What is Practical Theology?

Practical Theology is the analytic, critical and conceptual study of the religious practice of Christianity, which finds its expression in many different ways of communicating the gospel. It is focused on the various different processes in which individuals, congregations or the church as a whole (including its institutions and organizations) are involved in the “communication of the gospel“ as an event of communication, participation, integration and interaction, in the course of which something happens to the benefit of people. Significant aspects are the experience of freedom, to both give and receive appreciation and care, and to lead a self-responsible life by faith – all factors of a positive attitude towards life.

As a relatively young individual academic discipline, Practical Theology found its way into the faculties of theology only in the 19th century. Certainly, written concepts on the task and structure of a church service, on the function and method of a sermon, on the goals and challenges of pastoral care, or on the principles and perspectives of church leadership had already existed before then. These recommendations were, however, of a rather practical, case-related nature and read like religious literature. Yet neither practical experiences nor pious convictions alone are enough to analyze, assess, critically accompany or shape the religious practice of Christianity. This is only possible with the aid of a scientific theology that is based on careful observation, coherent argumentation and a reflected methodology.

Religion as a complex yet quite specific ensemble of experiences, insights, emotions, attitudes, actions and performances certainly takes specific shapes in church, society, or the individual respectively. In order to be able to appropriately take into account and reflect all these different aspects of religion, what is required are a coherent anthropology, which adequately reflects the human condition, a sociologically founded and reflected concept of the church, as well as strategies for “communicating the gospel“ that are based on communications science. ​

These processes always involve individuals or subjects (who visit sick people, deliver a sermon, or lead a synod, etc.), different situations emerge respectively (e.g. in pastoral care or in congregational work), and mutual understanding (e.g. through decipherable sacramental, liturgical or socio-critical signs) is ever required. Therefore, traditionally psychology (including the psychology of religion), sociology and semiotics have been the fields with which Practical Theology has always been engaged in an interdisciplinary dialogue. To study Practical Theology means (1) to acquire an appropriate understanding of the process of communicating the gospel, (2) to be able to perceive the problems and opportunities of the personal dimension of this communication, (3) to be furthermore able to locate the communication of the gospel in the context of relevant situations, (4) to know about the codes of its sign systems (words, writing, gestures, symbols, spaces, church year etc.), and (5) to be able to understand and professionally help fashion the dynamics of its structure in church and congregation.