Having ‘better theology’ isn't enough

November 19th, 2015

There’s a phrase — a mantra — a complaint, if you will, that is often expressed by my more progressive United Methodist colleagues (myself included).

It’s uttered by us pastors who serve in a community where the more conservative and evangelical churches are growing and growing while our United Methodist Church is struggling to hold on.

There’s a bit of truth in the phrase. But it’s also spoken out of jealousy. A lot of times there is bewilderment and confusion behind the words.

Sometimes it’s said out of pride. Perhaps even out of anger and resentment.

“Our theology is so much better than theirs.”

Followed by its cousins: “We’re far more accepting.” “We’re so much more open.”

Over coffee, a friend and I were having a discussion about the landscape of churches in my city. I was telling him who all the big churches were and ended with, “But they’re all very conservative. It just doesn’t make sense. Our theology is so much better and loving and open than theirs.”

I expected him, also part of the UMC family and on the vaguely progressive end of the spectrum, to agree with my lament and encourage my line of thought.

He looked at me and said, “If your theology is that much better; that much more loving, well, why are those churches still growing and yours is not?”

Well, that was quick and abrupt way to end our coffee date.

Just kidding.

His words were, however, an eye opener. All these years I’ve been saying that we have a “better theology” but what does that really mean?

Having “better theology” may look good on paper; it might even be a good and fun thing to say but it really doesn’t translate into actual reality. I don’t know if there’s anything more subjective in the Christian culture than “better theology.”

I realized that I was putting myself (and my theology) on a high pedestal that kept getting higher and higher which in turn was making me condescendingly and dismissively look down on those churches who did not think like me.

But even more dangerous than that, I realized that I was holding onto my “better theology” as an ace up the sleeve — which in turn made me a lazy pastor.

“If people only heard our message…”

“If people only knew how loving we are… of everyone.”

Much like the rhetorical question, “If a leader has no followers, are they still a leader?” I find myself asking, if no one is present to hear your theology, is your church really that much better? Is your theology really that much better?

I came to the conclusion that I was banking too much on my “better theology.”

Looking back at the teachers I’ve had in my life, I realized that all of them were smart. But those I liked — those who really impacted and shaped my life — didn’t stand out because of how much they knew or how much information they shared with me. They impacted my life because they invested in me; because they went above and beyond what was required of them. They were more interested in me as a human being than a concoction of skin and bones to relay data to.

This is just a clumsy way of me saying that there’s more to church and faith than theology. Sure, a healthy theology is better — but theology is in the eye of the believer. What I find as “better” you may think of it as heresy.

I’m always struck by how God asks in Matthew 25, not what we believed in but, rather, how we loved. It seemed that God was less concerned about the theology of the sheep and goats and more concerned about how they lived out their faith.

So instead of resting on the laurels of a “better theology” it’s probably best to go out and be a physical representation of the grace and love God has, and start showing people how much they are loved by God.

Joseph Yoo is pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Santa Barbara, California. He is the author of Practical Prayer and Encountering Grace. He blogs at JosephYoo.com.

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