Practicing Theology Without a Net: Theology Pubs, Spiritual Direction, and Letting Go

Guest post by Keith Anderson, pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church near Philadelphia and co-author with Elizabeth Drescher of Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse 2012). This post originally appeared on Keith’s blog.

guerillatheologyLATELY, I’VE BEEN practicing a lot of what I have been thinking of as theology without a net.

Theology without a net happens in public spaces. It does not involve a presentation, PowerPoint slides, or a written text. It does not rely on the expert knowledge of professional ministry-types.

It does not offer or promise neat answers. It is an ongoing conversation, which is shaped by whoever shows up that day. It is responsive, not leading. It listens more than speaks. And it has to be authentic. It lives at the intersection of faith and life.

This is different from how I was trained to do theology. Theology happened controlled environments: in church or academic buildings, classes, and worship, with subject matter experts (pastors and professors), who were training me to become one too. And, hey, I loved it. I absorbed it. I got good at it.

But the world we live in demands that we do theology in a different way, on-the-fly, in different places, with different people, on someone else’s turf: theology without a net.

CONTROL FREAKS

In his very helpful book Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God, which has applications far beyond just running a Theology Pub night, Bryan Berghoef writes that a friend posed the question,

“‘How come you Christians never participative in things you can’t control?'” He says, “Ouch. Great question. We have a very hard time with letting go—with allowing truly open-ended conversation that doesn’t lead twoard a nicely wrapped ending with a gospel presentation of some sort.” “Having a truly open forum is something most Christians are afraid to do, because we want control.”

This is so true and I see it in myself. While I love our theology pub, God on Tap, I recognize that its absolutely a cutting edge for me—to simply serve as the convener: to pick a sufficiently broad topic, introduce it in a blog post and as I welcome people in, and then throw it open and see where it leads, occasionally bringing us back when we’ve strayed far off-topic, and lifting up voices from around the room. This, more than preaching or teaching, calls me to trust in the Holy Spirit and trust others and recognize that they are the experts—about their lives, ideas, and faith.

LIKE SPIRITUAL DIRECTION

In this way, hosting God on Tap is much more like serving as a Spiritual Director than a preacher or teacher. (If you’re interested in spiritual direction check out the Shalem Institute, where I received my training in spiritual direction.)

Spiritual directors listen for God in what is being shared. They hold the space (the physical environment and the time) for the group. They observe the ebbs and flows of the group dynamics and trust that among those gathered, the Spirit is working, that God has something to say. As a spiritual director, I reflect back the common threads running through the conversation. I try to remember that the Spirit is the one doing the directing. And I trust that people will come away with what was intended, whatever that was, and its often a new way of perceiving one’s life and spiritual journey.

It doesn’t control. It creates the space for something to happen.

Berghoef writes of his theology pub gatherings,

“Our goal was not to create a program that we run where we give our perspective and then allow questions, time permitting. From the outset we wanted to make sure that this was not going to be a ‘setup.’ In other words, get people in the door, ‘pretend’ to have a conversation, then hit them up for a gospel presentation. Rather, we wanted to allow anyone and everyone to come and give their perspective. To share their story. To unload their baggage about religion, about faith, about God. To have a group that is willing to listen without judgment, to accept without demanding conformity, to simply embrace them as another human being, which is to say, a person with yearnings that some would call spiritual or religious or, as my humanist friends might say, wonder and awe at the universe.”

Doing theology without a net requires letting go of our need for control. God is present and that is enough.

FROM AN AUTHENTIC PLACE

The reason this works, I think, is that it comes from an authentic place. It says, “I don’t have all the answers. I wonder and question too.” It levels with people. It breaks down our pastoral pretense and this can be a great gift to ministry leaders and those they serve.

I’m currently trying to rely less on a script when I preach. And I notice that to tell a personal or Biblical story without a script requires that those stories are more integrated into my mind and heart. They must come from a more authentic and integrated place within me.

Likewise when we ditch the script at the pub, the coffee shop, or in digital social networks, and ask, respond, wonder, and pray along with and alongside others, we relate from a place of authenticity. Its not just functional. Its relational. Its real.

As Berghoef writes, its “the difference between an indoctrination approach to faith (where the focus is on getting it right) and an exploration approach to faith (where the goal is to experience God in a way that is life-affirming, gracious, and for the good of those around us)….”

Are you practicing theology without a net? How’s it going? What learnings have emerged for you?

photo credit: Dyan Lawlor

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45 thoughts on “Practicing Theology Without a Net: Theology Pubs, Spiritual Direction, and Letting Go

  1. Love this quote: “Doing theology without a net requires letting go of our need for control. God is present and that is enough.” LIFE is like this–we’re all living out out theology and God is present…and that is enough. Thanks for posting this one! Grace & Peace…and lots of great discussion!

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  2. Hey, I really liked your post! I go to a catholic university. I’m new to blogging and I just set up one called politicalnoob.com and I don’t know if it is good or not. It’s directed towards people who want to know about politics but can’t understand what the news is trying to say. I tried to simplify some of the issues so that people can start to understand what is going on! I only have like two posts though and if you want to read them and give me some feedback with a comment, that would be really cool! It’s politicalnoob.com if anyone is interested. Again, really great post and I really like your writing!

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  3. This is an excellent post. A friend and I recently created a “Christian Mastermind Group” which gets into a lot of free-form thought. We’ve made the focus about relationships and exploration—not programs or curriculum. I think this works extremely well with those who are exploring faith or may be further along in their faith and have developed questions about their faith. But I would suggest that we need to have multiple approaches in teaching and spreading our faith. What some see as “control” is actually that a lot of the time, but can’t it also be people who simply want to get it right and may just take faith more seriously than others. Yes, it can come across the wrong way and people need to understand relationships and context better when sharing their faith. Sometimes the teaching approach or environment needs to reflect the seriousness of the subject matter. Take for example a class on CPR. I don’t think many of us would accept a class with participants sitting around a table, drinking beers, and sharing how they personally would do CPR. CPR is serious stuff and there’s limited ways you can perform CPR—don’t we all want to discover the best way? I would suggest that many believers view their faith like most of us view CPR. Sure, let’s be open-minded and agree to disagree, but also leave room for people with a serious commitment to their beliefs.

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  4. The apostle Paul was not afraid to listen and to speak publicly about His belief in Jesus as the Son of God. Under times of persecution, some Christians do weaken (2 Tim 1:7,8), but God wants Christians to stand up and be counted (2 Pet. 4:16). I listen and read all kinds of things. I for one am not afraid of letting others speak longer or speak more often than myself. I always try to listen carefully and patiently. I am sure what you say is true about some Christians, but not all Christians.

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  5. Thanks for that. We must remember to share our faith, not merely describe it. Teaching is a mutual experience, with little room for soliloquy. Ever the obligate human in need of grace, but too often we seek to express our relationship with God as if we got there on our own.

    Less talking, more listening. You may be operating without a net, but you may be someone’s net today.

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  6. There has to be a net. If there was no net-where would mankind be?
    On the road to hell.
    I am not the net.
    My thoughts and answers and ideas and theology are not the net.
    God and His Word are the net.
    If 2nd Timothy 3 is correct, that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work…” then there is a net.
    We need to be relational.
    We need to let others know that we don’t have all the answers.
    We do need to be authentic, because we all live on the same earth and struggle with the same problems.
    But there is a divide.
    If we use the Bible for our theology, then:
    “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” John 3:18
    I can have great discussions about authentic relational topics.
    I can talk to anyone ‘without a net’ and do it all the time.
    I am not in control of anyone’s life, and don’t desire to be.
    God is in control.
    But I am not condemned, and the Bible says that some are condemned already.
    What if I talk about God, religion and faith with you for years, and consider you the expert on your beliefs and never tell you what I believe?
    What if we become great friends for life- we ‘ditch the script’ and have a great relationship?
    We both die at the end.
    What if I never told you about my net, of Christ, of His death, His resurrection, and His heaven?
    That I am going there?
    What if I never told you of hell?
    And that you are going there if you don’t believe?
    That it isn’t me making that statement, it’s Jesus Christ?
    Is that really authentic?
    Am I really being your friend?
    Without a net, yes, we can experience many things…
    but without a net, we are lost.

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  7. Thank you for this post! I personally have been practicing “theology without a net” for quite some time now, but never had a name for it. How wonderful to see that people are opening up and allowing everyone to speak their truths! I went from growing up Catholic, switching to non-denominational Christian, and finally saying I’m Spiritual. There were many things I loved about my 2 churches as a kid and teen, but when I started feeling horribly guilty every time I’d commit what they called a sin, even the tiniest of sins, I questioned and got reprimanded or an earful of Gospel that only made me feel worse! I’ve always felt that God is so much more than each religion’s description, and that opens up so much room for discussion. Giving up the need to be right when it comes to religion is quite challenging, yet so freeing when you can allow Spirit to move through you and bring you new perspectives! May your Theology Without A Net sessions be blessed and full of new knowledge, most of all people truly coming together by allowing each other their own voices! Love & Light to you,
    Nicki

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  8. I think there are more times when we need to keep quiet and let the Word of God speak to us – listening to the Word of God ,not the people expounding it, and intending to apply it to my life is more important than the setting. When the Word of God is traded for my or anyone else’s experience, I am on dangerous ground.

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  9. I like this, VERY much:
    “to simply embrace them as another human being, which is to say, a person with yearnings that some would call spiritual or religious or, as my humanist friends might say, wonder and awe at the universe.”

    What faith means to anyone is extremely fluid, well, that is what I feel. Particularly when we have to consider there are many Faiths, often extremely contradictory to each other – except if ‘the space between’ is engaged in maybe that is what my sense of ‘other’ – or Other – is – the space between, where you and I, or You and i, youandi, YouAndI can find the connection. The connection itself may be it.

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  10. Thank you for your insights! In this day and age where people are generally more inquisitive; asking more whys above everything else, and termed the ‘strawberry’ generation where we get bruised more easily through words and acts, as Christians we also have to step up our game and relook how we navigate in this ever-changing world that we live in and still be the salt and light.

    Through my engagements, I believe that it is perfectly okay for Christians to not have control over a conversation, subject matter (on religion for example), much more scrape the ‘controlled setting’. I mean, God gave us freewill and even He honors it, right? From this, we can gather that while we may very much want to fulfill the great Commission of reaching out our friends and loved ones, they are entitled to their own opinions and God is totally cool with that.

    While we can be equipped with apologetics and all, I believe as Christians we don’t have to have answers to everything under the sun. (This is in a different context as to searching out the Word, of course we should be diligent in knowing the Word, but God also said Deut 29:29. Balance is key) When in a situation where we are questioned on the “Why is it so?” on our faith, it will be good to have a good answer to everything but even if not, it’s okay. I’ve seen so many friends get so uptight and offensive over an issue of religion and as a result, their friendship is compromised and sacrificed.

    In such ‘uncontrolled’ setting, it’s best to just play it cool and just listen to what the other party has to say. We don’t have to accept what they say but we can acknowledge their opinions. Why you may say? Because the experiences we had, our testimony and our walk with God can attest to our relationship with God. So what if dinosaurs may exist or not? That alone trumps every religious debate.

    Although we don’t ‘bring’ our point across that “God loves you, please love Him” in that single setting, we’ve subconsciously sowed a ‘seed’ in the believers’ life by letting him know subconsciously that “Hey, this friend isn’t some crazy religious freak.” and “He’s a good friend who really cares and listens”. That will effectively set the stage for another setting and opportunity where God can use us to touch our friend’s life.

    Jesus Himself was never in full control when He reached out to the prostitutes and tax collectors. But guess what happened?

    So Theology without a net? I am all for it! It’s not just a method, it’s a lifestyle and a way of life for us 21st Century Christians!

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  11. This is important. I think the part about Christians not wanting to really involve themselves in something truly open-ended is important and true. I know that it is not familiar to many and because they have good intentions they do not see how much of a “set-up” it can not only look to others but also feel. This is definitely something for me to think about. Thank you so much.

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  12. i wish I had the nerve to let go but I have routines and they keep me busy and so I do not have to think of deep thoughts. I use to be very into “Is there a God” thoughts. But now I avoid the question. I am 67 and soon, hopefully not to soon, I will know. I will of course get back to you and let you know. Of course if I am downstairs I will keep the secret.

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  13. Bryan~
    As a licensed social worker, the gold standard of care is called “client-centered” care– meeting the client/person where they are in their journey. This has proven to be the most effective care. I liken it to your meeting the journeyman/woman where we are in our spiritual path. I believe allowing our God to co-exist in a natural setting should be the future. I believe this so much, I am being pressed to consider seminary.
    I want to thank you for bringing this to the forefront. God is not confined to a building and reading of the holy Gospels. I personally have made my greatest strides in my relationship, doubts, questions and love for the Father and Creator when I was NOT in church. Coincidence? No. God works in the field, not in a building. (This is personal opinion).
    God’s Grace be with You,
    Linda

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  14. When you go to a small church, there’s more room for what you call “theology without a net.” This is what I miss about my old church, which has been absorbed into a bigger, more structured church. Especially as a mother of two young children, attending Bible studies, classes or women’s workshops (where most of the women are mothers with adult children, so they’re not where I am) is not as feasible; who is going to care for my two rambunctious boys while I follow a set Bible study that really has nothing to do with my life at the moment? I am doing my best to submit to church leadership but when you feel like your church has nothing to offer you, its difficult. I feel there is value in free-form groups with other Bible-believing Christians without an agenda.

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