Reflections for a Conversation on Theology in Congregational Life

Author: George R. Hunsberger

When the Hartford Institute for Religion Research invited me to join 35 others at a consultation on the theme "Theology in Congregational Life," it set me to thinking about the variety of ways in which the accents of the Gospel and Our Culture Network conversations over the years have touched on that very thing. The conveners, particularly Carl Dudley, knew that about the network, and the invitation was a deliberate choice on their part to bring the fruit of those conversations to bear on the theme. What follows is the written response I submitted to the aspects of the theme upon which we all had been asked to reflect.


For the circles of people drawn to associate with each other in what is called the Gospel and Our Culture Network, one of the most characteristic convictions is that theology is the vocation of the whole church. What the church does, how it thinks, its assumed behaviors and instinctive worldview are understood to be theologizing activities. The notion of the “missionary encounter of the gospel with our (Western) culture” (as Lesslie Newbigin so often put it) implies it. Theology is contextual by its nature. Everywhere, when the gospel comes into the hearing of a people it finds its rightful home in the language and culture of those people while presenting them with a radical call to allegiance and loyalty in response to the announcement that in Jesus Christ the reign of God has come to be ‘at hand.’ The inner dialogue of the gospel with the culture that such believers share with all others in their society is a continuing one that sets in motion conversion as a way of life. And that way is essentially theological in that it is a path of recognition of the presence and character and purposes of God. At every turn, the people of God are making decisions, taking actions, and following practices that have inherent within them some angle of knowledge or understanding of God. When the people of God give voice to their worship of God or utter to companions their grasp of the good news, they are a theologizing community. It is to be such that God has sent them.

Such a ‘missional church’ as this thrives on the presence of many who are gifted by the Holy Spirit in the ways of theologizing, who help the church by carrying its theological discernments and actions into conversation with the traditions of other Christian communities past or present, near or far. These pastoral, teaching, evangelizing agents have a role to play in the congregation, but the role is not to displace them from their calling to be, corporately, a theologian. Their role is first to be one with them in the common task of theologizing, while being also those trained and readied by the Spirit to stimulate, nudge, form, challenge, critique, honor, value and encourage their theologizing activity.

So then, WHAT COUNTS AS THEOLOGY? “Everything is theology. Every ‘small’ decision reflects and reveals what you think. Whatever is actually practiced is theology. Praying in practice is what is believed about prayer.” So said one small circle of people associated with the network, who as it happens are part of the ‘emergent’ movement’s conversation as well. Among them there is a strong conviction that people practice their way into beliefs. It is natural for them to assume that real beliefs are embodied, enacted, not merely spoken or espoused. They perceive there is much of the time a gap between what we think we think, and what we do think.

What counts as theology is likely to be a question about whose theology counts!

What counts as theology is likely to be a question about whose theology counts! It is not only that of the pastor or the magisterial teachers most skilled in the intellectual traditions. Those skilled in the daily routine practices of the faith are theologians also. In this view, then, a range of things count: songs composed and sung in the congregation; dialogue with the received tradition; recognitions of the gospel’s critique of the community’s culture and call to a divergent pattern of activity; patterns of listening and attending to biblical texts; efforts to discern the presence of the reign of God and interpret it among peers; owning the public-ness of worship, witness, and identity and knowing that in that public activity the gospel is grasped more and more; developing an imagination of the world in light of the mission of God and God’s intentions for the world; finding meaning in work and lending meaning to the workworlds in which people live daily.

A GOCN research team sought to capture the pattern of life inherent in a fresh hearing of the gospel in light of today’s culture and circumstances in the book, StormFront: The Good News of God. The authors paid attention to churches as they knew them and the theological insights present there. They reviewed their ideas along the way with a larger circle of fellow academics, consultants, and pastors to take the pulse of what the community of churches was hearing. They carried the dialogue along by articulating the vision that was continuing to sharpen as they attended to the culture and the scriptures. Their presentation of the volume was accompanied by a consultation featuring a report on how a small group of readers in each of two congregations found the book fruitful and illumining, or difficult and disturbing. That practice of ‘reception’ and dialogue with ordinary people in congregations encourages other congregations to travel the same road and reflect on the ways these visions touch their own realities. In other words, the book not only expected dialogue with academic peers in the theological guild as an outcome and use of the book, but it sought active engagement among the theologians who are the church, struggling with these concerns and seeking theological vision themselves for their daily routines.)

WHAT METHODS DO WE USE TO HELP IDENTIFY THEOLOGIES IN CONGREGATIONAL LIFE? I suppose the first method is to affirm and honor the role of the congregation in theologizing by noting and valuing and sharing the places where that theologizing lies in their practices and utterances. The book Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness was the fruit of a team’s investigation in 15 churches. By visiting, watching, interviewing, and participating, the team tested a series of characteristics of missional churches gleaned from an earlier book in the GOC Series (Eerdmans), Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. On their visits to churches which informants had suggested showed these characteristics, team members paid attention to how these showed up in actual practice and experience. Attention was directed to “what this looks like.” The volume reporting the fruit of the team’s work weaves together the stories and vignettes gathered from the congregations, portrayed along the lines of eight “patterns in missional faithfulness” which the team believed it had seen recurring in the congregations. Each of the patterns witnesses to theologizing dynamics evident in the congregations.

“Theology is distilled out of practice. Statements of Faith ought to be reverse engineered”

Again the voice of the small GOCN-Emergent group mentioned earlier: “Theology is distilled out of practice. Statements of Faith ought to be reverse engineered”—they should be drawn from what a congregation has actually been doing and the meaning of those practices for the people who do them. Formalized theological affirmations should move “from what we’re actually doing back to articulation of it. They are symbols of the journey.”

Based on the Treasure in Clay Jars study and the patterns it noted, a further step has been taken in GOCN research. For churches that are drawn to the missional church vision and intrigued by the portraits of churches in Treasure in Clay Jars, many ask for assistance to discern the presence of those patterns in their own life in order to find the path forward as they continue to cultivate their life and witness together. Over the past three years, a team of six has worked to produce a set of interactive discernment tools that have theological grip and practical connection. These include a quantitative survey instrument, an individual interview protocol, and a group process for (missional) biblical engagement and review of congregational life. These are being field tested in twenty congregations, and based on preliminary findings the instruments and the processes for using them are being refined to prepare a product ready for general use. Thus far, it is most notable that congregations responding to the reports from these tools do not instinctively rush to fashion a new program to attend to one thing or another, but they find themselves beginning to reflect on potential paths for engaging matters that are the inner stuff of programs and activities—i.e. theology!

WHAT IS THE APPROPRIATE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN A CONGREGATION’S THEOLOGY(IES) AND THE LARGER THEOLOGICAL TRADITIONS? The book Missional Church challenged institutionalization dynamics that sap the church of its life, but did not espouse an anti-institutionalism. To the contrary, it was clear that every group, every fledgling congregation has institutional form. It is culturally inevitable because of the nature of human social life. It is also a matter of the incarnation. The case is made that the forms of the church are also to be under review concerning how they do or do not effectively embody the gospel.

each congregation bears a vocation, a calling of its own and is responsible to be the expression of the church catholic in its place and time.

Alongside of that, the book spent considerable time developing the notion of a “community of communities”—to say that while the local congregation is the essential, rooted expression of the church, no such local body dares live alone or in isolation or independence from the others, with whom it constitutes the church catholic. That sense of interdependence begs for self-knowledge regarding both the stream of past churches from which a congregation derives its present form of life and the companionship of other contemporary churches, near and far, whose similar calling in other places provides for mutual accountability to the gospel. That said, each congregation bears a vocation, a calling of its own and is responsible to be the expression of the church catholic in its place and time. This requires a pattern of critical dialogue with the past and the other, knowing that the challenge of the moment is not to mimic the forms of previous choices elsewhere but to be nourished by them to be faithful in their own time and place. (Cf. the title of Michael Warren’s book, At This Time, In This Place.)


The GOCN grew first among missiologists. To that were added others in various academic arenas responsive to the gospel and culture issues at stake. Ministry “practitioners,” including pastors and others working in agencies supportive of the church’s life began to be involved in increasing ways. When the articulation of the Mission Church vision came to fullblown form, first at a conference in 1996 and then with the book’s publication in 1998, the partners in the network came more and more from locations in congregations, primarily pastors. While the gatherings and the work of research still involves mostly pastors and academics and consultants, increasingly the evidence is that in the congregations in which they minister the vision and the agendas it implies are flourishing and growing, and the people of those congregations are the more pervasive fabric of the network/movement. There has been a very wide spread across denominational streams, and the theme has been taken seriously in the emergent movement. Seminaries and colleges use the literature as primary text material. It is a movement mostly Anglo, which is likely because there is a particular problematic energizing the network that is the problem of Anglo church life in ways that are not true for churches of other ethnicity. The Anglo churches are in need of catching up to many of the missional dynamics of life and witness that have been more commonly present in other ethnic communities for some time. Much of what is being learned draws on the experience of those churches in North America and the experiences of the new global Christianity. (Cf. in this regard Stephen Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology and Justo Gonzalez, Out of Every Tribe and Nation.)


Lesslie Newbigin’s challenge (Foolishness to the Greeks) and his theological vision (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society) have been major influences. Will Willimon, Stanley Hauerwas, Douglas John Hall, John Howard Yoder, Justo Gonzalez and the students of Andrew Walls (Lamin Sanneh, for example) have also been formative in their culture critique and in their vision for the recovery of ecclesial identity. Not so much single authors but movements of thought that have been influential include: the base ecclesial community phenomenon in Latin America; the emphases of those who comprise the Coalition for Ministry in Daily Life; the rich tradition of insights on the dynamic of culture and gospel that comes from the missiological community of scholars and practitioners; the last sixty years of missiological reflection on the missio Dei and a trinitarian theology of mission in ecumenical circles; the church renewal ferment of the 1960s and 1970s that nourished many of us who remembered the vision while it seemed to be so much forgotten (including the work of such diverse voices as Gib Winter and Howard Snyder); various kinds of ‘local theologizing’ both in the third world and within North America; leading Roman Catholic voices such as Steve Bevans, Robert Schreiter, Michael Warren and Bill McConville; many of the leading voices in Emergent, including Doug Pagitt and Brian McLaren.

Some of the seminal visionaries most influential within the GOCN itself include Darrell Guder, Craig Van Gelder, Al Roxburgh, Jim Brownson, Inagrace Dietterich, Charles West, Pat Keifert, Lois Barrett, Mark Lau Branson, Barry Harvey, Steve Bevans, Wilbert Shenk, and Dale Ziemer. A project now completing its work has given attention to denominational judicatories and agencies as “missional systems,” under the leadership of Al Roxburgh and Pat Keifert. Emerging work on a “missional and communal catechesis” has been led by pastors Ed Searcy and Chris Erdman along with Mike Budde (of the Ekklesia Project) and Alice Fisher. Michael Barram, together with Jeff Greenman, Grant LeMarquant, and Jim Brownson, is leading an initiative within the AAR/SBL arena to develop a sense of a missional hermeneutic in relation to biblical studies and theology. Leaders from a group of nine seminaries have begun conversation to find ways to travel together as they follow their express intentions to shape theological education around the implications of a missional view of the church and its leadership.