Intersections

The Importance of Theological Grounding

by: 
Bryan A. Just, MA

As one of several youth leaders in my church, we often discuss the needs we are seeing among our students, what questions they have, and how we can best address them. In addition to theological questions, our students have asked us about social issues ranging from how they should approach relationships with LGBTQ+ classmates to how to respond to political and social justice movements. As we try to identify the best ways of addressing their questions, though, we run into two problems.

Although we as leaders firmly believe that the Bible provides us everything we need to live a Christian life pleasing to God, we consistently run up against the fact that the Bible does not explicitly address many of the issues that our students struggle with. When that is the case, we must rely on biblical principles arising from the whole of Scripture to tackle the issue before us. This leads to a second problem. As in any youth group, our students run the gamut of biblical knowledge and understanding. Those lacking this knowledge struggle to follow our biblical reasoning and how the Bible can be used to respond to an issue it does not directly address.

What we have learned is that both leaders and students will become frustrated if we attempt to respond only to individual questions, as they do not have the conceptual tools to approach issues without explicit biblical proof-texts. Thus, part of our job as youth leaders is to help them develop these tools, to provide them with the theological categories needed to respond to the challenges of our progressive, technological society.

What is true for our church’s youth is true for the church at large. Many “in the pews” lack the theological categories needed to respond to the challenges of our MedTech age. Congregants look to the Bible for answers, but the authors of the Bible did not envision a world where babies could be crafted in a lab, tested and rated to determine which is the “best,” and then transferred into someone who may or may not be the biological mother. They did not foresee machines that could keep a person’s heart beating and lungs breathing even though the brain had ceased functioning. They could not comprehend a device that could access the world’s accumulated knowledge and be stored in a pocket.

Bringing a biblical worldview to our modern age is not an easy task, and it’s not something that can be done all at once. In fact, as we found with our youth, it’s often not possible to address topics even one at a time. Throwing an issue before a congregation and expecting them to 1) care about it, 2) learn about the issue itself, 3) understand the theological categories that interact with the issue, and then 4) integrate their understanding of the issue with their theology in order to think about it biblically is more than can be accomplished in the average Sunday sermon. Even full sermon series or a Sunday School class dedicated to the topic could flounder if this is the first time parishioners have approached the topic.

What then can those of us in church leadership do? I believe one way forward is to change both our expectations and our approach. In terms of expectations, we need to move away from an attitude of “address it once and move on to the next topic.” For the majority of congregations, this is simply unrealistic. Additionally, we must avoid the temptation of thinking that if we simply explain an issue well enough or impress the importance of a topic on congregants, they will think the “right” or “biblical” way about it. Biblical thinking does not arise out of a single sermon or series, and Bible-believing Christians may at times come to differing conclusions as to how to apply biblical principles to a given situation.

In place of these expectations comes a simple recognition: teaching people to think biblically takes time and effort but is a necessary precursor to delving into the most pressing questions of our day. With this recognition should come a new approach (or new approaches; I do not claim there is only one way of developing a Christian worldview!). Rather than trying to preach a sermon focused on one narrow issue or being certain to raise a bioethics topic at least once per month, pastors and teachers can focus on helping their flocks develop the categories they need to think as Christians in all areas of life, which will necessarily include the topics of our MedTech age.

A few words of caution are in order. One is that telling people you want them to think in theological categories is a good way to make them run for the hills. Our job as teachers is to make these concepts accessible, not scary, for the average churchgoer (or in my case, pre-teen and teenager). As an example, the “image of God” is an intimidating concept that does a lot of heavy lifting in Christian ethics and that even seasoned theologians struggle to define. However, if we can understand it well, it comes with practical implications for all areas of life, from how we raise our children to how we interact with those around us. By showing people the practical outworking of this doctrine in their daily lives we can encourage them to consider how it can be used to answer other difficult questions.[1]

The second word of caution is that this is not a process that will happen overnight, but over months and years. Teaching people to think biblically is something that usually develops slowly, one lesson at a time. In my own youth group, we are often thinking one or more years ahead in terms of how we will build our students up and instill this kind of thinking.

Teaching people to think biblically is not an easy task, but it is a worthwhile one. Helping people move beyond “what Bible verse talks about this?” to “how can I think biblically about this” is a process that may be frustrating, but in the end produces disciples who better understand and live out their faith in all areas of life.

References



[1] For those interested in exploring this particular issue, a good starting point is John Kilner, Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015).