I offered a talk at the Open Bay Area sponsored by The Youth Cartel. Below is the video of the talk, along with my talk script, that I offered titled: "Practical Theology 202: Finding Understanding for Difficult Ministry Issues." It is inspired by Richard Osmer's Practical Theology. Feel free to send a note with questions and comments using my Contact Page. Feel free also to download my Keynote Presentation and use it as you please. I appreciated your time and welcome your feedback.
79 days ago, I received a phone call around dinnertime from one of my graduating seniors who insisted that I meet him at my office.
He wouldn’t say why, and he wouldn’t let me meet him anywhere else. So with my wife’s blessing, I went.
He had done this before on another occasion. I thought he finally got kicked out of his house. His parents had threatened it numerous times.
I pulled into the driveway of our church offices about 10 minutes later, and there he stood, frail, wrecked by tears.
Dude, what happened?
And without skipping a beat, he said, “My sister just committed suicide.”
He then fell into my arms, and for the next several hours, we cried together and attempted to make sense of his strange, new world.
During those few hours that we spent together, however, I thought to myself repeatedly, what do I do? What do I say? How do I respond to him in his moment of total weakness and brokenness?
I scoured my mental Rolodex, searching for some bit of understanding on this issue. I prayed for words of hope that I could offer him.
What lesson did I ever learn in college or seminary about this issue?
How would you respond – as Student Pastor, as a Christian, as a friend – to his family in regard to this massive tragedy?
In an instant, the world of this 19-year-old kid and his family crashed down.
And I stood somewhere in the middle – somewhere between terror and hope – and doubt and faith.
We walk a precarious line, especially within a context like the Bay Area.
We – pastors, student ministry leaders, and awesome volunteers – live in a tension between the hope of the resurrection and the reality of our sin and brokenness.
It is incomplete and irreconcilable, but it is precisely here in this tension that Jesus meets us, calls us, equips us, and sends us forth into the messiness of life with our people.
I believe that even though we may not get paid much for our work, we participate in some of the most important work in the world – ministry with young people and their families.
Therefore, we must prepare and equip ourselves further for the work of ministry within our context. Undoubtedly, you have already encountered baffling life events that threw you for loops and challenged your worldview – and perhaps your faith. These events may seem like insurmountable obstacles and impossible to navigate, sometimes inciting feelings of failure and apathy as a response.
My goal is to offer you a framework by which you may pause, assess, and critically think through a worked out, faithful response to any life event that occurs within your ministry.
As a youth worker, you do practical theology all of the time. You think about God (theology) and the outworking of faith (practical) within your ministry context on a regular basis. You know practical theology without even realizing it. And most likely, you already practice the discipline of practical theology in your preparation for ministry with others as you discuss he implications of faith in God for the everyday life of a teenager and their family.
The discipline of Practical Theology itself consists of 4 driving questions that guide our interpretation and response to life events:
1. What is going on?
2. Why is this going on?
3. What ought to be going on?
4. How might we respond?
***Before we dive into each one of these 4 questions, however, we need to first differentiate between three categories of time and space that distinguish among these different focal points of practical theological interpretation. By understanding the role of time and space within a given life event of someone in your community, you will better be able to discern the timeframe for how to resolve it.
1. Episode – an incident or event that emerges from the flow of everyday life and evokes your clear, straightforward, and personal attention and reflection.
a. This type event occurs in a single setting in a short period of time.
b. An example of an episode would be a disagreement between two student ministry kids. It is typically short-lived and easily resolved.
c. Your response will be immediate, precise, and most likely resolved in a short period of time.
2. Situation – is a broader, longer pattern of events, relationships, and circumstances in which an episode occurs.
a. A situation is best understood in the form of a narrative.
b. A situation is located within a longer, unfolding story.
c. An example of a situation would be an event like a suicide or a divorce that is an ongoing event containing several episodes and set within a larger, unfolding family narrative.
d. You response to a situation may require weeks, months, or even years to find resolve – and even resolution may not be clear or systematic.
3. Context – the composition of social and natural systems in which a situation unfolds. A system is a network of interacting and interconnected parts that give rise to properties belonging to the whole, not just to the parts.
a. For example, your churches and organizations are comprised of many systems in which situations unfold that contain individual episodes.
b. But your church – First Baptist Church, First Presbyterian Church – is nestled within other larger local, regional, national, and global systems.
c. Context, thus, serves a flexible purpose, allowing for both unique and wider understanding of micro and macro systems.
d. Your response to a context may require your entire lifetime, as well as the lifetime of the generations that follow. Moreover, your response within a context requires many others working alongside of you, enacting change with you.
***Now, that we understand the units of time and space in which to ask our 4 questions, let’s take a look at the 4 tasks of Practical Theology.
Each one of the aforementioned driving questions corresponds to each one of the four tasks of practical theology:
1. The Descriptive-Empirical task: Is the process of gathering information that helps us discern patterns and dynamics in particular episodes, situations, or contexts.
a. This task asks, What is going on? This task is responsible for data gathering and fact finding. What happened?
b. This task requires the Ministry of Presence
c. Richard Osmer writes of the Ministry of Presence, “It describes the spiritual orientation of attending to others in their particularity and otherness within the presence of God.”
d. Your pastoral responsibility within this task is to listen and be present in the same way that Christ practiced the ministry of presence for those who sought healing and forgiveness.
e. An inherent risk within this task, however, is the potential for your own emotions to become wrecked in the process.
f. I call this engaging without becoming; you hear the needs of others fully and wholly, but without giving yourself over to the emotions of the other.
g. The challenge for every leader in this role is to remain differentiated from the other, while staying fully and actively engaged.
h. The ministry of presence includes active listening, intercessory prayer, and thoughtful questioning.
2. The Interpretive task: Is the process of drawing on the theories of the arts and sciences to better understand and explain why these patterns and dynamics are occurring.
a. This task asks, Why is this going on? What does research in the field of psychology say about issues pertaining to suicide, for example? What do professionals in the field of family systems say about these kinds of issues? How can one participate in personal healing or expression through the arts?
b. This task requires the Ministry of Prudence.
c. Osmer states, “Learned congregations [read: Bay Area congregations] need leaders for whom the love of God and the desire to learn go hand in hand.
d. This task involves the timely and difficult task of research, study, and preparation.
e. Chuck Colson said in a recent Catalyst talk, “Pastors need to get their butts in the seat and do the hard work of study. Your people need it!”
f. And that also applies to Student Pastors and student ministry volunteers. Our students and families deserve learned leaders and need your wisdom to assist them in navigating through life events. They need you to respond in faithful, Christ-centered ways.
3. The Normative Task: Is the process of using theological concepts to interpret events, constructing ethical norms to guide our responses, and learning from “best practices.”
a. This task asks, What ought to be going on? It beckons forth the ‘Christ Question:’ Where is the Gospel in this event? What is my ethical responsibility in this event? How have other people in my similar position – other pastors, Christian youth workers, caring adults, and family members – responded to events like this?
b. This is the Ministry of Prophecy.
c. Prophecy as I use it here means the encouraging guidance of others into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ, not the prediction of the future – although your pastoral insight might offer your people a glimpse into their future that they might not otherwise see.
d. It is a picture of the beckoning future as it relates to a person’s faith in Christ.
e. As a Pastor, as a called leader within a gathering of other Jesus-followers, you are entrusted and tasked with the responsibility of bearing a prophetic witness to the presence of God in the lives of the people who make up your community.
f. This task involves digging into Scripture, praying regularly for your people, and hearing their stories in order to discern the direction of the community within particular events and as a whole throughout seasons of life.
g. Jesus proclaims in Luke 4 his thesis statement of sorts, a fulfillment of prophecy given by Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor.
h. Your Normative Task of Practical Theology and Ministry of Prophecy means embodying these words within the life events of your students and families.
4. The Pragmatic Task: Is the process of determining strategies of action that will influence this situation in ways that are desirable and allow for entering into a reflective conversation.
a. This task asks, How might we respond? What is the action plan? Does this strategy promote healing, growth in faith, and reconciliation?
b. This is the Ministry of Provision.
c. The pragmatic task is the hardest task for most ministry leaders because it involves the most activity from you. It is the act of providing leadership and enacting changes within the life events of your community.
d. You face the challenge of an ever-changing social context – the Bay Area is a rapidly evolving, progressive, and intellectual environment.
e. You also face the challenge of an ever-changing spiritual culture – your church and mine now both sit in the minority (and sometimes even in the place of harsh criticism) of cultural influence and power.
f. Yet, as I mentioned in the beginning, you are chosen, called, and equipped to lead within the church of Jesus Christ – whether it be in the majority of culture or within the oppressed of culture.
g. And folks who encounter both traumatic and joyful life events alike need your pragmatic, provisional leadership to bring a good word. They need your wisdom to lead them into a growing relationship with Jesus. They need your provision to assist them with comprehending how to interpret the love, salvation, and redemption of Jesus Christ in their life.
Practical Theology involves your entire self – your broken, adopted, and redeemed self – to make theology, our understanding of God, come alive and tangible to those who need the good news of Jesus Christ.