Introducing missional theology through explorations in spirituality and creativity | John and Olive Drane [ANVIL vol 36 issue 2]

Introduction [1]

John and Olive Drane

Back in the day, it was easy to profile the sort of person who would sign up for a course in theology. Male, bookish, socially conforming, somewhat intellectual, perhaps more interested in ideas than in people, and single-mindedly committed to a lifetime vocation in parish ministry.

That’s a caricature, of course, but like all caricatures it is sufficiently grounded in reality to be instantly recognisable. Some theological training institutions still cater predominantly for such individuals, and in the context of a mixed economy of church they will continue to exercise an important ministry. Alongside that, however, a renewed awareness of the missional context in which we now find ourselves is leading to a recognition that we need a wider spectrum of theological models if we are to have any hope of connecting with the growing number of people in the wider community who know nothing of the Christian story and have no interest in learning more about it, still less in getting involved in the life of the church. The recognition of pioneer ministries as fully authentic forms of Christian vocation is a step in the right direction, though it has also highlighted the need for appropriate forms of theological education to equip and empower pioneers with understanding of the cultural context, and skills that will facilitate the birthing of new forms of faith communities.

Learning and teaching

Previous generations often joked about the way that new insights emerging on the west coast of the US would take 20 years to make it to the east coast, and as many again to cross the Atlantic and be embraced in a British context. The timescale is much reduced in today’s world of instant communication, and in terms of church life, it is no longer the case that the most perceptive understandings are coming from North America, though that is the trajectory for the model we wish to share here. Following the death of our baby daughter, Olive found renewal not in her previous world of physics and medical science but in the creative arts, and specifically clowning, and it was the quest to explore this in relation to Christian ministry that initially took us to Berkeley (California) and the Graduate Theological Union, where Hebrew scholar Douglas Adams had established a unique programme in art and theology, including clowning. [2] While there, we received an invitation to visit Fuller Seminary in southern California to lead a one-off workshop integrating whatever we thought we knew about art, theology and spirituality.

On a warm August evening, some 70 or 80 people gathered on Fuller’s Pasadena campus for an experience that turned out to be life-changing for many of those who attended, and we were subsequently invited to create an entire course module along the same lines. The challenge was deceptively simple: how to craft a course that would be creative, interactive and spiritually formative, with theological integrity and missional relevance – while also being academically rigorous as it would be available to students enrolled in masters’ and doctoral programs, some of whom would have no previous formal background in theological studies. For good measure, it also needed to integrate with the professional qualifications offered within Fuller’s School of Psychology. While the mix is different, there are many similarities between this and the sort of individuals who are now embarking on a vocation in pioneer ministry.

The two of us brought different skills to this enterprise. John’s starting point in theology had been in biblical studies, and while that included classic disciplines like Hebrew and Greek his thinking had never been far from the interface of faith and culture, due largely to the influence of his undergraduate personal tutor, who had previously served as a missionary in India and applied that cross-cultural perspective to studying the Bible. John subsequently gained a doctorate focused on Gnosticism, an ancient pathway that finds many echoes among today’s spiritual searchers, who can often be the most receptive to the gospel if only we can work out how to contextualise it into the sort of categories that they find meaningful. So it seemed natural that we would combine all that with Olive’s new-found expertise in theology and the arts to develop a course that would serve as an introduction to missional theology while preserving theological integrity and academic rigour in disciplines as diverse as cultural and media studies, missiology, church history, biblical studies, psychology and practical theology – while also being spiritually formative. At the time, some other faculty members at Fuller Seminary were working to develop what eventually became the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts, [3] and they supported us in dreaming dreams, with no fixed expectations of what might emerge.

Reframing the tradition

What did emerge was a course based not on a traditional theological paradigm, but on something familiar to the everyday experience of people everywhere: the image of a house (or home) around which everything else would be arranged. It could be thought of as our own house, or the students’ houses, or indeed God’s house, and using this model we decided to inhabit each of the rooms in turn as a way of exploring key themes in contemporary theological reflection within a formative environment. Historically, a house of one sort or another has always been central to intentional spiritual formation, most often as a place of community where students would live together and in which academic learning and personal formation were part of a single residential experience. That can still be found in some places, though more often the commodification of education and the privatisation of spirituality, along with financial constraints, have conspired to separate the two, and as a consequence theological educators often struggle to maintain an appropriate balance between academic learning and spiritual formation. It is easy to lament what has been lost, but turning the clock back is not an option. The reality is that the only point at which many of today’s students are going to be fully engaged is in formal class meetings: indeed, for more of them than are willing to admit it, this probably becomes their de facto “church”. This assumption was built into our thinking right from the start, as we explored how we might combine information and formation as part of a holistic educational experience in such a way that it would create spaces for personal transformation.

This required some fresh thinking about the context for learning. We knew that to create a safe space combining cognitive and affective learning, time would be of the essence – lots of it. We settled for fourhour sessions that could fit into a morning (8 a.m.–12 noon), an afternoon (1–5 p.m.) or evening (6–10 p.m.), which over 10 weeks (or 10 days of intensive classes) gives 40 hours of class time. We planned to visit a different space in the house in each session and with a similar pedagogical model, focused especially on an inductive, interactive and reflective perspective that would be grounded in the participants’ own experience. Presentations in various modes would sit alongside other activities designed to explore affective aspects of the topics. These might include music, song, movement, drawing, collage, ritual, mime, play – though not all in the same session! Then there would always be at least one or two breaks for coffee and informal conversations.

Stepping through the door

In the rest of this article, we describe in more detail how we have used this paradigm, before offering some reflections on what has been accomplished vis-à-vis more conventional ways of studying theology and some of the challenges it poses to inherited models. Unsurprisingly, the journey begins in the porch, where we unpack the baggage we bring with us and the expectations we have. At this very first meeting we will focus on students’ experience of the wider culture rather than personal baggage, and then set it all in the context of the bigger picture of cultural change, exploring understandings of modernity, postmodernity and so on – while always asking where God might be found in the chaos (the missio Dei). Numbers will always determine how the time can be allocated most usefully, but giving everyone as much of a voice as they need is important for establishing the sort of open ethos that can ultimately enable positive formative experiences. After the porch, the journey could obviously go in many different directions, though we soon discovered that the order in which we visit different spaces is really important if we are to facilitate a growing sense of safety in the community of the class.

Typically the living room might come next, which we describe as a place where we tell stories. This time it will be more specifically our own personal stories, which easily and naturally connects with themes of narrative theology and creative ways to use the Bible, engaging with classic hermeneutical approaches as well as practical models for working with youth, or older people, or whatever contexts might be most relevant to the members of the group. After that we usually visit the garden with themes of creativity, beauty and imagination, starting with God as Creator and the imago Dei in relation to humans as co-creators, combined with practical explorations of the place of the arts in ministry and mission in relation to the heritage of whatever denominational streams might be represented in any given group of students. Other questions might focus on who we could meet in natural environments (pagans and other spiritual searchers, perhaps), with some attention then to environmental theology as well as practical missional outcomes such as Forest Church – and often some ritual involving living plants as a reflection on spiritual growth. In an ideal location such as southern California, much of this can happen outdoors at any time of the year. In the UK we might need to be more creative!

Back inside, the basement (or loft or garage, as culturally appropriate) will be next – where we are sorting through the debris from the past and deciding what to keep, what to discard, and what to recycle or reimagine so as to be serviceable in a new context. This might involve our own journeys of faith, maybe an introduction to stages of faith, as well as inherited traditions from our various ecclesial contexts and their usefulness or otherwise in new contexts – often explored through play with some of the discarded stuff to facilitate engagement with topics such as communication in different historical eras. Next comes the kitchen, where we might expand on some of these issues, as the place where community happens – a natural introduction to questions that can be problematic for some Christians, exploring the nature of faith and how much (or little) of it is required in order to actually belong in the community of Jesus followers. This frequently involves in-depth examination of some New Testament texts, though other themes can easily feature here such as the relationship between personal temperament and spirituality, and between discipleship as action and theology as reflection, inspired by insights from non-western theology or more broadly the discipline of practical theology and reflective praxis.

Challenge and opportunity

At this point in a 10-week quarter we would be halfway through the course, and students generally recognise by now that this is a safe space where no questions are off limits – but more than that, their personal vulnerabilities will be respected. So, with a mixture of apprehension and excitement, we head to the bedroom, themes of which hardly need to be spelled out but include the whole spectrum of relationships in today’s homes. Participants’ own stories are especially important here as there will inevitably be many sensitivities and lifestyles that some students might find challenging. In the current Christian environment it takes a good deal of skill to navigate all that, though historical exploration of family structures can help, along with the recognition that different cultures have different relational norms. Pastoral and evangelistic needs and opportunities might be explored alongside narratives that are already present among the group, together with biblical passages and case studies. Whatever happens in this room, the next one is always the bathroom. Here we can deal with the inevitable pain that the bedroom invokes, addressing issues of alienation and embarrassment, invariably focused around the therapeutic potential of mask-making, which not only reflects themes like revealing, washing, forgiveness or cleansing, but also creates a space for having messy fun in the process as well as rediscovering practices of the ancient church that are often lost in some traditions (things like confession, anointing, blessing and so on). [4] We might also include a liturgy of reconciliation between women and men, which can be both scary and liberating, not only for the words but for the format of sitting on the floor with women encircling the men.

Having spent two days in these personally challenging spaces, going into the study can be a relief for some. Here we might explore how thinking, feeling and doing relate to one another, perhaps working on our own preferred ways of processing information, along with research on communication and its implications for the church’s mission. But the central theme will be around the question of how to reflect theologically, exploring the nature of practical theology as an integration of cognitive and affective understandings of God and spirituality. After the study, we head to the construction site, working on what a makeover might look like. Here we will reimagine the (literal and metaphorical) space: drawing the plans as a way of clarifying the meaning of key values such as gospel, spirituality, mission, church and so on; gathering the materials that we need for the rebuilding; dreaming about a renewed community of disciples; and working out how to get from here to there – which will include the nature of diverse ministries, partnerships, giftings, vocation and entrepreneurship.

The street outside may be the last call as we leave the house to engage with the wider community and explore what it is like to share faith on non-church territory. This might embrace new atheism or new-age spiritualities along with topics such as the spirituality of sport or (in southern California) life on the beach, set in a context of models from Scripture, history and our own experience – all of it while exploring the relationships between creation, incarnation and mission. Of course, the street need not be the end: the possibilities are limitless, constrained only by the imagination. Others that we have included from time to time are the entertainment centre (TV, movies, music, digital media), the wider neighbourhood (shopping, advertising, spirituality of place) and the people next door (different people groups, celebrities, disability, social and political allegiances).

Learning from the experience

This is only one example of a way in which we might think creatively about theological education, though as an introduction to doing theology through the lens of mission we manage to cover a lot of ground in ways that connect with traditional topics in the theological curriculum – Bible, history/historical theology, hermeneutics, missiology, liturgy – as well as insights from the social sciences, which are essential for effective mission (cultural studies, ethnic and gender studies, art and play therapy among others), all of them combined in such a way as to create a fresh synthesis that enables new dimensions of personal formation to be a natural outcome, as well as helping students to identify subjects that may be worth further exploration in other courses. Following the success of the course described here, we went on to develop other courses that extend many of these concepts, including dedicated courses on narrative theology and storytelling, creative arts and the Bible, theology and culture, and Celtic spirituality, as well as courses on the Old and New Testaments, all of them with the same emphasis on combining in-depth reflection with practical skills for ministry.

In reflecting on the experience, some clear lessons have emerged that have a broader validity and which present alternatives to many of the current pedagogical models in theological education. The first is time. Every topic described here is likely to be deeply challenging for somebody, and sometimes for everybody (including the teachers). It takes more than one or two hours to unpack and debrief all that appropriately. We have discovered that four-hour sessions work well, with unstructured informal time always essential, not an optional extra, and not programmed in advance but responsive to the mood of the group. Then there is space. Rooms with desks and lecterns are not only unsuitable but actually prevent appropriate levels of interaction and engagement. The course described here will only work in a studio-style space that is big enough for the numbers. [5] If it can be combined with accessible outdoor space, so much the better, and if each room can be set up with props so as to resemble the actual spaces of the house then that is even better still.

Thirdly, there is what for want of a better term might be described as attitude. To fulfil an aspiration for a class to be spiritually formative, teachers need to be accompaniers on a journey and not afraid of vulnerability, whether their own or the participants. It is easy to say that “the medium is the message”, but we need to recognise that reality in the way we approach things. Teaching and learning in both church and academy have been so focused on the transmission of information that many people really cannot imagine any other way. It is easy to talk about engagement and interaction but unless we intentionally model what we are talking about, we are not going to make the shift that will also inspire creativity in mission. The aim is not to marginalise or downplay the importance of thinking, but to give people experiences that are so engaging that they actually can’t help thinking about them – something that we would argue is exactly what Jesus did. We could tell many stories about the ways in which some of the most challenging – and apparently crazy – experiences included in here have turned out to be life-changing for those who have engaged in them, which of course is what formation is supposed to be about. In order to accomplish any of this, flexibility and personal openness is essential: teachers who need to work from a fixed script will not find this easy.

There is, fourthly, a paradigm shift here that might be described as prioritising the social sciences rather than the humanities as the primary model for missional theological discourse – a topic that is worth exploration in its own right, but which we will need to write about in another article.

Coming home

The concept just described was initially based on hunches and intuitions, and it was only after teaching this way for several years that we discovered others were drawn to the same imagery. Walter Wink highlights the importance of transformation as part of the intellectual quest, describing it as

exploring all the sealed and stale rooms of this God’s house we call our selves, and offering all we find to the real owner for forgiveness, acceptance, and healing… It is discovering the unjust and violated parts of ourselves… a process, not an arriving; we are “transforming”, not transformed. But all along the way there are flashes of insight, moments of exquisite beauty, experiences of forgiveness and of being healed, reconciliations and revelations that confirm the rightness of our quest and whet our appetites for more. [6]

Not long after we started teaching this course we also discovered Robert Boyd Munger’s slim book My Heart – Christ’s Home, which has been a favourite devotional text for American Christians for some 65 years and which had a particular serendipity in the context of Fuller Seminary as he was one of the professors in its early days. In this book he imagines taking Christ on a visit to nine different rooms in a home, reflecting on what might be found there and how the Lord might react. [7] Then more recently, Samuel Wells has identified improvisation as an essential disposition for effective ministry, something that had informed our pedagogy right from the start, albeit drawn from the world of jazz rather than theology. [8] What we have learned is that a combination of the cognitive, the formational and the pedagogical in a single package has huge potential for not only changing the shape of much that passes for theological education, but it is also a powerful encouragement for those who engage in it to see mission and pioneer leadership in a new way that will also connect with so many of today’s spiritual seekers who would otherwise not give the gospel a second thought.

John and Olive Drane have shared a passion for each other and for a radical approach to Christian discipleship since they were young teens. They are based in Glasgow, where Olive was born, and have three adult children and four grandchildren. They have worked extensively with Christians of many different traditions all around the world, and as a result of COVID-19 are now working flat out to help churches in creating and sustaining faith communities online.

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[1] See also John Drane, “Learning for Mission,” in Anvil 32, no. 1 (2016), which sets the scene for much that is discussed here. https://
[2] For a more extensive reflective account of all this, see Olive M. Fleming Drane, Clowns, Storytellers, Disciples (Oxford: BRF, 2002).
[4] See Olive M. Fleming Drane, “Making Masks, healing persons, and teaching Practical Theology,” available at http://www.spiritualjourneys.
[5] Experience suggests that something like two square metres of floor space for every person is optimal. The largest number we have ever
accommodated at one time was just over 60 participants.
[6] Walter Wink, Transforming Bible Study, revised edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 77–78.
[7] Robert Boyd Munger, My Heart – Christ’s Home (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992; originally 1954).
[8] Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics, revised edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018; 1st edition, Brazos Press,

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