New Doctorate in Contextual Theology Cohort to Begin in June 2024

July 27, 2023

Dr. David Fitch is the Betty R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary.

Northern Seminary is opening applications for a new cohort for our Doctorate in Contextual Theology, which is set to begin June 2024. If you are interested please email Mike Moore at or learn more here. Programs is led by Dr. David Fitch.

What Is Contextual Theology?

Contextual theology:

  • Combines culture studies and ecclesiology (theology and practice of church) with the study of the gospel (theology and Scripture)
  • Shape leaders, pastors, and thinkers to lead churches into the cultural challenges facing the church in the post Christendom West
  • Is about listening to people and the social dynamics in a context
  • Is about interpreting, communicating and then living the gospel in that context
  • Is about discerning the questions of the Trinity, Jesus, the gospel, salvation, the church, and justice, for the engagement of where we live

Some may call all of this practical theology or missional theology or liberation theology. At Northern Seminary, we call it contextual theology.

Why Is Contextual Theology Important?

Contextual theology is important because in North America we no longer live in a Christendom culture. In times past, while living in Christendom United States and Canada, the majority church could assume that the culture was monolithic, that language was the same for everyone, that the power of Christian consensus could be depended upon, and that identity and selfhood was mediated through the majority Christian culture and rarely to be questioned.

But today, in a post-Christendom West, all of these assumptions are up for grabs. Today, the Church (and Christianity) is resented. We live in multiple cultures with multiple languages where the authority of Scripture and the church no longer holds. We are sorting out how to live as Christians within a secular imaginary. We are surrounded by glaring injustices regarding racism, sexuality, gender, economics. We are living in fields of mission.

The Need to Be ‘Contextual Theologians’

If the church is to disciple followers of Jesus in these new contexts and engage the places of brokenness, the social injustices of our contexts, and those who do not yet know who Jesus is, we must become contextual theologians. It is not enough to make pronouncements regarding racism, sexuality, patriarchy, economic exploitation, etc. We must know how to engage, be present, and lead our churches into in these cultures with the gospel.

If pastors in North America are to lead churches that engage the social issues of injustice of our time in a way that both heals our cultures as well as draws people into Christ’s Kingdom and Lordship, then we must become contextual theologians, skilled in the practices of mission.

The Tradition of Contextual Theology

The tradition of contextual theology at Northern Seminary has been developing for two decades. We have attracted premier scholars and practitioners in the fields of ethnography, ecclesiology and mission, cultural exegesis, Scriptural hermeneutics and context, congregational leadership and change, and contextual theological method to teach in the DMin in Contextual Theology program.

World renowned scholars have supervised our doctoral theses and our students have become leaders in denominational bodies in church planting, home mission, and pastoral education. Our graduates have taken up roles in seminaries and other theological education venues. Many are pastors, community organizers, and publishers of books, and are leading churches into mission.

The Seminars that Drive the Program

The Mission Shaped Church in Post Christendom | DM7614

This seminar is a re-examination of ecclesiology — the what, why, and how of church in the new post Christendom cultures of the West. We ask, What are the core practices of shaping a church’s life together, according to Scripture, the history of theology? We break down how culture works: language, power, identity. We ask, How is the practice of the modern church shaped by cultural assumptions of Christendom and shaped by theological assumptions about God and the way He works in our lives and in the world? We ask, What would an ecclesiology look like for a new faithfulness in our contexts?

The course is taught by Dr. David Fitch.

Becoming Doctors of the Church | DM7015

This seminar teaches the student ethnography as a pastoral discipline and research method. Fundamentally, the course places each student as a pastor/leader within his/her own ministry context as a participant observer, as opposed to a researcher above the context operating upon the field as an object for research. The student will learn the basics of constructing an ethnographic project, how to define his/her “field,” how to ask the right questions, how to listen intently, how to record the narratives, how to “code” the observations, and then how to reflect theologically about what has been seen and heard.

The student will become a field researcher for the gospel. Len Hjalmarson taught the first seminar. Sociologist Dr. Mark Mulder of Calvin University teaches the seminar currently.

Contextual Theology Method |DM7045

Each of us engages in life and ministry on the basis of our own “working” theology. This course helps the student locate his/her own theological assumptions, the history from which they come, and well as develop a practice which enables him/her to dialogue in a context, and grow and extend one’s theology so as to connect with and shape a community of the gospel in a context.

At the end of this course, the student should:

  • Come to grips with several theological convictions that lie at the core of one’s life and ministry
  • Possess the means to become an instrument of the Holy Spirit to extend the gospel into new contexts under the Lordship of Christ without colonizing the context.

The seminar is taught by Dr. David Fitch.

The Gospel in Culture | DM7613

This course explores the means by which we understand culture, its socio-dynamics, and the structures of power and economics, so as to engage one’s context with the gospel. We will learn how to exegete the deep patterns of a cultural context in order to shape an understanding of and practice of the gospel for a church in each context.

Past and present instructors of this course include Dr. Dan Sheffield, Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, Dr. Al Tizon, and Dr. Jonathan Tran.

The Bible in Context: Gospel, Kingdom and Salvation | DM7618

The contextual theologian must both understand the Bible in its original context and be able see his/her own context through the Bible. He or she must be able to move from the text to interpreting his/her local context through the lens of what God is revealing in the Bible. This course shapes a biblical hermeneutic for the contextual theologian to enable the communication of who God is, what He has done, and where He is taking the world in a particular context.

Past and present instructors of this course include Dr. Scot McKnight, Dr. Dennis Edwards, Dr. Michael Gorman, Dr. Lynn Cohick, and Dr. Jeanine Brown.

Missional Leadership | DM7616

While North American culture is passing through a period of rapid, discontinuous change, little has been offered to church leaders in terms of resources to understand and lead church systems through this change. This course provides an alternative constructive methodology for non-linear leadership based in the theologies of God as Trinity, creation, the Spirit, and as one who forms a future among a people. This seminar blends theology and ministerial practice in a new understanding of leadership to open up the future and make provocative proposals for the church to move into the future.

This course has been taught by Dr. Alan Roxburgh.

Thesis Design | DM7060

This seminar brings together the entire coursework of the program to construct a thesis that begins with a research question and the participant observer located in a ministerial context. An ethnographic process is constructed, theological and cultural concepts located, and a bibliography constructed that sets the stage for a final performance of an original contribution to contextual theology. The approval of the thesis proposal that comes from this class sets the stage for the final thesis that is the capstone of the Doctoral process.

This course is taught by Dr. David Fitch