local theology: an introduction

March 17, 2009 | 11 Comments

I’ve been living with the term local theology for the last few years, trying to get my mind around what it might mean and look like. I did a search yesterday on my blog, surprised to find I’ve never written a post about it. As some of these thoughts are taking more shape, I’m bringing them here so that you can help shape them too. This post will serve as an intro to an open-ended series on Local Theology.

I was introduced to this term in a class at Mars Hill Grad School. One of our texts was Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art, by Leona Tisdale Tubbs. I’ve since discovered that the concept of local theology is not unique to Tubbs, as I’ve found two other books on the subject — Constructing Local Theologies, by Robert J. Schreiter, and Doing Local Theology: A Guide for Artisans of a New Humanity, by Clemens Sedmak — neither of which I have read…yet!

This seems like an important idea for what it means to be the church, and one that needs to be explored further. I would imagine that many of us would liken local theology to the idea of being contextual in our churches. I think that is true, but I also want to create a little definition between the two. I would suggest that local theology is a prelude to contextualization. Local theology begins as we listen to the culture of our surroundings and compare it with the narrative of Scripture. Out of this listening, we begin to contextualize our expression of the local church to our community.

As I’m diving into this idea further, I’d appreciate your thoughts too, regardless of whether you consider yourself a theologian. Have you heard this term before? What is your response to it?

  • I’ve been working on my thesis around a local theology for the city of Miami. Sedmak’s book is great and I’ve had this quote of his in my mind for some time: In order for theology to be meaningful, it has to be cultural.

    I think what is most beneficial about local theology is that it offers an indigenous faith that is discovered through doing. Reflecting upon the culture is not enough, we must incarnate the theology we believe in order to see if it survives within our culture. Ignoring the culture doesn’t get us anywhere. Copying the culture kills our faith. Local theology teaches us to hold both culture and gospel.

    I’m such a Mars Hill student. text soul culture!!!

  • Although I’ve not heard of these books, I’m pretty familiar with local theology. I try to make a habit of reading local theology from different contexts (contextual theology) such as African, Asian, and certain people groups. Missiologists have been advocating indigenous/local/contextual theology for some time, especially as a response to colonial theology that was exported to other countries from the West.

    One of the goals for our church in Austin is to stimulate indigenous theological discourse. We are attempting to equip our people through a class called Interpreting Scripture and Culture, so that they can effectively theologize about personal, family, cultural, and urban issues in Austin.

    Hiebert made this a mark of his Four Self Church. The Four self is self-theologizing.

  • Thanks JD…I think your missiology training serves you well in church planting, and this topic is just another reminder of why I think we should move beyond the idea of ‘church planting’ and think in terms of missiology.

  • I’ve read other work by Schreiter and Sedmak, but not those. They definitely write from the missiological perspective. I agree with what Jonathan wrote. The only thing I would add to that is that when working in a progressive/creative/tech-savvy city like Austin, part of the local culture is a globalized culture. So even while you’re localizing, you need to also be asking globalizing questions about your theology. I hope that made sense.

  • Dr. Steve,
    Thanks for the comment…makes perfect sense. One of the topics I have slated out is the tension between shaping a local theology in a globalized culture, and what it means to live in the tension of the two.

  • This is an important topic, which I have written about here. On the one hand, it is easy to wax your local culture with globalisms, while on the other hand, we can easily localize to the detriment of missing global voices.

    Look forward to more…

  • Thanks for the references and the train of thought. Similar to what JD mentions, I’ve made it a practice lately to dialogue with the culture of the people I am called to serve, believing and unbelieving, as well as those who come from different cultural vantage points than I. Eg, reading books by or about African Americans…currently, The Great Escapes: Four Slave Narratives.

    This kind of localized apologetics and (as you say) theology is a missionary application of James’ “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry” idea, and it also relates to the patience of God in sending rain on the just and the unjust. Isn’t it also true that partly why Jesus would say, “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” (Luke 16:8)

  • For myself, this idea of “localized theology” was awakened once I stepped outside the boundaries of our own country. Although I am not quite familiar with the term, nor have I read the book (but will certainly do so), I am realizing more and more that what we “theologize” about within our own communities can have a drastically different face and picture in other parts of the world. I agree that our local theology should be the foundation for our contextualization, but often think we first usually let our context do most of the shaping. I think that working in the world opens our eyes to see how God works on such a grander scale than what we have just come to know within our context. I would think that “local theology” would be shaped when we take the opportunity to hear and see what the Spirit of God is doing in and through the world, but also within the very culture we find ourselves living in?