in our culture that still has the ability to bring disconnected individuals together for a common experience of community. This is one of the reasons why the NFL remains so incredibly popular. Our common experience in our culture is not community, but fragmentation. Our digital devices connect us to the world but offer us hardly any true communion. This has led to a crisis of friendship. In 1990, 8% of men reported having one friend or less. By 2021, 21% of men reported having one friend or less. The numbers aren’t much better for women. So many feel both disoriented and alone in this culture. It’s no wonder that mental health is also taking a nosedive in such a culture.
“So many feel both disoriented and alone in this culture. It’s no wonder that mental health is also taking a nosedive in such a culture.”
One of the contours of our culture is that traditional belief in God has been crowded out and replaced with a different religion. Rather than looking toward heaven for inspiration and identity, the new religion tells us to look within. “Follow your own heart” is the creed of the disenchanted world. Holiness has been replaced by authenticity. Sacred things like marriage, sex, and even life itself have been drained of anything resembling transcendence and have been turned into common play things, disposable, self-serving, and cheap. Colossians 2:8 warns us about being taken captive by hollow and deceptive philosophies. I’m convinced that philosophies don’t get much emptier or deceptive than this one.
This is the wild. These are the contours of the world that our people are living in. This is the world we are living in as leaders. In times like these, people need help to think and make biblical sense of their lives. It is our sacred responsibility to provide more than fancy buildings, lively worship services, and attractive programs. It is our responsibility to help orient people living in a confusing world with the timeless, deep, and practical truths of theology.
“It is our responsibility to help orient people living in a confusing world with the timeless, deep, and practical truths of theology.”
What will we need?
Courage. Being in the wild requires a certain amount of courage. It isn’t for the faint of heart. The wild wasn’t made for those whose priority is comfort. The people we love and care for have questions about all sorts of things from sex to race to politics to mental health to artificial intelligence. Some of these topics are awkward. Some are controversial. All of them require courage and come with a certain amount of risk. The bigger risk, however, is that our people hear nothing at all on these topics from the church and receive all of their instruction from YouTube and social media.
Compassion. In the wild, questions, doubts, and anxieties are going to be commonplace. Rather than assuming steadfast faith, it’s probably safer to assume that many of our people are battling against skepticism and even cynicism. Theology in the wild then has to be combined with pastoral care and compassion. In other words, theology in the wild doesn’t just preach, it listens.
Wisdom. We should be careful that theology in the wild doesn’t just become another pragmatism where talking about controversial issues becomes just another strategy. We like to think of ourselves at that edgy church that likes to talk about politics and sex. Lord, save us. It’s very easy to forget that the principle task of theology is to contemplate and bring glory to God, not to be chronically obsessed with the things happening in the news or on social media. We need to possess enough wisdom to recognize when to speak, what to say, and how to say it. We need to have that wisdom shaped by humility, by Scripture, and by the Holy Spirit and not by the whims of our culture.
“We need to possess enough wisdom to recognize when to speak, what to say, and how to say it.”
I want to close with the words of John. He ended his life in the wild – exiled on a rocky island called Patmos. His theology in the wild is a fitting way to end:
“To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 1:6-7, NIV)
From chadragsdale.wordpress.com. Used with permission.