Helping Theology Matter: A Challenge for the Mainline

By Placher, William C. | The Christian Century, October 28, 1998 | Go to article overview

Helping Theology Matter: A Challenge for the Mainline


Placher, William C., The Christian Century


SEVERAL YEARS AGO, in the midst of one of its well-publicized battles about sex, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) proclaimed, "Theology matters." At first glance, this was a slogan to warm the heart of a theologian. But then I started to wonder why our denomination even had to say such a thing. After all, theology means thinking about our faith, and for Christians our faith ought to lie at the core of our lives. So why wouldn't theology matter?

Yet anyone looking at pastors' lives, seminaries' curricula or denominations' priorities these days recognizes full well why it needed to be said that theology matters. "Theology" is a word that scares off most Christians today, and changing that state of affairs seems low on nearly every list of priorities. We've too often defined theology as something done by experts, and once we assume that theology isn't a part of the lives of ordinary people, then the work of those experts doesn't seem very important. If most of us don't need to reflect about our faith, how necessary can such reflection be?

Thanks to a grant from the Lilly Endowment, I recently had the chance to spend six months talking to all sorts of people about how theology might better connect with Christian laypeople. I'm particularly grateful to Westminster John Knox Press and the CHRISTIAN CENTURY for offering me homes away from home for parts of that time. I had a hunch, based on my own work with local congregations, that in the "mainline" Protestant world that I know best, lots of laypeople really do want to think seriously about their faith, and somehow they aren't getting enough help in doing that well.

I found good news and bad news. The good news is that I was right about the potential interest among laypeople. Even if they react negatively to the word "theology," they're in fact hungry for it. A year and a half ago, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York began a program of adult education, offering classes on topics as demanding and varied as "The Nature of God the Father" and "Renaissance and Reformation: The Formation of the Protestant Tradition." They now have an enrollment of 1,500, and the adult education program is the single most effective way of attracting new members to the church. Courses in theology and Bible consistently draw the greatest interest.

Christ Church Cathedral in Houston began a Lay Academy of Theology a year ago, attracting students from churches across the city. The academy had 150 students its first semester, 250 in its current semester and anticipates continued growth. Rabbi Leonard Schoolman, the executive director of the academy (this really is an ecumenical program!), is convinced that this isn't an aberration and that similar success is possible in any reasonably large American city.

Less direct evidence points to even larger numbers. Over half a million people have completed Abingdon Press's Disciple Bible study program in the past ten years. Participants sign up for a 30-week program of weekly discussions, and busy people who thought they couldn't spare the time are soon canceling all sorts of other engagements because "they can't miss their group Bible study." In response to many requests, Abingdon is developing a similar program on the doctrines of the church. Secular magazines, including Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and the Atlantic Monthly, regularly run cover stories on religion, in part because they find that those covers sell more magazines. People want to think about religions issues.

In churches or out, theological reflection isn't for everyone. Most contemporary Americans aren't regular readers of books--about anything. So churches need to find ways of connecting with those who don't read. But those who like to read and reflect are often potential leaders in congregations, and even a small minority can make a program feel like a success. After all, a few hundred people aren't a lot in a city the size of Houston, but the enthusiasm that thc, education program generates makes Christ Church Cathedral an exciting place. …

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