Seminaries are fond of advertising their courses under the heading of “Practical Theology.”  This makes perfect sense, given that the primary business of a seminary is to deliver the modern post-graduate, professional degree taken in preparation for the profession of ministry.  In our economy, practicality is a cardinal virtue.  After all, who would be interested in taking a non-practical degree in medicine or law or ministry?  Therefore seminaries and churches rightly believe that theological training should be practical.

 This emphasis on practicality however is two-faced, having both good and bad side-effects.  It’s good in the sense that my former professor Ray Anderson describes it: as theology that walks the talk, and bridges the gap between theological education and living out the pastoral mission of the church.  Anderson wisely teaches that theology is “practical” when it practices the ways of Jesus.  In this way theology becomes “Christopraxis,” not “methods, techniques and strategies for ministry, lacking theological substance,” but rather ministry aiming “to ensure that the church’s public proclamations and praxis in the world faithfully reflect the nature and purpose of God’s continuing mission to the world.”[1]   In short, practical theology should be Christ-like, walking the talk, and caring for people.  That is the upside potential of theology.The downside is unfortunately all easy to fall into—by aiming to be practical, in the sense of learning methods and techniques.  Did Jesus teach a method or technique? No.  Neither did he write a textbook.  He was, and is, the textbook.  In person.  His theology is the living, breathing, story-telling kind.It seems to me that the most practical kind of theology often turns out to be the kind that looks impractical by the standards of modern education.  The most practical kind of theology might just turn out to surprise us because it does not focus on “practical things” like the techniques of ministry, psychology, politics and economics.  These techniques and disciplines don’t necessarily make theology practical; but rather practicing theology as a disciple of Jesus is what makes it practical.

One of my most poignant moments while serving as a hospital chaplain came when in a visit with a man so paralyzed by infection that he was unable to speak.  In that hospital room I did not find my training in the techniques of ministry, active listening or the social sciences to be the most practical; but rather my theological understanding of the presence and ministry of Christ was the most practical thing in the world at that moment, and I reflected on that while I sat silently for some time, and prayed with the man.

Here is the irony in the idea of “practical theology”: the most practical thing is often that which seems most impractical in worldly terms.  Theological study and reflection that helps us grow in the knowledge of God and Christ and each other has very little practical content in economic terms; yet time spent in this kind of theological study  brings us closer to God in Christ, through the Spirit, and turns out to be the most practical wisdom there is. 


[1] Ray S. Anderson, The Shape of Practical Theology: Empowering Ministry with Theological Praxis, (InterVarsity, 2001), p. 14, 22.

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