7 Reasons Why Church Members Don’t Know Their Church’s Doctrine

For years, I’ve required doctoral students to complete a theological survey of their congregations – and we’ve learned that many church members don’t know their church’s basic theological positions. They can neither summarize nor explain their church’s doctrine. The reasons for this problem are many, but here are a few:

  1. We’ve assumed that attendance in our church results in their having biblical theology. Our equation has been as simple as, “Attending our small groups + attending our worship = having a biblical theology.” We assume they will connect the doctrinal dots on their own.  
  2. We haven’t taught them basic doctrine. We might think we have, but we seldom have systematically, intentionally led them in doctrinal studies. Too many churches leave those discussions to seminary campuses.
  3. We haven’t discipled them in general. We’ve allowed baby believers to remain babies, and we’ve sometimes even elevated them to leadership positions—without ever talking to them about the importance of doctrine.
  4. We don’t ask what they believe, so we see no need to teach them. Perhaps we’re assuming what they believe, but we usually just don’t know. We don’t ask, either, even though we say that doctrine matters.
  5. We’ve told them to read the Bible, but we haven’t taught them how to read and interpret it. When we only tell them to read but don’t help them understand the Word, we set them up for struggles in their spiritual disciplines. Apart from their knowing the Word, they develop their theology based on some other foundation.
  6. They’re exposed to many, many other voices that influence their theology. They may listen to us for a couple of hours each week – but that leaves dozens of hours to hear from others. They are bombarded with television and social media theology more than biblical theology.
  7. We’ve lost our Great Commission focus. This reason might seem odd, but here’s my point: when you’re not focused on sharing the gospel with non-believers around the world, you’re not typically faced with explaining and defending theological issues (e.g., the lostness of humanity, the atonement of Christ, the reality of judgment).

What reasons would you add to this list? 

21 Comments

  • Mark says:

    There are at least three if not four different doctrines. There is Christian doctrine. Then denominational doctrine follows, which may not be palatable. Then there is local church pulpit doctrine, then there is Sunday school doctrine. There are not all the same. The saddest part is when they potentially contradict each other.

  • Mike Miller says:

    I would add that many pastors aren’t very steeped in theology. I’ve actually been in meetings with pastors, and when theological terms (such as hypostatic union, substitutionary atonement, regenerate church membership, or other very elementary concepts) are mentioned, comments and jokes are made about “big words” and guys with “fancy degrees.” This has been very disheartening to me, but I realize that the majority of pastors have no formal theological training. We need to regain the concept of the pastor-theologian.

    • reaganmarsh says:

      Amen, amen, amen. I’m encouraged with some of the pastors who desire to teach the Scriptures in-depth, so that our churches may be edified and strengthened in the things of God…but so many others are content with pragmatism, emotionalism, patriotism, etc., at the expense of biblical-theological faithfulness.

      J.Gresham Machen said once that in the first generation the gospel is proclaimed, in the second generation it’s assumed, and in the third generation it’s lost. If we have men who can’t even speak to the hypostatic union, we may be confident that the gospel is being lost…

      The great need today is indeed the pastor-theologian, one who is mighty in the Scriptures, one who is competent to teach, correct, train, instruct, and refute, out of love to God’s glory and men’s souls.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Good point, Mike. Thanks.

    • Scott says:

      So, is there a benefit to using those “big words” then? If you truly know the theology then you should be able to teach it in a way that they won’t be pushed off by big terms. Often, when we use those terms we just come across as showing off, instead of trying to educate.

      • Chuck Lawless says:

        Fair question, Scott. Thanks.

      • Mike Miller says:

        That is a fair question. I would just say that around other pastors, theological terms shouldn’t be considered “big words.” I don’t need to use them around lay persons perhaps, but when I am with other pastors, I assume (sometimes wrongly) familiarity with a certain vocabulary. It’s like the language used when doctors speak with other doctors or engineers with other engineers. I don’t know the terminology of doctors or engineers, but I really want them to know the foundational concepts of their work. As pastors, I believe our people should expect a high level of theological knowledge from us. As Alister McGrath said, “Doctrine is taking the trouble to think through the implications of the proclamation, and making sure that these implications are understood by those whose business it is to defend Christianity against its critics.” So, while “big words” can surely be used in certain contexts to “show off,” a gathering of pastors should not, in my opinion, qualify as one of those contexts.

  • Allen Raynor says:

    Poor attendance by many churxh members keeps them from a systematic understandimg of doctrine. They only get bits and pieces. When church members miss half, three-quarters or even all of a sermon series or series of studies on a doctine(s) they remain confused. They remain babes. Inconsistant attendance of the membership frustrates many pastors who do try very hard to help educate their people.

  • Catherine Koziatek says:

    I agree with the article but members also need to be interested in the church they belong to and many are not, beyond socializing.

  • One of the concerns I have is that pastors apologize every time they mention theology in their sermons. They describe theology as boring and that the appropriate response is a nap. If preachers were excited about theology from the pulpit, maybe our people would as well.

  • Tim Aagard says:

    1. You learn and retain more from teaching than listening. Every preacher knows this but the traditions handed down to us have no confidence in any kind of teaching other than hired Bible experts lecturing the Bible in perpetual dependency. When “teaching” is professionalized and limited to experts only, we severely limit the learning and retention of truth. With more believers preparing to teach and teaching, there will be far more learning and practice of the truth.
    2. Strict one way communication is well known to be a very shallow in it’s retention factors outside the church bubble. Inside the church bubble it has been assumed to be the as sacred as the triunity of God. Can you exposit “preach the word…” into lecture the word? Can you exposit “equipping the saints” into lecturing the saints? Can you exposit “feed my sheep” into lecture my sheep? I don’t think you can but that is what we practice and assume to be TRUE.
    3. We practice teaching in church like it could never be truth flowing through 4 different brothers for 5 – 10 minutes. We assume solo expert driven teaching more powerful than teaching flowing through more than one gift and more than one heart. We presume the people of God to be forever incapable of teaching in the worship hour. We have no confidence students can be “fully trained” to “be like” their teacher. Luke 6:40. In my opinion, when we strip God’s design for full reproduction from the goal of “teaching” we strip it of God’s empowering. Why would God bless when we have no intention of accomplishing his goal?
    4. We assume teaching requires no testing for retention with the most important truths in the universe. There is zero accountability in the church learning routine. There is also no homework. No analysis papers. No feedback with grading. Not for 500 years in the worship hour. No one questions this. What a stupid thing for me to suggest.

    Everything I have spoke to is outside the very strict bubble of evangelical “teaching”. On that basis, none of my points may be useful. Evangelicals are deeply ingrained in traditions that are very corrupt but we think they are godly. In spite of devoting hundreds of millions of dollars every year hiring experts to “teach” believers every week in the sanctuary, on the radio, on Tv, etc, the results are dismal. This should cause us to look outside the bubble of practice. The solutions are all in the Bible.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Thanks, Tim. More and more churches are turning to a plurality of teachers and are working harder to raise up effective lay teachers. I’ve known only one church that actually gave a “quiz” based on the sermon, though.

      • Tim Aagard says:

        I agree that more churches are choosing to recognize strength in having more than one teacher. However two is not much better than just one, in view of the fully reproductive goal that Jesus, Paul, and Peter gave for spiritual leadership, we should be looking for a continual expansion of teachers. The pattern of teaching is still stuck to several false parameters.
        1. Hired experts only. Only a small percent of churches can hire more than one Bible expert. It is only in these churches that can hire more than one, that more than one paid leader will teach on Sunday morning. Among those that can hire more than one staff, the teaching element is seen as the top priority for designating and separating the Senior Pastor from the lower level pastors.
        2. One man for the whole time. The concept of teaching is chained to the human notion that one man must drive the teaching for the whole time. The power of partnership with God and several men on one text is considered an impossibility if not a stupid idea. Sharing the teaching is probably the most important dynamic in raising up other teachers. Is there a book on this? I doubt it.
        3. There are several deeply seated systemic laws of church, unstated in scripture, that actually contradict scripture, that result in the dumbing down of lay people. These patterns lead them to like it and celebrate it that way. They are grateful to not take of spiritual responsibility to build up the faith of others. This is fed by the current system, in my opinion. My opinion is based on the notion that when you compromise specific instructions from God, there will be severe spiritual fallout. The biggest problems of American church are rooted in disobedience to very clear instructions from God.

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