I am reading a book recommended by Alan Roxburgh about learning how to join God in our neighborhoods. The book is entitled, Doing Local Theology: A Guide for Artisans of a New Humanity, by Clemens Sedmak. In it, Sedmak presents 50 theses involved for engaging in local theology. In his first thesis he states that engaging in local theology “is an invitation to wake up: to me mindful and attentive” (p. 1). Waking up has to do with being sensitive not to our own agendas, but to be sensitive, awake to the cries of those ones we have come among. He relies heavily on Jesus within his incarnational mission to guide us in understanding how we might be engaged in local theology as a missional practice.
I focus specifically on his 14th thesis. He states:
“Jesus did ‘situational theology.’ He had an eye for detail, the small things and the ‘little people.’ Jesus used occasions to do theology, and he respected the dynamics of particular situations. We could see this as an invitation to do ‘leaflet theology’ rather than ‘book-length’ theology” (p. 29).
He elucidates stating that “the gospels talk about Jesus as teaching and preaching in villages, in fields, on mountains, and on the road. Jesus was using occasions. Jesus was flexible in doing theology; he changed his pastoral approach according to the situation” (p. 29).
As I reflect upon this, I believe there is much for us to learn in how we are to be missional in our ministry. Doing “situational theology” does not mean that we are engaged in a “situational ethic.” The purpose for Jesus’ mission was shaped by God’s agenda, by God’s purpose of shalom, however, Jesus did not draw on a repository of theology or pastoral practice in living out God’s purpose in particular contexts. His theology was not stored up in books or on the web, which he then sought to draw on and apply in each situation. Instead, Jesus was sensitive to the situation, seeking how the Spirit would lead in having him respond in such a way that fostered God’s purpose of bringing peace, bringing shalom, bringing wholeness and salvation.
Perhaps more times than I care to hear, I have found colleagues seeking to be missional by following certain guidelines, steps, enlisting practices developed in other contexts. However, I believe, that is to miss the point of what it means to be missional.
Instead, like Jesus, we need to give attention, wake up to the local context we are in in order to develop a local expression of being missional. Sedmak expresses that Jesus was an observer of the context, “he drew on local material to heal and cure. He did not carry ointments or powders” (p. 30). Jesus always used what was at hand – mud, his spit; he used local experiences as starting points. In Jesus’ desiring to live out God’s kingdom of God, missional presence, he was sensitive to the Spirit, who was sensitive to the context in order to speak and act in ways which incarnated God’s purpose and presence in the local setting.
This does not mean we do not need to study theology, nor does it say we ought to do all on the fly. We need to be clued into God’s Story, God’s Vision. We need to know the rhythms of Scripture, the rhythm of God’s purpose in the world. But these are foundational, they give us a paradigm which shapes our thinking, our actions. But our being missional does not call for us to regurgitate this foundational material (what we learned in seminars and workshops), but to have ears to hear and eyes to see what is going around us – to be open to being guided by God’s Spirit in being sensitive to the context we are in. As we do, we will be engaged in doing local theology, local praxis, local ministry – that fleshes out or incarnates God’s purpose for that particular group of people in that particular time in that particular place.
When we come among another people, in a different setting, at a different time – our communicating the same missional purpose of God will take on a different theological tone, a different ministerial practice.
When I was a student at Fuller Seminary back in the early 80s, I heard a criticism being expressed of our president, David Allan Hubbard. It was said that he changed his message depending on the group he was speaking to. So, on a particular morning when he was with the Pasadena Rotary Club, he would speak in a certain way – perhaps sounding more secular, less Bible, less Gospelese. Yet, when he met with a group of pastors in the afternoon of the same day, he would speak sounding more biblical and theological. Some critics stated he was not committed to the Gospel, that he changed his message depending on the context. What these critics were unable to notice is that Hubbard spoke the same message – the Gospel of Jesus Christ – but in language that his audience could hear and relate to. His purpose was the same for both audiences, but he engaged in doing local theology because he came with a Spirit-led sensitivity in order to speak and act in ways in which God’s presence would be felt by those he was speaking to.
And so, Sedmak concludes:
“Theology is always in the making, reading the signs of the times. Jesus is walking, not standing; he is always on the road. Jesus teaches a ‘theology of leaflets’ rather than a ‘theology of books.’ Jesus encourages oral theology and ‘little theologies’ for particular occasions. He suggest that the particular situation rather than the full ‘backpack’ of prefabricated notions should serve as a source for theology” (p. 31).
If this is the case for us who seek to be missional, and I believe it is, then we always need to be in an open-to-the-Spirit stance as we receive people and situations God leads us to, so that we are always about making space for fresh expressions in expressing the Gospel so that it can be perceived and received in each specific context. We must be willing to be led by the Spirit in this, rather than coming in with our own theological agendas and pastoral practices.