By Keith Anderson, author of The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World and 2016 Thompson Scholar presenter
Lately, I’ve been practicing a lot of what I have been thinking of as theology without a net.
Theology without a net happens in public spaces. It does not involve a presentation, PowerPoint slides, or a written text. It does not rely on the expert knowledge of professional ministry-types.
It does not offer or promise neat answers. It is an ongoing conversation, which is shaped by whoever shows up that day. It is responsive, not leading. It listens more than speaks. And it has to be authentic. It lives at the intersection of faith and life.
This is different from how I was trained to do theology. Theology happened in controlled environments: in church or academic buildings, classes, and worship, with subject matter experts (pastors and professors), who were training me to become one too. And, hey, I loved it. I absorbed it. I got good at it.
But the world we live in demands that we do theology in a different way, on-the-fly, in different places, with different people, on someone else’s turf: theology without a net.
In his very helpful book Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God, which has applications far beyond just running a theology pub night, Bryan Berghoef writes that a friend posed the question,
“‘How come you Christians never participative in things you can’t control?’” He says, “Ouch. Great question. We have a very hard time with letting go—with allowing truly open-ended conversation that doesn’t lead toward a nicely wrapped ending with a gospel presentation of some sort.” “Having a truly open forum is something most Christians are afraid to do, because we want control.”
This is so true and I see it in myself. While I love our theology pub, God on Tap, I recognize that it’s absolutely cutting-edge for me—to simply serve as the convener: to pick a sufficiently broad topic, introduce it in a blog post and as I welcome people in, and then throw it open and see where it leads, occasionally bringing us back when we’ve strayed far off-topic, and lifting up voices from around the room. This, more than preaching or teaching, calls me to trust in the Holy Spirit and trust others and recognize that they are the experts—about their lives, ideas, and faith.
Like Spiritual Direction
In this way, hosting God on Tap is much more like serving as a Spiritual Director than a preacher or teacher. Spiritual directors listen for God in what is being shared. They hold the space (the physical environment and the time) for the group. They observe the ebbs and flows of the group dynamics and trust that among those gathered, the Spirit is working, that God has something to say. As a spiritual director, I reflect back the common threads running through the conversation. I try to remember that the Spirit is the one doing the directing. And I trust that people will come away with what was intended, whatever that was, and it’s often a new way of perceiving one’s life and spiritual journey.
It doesn’t control. It creates the space for something to happen.
Berghoef writes of his theology pub gatherings,
“Our goal was not to create a program that we run where we give our perspective and then allow questions, time permitting. From the outset we wanted to make sure that this was not going to be a ‘setup.’ In other words, get people in the door, ‘pretend’ to have a conversation, then hit them up for a gospel presentation. Rather, we wanted to allow anyone and everyone to come and give their perspective. To share their story. To unload their baggage about religion, about faith, about God. To have a group that is willing to listen without judgment, to accept without demanding conformity, to simply embrace them as another human being, which is to say, a person with yearnings that some would call spiritual or religious or, as my humanist friends might say, wonder and awe at the universe.”
Doing theology without a net requires letting go of our need for control. God is present and that is enough.
From An Authentic Place
The reason this works, I think, is that it comes from an authentic place. It says, “I don’t have all the answers. I wonder and question too.” It levels with people. It breaks down our pastoral pretense and this can be a great gift to ministry leaders and those they serve.
I’m currently trying to rely less on a script when I preach. And I notice that to tell a personal or Biblical story without a script requires that those stories are more integrated into my mind and heart. They must come from a more authentic and integrated place within me.
Likewise when we ditch the script at the pub, the coffee shop, or in digital social networks, and ask, respond, wonder, and pray along with and alongside others, we relate from a place of authenticity. It’s not just functional. It’s relational. It’s real.
As Berghoef writes, it’s “the difference between an indoctrination approach to faith (where the focus is on getting it right) and an exploration approach to faith (where the goal is to experience God in a way that is life-affirming, gracious, and for the good of those around us)….”
Are you practicing theology without a net? How’s it going? What learnings have emerged for you?
The Reverend Keith Anderson is a pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church near Philadelphia, author of The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World (required reading for the program), and co-author, with Elizabeth Drescher, of Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible. His work has appeared on The Huffington Post, ON Scripture, Day 1, and The New Media Project. Keith is co-editor with Elizabeth Drescher of The Narthex, an online magazine about the changing contours of American Christianity and serves on the editorial committee for Odyssey Network’s ON Scripture lectionary commentary series and the advisory board for the Day 1 radio program. He speaks regularly with local and national church groups, synods, and other organizations on the practice of digital ministry and the impact of digital culture on face-to-face ministry. He was recently named one of the “12 Top Digital Ministry Experts You Should Know” by Aboundant.com.
Anderson will be a presenter at the Thompson Scholars 2016, Can They See Your Church? Evangelism in the Digital Age, which will take place April 26–29, 2016 at the Center for Lifelong Learning on the Columbia Theological Seminary campus. More information and a link to the application for this program can be found here.