Why We Need Pastor-Theologians for Leading Churches in Mission

Anyone doing the work of planting churches will meet unpredictable cultural challenges. By definition, you are going into uncharted turf. You will have to listen, encounter new issues, interpret, translate and engage in ways you never would have to in established churches. Anyone wishing to lead a traditional (attractional) church into contextual engagement will face the same challenges and tasks. This is mission. This is the challenge. This is also the joy. And it is a theological task worthy of a Ph.D.
Many leaders doing this kind of missional work have intellects capable of obtaining a Ph.D. But I contend that doing so would be a mistake (even if you had all the time and money to do such a thing) because I think the Ph.D. forms you to work in the academy versus working on the ground organizing ecclesiastical-cultural engagement, and I don’t understand why anyone would seek to study theology for any other reason than working for the furtherance of God’s Kingdom via the church. So, why would anyone get a Ph.D. in theology if it works against this reason?
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How Being a Doctor Can Actually Do Harm

I argue for a different kind of academic work in theology that keeps students grounded in the work and life of the church. This is the work of the pastor-theologian (or what I have also referred to as the organic intellectual). Pastor-theologians sit in their fields of mission learning the questions of culture and church by actually living there. A pastor-theologian lives the struggles of the church and then does the work of theology out of this context and within a collective of other people doing the same. This, I contend, is from where the revolution (or insurrection) shall come. This will be the way theology changes the church and shapes her future.
This is why Christianity Today’s recent article entitled “Why Being a Pastor-Scholar Is Nearly Impossible” both disturbed me and inspired me. I was inspired that the article put forth the idea of the pastor-scholar as a model for theology. The numerous people mentioned who argue for this role, such as Kevin Vanhoozer, Owen Strachan, Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, gave me encouragement. I applaud the article for pointing out how important it is to do theology out of a place of leadership from within the life and work of the church.
Nonetheless, I was equally disturbed by the way the article’s author, Andrew Wilson, dismissed the pastor-scholar as unfeasible. I resist the way he shapes what it means to be a scholar. For Andrew, to be a scholar is to do a Ph.D., regularly submit articles to refereed journals, deliver lectures among peers at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and become a specialist in the university. Really? Is this the only way to be a serious scholar/intellectual?
The Ph.D. trains you to be a specialist on minutia within a stream of research. You end up knowing more about less—a narrowing subject within your specified field of study. It narrows you and intensifies you into one area. You become less capable of integration (although not all Ph.D.’s are like this). The practice of writing journal articles and defending presentations at AAR orders you toward the theoretical. Theory is separated from practice (as intimated in the article). You spend less and less time on the ground in the ethnography of real life in the church and its engagements with the world (the AAR section on “Ethnography and the Church” is one exception).
I know there are exceptions. Nonetheless, I contend this view of the scholar forms you to become irrelevant to the church.
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The Source of Separated Scholarship

The kind of scholarship I have been describing comes from Europe. It started with the University of Berlin model of the early 1800s. (To see a description of this model and its problems in U. of Berlin, see Hans Frei’s Types of Christian Theology, Appendix A: Theology in the University). It is less than two hundred years old. Before this, theological scholarship was done in the church. But now, scholarship separates you from the church.
I am certain there are still places where such an education can help the church. There are those rare Ph.D.’s who are vibrant pastors and servants of the church. Nonetheless, I think it is largely improbable that theology that moves the church will come from these halls; paid theologians in academia end up doing scholarship that supports the institution. The temptation in such hallways is to do things that support the advance of one’s own tenure. You end up writing things to be read by fellow academics for their approval and positive reviews. These institutions are holdovers from Christendom. Theologians tend to support the Christendom institution because Christendom supports them. In essence, the research becomes captive to Christendom.
But Christendom is dying, which makes this research all the more irrelevant. For all these reasons and more, many of us who have been to American Academy of Religion are thankful the leadership of the church will not be coming from this place. 
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New Ways and Means for Pastor-Theologians

What we need is a different vision of scholarship. We need new consortiums of pastor-teachers. We need new venues for writing. And the good news is it is already happening. Blogs, publishing houses, groups of scholars that meet denominationally to discuss the issues we face as pastors, and theological forums like Missio Alliance and the V3 Movement’s Praxis Gathering are but a handful of examples. I suggest that within these places this kind of collaboration and “scholarship” can take place.
I believe in this scholarship so strongly that at Northern Seminary we created a Doctor of Ministry program for the development of such scholarship. Our D.Min. in Missional Leadership could just as easily be called a D.Min. in Contextual Theology. We work hard at integrating and growing Biblical scholarship, theological scholarship, ethnography and the ability to lead churches into engagement with culture. It, I contend, approaches what future pastor-theologians should be doing. Northern Seminary will be offering a new cohort in the program in June 2016. The deadline to apply to one of four spots in the program is January 1. Obviously, we are serious about applied theological study and welcome everyone reading this also to be so inclined.
Many of you might be saying, “But Dave, you have a Ph.D. You have a job in academia. You are doing the Christendom thing.” Yes, yes, and no. I continue on as a pastor/church-planting coach. I do my work from this daily location. I consider my task here to be about preparing theologians for the future, and I view my own situation as a bridge. In fact, I consider myself to be working myself out of a job.
In summary, I eschew the dismissal of the pastor-theologian as presented by Andrew Wilson. I know he means well, but the time is ripe to replace the pervasive notion of what it means to be a pastor-scholar with a new order of organic theologians of the future. The time for the emergence of a whole new class of scholars/practitioners is upon us. The church needs you. We need to form new spaces in which to do this work, and we need a new imagination for how it is done.
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This article has been adapted for use by my friends at the V3 Movement. It first appeared on my blog, Reclaiming The Mission.

About the Author

David Fitch

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