By Israel Galindo, Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning
A student in one of my online classes asked a great question:
How do I encourage members to reflect and think theologically?…. I’m having a hard time coming up with an example of what that would even look like in a church setting. I know it’s important, and I use the practice myself at times, but I can’t figure out how to transfer it to a congregation or group setting. Could anyone offer me some insight?
Her question hints at a phenomenon I’ve observed. Clergy do many things for their own spiritual growth. Some they learned at seminary and retained (amazingly, given how much students forget!) as spiritual formation practices. Other ways they learn at seminars, retreats, continuing education events, during the course of their ministry if they’ve become lifelong learners.
They take these things they have learned, apply it to their own lives to good benefit, then, fail to teach these very things to their church members! There seems to be a failure of “transference of learning” at work, and perhaps some odd hidden assumption that laypersons grow in faith different than clergy! Church members grow in faith the same as clergy: through practices of discipleship. engaging faithfully in those practices that actually help faith grow, and being open to the Spirit to change them. In answer to my student’s question as to how to help church members grow spiritually, there are three ways: experience, practices, and intentionality.
The Experience of the Deeper Life
My student was correct in her insight that theological reflection is key to helping church members grow spiritually. In order to do so we must provide opportunities for reflection on the experience of the life of faith. For example:
The Intentionality of Practices
Paul’s admonition in Phil 4:8 is good curricular advice: “And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” Teaching theological reflection includes helping Christians set their minds on these higher enobling things. The daily mental and spiritual diet of most of our church members tends toward the trivial, prurient, and toxic as they are innundated with popular culture’s media and messages. Those are formative too, in perverting ways. Again, the formative dynamic is experience: some experiences are ennobling, others diminish the spirit.
The Necessity of Programming
It is common to denigrate “programs,” however, opportunities, forums, and venues for theological reflection must be planned, offered and accommodated. That is, they must be programmed. If church educators (pastors, staff, and others) do not plan for theological reflection it likely will not happen. Given the many ways that theological reflection can happen, there’s no end to creative ways to program them: modeling from the pulpit, testimony sharing, small support groups, intimate conversations, spiritual friendships, spiritual direction (individual and group), dialogical learning groups, reflective educational experiences, critical Bible studies, devotional Scripture readings, etc.
The Practice of Reflection
Finally, we need to remember that theological reflection is not just about thinking lofty abstract thoughts about ephemeral concepts. Theological reflection is reflection on one’s experience of faith––paying attention to the living of our daily lives, then asking questions of meaning about what we are experiencing: What just happened? What am I experiencing? Where is God in this? Is discernment required of me here? What is going on within me–-my thoughts and feelings–-with this experience? What is my redemptive response? What am I called to do? What am I learning about the relationships I have? etc. Theological reflection is pretty nitty-gritty stuff.