Church Life Theology

Why Theology Matters in a World of Competing Values

Technology. It surrounds us. We live in a world of unprecedented technological development. Never before has technology influenced our lives in such personal ways. But have you ever thought about the impacts this has on your faith? I’ll let that linger for a moment.

Economics. It drives societies. It drives technology. It influences us in personal ways. How? Gross Domestic Product. Aggregate Income. It’s the general indicator economists use to measure the “health” of an economy. If a society has a higher income per capita it is considered better off. More money equals better life. More consumption equals healthier economy. According to economists, we are “earners,” “producers,” oh and yes – “consumers”.

Poverty. Not good. No one wants other human beings to starve, die from disease or be plagued by years of war. We want peace. We want everyone to have a high GDP per capita. Problem is, in the above reality, we are all consumers being influenced and shaped by a supply-driven economy. Much of the technology we have, we don’t really need. But, because our demands (another economics word) are decided for us, we consume what others tell us is good for us. In this supply-driven reality, the more we can produce at lower costs, in higher quantities and at faster rates, the better off we are. This goes for companies and consumers.

I’m not saying technology and economic growth are bad. In fact, I think (as did Luther) that everything that helps and benefits humanity in the world are the “fingers of God.” What I am saying is that the values that accompany technological progress aren’t necessarily always good. Our values are being shaped for us. One example. I was listening to the radio yesterday morning and the tech expert of the program was talking about this new technology (app) that will allow us to pay for everything on our smart phone. The selling point to consumers: it will make life easier by speeding up processing times at the register, thus saving us time so we can do MORE things.

I turned it off and thought: Isn’t life already fast enough? Is it really that important to me that I save 10 seconds at the cash register? What, so I can squeeze in an extra 10 second nap?! We live in a crazy world. We are told that the quicker we are able to get things done the more things we will be able to do. Faster and more. Welcome to North America. Welcome to the developing world. You’re a consumer. Deal with it.

Christians need to be aware of their surroundings. Their culture. The values that are seeking their allegiance. I’m not saying that Christians can’t own smart phones or work as marketing experts. I’m not championing a life of isolation and seclusion. Actually, it’s the opposite. We need to be able to think critically (critical as in analytically and theologically) about culture and how God asks us to engage it.

We are on a mission. Just like Israel, God hasn’t just saved us for the sake of salvation itself, but to enter a mission to bless the nations. The Church is called to mission. Problem is, the Church isn’t very good at mission. Why? Because our values are more in line with our economy than Christian theology. It begins with theology. In particular, what theologians call ecclesiology – the study of the Church. How we think of ourselves as members of Christ’s Church will determine our mission and help us engage our culture.

Reformation theology focuses heavily on Christology (the study of Christ). Speaking in the this tradition, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives us insight into the essence of Christ, the Church and the Church’s mission to engage the wider culture around it.

What is Christ’s Essence? Simply put, the essence of Christ is His “pro me” love. In the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ, God reveals that He is for humanity. One of my favorite Bonhoeffer quotes about Christ states: “Christ is the concrete executor of God’s love.”[1] Why? Because He comes into the reality of the world and suffers for sinners. The cross is the concrete act of God’s “pro me” love. On the cross, Christ encounters reality and overcomes it. This is why we know that Christ is (at His core) “pro me” love. He died for the world because of His essential love for the world.

What is the Church? Referring to the Bible, Bonhoeffer says that the Church is ‘Christ existing as community’ [2] “The church-community exists,” writes Bonhoeffer, “through Christ’s action….It has been created in a real sense only by the death of Christ….”[3] This death, however, is a life-giving action where Christ’s resurrection is “the death of death itself….”[4] It is through this death-to-life experience of God’s Son where the Church (through faith) emerges into the reality of the world.

What is the Church’s mission? The mission of the church is tied directly to the essence and action of God in Christ. Hence why Bonhoeffer states that “the church is the church only when it exists for others….”[5] Just like Christ (as “pro me” love) entered into our reality to overcome (and transform) it, we are called to enter into the reality of our world, that is, into the life of real human beings to change them. To change culture. Our mission as the Church is to be for others as Christ is for us. As Christians, our values should emerge from this theology of Christological otherness.

But we have a dilemma. A reality of competing values. The supply-driven socio-economic reality we live in is influencing us to be “consumer-driven” and focused on having MORE and BETTER and FASTER things (i.e. consumer goods) for ourselves. Whereas our essence as the Church (rooted in Christological “otherness”) tells us that our mission is to enter into the reality of “real” human beings for one purpose: to be for them as Christ is for us. We are called to die to the pleasures of personal surplus, and to turn our human productivity towards the needs of others. Why? Because that is how God enters into the world: as “pro me” love.

This is why theology matters in a world of real human beings that God loves. And He does love them. He loves investment bankers, market analysts, artists, university professors, musicians, insurance brokers, economists (ha!)…He loves the world. So much, that He sent His Son into reality to suffer with real human beings; to save real human beings from the deception of the values that compete with God’s one overarching value: Christological otherness.

Your mission as the Church: engage culture through suffering, service and showing others the love of the Father. This will require an ability (especially in our culture of information) to think critically about culture, economics, art, philosophy, technology (etc.) and to present the Father’s “pro me” love in the language and context that real human beings can understand.

Theology helps us understand and communicate the Christian faith with the outside world, and therefore it is essential to the mission of the Church.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6: Ethics, ed. Clifford J Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 232.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 1: Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss and Nancy Lukens (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 141.

[3] Ibid., 137-138.

[4] Ibid., 151-152.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1971), 382-383.

Josh is an award-winning faith and culture writer and the author of the upcoming book, God Incognito: Bonhoeffer's Theology of the Cross for the Trump Era and Beyond. He holds a master's degree in theology from Tyndale Seminary in Toronto and is the recipient of the Dr. Ross and Carol Bailey Theology Award. He lives in Murillo, Ontario with his wife and their two adorable daughters and has a column at ChristianWeek.org.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *