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Pursuing Lived Theology in the Context of World Christianity – Part 1: A Working Definition

By Easten Law

Dr. Easten Law is Associate Director of OMSC, Co-Editor of the International Bulletin of Mission Research, and Lead Instructor & Designer for OMSC’s Online Certificate in Lived Theology & World Christianity. Easten’s research focuses on lived theology, religious pluralism, and public life in the context of contemporary China, the Global East, and the larger Sinophone world.  He completed his doctorate in theological and religious studies from Georgetown University in 2020 examining how Chinese Christian faith is experienced, negotiated, and expressed in everyday life across cultural and religious boundaries.

Editorial Note: This post is the first in a series of three highlighting the scholarship, structure, and partnerships that are developing around OMSC’s new online certificate program in lived theology and world Christianity.  This first post is an edited excerpt from the introduction of Easten Law’s forthcoming monograph tentatively titled, “Chinese Christianity and Spiritual Formation in an Age of Liquid Religiosity: A Case Study in Lived Theology and World Christianity.”  It provides a brief review of some of the scholarship that has led Dr. Law to propose engaging world Christianity through the lens of lived theology and proposes a tentative definition to orient its pursuit.  This definition is just one of the motivating impulses behind OMSC’s online certificate program.


Over the past four decades, world Christianity has become an increasingly common frame of reference for studying the church from multiple locations, both literally and theoretically.  It has provided the academic study of Christianity with a renewed sense of self-awareness that has unshackled the idea of the Church from its Euro-American captivity across time and space.  It has fostered a large multi-disciplinary tent that has welcomed historians, social scientists, and theologians of various backgrounds and areas of expertise into dialogue with one another.  It continues to forge ahead to reveal hidden stories from around the world church, past and present, with an explicit aim to elevate them to the same stature and importance that an “average” church history course might give to Aquinas in Rome or Calvin in Geneva.  It’s an exciting time to be a part of the study of world Christianity.

Jehu Hanciles emphasizes that “The world Christianity approach is not one thing but a plurality of emphases, models, and interpretative assumptions – all wrapped in a peculiar propensity for boundary-crossing and for exploring intersections in a way that calls master narratives and universalizing constructs into question.”[1] For Hanciles, the dominant trait that binds the many perspectives, disciplines, and methods that make up world Christianity today is its ability to challenge any one dominant story by crossing boundaries and attending to the tensions at the intersections.

While the recognition of multiple forms of Christianity is empirically without question, the constant march to dis-establish a dominant narrative can prove problematic for the churches who confess one faith and theologians desiring to foster a singular sense of faith seeking understanding.  Herein lies the persistent tension in the study of world Christianity: the question of theological normativity for a scattered and diverse world church From the standpoint of this specific tension, I argue for the inclusion of lived theology as a conceptual approach and methodological guide for world Christianity’s next season of scholarship.

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Lived theology can be described as a particular orientation within larger discourses of historical and practical theology that emphasize lived experiences as a source of theological construction, often advocating for empirical and qualitative research to realize theological praxis.  In my observation, it is an increasingly shared impulse that can be found across the theological curricula by all those seeking to ground theological inquiry in the everyday realities of faith-filled lives, including the diverse experiences persistently highlighted by world Christianity scholarship.

For Sabrina Müller, lived theology relies on both the image of God and the priesthood of all believers as foundational doctrines.  This means linking the often-intimate religious experiences of individuals with their collective public expressions.  She argues, “Lived theology is grounded in the world of experience and life reality of human beings. It becomes theology when it is expressed with reflection and resonates in the public sphere.”[2]  Methodologically, this means lived theology sits at the liminal and interstitial space between the inward experiences of God’s presence (individual and collective) and the public consequences of these experiences.

Knut Tveteried builds on this dynamic by arguing, “Lived theology – at least for research purposes – could be seen as a negotiation of theological participation and reification. We could regard it as an interplay between old and new theological reifications (words, artifacts, texts, rooms, books, liturgies, concepts, etc.) and old and new theological participation (activities, relations, places, networks, habits, membership, practices, etc.). In the negotiation of the two, evolves not only meaning, but also lived theology.”[3]  If Müller links lived theology with the negotiation that takes place between the inward individual experience of God and its public social expressions in society, Tveteried thickens the process by integrating dimensions of time, history, and tradition.  Lived theological research tracks how Christians work out their relationship between the principles and practices of faith passed down through history and tradition with the less predictable and surprising realities of their contemporary life.

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Considering the perspectives reviewed above, I propose a tentative and heuristic definition for the work of lived theology in the context of world Christianity based on three characteristics.

Lived theology, in the context of world Christianity, includes:

  • discernment of God’s active presence within the everyday negotiations of Christian lives individually, in community, and in society;

  • tracing the evolution of spiritual meaning across boundaries of all kinds (culture, religion, gender, religion, etc) amidst the diverse experiences and expressions of the world church; and

  • a systematically informed articulation of theological faith grounded in Christianity’s longstanding traditions and multiple religiosities.

The first trait assumes and assures the theological quality of this endeavor by foregrounding God’s presence and action as a real variable of the realities being studied.  This posture demands that any study of the world church from any disciplinary standpoint integrate and discern hypotheses regarding God’s active intention within the phenomenon being studied.  Assuming both God’s omnipresence and the Holy Spirit’s dynamism, this work centers the process that individuals and communities undergo to negotiate their relationship and experiences with God vis-à-vis their daily relationships and interactions with others.

It is important to emphasize here the hypothetical nature of lived theology grounded in humility.  Lived theology is, by its very nature, always tentative because it acknowledges God’s ways as beyond our own.  Moreover, by explicitly naming human limitations, lived theology seriously considers sin’s reality upon our intellectual endeavors. Nevertheless, it also trusts in the reality that God invites the church to participate in God’s work at every level of human experience from the individual to the social and cultural. By embracing a posture of negotiation, lived theology is always open to new data that might correct and/or reform our previous understandings of God and God’s action in the world and through the church.

Second, lived theology in the context of world Christianity pays particular attention to dynamics of boundary crossing across multiple categories of experience among diverse expressions of the church.  Christianity’s spread throughout the world via multiple migrations necessitates a lived theology that centers the experience of boundary crossing. Recognizing living faith as an evolving form of spirituality, both individually and socially, works of lived theology related to the world church prioritize the role faith is negotiated and expressed amidst changing contexts.  With each crossing, living faiths are reworked and recontextualized in order to bring the values and beliefs embedded in heritage and tradition into dialogue with new complexities and challenges.

This means that the liminal spaces between established religio-cultural norms and their alternative expressions are focal points for inquiry because it is within these spaces that the aforementioned negotiations with God and the world are taking place.  Thus, lived theology in the context of world Christianity does not only trace how a person’s or community’s multiple senses of belonging change across time and space, it also works to articulate a theological basis from why such changes occur.

Third, lived theology in the context of world Christianity works to advance a systematic and theological understanding of Christian pluralism.  As this form of lived theological research maps and explains the numerous ways Christian faith changes from context to context, it is simultaneously working toward new understandings of scripture and doctrine that are capable of holding together the diversity of the church universal.  Whatever themes and hypotheses emerge from the study of the church’s lived faith must be reflected upon in relationship to the larger story of the Christianity and theologized in such a way that common ground can be built across diverse experiences. It can be argued that Christian pluralism constitutes one of the primary theological questions inherent to the study of world Christianity.

Lived theology in the context of world Christianity is, therefore, inextricably tied to addressing this tension between the particular and the universal.

The traits offered in this tentative definition are both cursory and experimental.  They emerge out of a desire to bring together multiple discourses and approaches to studying Christianity in this particular moment that account for lived realities across the globe with the greater narratives and concerns of the church’s theological traditions.  As the world’s diverse lived theologies are examined and put into dialogue with the greater whole of our theological traditions, the traits and priorities outlined above will likely change to reflect new challenges facing the church and the world.


[1] Jehu Hanciles, “Introduction – World Christianity Interrupted: Green Shoots and Growing Pains” in World Christianity: History, Methodologies, Horizons, edited by Jehu Hanciles (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2021), x.

[2] Sabrina Müller, Lived Theology: Impulses for a Pastoral Theology of Empowerment (Eugene, OR: Cascade), 31.

[3] Knut Tvetereid, “Lived Theology and Theology in the Lived,” in The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook on Qualitative Research and World Christianity, edited by Pete Ward and Knut Tveitereid (New York: Wiley- Blackwell: 2022), 71.


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