The conditions for paying attention

I’ve been thinking with other colleagues about the task of missional theology. I teach a course on missional theology, along with Pat Keifert, in the DMin program at Lipscomb University, and each time I do, it pushes me more to clarify what it means to say “we’re doing missional theology.” It’s time I put some of my ideas down somewhere other than inside my head and see what rises.

And surely this is the beginning of missional theology. It rises in relation to the mission of God itself. It’s not a settled bit of content or coherent set of ideas that exist prior to mission. Rather, we come to know God and confess God as we participate in God’s life–which is missional. This is not to say that ideas or coherence are unimportant. Rather, it is to repeat the old dictum, “mission is the mother of all theology.” The actual embodiment of God’s mission in the world presses us for better understanding.

This also means that how we are situated in time and space–what we often call context–is inescapably a part of doing theology. Where and when you live matters because we seek and are called by a living God–a God that encounters right now in all these places.

This “located” aspect of theology is both an opportunity and a challenge. As an opportunity, the life of every congregation in its immediate environment matters. The congregation is not just a place to apply a theology already determined, but is a generative location for hearing God’s call. As a challenge, it makes coherence difficult. There is simply no way to make general statements about the work of God that would account for every congregational experience.

So, how would you go about doing missional theology given this opportunity and challenge? Let’s try this on. Doing theology in time and space–in a location–requires attentiveness to the location. We are already way ahead of the game if we can convince congregations that their work is not to manage programs to foster growth, but to pay attention to the living God.

Still, sometimes our attention is limited by our posture and focus. We see things related to where we’re standing and what we expect to see. What we see is inescapably related to what we’re looking for. I’m convinced a living God is in the details, but not in every detail. And there are a lot of details. So, where we stand and what we are looking for matters immensely. Both our posture of attentiveness and the focus of our attentiveness matters.

For instance, if you think that God’s sovereignty is expressed as power or control, then you’re likely to pay attention to certain outcomes as evidence of God–maybe when things work out well for you. If, however, you think of God’s sovereignty expressed as a self-giving love, then you might experience God less in successful outcomes and more in places of brokenness and fragmentation where this kind of live becomes more strikingly apparent.

I want you to notice that what I have in mind for paying attention is not simply how we think about things. What we see is related to our bodies, where we are physically, with whom we are participating, what we feel, taste, and touch. In fact, it’s not what we see so much as what appears, or what is revealed to us based in part on our posture in the world.

So, what if a missional theology framed the conditions of participation for paying attention to God’s mission in the world? Not just any old theology would do. Some theological projects tend toward abstraction, or speak only in general terms, and so limit our imaginations and discount where we are located in time and space.

Ok, enough for now. More to come.

About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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1 Response to The conditions for paying attention

  1. Neal Roe says:

    Thank you for these last two posts. Together with your talk on Acts 12 last year are coming at me in good timing. It is amazing the working God in pursuing His creation by leaving hints spread along the Way providing room for us.

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