The Organic Intellectual: Why the Pastor-Contextual-Theologian is the Future of Church Leadership in N. America

A recent post over at Duke’s Faith and Leadership blog reminded me of the changing role of intellectual leadership in transitional times. When the social world is in flux, institutions do not adapt easily and their leaders hold onto positions of power. The institution’s intellectual leaders get caught in the prior intellectual habits. As a result, they do not address the new cultural situation from other than a place of power, even if they have lost that power. Meanwhile, on the ground, in the daily struggles of life, intellectuals arise who are forced to think through issues as they directly arise from their struggles. Living in the trenches, they will be forced to address new questions and formulate new ideas from the place of struggle. It is from here that we can move afresh into the new challenges.
Antonio Gramsci called these new thinker/leaders “Organic intellectuals.” An organic intellectual, according to Gramsci, is less a contemplative thinker than an organizer, constructor, permanent persuader, who actively participates in social life and helps bring to theoretical articulation the moves needed to go forward (Terry Eagleton’s summary of Gramsci). In the words of Gramsci, they enable the emerging social classes to form some homogenous self-consciousness from which to move forward (Selections from Prison Notebooks).

The church, in my opinion, is in a time in N America where we need these new kind of contextual theologians.

I think just a casual look around the internet, or careful observations at some church conferences, or the attendance of an AAR or academic meeting of sorts, and we will see that our church leaders have often defaulted to being:

1.) Overly Pragmatic and Devoid of Theological Reflection. Often the people leading our churches are developing ideas and calling for practice that is devoid of theological testing. Therefore the solutions are imbalanced and not formed from historical wisdom (many times repeating the mistakes of the past). They have little access to “peer review” discussions and are poorly trained for it. Of course publishing houses make this possible as well as the loss of any ecclesial structure in N. America.


2.) “Ivory Tower” Centric – Deep in Theological Reflection but unfortunately held captive to the previous regime – Christendom and its structures. Many of our best thinkers have been in the academic system from the time they were undergrads. They get employed at an academic institution and become part of the academic bubble. They are not involved in the daily struggles of ministry and congregational formation. They become highly specialized in their work. And although they can help us, often they lack the proper posture of humility to serve. They work in abstractions on questions far removed from the life of the church.

I argue we need pastoral theologians who have their feet in both worlds and take the best of 1.) and 2.) and produce theology that can move practice towards the challenges of the social situation emerging.


Such pastor contextual theologians will need the following and/or be characterized by the following, if they are to emerge among our churches and educational institutions:

a.) We Will Not Leave the Work of Church Life. We may not always take traditional role of professional clergy, but we will remain in day to day leadership of churches from whence our theological work shall come.

b.) We Will Be Generalists. We will not be specialists but instead have a broad enough academic training to be able to work cross the disciplines within theology to organically speak to the situations as they arise in our church context. This can be achieved over time in good Masters programs and some doctoral programs, even some Doctor programs at seminaries. To me this should be the role of the doctoral programs in seminaries.

c.). Grace and respect for each other. There is no place for the intellectual snobbery/arrogance of the academy or the anti-intellectualism that sometimes inhabits the pastorate.

d.) Publishing Outlets. We need places to publish which escape the specialist syndrome of some academic journals. Yet we need recognizable places for good pastoral scholarship, peer review and publishing. Al Roxburgh and the The Missional Network are working on a new indexed journal. Missio Alliance is forming a “Younger Theologians” group.  The development of online journals like The Other Journal and various blog sites are promising for filling this need.

e. Theological forums. We need forums to seriously engage issues confronting us from our local contexts which denominations and/or publishing houses have not been able to address because of political/financial pressures. Such forums will make space for pastor-theologian interaction. The Gospel Coalition is one such forum from a Neo-Puritan/Reformed perspective. Missio Alliance is another forum emerging for evangelical holiness/centrist Baptist/ Anabaptist folks.

f.  Pastoral Theologians staying put in their cities and towns. We certainly need pastoral/contextual theologians in the seminaries, especially the seminary of the future. But we also need such contextual thinkers active leading and training leaders in context in every city and town.  This is where the future shall be birthed. Extension sites of seminaries, or churches as local centers for leadership training.

g. New Kinds of Educational Programs. The Ph.D. is a valuable degree but has its limits. It over specializes. It is built for academic track. The typical D Min has not been rigorous enough. We need bridging degrees. To this end, my own seminary, Northern Seminary, has been developing a D Min in Missional Leadership. This is just the first rendition of the program. We focus on theological training, as well as contextual ethnography. We’re training a generation of contextual theologians. Other programs are developing as well all over the world. For all the reasons above, I think the thought leaders of the future should consider alternatives to an academic PhD and consider other means to get a different kind of training that gives them the wherewithal to stay in context, become generalists, and lead the church of the West into Mission.


How does this fit your view of the future of intellectual leadership in N America?