"I laugh because it's quite a pain to become a part of our church. It's a statement at the outset that our church is not about having a country-club feel," said Pastor Joshua Harris, who recently authored Dug Down Deep: Unearthing What I Believe and Why It Matters. Harris's personal path to studying theology began with books like J. I. Packer's Knowing God, Iain Murray's Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism, J. C. Ryle's Holiness, and John Stott's The Cross of Christ. He said Christians tend to set up a false dichotomy between doctrine and experience.
"We shouldn't say, 'Eggheads, you do your doctrine thing,' or for people who are spiritually inclined, 'Let's have a prayer meeting,' " Harris said. "We can't have an experience of Jesus Christ apart from what he's revealed about himself."
Reviewing church history in elective classes is also effective for teaching doctrine. Although Calvary Baptist Church of Waco does not formally adhere to any creeds, 80 people from the 800-member congregation attended a class in the fall of 2009 on the Nicene Creed.
"Christians seem to prefer the Thomas Kinkade stuff that looks pretty on the outside," said Pastor Jim Coston, who plans to teach on the Didache (an early Christian writing) this year. "If I said, 'Hey, we're going to study doctrine on Wednesday nights,' no one would show up. But if you [present] some of the characters behind it and put it in a historical context, people become more interested."
Congregations can also use national programs like Walk Thru the Bible or Bible Study Fellowship, said Earl Palmer, preaching pastor in residence at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.
"Evangelism is helping people think things through—that's how pieces of the puzzle come together," said Palmer, who has spent 50 years in ministry. A church's role can be to instill confidence in its members, which can happen through classes a pastor might offer on the Book of Philippians, C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, or Karl Barth's exposition of the Apostles' Creed, he said.
"The gospel deserves to be studied, not just inspire me for the moment or cheer me up," Palmer said. "We need a thoughtful Christianity."
Thoughtful Christianity has practical implications. Evangelicals concerned with social justice tend to be theologically sophisticated, said Calvin College philosophy professor James K. A. Smith.
"That's an example of how doing and thinking are not competing. Because they have engaged with theological reflection, they are moved to care about justice," Smith told Christianity Today. Children growing up in the Christian Reformed Church study the Heidelberg Catechism. "They don't need to find a new, fabulous curriculum," Smith said. "There's a lot of good old stuff we can recover."
However, theological education is not always explicit. Education is already happening in spiritual disciplines and worship, Smith said.
"Being immersed in spiritual disciplines is forming our minds and imaginations, maybe in ways we might not articulate," he said. "People who bemoan theological illiteracy don't appreciate that gospel theology is embedded in our practices."