The Pastor as Practical Theologian
Every pastor is a theologian. Like it or not, as a pastor you are a theologian, probably the most influential theologian most of your church members will meet. The way you think about life in the light of scripture profoundly affects the worldview of everyone who sits under our ministry. That is why God’s word cautions, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (Jas 3:1, NIV).
You do theology every day. Your theology and your way of doing theology informs every act of ministry you perform—every sermon, leadership decision, counselling session, and so on. Everything you do in ministry reveals your core beliefs about God, his world, his word, and his ways. Your people already follow your lead. How and what you think about everyday issues exerts a powerful influence on them. Your choice is not whether you will do theology; your choice is whether you will do it properly or poorly.
Your attitude is key! Have you committed to “love the Lord your God with all your heart … and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37, NIV)? When you are confronted by real-life problems and ministry issues, do you devote yourself to understand the situation thoroughly and then, like the noble Bereans in Acts 17:11, “study the scriptures” diligently to discern God’s will? You either model a commitment to searching out God’s will on challenging questions, or you model a lazy, complacent arrogance in regurgitating off-pat answers without seeking God diligently. Seeking God lies at the heart of doing theology. According to Prof. Jurgens Hendriks, “‘Doing theology’ means seeking God’s will in a specific place, at a specific time.”
Sadly, for many pastors “theology” is a dirty word. Academic theology is to blame. Dr Paul Stevens rightly laments that “people … regard the study of theology as a process of becoming progressively irrelevant.” Many pastors share this view. They have seen academic theology destroy the sincere faith of zealous young believers. They know all too well that many theology graduates can read Greek and quote philosophers, but they are ill-prepared for real-life ministry. Although this has been the experience of many, it need not be the case. Things are changing.
As a pastor, you are called to be a different kind of theologian—a practical theologian. The traditional model of theology moves from theory to practice; we study the scriptures and apply them to life. Practical theology, by contrast, moves from practice to theory and back to practice. The questions people wrestle with stem from real life. A factory worker wonders whether it is God’s will for him to join the union strike? An HIV-positive believer fears that witchcraft is the root cause of her illness, and wants to visit the local Sangoma for help. How does God want an affluent congregation to minister to its poverty-stricken neighbours? As practical theologian, the pastor seeks God’s will on these kinds of questions.
How does a pastor seek God’s will on such issues? First, he seeks to understand the situation thoroughly and accurately. He does not assume he knows the problem; he first investigates it thoroughly. Next, he turns prayerfully to the scriptures for the Lord’s guidance. In the process, he consults other believers for help in understanding God’s word. Finally, he returns to address the situation with a carefully considered plan of action. Doing this well is demanding; it requires serious prayer and reflection in the context of ministry. But doing it is not an option—every pastor must seek and communicate God’s will regarding the issues confronting his people.
Does a pastor need formal training to do theology well? Formal training (typically doing a degree in theology) can hinder or it can help. Jesus warned that “everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). Therefore, if you study at a seminary that is Bible-based, Christ-centred, and Spirit-dependent, under teachers who have a living relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, formal studies will prove helpful. However, if you study under teachers whose interest is more in academia than in ministry, and whose relationship with the Lord is dry or dead, it will harm your ministry. Similarly, if you study while in ministry, using your church as the context for your reflection and application, your studies will be practical and valuable. After all, pastors are called to do theology in ministry.
As a pastor, you can benefit greatly by engaging in formal theological training by distance education. The best experience usually involves engaging with other students online, which helps to enrich your critical and contextual thinking skills, while actively serving in the local church, which provides a setting for reflection and application.
Hendriks, H.J. 2004. Studying congregations in Africa. Wellington, South Africa: Lux Verbi.
Stevens, R.P. 1995. Living theologically: towards a theology of Christian practice. Themelios 20(3), 4‑8.