Before he started talking, Solomon Wilken was singing from his crib—and not children's hymns, either. Like the rest of Trinity Lutheran Church in Millstadt, Illinois, he learned "Glory to God in the Highest" from the church hymnal.
His father, Todd, an assistant pastor at Trinity Lutheran, bypassed children's church and took Solomon to the sanctuary with the adults. As churches look for innovative ways to teach their members about Christian doctrine, Todd Wilken urges leaders to start with baby steps.
"There are people who bring babies to football games, and it's not because they don't have a babysitter," said Wilken. "Why does a dad do that? It's so important to him that he wants to pass it to his baby as early as he can."
An education gap usually divides pastors, most of whom have years of formal theology training but are stretched thin addressing tangible needs, and their congregants, many of whom are not actively seeking to study complicated ideas.
Wilken knows that teaching theology doesn't happen magically. One of the first ways to teach doctrine is from the pulpit, and he uses the church calendar to provide structure.
"Many pastors have chucked the calendar, preaching whatever occurs to them, maybe a sermon on sex or something else. They do this to alleviate their own boredom," Wilken said. "Abandoning the disciplined way the church marks time reminds me of watching a guy who thinks he can dance."
Pastors advocate different methods to reach the same goal: to bring doctrine to the pews. Many confessional churches, for example, emphasize their respective catechisms.
"Pastors learn about doctrine in seminary but have trouble formulating it in a way that's faithful to the Christian heritage," said Marva Dawn, a teaching fellow in spiritual theology at Regent College in British Columbia. "If they have a statement of faith that's doctrinally ordered that includes dimensions of the faith, it helps people understand those formulations."
The nondenominational Mars Hill Church in Seattle hands out a 30- to 50-page commentary based on Mark Driscoll's hour-long sermons. "The church councils and creeds—we believe in them and respect them—[but] there are new issues today that weren't issues at the time, like same-sex relations," Driscoll said. The post-sermon packets include questions for family and small-group discussion and resources for further study.
"Sometimes everything the most doctrinal Bible teachers say is true, but it's true like the phonebook," said Driscoll, whose forthcoming book Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe covers the Nicene Creed, the Apostles' Creed, Martin Luther's catechism, and the Westminster Catechism. "If you only preach and don't have people also doing personal study and small-group discussion, I don't think they're going to learn that much."
One of the challenges churches face, Driscoll said, is teaching which doctrines are up for discussion and which are settled. He teaches that certain doctrines—the Trinity, Jesus' atonement, and the Bible as the inerrant word of God, among others—go in a closed hand. People in his church are free to disagree over eschatology and spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues. "Churches that tend to be doctrinal tend to shove everything into the closed hand," he said. "You can be very strong in your closed hand and gracious in your open hand."
Finding The Best Tools
Pastors of all stripes seem to agree that it's important to make theology accessible and memorable for congregations. Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, uses its membership class to teach theology in depth. Each session of the nine-week class lasts 90 minutes with small-group discussion afterward. The church uses its own 92-page manual, which combines Bible verses with quotes from theologians like John Stott and R. C. Sproul to explain terms such as gospel and sanctification.