Practical Theology: Seminary’s Red-Headed Stepchild

If there is one category of seminary courses that is most maligned, it is probably the Practical Theology courses. If I can be honest for a second, they are seen as the “vegetables” of seminary, whereas the “real” theology classes are seen as the meat. People that are wired for theology and the depths of abstract thinking don’t usually flourish when being forced to learn about counseling, preaching, and ministry in the real world. And I get it. There’s a sense of safety and certainty in theology.
We live in tough times to be the Church. An increasingly disenchanted secular world offers challenges that religious faith has never experienced. Humans have never known a time where a critical mass of people walk outside and don’t think it is a self-evident truth that there is a God. People dwell deeply in beauty, love one another well, long for justice, and make moral declarations all without needing to draw from the emotional, philosophical, and spiritual resources that religious faith offers, and they do all of this without the slightest intuition that they are moving against the grain of any cosmic design or rhythm.
We live in an age where people are so disillusioned and so “over” everything by which they used to describe themselves. They are post-Christian, race, gender, sexuality, Enlightenment, modernity, nationality, politics, narrative, authority, privilege, etc., etc., etc.
As I was growing up, pastors could appeal to any of these identity markers as a way to call someone into the community of faith or keep them there. They could use these things as the vocabulary with which to understand reality and God.
That simply doesn’t work now.
As I’ve grown older, the sermons that used to feel so “applicable”, “practical”, and resonant now seem to have less and less resemblance to reality or the world around me. They seem to be words offered to imaginary, disembodied people I’ve never met; people that can simply receive the proclamations of God from his ordained authorities and then live lives of passionate obedience and response–those who can simply “hear the Gospel”, “preach it to themselves”, and be changed.
That’s a fantasy world. It is not reality.
Perhaps there was a time when humanity was so attuned with the spiritual that a simple, disembodied authoritative word from on high could re-orient everything. That simply doesn’t work now.
In a world where every former-foundation has been shattered, and we are post-everything, what is left when all other points of contact are whittled away?
Human existence itself.
Any bit of reflection will show us that this is not how many pastors engage their people. Many ministries in America today spend their time articulating what God finds wrong (either behaviorally or doctrinally), what he finds right (again, behaviorally and/or theologically) and then weighs you down with exhortations and imperatives to “repent” of those “wrong” behaviors and/or doctrines and come in line with the right ones.
And they think this is enough. Get your theology or your actions “right”, and your doubts will quiet, injustice won’t seem so despairing, the stranglehold of your addictions and sins will lessen, and your experience of God will have more substance and continuity.
This is why those Practical Theology courses are of such great need nowadays.
We live in a time where someone cannot graduate from seminary and think they are prepared unless they have internalized an education that speaks from–and to–a place of human depth and brokenness. If we do this, there will be an abiding angst in us for God’s word to hit real people in real life. No easy answers. No naive optimism. Just earthy, gritty real life in all its doubt, pain, isolation, marginalization, questions, and injustice.
To be truly equipped for ministry, we must be equipped as humans first; taught to know the substance of humanity and reality; and given a vision for the depths of human brokenness, sorrow, and existential crisis. And often times, those courses we are least excited about facilitate this.
So be encouraged. As you see those “less exciting” courses pop up on your schedule each semester, know that, in many ways, they are preparing you for ministry in this world. They are preparing you to feel and know these realities deeply and, like Jacob, wrestle with God until he blesses you–even as he leaves you limping.

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Written by paul-burkhart
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