What is Practical Theology?
I recently finished reading Opening the Field of Practical Theology, edited by Kathleen Cahalen and Gordon Mikoski. In this book, fourteen of the nations top scholars in the field of practical theology contribute chapters, offering snapshots of various approaches and trajectories in practical theology. If one began with the assumption that practical theology was a fairly monolithic discipline or methodology, this book would certainly challenge that assumption. Opening the Field does not look to clarify what everyone means when they say "practical theology"--as though they all mean the same thing--but instead it opens up and invites the reader into the lively conversation that is practical theology, with its various definitions and approaches. One quickly realizes that while some things are shared among practical theologians (i.e. "respect for the self-identification of other theologians, ...emphasis on context, and the emphasis on interdisciplinary studies" p.271), there is in fact much diversity in the various histories and theological heritages from which different approaches emerge, the key figures to which they refer, the understandings of the relation between theory and practice, and the sources and norms of each discipline. Different people ascribe different degrees of authority to the biblical witness and to the human experience. Some approaches prefer to make ontological claims, others epistemological ones. And yet, there is apparently enough commonality between different approaches for them to stay in conversation (which is why the editors of this book chose to describe it as "a conversation" in their conclusion).
As someone who is relatively new to this field of study (at least at this more defined level), this book was important. It exposed me to approaches to practical theology both familiar and foreign to my own. I was both affirmed and challenged. And, while the field is no more tidy (perhaps it's even a bit more messy) than it was to me before I read this, I feel I have some windows through which to engage the conversation.
So, what is the field of practical theology? It's a conversation about ministry, about God's action and human experience... and Opening the Field of Practical Theology will help you find a way in to the conversation.