What is the Life Cycle of a Church?
Every church has a life. A congregation is either growing or declining.
Where is your fellowship in this life cycle of a church?
Theology and Church Growth by Dr. Chuck Lawless
I recently read a book by a mainline pastor who longs for the churches of his denomination to grow again. Comparing those churches to growing churches, he hinted throughout the book at what he could not bring himself to say forthrightly: growing churches are usually characterized by conservative theology.
This finding is not new. As long ago as the early 1970s, Dean Kelley showed in his book Why Conservative Churches Are Growing that congregations with a clear belief system were more likely to grow. Kelley’s work spoke of “strong” beliefs more than conservative doctrines and included “churches” that are hardly orthodox, but he did show that belief matters.
Thom Rainer’s works, including Effective Evangelistic Churches, later confirmed that finding. In fact, Rainer’s studies have shown that churches that grow by reaching non-believers have a theology that is best described as conservative and orthodox. The bottom line is this: theology really does matter if we want to grow biblical, healthy churches.
We conservatives know this truth, and we are quick to remind others of this fact. What we are not so quick to acknowledge is the focus of this blog: we do a poor job of teaching the very theology that we claim is so important. We think that our church members understand and believe our basic doctrine, even while those same members are learning their theology from TV talk show hosts, popular television preachers, or the latest religious novel. Do an anonymous survey of your congregation’s beliefs, and see what you learn. If the majority knows and believes basic biblical doctrine, your church is more an exception than the norm.
Consider these guidelines for teaching theology to your church:
Do not assume that your church members don’t care about beliefs. Too many church leaders give up on teaching theology before they even try. “Nobody cares about theology any more,” they think. Not only does this thinking ultimately question the power of the Word, but it also denies reality. It is precisely because people do care about beliefs that they turn to places and people other than the church for their belief system. Where the church fails, somebody else fills the void.
Realize that attending worship and small groups does not automatically lead to doctrinal fidelity. Here, I am NOT arguing that preaching and Bible study are unimportant to teaching doctrine; indeed, good doctrinal training does not happen apart from preaching and teaching the Word. I am simply arguing that our church members do not typically hear our teaching and then automatically connect the dots to form a biblical theology. Teaching good theology must happen intentionally.
Include basic theology in a required membership class. In some ways, the best time to teach the basics is when a person first follows Christ or first joins the church – when he or she is most focused on a Christian commitment. Capitalize on that enthusiasm by teaching early the inerrancy and authority of the Bible. Show why the exclusivity of Christ is non-negotiable. Talk about the necessity of the death of Christ. Lay the theological foundation early, and lay it well.
Take advantage of doctrine studies. Some denominations teach annual doctrine studies. Case in point, my own denomination (the Southern Baptist Convention) is promoting studies entitled The Baptist Faith and Message (2008) and Vibrant Church: Becoming a Healthy Church in the 21st Century (2009). If we believe that theology matters, why not take advantage of already-prepared material and teach the proposed study? Plan extensively, promote well, and prioritize this type of study.
Raise the bar for small group leaders who teach the Word. These leaders have a great opportunity-perhaps one of the best in the church-to influence lives through teaching small group members. Few other leaders have such a ready hearing. For that reason, we must hold group leaders accountable to holy living, sound doctrine, and good teaching. We should not be surprised when members view doctrine as boring after lackluster teachers have taught it. There is simply no excuse for allowing untrained, unfaithful, or boring teachers to drain the life out of Bible studies.
Begin in the home. Teach parents biblical doctrine, and then help them to teach their own children accordingly. Because Deuteronomy 6:7 and Ephesians 6:4 demand nothing less from believing parents, our churches should work in cooperation with them-not replace them-in teaching theology to the next generation. Provide good resources that teach basic truths at a child’s level without compromising scriptural teachings, but expect parents to do the teaching.
Be willing to start with the few. Just as Jesus did, focus on the few rather than the many. For example, invite a few men to join you in studying theology one morning each week. Give them the Bible and a basic theology textbook, and challenge them to study the week’s lesson. If you prepare and teach well, you will likely be surprised at how interested the men are. Those men and their families will be stronger because they are learning the Word.
And in the end, your congregation will be more poised for biblical church growth.