The woman was patient and gracious, but clearly concerned.
“Why are we showing this movie, and why aren’t we presenting the gospel as part of the event?”
This friend from our congregation was referring to what had recently become an annual tradition at our church to show the movie The Polar Express on a weekend before Christmas. Each year we welcomed hundreds of excited, pajama-clad children, their parents, and their grandparents into our auditorium for a family movie night. Dozens of volunteers dressed as conductors and engineers, strategically interrupting the movie with ice cream, hot chocolate, and jingle bells to create an evening to remember. The event was intended to be a simple welcome point for families in our community, who were invited to return to our church for Christmas services.
From my perspective, the movie night had a clear purpose. But as I listened to this godly woman voice her concerns, I realized the communication to our congregation had not been as clear as I thought. Our church prided itself on being a “teaching church,” but we had been neglecting numerous teaching opportunities on and off the platform.
Our church describes itself as a “teaching church” because we value the teaching and preaching of Scripture. And of course, churches should absolutely teach the Bible. But as we have discovered, we also need to teach values and behaviors—and that teaching needs to extend beyond the pulpit.
Every church develops a set of underlying, deeply held corporate values about how and why it exists and operates. These values are usually determined by the church’s senior leadership. However, if these values are not regularly and repeatedly taught throughout the church, it is easy for the congregation to lose sight of them. In addition, we all bring assumptions into church, and we assume everyone else shares them. Without clear teaching of organizational values, each person can replace them with their own assumptions. This leads to misunderstanding at best and mission drift at worst.
Our church did a great job of communicating the what of events and programs, but we didn’t always communicated the why behind the what, especially for regular activities. In the case of the Christmas movie night, we were clear to explain the event and its purpose the first year we did it. But several years later and with many new people at our church—my friend included—we had gotten lax about intentionally teaching those values. We began to assume people would understand the why just by hearing the what.
We also needed to intentionally improve our teaching about behaviors. More than just dos and don’ts, our congregation needed practical training about how to follow Christ in community: how to listen, how to think critically, how to handle conflict, how to live out the “one anothers” of Scripture. Sometimes a sermon series lends itself to this kind of teaching from the pulpit, but often it is best conducted in the context of small groups or individual relationships. For example, recently two of our members were angry at each other over a broken business contract. Both parties needed help navigating the conflict in healthy, God-honoring ways, but this was obviously not something to address from the Sunday morning platform. Instead, leaders spoke privately with the aggrieved individuals, attempting to teach through conversational counsel.
In addition to utilizing public and private environments, teaching about values and behaviors can take place both formally and informally. What is caught by example is often more powerful than what is taught in formal contexts. We may be proclaiming one thing but practicing something completely different. For example, we may preach the importance of Christians developing relationships with their neighbors and being salt and light in the world, but in reality we may have crammed the calendar full of so many church activities that we hinder people from living out those espoused values.
As our church’s leaders have evaluated our broader teaching practices, we have discovered that complaints and questions are often clues to lack of communication or clarity. The most frequent are related to the worship services, and in particular the music. This is understandable because worship services are experienced by the most people, yet they often contain the least teaching about their overall purpose. Other common hot spots include facilities and finances. Often the people raising questions or concerns are not wrong; they just have different opinions about how things should be done. But these differences can create deeper conflict when not addressed through teaching about values and behaviors.
Here are four practices that any church can incorporate into their leadership and culture to become a more effective teaching church:
1. Add a why component to worship gatherings. For example, you might explain how an element of your worship service connects your congregation to a bigger picture, whether to theology, ancient practices, or the church around the world. Or while making an announcement about an event, explain the why behind it, connecting it to your church’s values, philosophy of ministry, or vision.
2. Look for other teachable moments. These may include staff meetings, small groups, new member classes, volunteer leader training sessions, and individual interactions. You don’t need to have an agenda for every conversation, but be intentional about teaching not just biblical doctrine but values and behaviors. In addition, don’t assume everyone, even your leadership team, shares the same assumptions. Instead of getting frustrated with questions or concerns, view them as teaching opportunities.
3. Look for areas of potential misalignment. Examine your actual practices and evaluate whether they are aligned with your articulated values. Consider how organizational systems may be unintentionally undermining what you are formally teaching. And check that the same values and behaviors are preached and practiced throughout the entire organization.
4. Repeat and remind regularly. Even if you do a fantastic job of teaching something the first time, remember that many will have missed the message. Don’t assume a one-and-done mindset. Think about how to communicate to those who were absent, those who are new to the congregation, and those who just need a refresher.
Our worship leader recently incorporated these four practices into his ministry, both in his development of the worship team (of which I am a member) and in his leadership of our congregation. As happens at many churches, the regular busyness of ministry, along with the addition of new team members, had pushed teaching in this area to the wayside, leading to subtle drifts in shared understanding. When these drifts became apparent, Jason took several steps to integrate regular teaching about values and behaviors.
First, he reiterated and reinforced the worship team rehearsal expectations to ensure that all team members would gather regularly. Second, he began to incorporate more teaching and team-building into the rehearsal time. Topics now range from musicianship to leadership and from worship in general to the week’s service in particular, providing regular reminders about the church’s philosophy of ministry. Some of these have been recorded to video and posted to a team social media site to be used as a reminder for long-time members and as an orientation for those new to the team. Third, Jason and the other pastors began incorporating a weekly why or how component into Sunday services, helping the congregation see worship, and our worshiping community, in light of a bigger kingdom picture. Finally, by word and deed Jason communicated a willingness to discuss any questions or concerns regarding any part of the worship ministry.
“Teaching is at the heart of leading. In fact, it is through teaching that leaders lead others,” writes management expert Noel Tichy. For church leaders, our first focus must always be on God’s Word, but we also need to recognize and incorporate other types of teaching that shape our corporate life and witness.
Angie Ward is a ministry teacher and writer with over 30 years of leadership experience in church, parachurch, and educational contexts. She and her pastor-husband live just outside Indianapolis.