Thoughts on “Practical Theology: An Introduction”

Tonight I’m heading out to Dallas for the annual meeting of the Association of Youth Ministry Educators.  I’m looking forward a nice few days connecting with fellow workers in the area of practical theology and adolescence.

I’ve also recently finished reading Richard Osmer’s 2008 monograph Practical Theology: An Introduction.  Though parts of the book are a little obtuse and difficult to wade through, Osmer’s pastoral sense and basic operating procedure are clear.  The most important contribution he makes here is his four-step process for walking through the task of practical theological reflection–and informed pastoral action.  The following are my reflections on their meaning (for a more detailed summary, check out this link.)

  1. The “descriptive-empirical task“: in other words, how we first attempt to understand the main contours of what is taking place.  Though seemingly common-sensical, there is often the temptation to shortcut this task in favor of what we think is going on.
  2. The “interpretive task“: asking the “why” question is vital, because it attempts to take us to the heart of the matter and use the best of what we have available to us to help provide answers.  Theological reflection means focusing on the expertise contained in the world around us as well as the divine truths of Scripture.
  3. The “normative task“: a discussion of those things which should be taking place.  A task that should be done humbly and carefully, with a clear eye towards seeking the best from a variety of different perspectives.
  4. The “pragmatic task“: in other words, so what do we do now?  I like that this is the fourth and final step in the progression, because so often we ministers want to act quickly and decisively without being reflective and careful.  Make no mistake: the people to whom we are ministering need real answers and deep pastoral care, and this step is essential.  But without carefully reflecting on their state, interacting with the best wisdom our world has, and meditating the teachings and ethic of Scripture we run the risk of shortchanging them in favor of an easy or “obvious” answer that might be quite wrong.

Though separated into linear steps and clearly meant to be a deliberative exercise, the author admits there is a sense in which these steps can often interact with one another and proceed in various ways.  Moreover, it is my contention that after spending enough time thinking through the practical theological task in these terms, a slavish adherence to them is not necessary.  The more they become natural and interior to ourselves as ministers, the more we understand the way they operate vis-a-vis the practices we undertake.  Whether they have read Practical Theology or not, the best and most effective ministers of today would probably line up quite well with the ideas established here.

As a system Osmer’s method has a great deal to commend it, and I look forward to utilize it with my students as I help them understand some of the qualities needed in our continued efforts to minister effectively.


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