Several parishioners wait for Frank by the back door of the sanctuary. Frank steps out of his car and opens the trunk. Tucking his Bible between his side and upper arm, he reaches in with both hands and lifts out a large box. Frank sets the box down just inside the door, and people pull out ripe tomatoes, green peppers, zucchini, and heads of cabbage larger than soccer balls.
Frank offers homegrown vegetables to the faith community. He is not a professional gardener but rather a retired high-school counselor who loves to grow vegetables. Frank knows precisely what brand of seeds he wants to plant each year. He takes care of the soil to ensure that it doesn’t wear out. His produce could win ribbons at the county fair.
Sharing is a large part of Frank’s gardening experience. When people leave worship on the Lord’s Day, they take away not only a sense of God’s Word but also homegrown food for their table.
Homegrown Theological Reflection
Frank is also a homegrown theologian. He has not read Karl Barth’s Dogmatics, but he knows how to think theologically. He is a lay theologian in a congregation that sustains homegrown theology. What is “homegrown theological reflection”? What foundations support such a spiritual discipline? Are there models for congregations interested in enhancing reflection on faith? How does such reflection add value to congregational life?
Homegrown theology involves laity and clergy participating in thoughtful consideration of how God and the things of God are understood in light of everyday life. Leading such a discipline is not the same as equipping congregants to function as professional theologians, though the work of scholarly theologians can be extremely helpful to congregations. Homegrown theology is reflection about God rooted in a particular community.
During a Bible study on Mark’s little apocalypse, the group discusses the “end of the world.” Frank comments, “The question is whether we see the end as a good thing or a bad thing.” Asked about his life’s work, Frank says, “Well, ‘high school counselor’ is never mentioned in the Bible, but ‘vocation’ is alluded to on every other page.” When the congregation is stuck on whether to increase mission giving, Frank gives the governing board an exercise. He says, “Maybe we should each write down what we are most afraid of if this goes through. We’ll pass the sheets around and read them as if we were reading to God.”
These are moments of theological reflection. When others in the faith community participate in similar conversations, a culture of theological reflection grows in the congregation. Homegrown theological reflection is not the same as studying the Apostle’s Creed or learning the essentials of the Reformed faith. Homegrown theology is brought forth from the lives and questions of those who make up the faith community. It is rooted in issues unique to the local context. Theological texts are one means, but they are not the end of homegrown reflection.
Congregations and Theology
One foundation upon which homegrown theology is supported in the congregation is the belief that people can know as much about God and the practices of faith as they know about whatever else most stirs their enthusiasm. I am familiar with one congregation whose members include scientists, factory workers, high-school students, musicians, computer programmers, and educators. All are sophisticated at thinking through everyday issues in relation to God. People enthusiastic about something—a hobby, a relationship, a place—are capable of thinking about life in terms of faith.
One of the best theologians in this congregation is Jane, a middle-aged woman who works on an assembly line. She lives in a humble apartment and drives an aging Saturn. When she talks about life, this homegrown theologian connects it to the living tradition of her faith. Concerning friendship, she says, “My best friends are means of grace sent to me by God. They are like daily sacraments.”
Another foundation that sustains homegrown theology is its relative lack of concern with the categories or systems of academic theology, along with its vital interest in the stuff of everyday life. Homegrown theology has a practice of juxtaposing two subjects—faith and life. This pairing is like mixing seed with soil and watching what grows. One congregation designed an adult study that planted faith and vocation together. Members of the group spoke about ways in which their faith shaped their work and ways in which they wished their faith shaped their work.
A Method for Theological Reflection
This process of juxtaposing two subjects to reflect on theologically is not done haphazardly. Methods can shape such conversations. The method can become as much a part of the congregation’s life as setting up for fellowship hour.
When Frank started gardening 25 years ago, he took out pencil and paper and made a checklist. He sketched a diagram. The tomatoes would be planted in the northwest corner. The beans would start from the southeast edge. From year to year he made minor adjustments to his checklist and diagram. He rotated the designated bed for the tomatoes. He added different combinations of nutrients. After four years Frank no longer made a checklist or a diagram. The garden plan was in his head.
Pastors are responsible for instilling a method for theological reflection in the heads of parishioners. A congregation as a whole will be no more engaged in thinking theologically than its pastor. The pastoral position makes the pastor the sower of the seeds of theological capacity for the congregation. As a pastor encourages the congregation to think theologically, the expertise and insight of laypeople will emerge.
Several methods of theological reflection can be used.1 In the parish, I adapted theologian and religious educator Thomas Groome’s “shared praxis” method, a model described thoroughly in Christian Religious Education.2 Shared praxis is a thoughtful group dialogue in which participants reflect on their faith experience, taking into account the experience of their faith community’s living tradition. Groome’s method was easy to learn and to keep in one’s head, as Frank’s gardening was in his head. I found that, over time, other study groups and committees began to employ Groome’s method without even knowing what method they were using.
The Five Steps
Our adapted model of Groome’s work encourages people to juxtapose issues of everyday life to thinking about God. Groome’s outline of theological reflection contains five steps. In the adapted model, the first step is to ask, “What’s going on?” A team assessing the need for a building project first describes how the building is now used. The team notes how the facility supports the congregation’s mission. Hints of problems or frustrations may receive passing mention, but no more than that. The conversation includes comments such as, “We have a beautiful sanctuary, and visitors comment on the stained-glass windows.” Or: “The fellowship hall is where you find the soul of this congregation, even though it is on the second floor.”
The second step is to ask, “What’s positive or problematic about what’s going on?” This question asks people to dig deeper. What lies behind the answers they just offered? Someone might respond, “If the heart of our congregation is found at fellowship hour, what does it mean that Annie Smith stays down in the sanctuary by herself because she can’t climb the stairs?” When two concerns are laid side by side, the value of fellowship and the disability of a beloved person, the tensions voiced create a meaningful conversation.
The third step invites congregations to draw on the best of their own faith tradition. This step is what differentiate
s theological reflection from other kinds of conversation. We can use several ways to ask questions that encourage reflection.
- Does our situation bring to mind particular stories from Scripture?
- How does our situation fit with what you’ve learned from people of faith in your life?
- Have you read any books or other literature or seen any movies about faith that address this situation?
People are often quiet after these questions. At first it seems that the silence means they do not know what to say, or they do not have the knowledge to respond. Rather, I believe that people are quiet because they are sorting through an abundance of possibilities. To encourage this conversation, it is important to allow sufficient time for silence.
The building team sits quietly for an uncomfortable span of time. Then Frank speaks: “I can think of two stories from Scripture that apply to our situation. I’m thinking of the way the people carried the paralyzed man to see Jesus, cutting a hole in the roof. I’m also thinking of the gospel stories of Jesus rebuking the disciples for keeping the children away. I’ve seen young parents, their arms full, almost tripping on the stairs carrying supplies to the fellowship hall.”
Jane, the woman of modest means, asks, “Isn’t there a sense that a congregation should be available to all people? I mean something like ‘hospitality.’ It just seems weird that my factory is more accessible than my church.”
The preceding remarks may not fit into a particular theological system. These observations do not appear in Calvin’s Institutes. However, Frank’s and Jane’s comments are theologically laden. They grow out of homegrown experiences of faith in a community that has encouraged members to think about everyday issues, even mundane issues, in light of their relationship with God.
The fourth step in this process of theological reflection is to ask, “What tensions or similarities exist between our present situation and our overall faith story?”
Jane speaks up quickly. “Well, as I said, factories follow Scripture better than congregations. Only the local AME [African Methodist Episcopal] church is fully accessible.”
Frank asks, “Don’t you think it is harder to raise money for an elevator than for a shiny new sanctuary? Our goal would be to show the congregation how an elevator can make us more effective in carrying out the mission God has given us.”
In this step the group places its understandings of an issue over against what they understand to be a faithful expression of that issue. What affirmations can be stated?
Five Questions for Theological Reflection
These five questions for congregational groups to use in practicing homegrown theology are adapted from Christian Religious Education by Thomas Groome.
In what ways is current practice in conflict with the faith story and the community’s best faith experiences?
The fifth step is to ask, “What are we going to do?” Sometimes the decision is to pray. Sometimes it is to do nothing. Perhaps more study is warranted. In the case of the building conversation, Frank, Jane, and the building team decide to include a summary of their conversation in the parish newsletter and to ask members of the congregation to join the work of reflection by talking informally with the pastor and the chairperson of the building team. The team also decides to print, at the beginning of the newsletter article, the Scripture passage in which Jesus welcomes the children.
Applying the Method
The discussion above is a summary of a conversation that took place in a midsize mainline congregation near the start of a two-year project to make its church building more accessible. As the congregation moved through the process, congregants used several resources, including a local builder, an experienced architect, literature on accessibility versus aesthetics, and information on fundraising.
This five-step method of reflection (see box on page 29) can be applied to many situations. A governing board working on a strategic plan can use these areas of reflection. A pastor can make the questions the basis for spiritual direction in counseling a parishioner who is trying to make a family decision. An educator can employ the five movements of reflection to address topics studied in a class.
I have used this five-step form of homegrown theological reflection with sermon roundtable groups. Such a group gathers to brainstorm ideas about a sermon that will be preached by the pastor.3 A group of 8 to 12 people meet on a Sunday evening to discuss the sermon for the next week. This time, the sermon roundtable group focuses on a particular Christian practice (friendship, prayer, hospitality, etc.). During the conversation, that practice and particular passages from Scripture are juxtaposed. The discussion follows the five questions noted above.
The sermon roundtable group, discussing the practice of friendship, wonders how strangers become friends. Group members examine whether they themselves are outgoing or reserved. They note that they are more apt to come across strangers in public rather than private places. Asked what might be problematic about meeting strangers, Helen observes that it is not possible to make a friend of everyone. Moreover, the risks of befriending strangers should not be discounted.
Bruce, sensing that the time is right to consider one’s faith tradition, offers to read from Luke 24, the Emmaus road story. The group wonders why Jesus isn’t recognized. He is a stranger. Then Cynthia Ann carries the conversation forward with a homegrown interpretation of the passage: “You never know where Jesus is walking. Jesus is always the stranger in our midst. God is as much stranger as friend. Think if we had a song, ‘What a Stranger We Have in Jesus.’ ”
As often happens when a congregation begins to construct a homegrown theology, healthy tensions surface. Jane, whom we met earlier, says, “I don’t mean to be provocative or to refute what I’ve heard, but a part of me resists this notion of God as stranger. I need God to be my friend. My life is tough enough without having to fight with God to get to know God better. Making God a stranger somehow reduces what my relationship with God is about.”
The conversation continues, recognizing various viewpoints. The group members do not resolve their differences, but they come to terms with conflicting interpretations. They are able to hear varying opinions and not be bowled over by them. In response to “What should we do?” the group resolves not to force friendships on strangers, but to go through the week looking upon meetings between strangers as encounters with people who are known by God. In this case, homegrown theological reflection leads to a shift in point of view.
Value Added to Congregational Life
People have a profound interest in God. Much has been written about the current
renewed interest in spirituality. Methods of theological reflection provide tools with which people can pursue their natural curiosity.
Theological reflection grounded in the lives of parishioners adds value to congregational life. The faith community is given freedom to talk about what matters most. Congregations get closer to the essence of what inspired them in the first place. Theological reflection creates congregations that are three-dimensional, well rounded in their personality. Life together contains vast possibilities intuitively felt by visitors.
Conversations that contain theological reflection take place during Bible studies and religious education focused on particular issues. Conversations about the budget and care of the facility are also theological, even if the participants do not immediately recognize them as such. Theological reflection allows people to draw from deep within themselves and from broadly beyond themselves when they think about God. When given permission to think and talk about God, people say and do beautiful things. These beautiful things attract, as a well-tended garden draws neighbors for conversation about local news that matters.
1. Some of the best books on theological reflection in congregations include James D. Whitehead and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead, Method in Ministry: Theological Reflection and Christian Ministry (Franklin, Wis.: Sheed & Ward, 1995); Patrick O’Connell Killen and John de Beer, The Art of Theological Reflection (New York: Crossroads, 1994); and Celia Allison Hahn, Uncovering Your Church’s Hidden Spirit (Bethesda, Md.: Alban Institute, 2001).
2. Thomas Groome, Christian Religious Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999).
3. John McClure, The Roundtable Pulpit: Where Leadership and Preaching Meet (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995).