From Theology to Practice

In a broad sense there are two types of Christian leaders:  Those who listen primarily to human voices and those who focus their hearts on listening to God.  The first try to navigate competing human preferences, expectations, and desires with the goal of satisfying everyone.  The second acknowledge that only God in his Holy Spirit can form us into his kingdom people.  The first seek answers below—in the world; the second above—in God.  That is the purpose of Mission Alive’s Theology Lab:  to teach Christian leaders to move from theology to practice by hearing the voice of God.  

For us, a theology of mission, like the rudder of a boat, guides the mission of God and provides direction.  My wife is fond of remembering how our children frequently wanted to “drive” when we took them on pedal-boats.  At times they were so intent on pedaling, making the boat move, that the rudder was held in an extreme position, and we went in circles.  Realizing their mistake, but still intent on pedaling, they would move the rudder from one extreme to the other so that we zig-zagged across the lake. When Christians operate without the foundation of a missional theology, their lives and ministries tend to zig-zag from fad to fad, from one theological perspective and related philosophies of ministry to another.  A theology of mission, like the rudder of a boat, provides practical direction for Christian ministry. 

A theology of mission is also like a boat’s engine that propels forward the mission of God.  One spring my wife and I taught at Abilene Christian University’s campus abroad program in Montevideo, Uruguay.  During the semester, we traveled with our students to Iguazu Falls, a spectacular waterfall between Brazil and Argentina.  One highlight of our visit was a motor-boat excursion against the mighty currents of the river almost to the foot of the falls. I was impressed not only by the immensity of the flow of the water but also the power of the engine to pull the boat against the tide up the river.  A theology of mission, like the engine of a boat, provides the power that enables finite humans to carry God’s infinite mission against currents of popular cultures. 

A theology of mission, for example, helps us frame our reality around the kingdom of God.  This theology is like a scarlet thread interwoven through the fabric of the biblical text.  It helps us realize that this is God’s world, and we must live as God’s people reflecting his love, holiness, and faithfulness. 

Theology is meant to be practical:  A theology of the kingdom of God leads us to ask the practical questions about:

  • Spiritual formation:  How do we live lives obedient to God?
  • Regeneration:  How do broken people become disciples of Christ, servants within the kingdom of God?
  • Expectation:  The kingdom of God is already here but has not yet been consummated:  How do live in expectation for the consummation of the kingdom of God? 

Frequently ministry is done naively out of human planning rather than beginning with understandings of the nature and purposes of God and then moving from these theological frameworks to practice.  Stuart Murray writes, “All church planters [and church leaders] operate within theological frameworks, but often these are assumed rather than articulated and adopted uncritically rather than as the result of reflection.  Theological principles may influence strategy and practice less than unexamined tradition or innovative methodology” (Church Planting:  Laying Foundations 2001, 39).

Finally, hard questions for reflection and dialogue:  To what degree are we shaped by God and his guiding Holy Spirit and revelation?  To what degree by human fads—even church planting and renewal fads?  What does this say to you? 

Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen

Facilitator of Church Planting

Mission Alive

8 thoughts on “From Theology to Practice

  1. Excellent article my brother. As you stated practices should flow from listening to God. Listening comes in several different ways: Reading the text, listening to God’s people (who are listening too), reflection and meditation, but also through God’s guiding our decision making through apparent failures, successes, and all of life’s reverses and jump-starts. The Apostle instruction to “resist the devil”could be explained by this analogy: When you look at the element in a light bulb the filament is called a ‘resistance’. Resisting the strong flow of current flowing through it causes it to glow and thus to shed light. Likewise our resistance to the world helps us to shine. We must lose our fear of the unknown and our reticence to follow new paths so we don’t miss Him. (Jesus walking on the water and the response of the disciples). One of the most powerful ways to ‘resist’ the world is simply this: Do not conform to the world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. I love what you are saying and it helps me on my journey. See you in Abilene.

  2. This has been a very formative concept for me Gailyn. It was through your lab processes and your investment in walking with me that I really learned this at a heart level. Thank you for your leadership in this language and culture. It has created a foundation in which I have grown with increasing depths of realizing our need to know God and let life flow out of that relationship. May you continue to bless many through the Theology Labs.

  3. This is where the rhythm of action and contemplation enters into the practical work of Mission. We embrace such a deep commitment to Mission that we frequently begin acting (strategizing, planning, teaching, doing) without spiritually and theologically reflecting on our actions. Parker Palmer notes that action without contemplation, flies off into frenzie – a frantic and even violent effort to impose one’s will on the world.” Living this rhythm of contemplation and action helps us ensure that our efforts for the Mission not only start off rooted in good theology but are continually being evaluated theologically and not merely pragmatically.

  4. Our congregation here in Westminster spent most of the last decade bouncing from one program or strategy to another while declining. Some of us are now letting go and letting God have charge, allowing Him to be the helmsman. The result is a spark of revitalization.

    The Holy Spirit is infinitely better at attraction than we are at promotion.

  5. As I have grown in my faith with God, so has my ability to listen to God over the world. However most of this change has happen over the last five years because I was taught that God is inactive in our lives and the Bible is a rule book. So the first step was to realize that this is wrong which open my heart and faith to be lead by God.

  6. Thank your for these reflections: They acknowledge the need for theological reflections in church planting and renewal. However, theologies are abstract concepts if they are not enfleshed in practice, thus the title “From Theology to Practice.” I would like to see some discussion about how our practices are shaped in tangible ways by theology. Note the application of the Kingdom of God to practice in the article.


  7. Practically speaking I find that when we lead we strive to lead out of strength. We insist on God using our gifts and talents so that we operate out of a position of strength. When God leads he often puts us in a position of weakness and we are forced to suffer as we do his work. We often find ourselves confused and having to trust God that this is what he wants. How this plays out is that as a Church leader I want to look good. I don’t like to admit my weaknesses or that I don’t know something. However, God seems less concerned about how I look and more concerned with leading people toward discipleship. I am finding that God leading through weakness actually works better. Go figure.


  8. The role of theolgical reflection in missiology in general has been weak and in church planting it has been weaker still. As I write here from the UK writing an article for my Doctorate on the role of theolgical reflection in church planting for the University of Manchester, I am struck by the lack of coherent material on the matter. This is not really surprising as much reflection is both implicit in practitioners and denominational theology and also because much church planting has tended to be pragmatic. At worst little attention is given to the foundational doctrines of faith and how they shape or inform church planting practice. However it goes beyonf an application of church doctrine to planting so that true theolgical reflection takes place from practice to reflection tom practice. The models of pastoral theological reflection help us here as they help the practitioner move from action to reflection to action again. There are many differerent models out there but it is essential that practitioners learn a process and hermeneutic of reflction that genuinely allows practice to be examined in the light of new and fresh theolgical reflection. This article is helpful and points us in a good direction so long as we are led back to newly informed practice. Church planters need to be reflective practitioners, and as people engaged in the mission of God that reflection needs to be primarily theological.

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