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Christian Life: Experiential vs. Theological

by Stephen Hebert on Tuesday - 24 July 2007

in Ministry

It was recently brought to my attention that a local religious leader (who shall remain quite nameless) disparages certain ministries for putting too much emphasis on the “experiential.” I found this quite curious. In my time as a Christian, I have felt that there is definitely an experiential aspect to this life. In reality, so much of Christianity hinges on experience.

When you consider the way that Jesus worked, at least as it is passed down to us in the Gospel, we aren’t talking about a guy who went around preaching a bunch of heady sermons with polysyllabic words that no one understood. We don’t find a guy who wanted to systematize and organize the kosmos in such a way that people could understand. Instead, he invoked in them a far greater teacher: personal experience.

Primarily, I feel that Jesus did this in two different ways:

  • Miracles
  • Parables

Miracles

Miracles are obviously experiential. When Jesus heals the blind man, or casts demons out of someone, or something preternatural of that ilk, the object of that miracle experiences God’s love in a way that stretches beyond systems and flow charts. The experience is personal and impactful. Experiences such as these tend to create a radical change in a person.

What we don’t want to overlook is the effect that these miracles might have had on the throngs of people following Jesus around. It is not only the object of the miracle who has a bona fide experience. Onlookers feel the power of these events as well. Watching a person healed or raised from the dead right before your very eyes can have a powerful effect on you. “If he did that for him, what about me? What could be done for me?”

Now, most of us haven’t seen a resurrection, or even a healing. But we do experience little miracles from time to time. These can be the birth of a child, or a friend’s change of heart, or whatever. When these events happen, they have an effect on us. They leave an imprint on us. We experience.

Parables

Very often, Jesus chooses to teach in parables. Why might that be? Why doesn’t he just say whatever the heck is on his mind? Well, for very good reason. If Jesus was just to tell us, just to give us straight up answers, there might be a dimension missing. Instead he chooses to speak in parables. Some say this is simply so that he can relate to a wider audience of a variety of socio-economic classes. There’s probably a lot of truth to that. I would also say that there is a lot of power in storytelling.

Jesus’ parables are often stories that engage the reader/listener. We read along wondering what the prodigal son will do, and amazed at the love that his father shows him. We are transfixed by these stories. They relate to us on a very experiential level while also giving us theological data to feed the left, systems-hungry, side of the brain.

Stories are powerful. They have the ability to persuade an audience and move them. Jesus was a storyteller. Likewise, we too should become tellers of stories.

Theological

So, is there any thing wrong with theology? Well, I have to say, “NO.” First of all, look at my freakin’ degree: I’m a master of theological studies. I’m supposed to love theology, right? Darn right!

The trap that we can fall into, and I speak from experience, is stressing theology so much that we endanger our mystical side. For me, part of being a Christian is mystical; it’s magical; it’s wonder. I have absolutely no problem with dissecting a passage word-for-word and squeezing that theological turnip till the blood runs dry. To know this, you need to simply ask the college group at my church who spent six weeks reading Romans 1:1 with me! I love that stuff!

The local leader I mentioned above is really just questioning the value of the experiential because either (a) he doesn’t have a lot of experience—which I don’t think is true—, or (b) he fears that ministries that cater to the experiential are manipulative. I think this is a valid concern. I wouldn’t want to take part in a ministry that reaches out and tries to manipulate people into Christianity. First of all, it’s rude. Second, coercion such as this does not develop real lovers of God. Instead, it creates coerced people who live in fear. This is exactly why God does not force us into submission, but allows us to make choices (I suppose there is some debate on this topic…this represents my view).

The reality is this. The two should be married. We should feed both sides of our soul—theological knowledge goes hand-in-hand with experiential knowledge. I think of 1 John, which I’ve been spending a lot of time playing with lately. The end of chapter two describes a system in which people know things because they are abiding in God (see here). I really like this idea.

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