Public Theology and Local Church Discipleship
Updated: Oct 2, 2022
A healthy local church will be concerned with the task of making disciples. This is simply the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18). Evangelical churches vary greatly in their stated or unstated definitions of what a Christian disciple is and how disciples are made. In as much as the definition of a disciple includes the idea of “going out” into the world to make more disciples, discipleship should include an element of public faith. Public theology is a valuable resource that local churches can benefit from using more intentionally in their discipleship environments.
Siloed Local Church Discipleship
Church health strategists talk about the problem of “siloed” ministry within a church. This refers to the phenomenon of different ministries within a church not working in conjunction with each. Siloed ministries do not share a unified mission and unified goal for discipleship. Healthier churches often have more unified ministries and clearly stated mission and values statements that every ministry in the church is working toward.
However, even churches with more unified ministries can suffer from siloed discipleship. Robby Gallaty defines discipleship as, “intentionally equipping believers with the Word of God through accountable relationships empowered by the Holy Spirit in order to replicate faithful followers of Christ.” This process of discipleship can become “siloed” in the local church when its focus is only on church activities and relationships. A local church that learns to engage public theology as part of its discipleship will avoid siloed discipleship.
Following Jesus in All of Life
The call to follow Christ as a disciple encompasses all of life. Jesus himself says that to follow him, one must count the cost and be willing to give up everything. Certainly this level of devotion extends to every area of a disciple's life, and cannot be siloed into a few spiritual areas, or to the church and home. In order to extend to all of life, discipleship must engage with public theology.
Public theology deals with the application and communication of Christian truth in matters of public interest. When a Christian learns to engage the public parts of their life through the lens of Christian truth, they begin the work of public theology. While the field of public theology encompasses things as broad as contested cultural issues or international politics, it also encompasses seemingly minute parts of everyday life. Examples of how public theology can impact discipleship in everyday life include:
· Anthropology and gender concerns
· Consumer issues
· Workplace relations
· Leisure activities
· Local political issues
· Environmental issues
· Neighborhood relations
Each of these are areas of public interest that intersect everyday life. Christian theology and truth have things to say about each of these areas when examined carefully and applied.
Public Theology Happens, Whether it is Christian or Not
Practicing public theology is unavoidable. There are always underlying truth and worldview commitments behind any judgment or action, whether those commitments are Christian or not. Theology is the study of God, and we typically mean the study of the one true God of the Christian Bible. But theology can also mean the study of any religion and any god. There can be and are public theologies that are not Christian.
The danger is that people who are genuinely converted and seek to follow Christ can find themselves employing non-Christian public theology. This happens when discipleship is siloed in the church and home, and away from areas of public life. Even for the believer, non-Christian worldview assumptions can guide thoughts and actions when biblical truth is not intentionally applied. Every person is doing a type of public theology as they navigate life, whether that theology is Christian or not. Every person is doing public theology as they The local church should strive to help Christians do distinctly Christian public theology.
Public Life Affects Personal Discipleship
There is also a counter-intuitive reason that the local church should include public theology in its discipleship environments. How one thinks about public issues affects one’s personal discipleship. We are generally trained to think about this dynamic in the opposite direction, and that is not wrong. Personal exposure to biblical and theological truth should shape a Christian's thoughts and opinions on public matters. Public theology, in a sense, argues that this ought to be true. We ought to think theologically about public issues, and we ought to have our views on public issues shaped by biblical truth. An often-missed reason that public theology is so important is that a reverse dynamic can also happen.
In church life, this is referred to as people being discipled by the culture. Secular culture does not generally disciple by means of directly teaching what it considers theological truth. Sometimes it does. The mantra, “Love is love” is an example of an explicit statement of theology that is intended to be applied to public thought and policy. However, more often than not, secular culture disciples by letting its policy and public thought shape the theological truth of those in its grasp. Many non-Christian ideas about the world are foundational to societal views. When those societal views are uncritically accepted by Christians, they can be discipled away from Christian truth. Sometimes this merely manifests itself as holes or inconsistencies in a believer’s theology or worldview. But when this dynamic is repeated across a broad spectrum of issues, a cycle of deconversion can take place.
Bad public theology can lead people away from faith in Jesus. Public theology matters. Churches must teach principles of sound Christian public theology in order to help believers navigate public issues with their faith intact. Good public theology will also help believers understand how to integrate Christian truth into everyday life and thus confidently follow Jesus in every area of life.
Churches should incorporate public theology into their discipleship environments in order to avoid “siloed” discipleship where church members separate their public life from their private and church life. Everyone inevitably has a public theology with underlying worldview commitments behind their public actions and beliefs. Churches need to do thoughtful work to help congregants have a Christian public theology. Without intentionality in this area, people end up being discipled by non-Christian cultural assumptions, and this is very damaging to their spiritual health.
 Chuck Lawless, “10 Evidences of ‘Siloed’ Ministries in a Church,” February 1, 2022, accessed September 27, 2022, https://chucklawless.com/2022/02/10-evidences-of-siloed-ministries-in-a-church/.  Robby Gallaty, “What is Discipleship? Understanding the Terms,” Replicate, June 10, 2013, accessed September 27, 2022, https://replicate.org/what-is-discipleship/.  John Piper, “Following Christ Is Costly – But How do You Count the Cost?” Desiring God, January 29, 2018, accessed September 27, 2022, https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/following-christ-is-costly-but-how-do-you-count-the-cost.