When you need to choose a resource, a prayer, or even a group game for a formation program, the theological dimensions of that resource or activity are important to consider. But doing a theological review of formation materials can seem daunting. What exactly does theology mean when assembling a formation program, and how can formation leaders review resources and activities theologically?
In this article, I want to share some thoughts and tips from my own review process that may help you hone your theological discernment skills as you examine formation resources.
If You Talk to or about God, You Are Already Doing Theology
I grew up believing that theology was an area of study that only ordained ministers did. But I’ve learned that theology is what any person does when talking about or to God. It’s how you or I picture God, name God, think about God, feel about God, envision what God is doing in the world, or communicate with God. It’s more than a set of ideas about God that a person or group affirms. To use the characterization that theologians like Stanley Hauerwas have developed, theology is like a “narrative” you inhabit that is related to the divine (to find out more about this view of theology, check out the introduction that Hauerwas co-authored with L. Gregory Jones, “Introduction: Why Narrative?” in the book Why Narrative?: Readings in Narrative Theology [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1997]).
This means that you don’t have to have formal academic training to “do” theology. You don’t have to be ordained, confirmed, or a long-time church member. If you are talking about or engaged in a story that has something to do with God, you are doing theology.
How a Theology Is Lived May Be More Useful than “Right” v. “Wrong”
Because scholars use words like “orthodoxy” and “heresy,” it’s easy to think that theological review is about sorting right theologies from wrong ones. But right/wrong is not often the framework needed for evaluating formation resources, and it may not be as helpful.
An approach that I find more useful for reviewing formation resources theologically is to reflect on how a resource may form people’s lives with God. By exploring how theology may be embodied and how life-giving or detrimental that theology might be, I can do a review with a more holistic and dynamic framework that I can also tailor to a specific context.
How to Do a Theological Review
To embark on your theological review, I recommend these four steps:
1 | Name Your Theology
Before turning to resources, it’s helpful to acknowledge your own thoughts and feelings about God. Recognizing what I believe and how I relate to God helps me be more aware of what theological messages I may seek in a resource. It also enables me to acknowledge that my perspective is just one perspective and to approach resources with more openness to ways of talking about God that I may not have considered before.
A good way to become more aware of your theology is to reflect on your experiences with God. Here are a few questions to jumpstart your thinking:
- How do you picture or envision God? What name do you call God? Why?
- What is your favorite hymn, prayer, or scripture passage? What does it show or tell you about God?
- What is one of your biggest questions about God that you wish you had an answer to? Why is that question important to you?
- What is the main conviction or belief about God that you hold onto in your life? Why?
2 | Identify the Key Messages You Are Looking For
It’s also helpful to have an initial idea of the messages about God that you want people to encounter in your formation program. As many theologians point out, theology is always contextual, and contexts vary and change across time, spaces, and communities. When I attend to the people involved and the formation setting, I can develop a better sense of how beneficial or detrimental a message about God may be for that program.
Several factors may come into play in discerning what messages to look for in your ministry setting, including your denomination’s doctrines, what your community’s mission communicates about God, the values that shape your ministry, and how certain messages about God may exclude or include different people in your social and cultural context. If you aren’t sure how to determine what messages about God matter most for your context, try answering this question:
What are the top 3 takeaways (thoughts, feelings, actions) about God and about relationship with God that you want participants to gain from this formation program?
3 | Read for the Narrative about God
As you start examining resources, try to read for the narratives about God that are at work within them. Look for how a resource describes God’s actions in the world. Investigate how it portrays life with God for humans and non-human creatures. Consider how the resource shifts from describing to prescribing life with God. As I learned from theologian Willie Jennings in one of his classes, it’s helpful to explore not only the ideas and language about God in this narrative, but also how it might feel to inhabit that depiction of life with God. For example, how might “God is loving” evoke different feelings than “God is powerful”?
Some good places to search for narratives about God in a resource are: introductions, prayers, images, uses of scripture, and key theological terms like sin, grace, and salvation. A prayer can express numerous theological messages, including how to name God, how to talk to God, how to approach God emotionally and bodily, and how to perceive yourself and your community in relation to God.
4 | Assess the Narratives You Find
Once you have discerned the narrative about God and about life with God within a resource, critically evaluate it. I often take stock of the following:
- How sound the resource’s theological messages are with respect to guiding sources for Christian faith in my context (scripture, church traditions, etc.)
- How edifying, unfruitful, or potentially damaging a theological message is likely to be for people’s relationships with God and one another in my context in this current moment
- High points of a resource’s theology (like an inspiring way of portraying life with God)
- Potential pitfalls (like applications of scripture that distort the text’s meaning)
I find the second point particularly important for two reasons: it helps me attend to the power of theology, which can harm as well as heal; and it helps me focus on what people in my context need most for the present situation, which may be different than their theological needs in the past, in the future, or a different formation setting.
Review in community: You do not have to review resources alone. Involve a partner or group in the process.
Attend to perspectives of people on the margins: As you reflect on how a narrative about God might impact people’s lives, think about its specific impact on people who may be more vulnerable or disempowered in your context.
For resources that don’t mention God or faith: Investigate the values that a resource expresses about human and creaturely life and assess how those values intersect with your community’s faith narrative. A group activity, for example, that does not refer to God may encourage participants to be creative, to work together, and to be accepting of one another.
Do what you can: Even a brief review of a resource is beneficial for your formation program, so use whatever is helpful here to develop your own review process.