A while back, Lifeway Research and Ligonier released their latest State of Theology report. Similar to other years of reporting, the statistics have pastors and church leaders hang-wringing over some of the problematic responses.
For example, while 97 percent of evangelicals surveyed affirm the Trinity, roughly 80 percent also affirm the non-Trinitarian heresy that Jesus was created. As someone who has taught theology in the local church for a decade, I am somewhat sympathetic toward those surveyed. The wording of questions can sometimes cause confusion for the average layperson, not because the survey is flawed, but because their theological spider senses are not developed enough to spot problems. However, the hand-wringing is basically warranted.
Instead of merely lamenting on social media about the current state of theology, pastors should be springing into action. The survey results from 2016-2018 did not change much, however what did change changed for the worst. Theology among evangelicals is not improving, according to the survey. We can blame culture and politics and media or we can first blame ourselves. After all, we are public theologians long before we are counselors, motivators, or organizational leaders. We should expect our congregations to get their theology from elsewhere if not from us. They may love Jesus deeply, but not the Jesus of the Bible; they may love Jesus with their hearts, but not with their minds.
So, with all of this in mind, I want to offer up three ways pastors can engage their congregations’ minds in hopes that we can in small ways reverse the theological trends we see in this survey.
1. Show why theology is practical and vital.
I’ve argued elsewhere that theology is the grammar of the church. Theology simply means “words about God.” If we talk about God, we’re doing theology. The Bible is a theological book; the church is a theological mouthpiece; and Christians are walking, talking demonstrations of theology. If this is all true, then theology is the most practical and vital aspect of the Christian life—our language and rhythms are foundationally theological.
For example, many wonder if the doctrine of the Trinity is “practical.” When I teach on the Trinity at my church, I talk primarily about how salvation has a Trinitarian shape. Our triune God, unified in power and authority and will, sought to save us—and knowing this truth enables us to more rightly love and appreciate the God we serve. In the Father, we see God’s purpose to adopt us as children and deliver to us an inheritance. In the Son, we see God’s mission to become incarnate, to substitute himself for our sins, and a resurrection that defeats death. In the Holy Spirit, we see God’s mission to dwell within us, sanctify us, and seal us for eternity. What is more practical and vital than that truth?
2. Don’t patronize in your teaching.
A great weakness of the evangelical church is patronization—treating church members as though they are not smart or intellectually curious enough to understand theology. We think high-schoolers can learn calculus, but they can’t understand the Trinity. We think truck drivers can learn complex delivery routes and automotive mechanisms, but they can’t understand justification. Ultimately, we think people just simply cannot understand the deep things of God.
So, instead, we condescend toward them week after month after year with shallow “life principles,” trying to get them geared up for a week of life “out there,” instead sending them out with a mind racing with imagination about who God is and how He works in the world. Perhaps the problem is not our congregants’ intellectual capabilities, but our own laziness in not seeking to explain and apply the theology we think we know so well. However, the primary way to show our mastery of any given topic is our ability to teach it to others.
3. Offer specific opportunities for training.
The modern evangelical church has developed an allergy to “programs.” Many have overreacted to the perceived coldness of Sunday school, Wednesday Bible studies, and door-to-door evangelism by ditching them in favor of community groups and social action. While it seems fair to critique the previous generation for minimizing the “organic” nature of the early church, I fear we will raise up a generation of Christians who know how to talk and act in a gospel-centered way, but who don’t know their Bibles well enough to be able to articulate the actual gospel.
The pastors of my church have realized this tendency in ourselves. Our emphasis on community and counseling has built into our congregation a culture of confession, acceptance, and empathy—a culture of which I have not seen in any other church in my own life. We care deeply about repentance, diversity, healing, and reconciliation. That said, the primary way our congregation engages theology is through our sermons. While our sermons contain biblical and theological depth and application, we’ve also realized that we need to provide more opportunities for biblical and theological training outside of Sunday morning gatherings. So without adding “programs” or minimizing our primary stress on community, we have begun offering classes on theology, culture, ecclesiology, and missions. By engaging our members’ biblical and theological imaginations, we hope to see a zeal for reading their Bibles, prayer, involvement in serving one another, and social action.