I grew up in American evangelical Christianity, with all of its strengths and attendant weaknesses. One of those weaknesses was (and continues to be) a piecemeal approach to theology. Evangelicals rightly hold to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. But they have traditionally failed to read Scripture as a unified, cohesive story. To use seminarian terms, they have exalted systematic theology over biblical theology. By asking “What does the Bible say about X?” regarding a thousand different “X’s,” evangelical theology often resembles a patchwork quilt rather than a seamless garment. (I am speaking here of “evangelical theology” in a populist and broadly general way, intending no disrespect to the faithful minority of excellent evangelical thinkers).
For much of my life and ministry, I’ve been searching for a unified theory of everything. A coherent whole that makes sense of the parts. A forest for the trees. Historic theology and the human heart testify that such a whole exists. But it’s been obscured under layers of shoddy exegesis and theological simplicity. This meta-theology, this Unified Theory of Everything, is in fact what lies at the core of the current “Gospel-Centered” resurgence – which is why that resurgence resonates with many people. But like me, many who are enthusiastic about gospel-centered ministry have not rightly comprehended the whole. We have grabbed bits and pieces of gospel centrality – usually the pieces that fit our most pressing needs – and put them immediately to work without stopping to digest the big picture. So we are right; but we are accidentally right. Like the Little Leaguer who just happens to swing the bat at the right time, we have success – but not because we know what we are doing.
Here’s another way to frame the issue. Explicitly or implicitly, every church or ministry is answering the following questions:
- Worship: What should we do in our corporate gatherings?
- Preaching: How should we communicate God’s word effectively?
- Counseling: How do we help people change, heal, and grow?
- Leadership Development: How do we train and release leaders?
- Mission: What is the mission of God and how do we participate in it?
- Community: How do we connect people to one another in redemptive, life-giving, disciple-making communities?
- Cultural Renewal: How do we help people glorify God in their everyday vocations?
- Children’s Ministry: How do we help parents disciple the next generation?
In too many churches and ministries, these questions are answered in isolation from one another. “A mist in the pulpit becomes a fog in the pew,” Haddon Robinson wryly said concerning preaching; we could say with equal veracity, “A mist in ministry philosophy becomes a fog in ministry practice.” What we do in worship becomes disconnected from what we’re doing in counseling; our efforts at cultural renewal don’t interface with our vision for preaching; our children’s ministry is disjointed from our community groups. Mike Wilkerson describes well how this played out during one season of ministry at Seattle’s Mars Hill Church:
Our counseling ministries had become eclectic, inconsistent, and in some cases ineffective. We had many different kinds of recovery groups… [that] were not all unified by the same vision of biblical counseling… So a husband in one kind of group might receive counsel that contradicted what his wife received in another kind of group, both of which may have clashed with what they heard preached on Sunday. (Wilkerson, Redemption, 15-16).
What we need, then, is a “unified field theory” that fuses together the varied aspects of ministry under a common theme, a common vision, a common theological framework. In this series of posts, I’d like to take a crack at such a theory. Or, more appropriately, I’d like to point to those who have done so. I have nothing new to say; but I am becoming more and more conversant with those who have said it well. And so I would like to offer myself as a secondary teacher – “one who helps the less competent make more effective contacts with the best minds” (Mortimer Adler).
I’ll start unpacking more details in the next post.