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Practical theology examines how people live out their faith

Often relegated to specialists, theology can better be understood as a process of recognizing a church’s distinctive practices.

Most pastors may not think a church budget carries much theological significance. But in some cases, budgets, like any other church document, can uncover deeper values that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Learning to recognize the theological claims behind seemingly ordinary church practices is the realm of lived theology studied by James Nieman, president of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Chicago.

In the case of one church he investigated, leaders spent an extraordinary amount of time fighting over line items in their annual budget. In examining the document and interviewing the leaders, he discovered that church members felt a lack of control over the world around them. Their fears and insecurities led them to obsess over the one document they could control.

By developing basic observational skills, some borrowed from sociology, anthropology and ethnography, pastors can better recognize the theological claims that underlie the everyday workings of a congregation, Nieman argues.

“Theology is not supposed to be done only by specialists elsewhere,” Nieman says. “It’s the natural and distinctive language of churches.”

In another church Nieman studied, members’ energies were directed at funerals and special dinners held afterward. Noticing the care spent on preparing the meals and sharing memories of the person who had died, Nieman realized that members were zealously guarding their identity as a church because it too was suffering a loss of self. In this church, drawing in and holding onto memories was a way of working though fears that God had abandoned them.

While paying attention to language and everyday practices is instructive in its own right, it may be particularly useful to pastors.

Sooner or later, most pastors will encounter resistance to a policy or a program they are trying to implement. Learning to read the theological claims that underlie that resistance may help them uncover what deeply motivates and guides a church’s collective behavior.

“Having the skill set to pay attention, wait, watch and learn how to connect more deeply and appreciatively would give pastors more longevity,” says Nieman.

For years, the realm of practical theology used to mean what pastors learned in seminary about the nuts and bolts of being a pastor: teaching, preaching, administration, pastoral care.  These days, practical theology refers more to the study of ordinary practices of faith: how people pray, what they celebrate, how they live out their faith.

Learning to appreciate the church’s internal narratives can help a pastor tailor sermons that engage members on a deeper level and allows for a conversation between pastor and parishioners.

Nieman’s book, Knowing the Context, speaks to the need for preachers to pay attention to their listeners if they want to challenge them to move forward.

This kind of preaching is more deeply rooted in a particular community of believers rather than a moralistic reflection imposed on the community by the pastor.

“If you’re ever going to say anything that’s difficult,” Nieman says, “you have to respect where they are and what they believe.”

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