Let us expand a bit on a couple of points. First “Preaching which is foundational and biblical at least 75% of the time. This means exposition, not excess commentary and particularly not application!”
Preaching and the Pulpit are the primary framework for the dissemination of congregational education. This alone is today likely a controversial proposition in many churches with the downloading of responsibilities to pastoral associates and preference group ministries. The pulpit message should be for expository education in the central issues of biblical literacy, theological framework and foundations, and the doctrinal specifics of the faith. Within the context of about 30 minutes a week on average, that alone is a tall order and extensive branching out is sure to water down the delivery of the basics.
The tone and attitude (in both word and action) communicated from the pulpit concerning foundational areas is crucial. That tone and attitude will likely make or break the importance of foundational knowledge in the congregation. In other words, the buck initially stops in the pulpit, and it will have a make or break effect, acting as a watershed from that level to the congregation. Further, in most cases other levels of leadership will emulate the attitude expressed there (even if they don’t agree). Unfortunately, my observations as well as those from other congregations I have queried indicate that more often than not the result is break, rather than make, with the importance of foundations being communicated as very low. The foundations may be called important, but action and ongoing emphasis indicate otherwise, and the congregation readily picks up on, adopts, or least emulates this. The subsequent effect is to shift foundational issues to the sideline of talk, not action. Not encouraging, but true.
Despite the paradox at work here in the difference between the surface message and the real message, the result likely plays out very smoothly on the surface. Biblical literacy and foundational knowledge is moved onto the shoulders of the ubiquitous small group ministry, with the convenient reasoning that it is a matter for individual and group work, and a subject that is of individual choice or preference as to how much is appropriate. This is error. When it comes to the basic knowledge of the faith, our Lord’s statements on this are completely the opposite. The stress seeking understanding and knowledge of “the reason for the hope that is within you”.
Once the areas of exposition and study slide onto the sideline of small groups, where they are largely unguided and unregulated in comprehensive sense, several things happen very quickly. The leadership can consider them ‘dealt with’ and in good hands. This frees them of ongoing direct responsibility, since the matter is deemed as being ‘well addressed’. They can then move on to other more immediately, pressing organizational matters such as organizational and resource growth. Oversight should and may continue, but in the somewhat informal framework of the small group environment in many congregations this is often not the case.
Next, and likely more important to the issues at hand, since small groups largely function with only arms length guidance and oversight, physically separate from the church, with few in-depth resources, often using as a guide largely devotional style, inexpensive literature with limited biblical content, and offered on a volunteer basis by people of widely varying levels of expertise, they are not well positioned to fulfill what should be critical work. They are unlikely to cover foundational subjects with consistent, predictable depth or completeness. This is particularly true of difficult doctrinal or theological issues, which they are understandably likely to avoid altogether or be unable to resolve. More superficial material and exploration is simply more plausible within the available resources. We should not that this is not a commentary on the people involved but on the environment provided. Overall, the result is a quiet loss in these pivotal areas of knowledge from the general mindset of the congregation. With this loss comes general theological and foundational weakness, and a lack of interest in such issues, as a substrata of the congregational body.
Small Groups are well positioned to foster limited, preference group based fellowship, but not education in biblical or doctrinal literacy. The result is an appearance of education and action but no consistent, measurable delivery of either on foundational issues. You don’t believe me? Fair enough. Take a quiet informal poll around the congregation over few weeks, examining individual knowledge and interest (remembering that the encouraging of interest in these matters is a significant part of the process and responsibility of the church leadership), as well as variance in group study content, in even the fundamental tenants of the faith and its doctrine. I have no doubt of what you will find.
Thus we return to Preaching, and to the issues of Small Groups touched on in several points. Put simply, Leadership must have foundational issues as a priority. Small groups, though very useful, and making a great contribution in some congregational respects, do not offer the leadership a pass on these crucial matters.
Let us finish by restating the suggested starting actions, with the addition of the eighth:
1. Blended contemporary and traditional worship – many do this now and it seems to work well.
2. Preaching which is foundational and biblical at least 75% of the time. This means exposition, not excess commentary and particularly not application!
3. A congregational approach to familiarity (preferably with some memorization) with foundational Bible verses.
4. Bible reading, both individual and congregational (this is not small group bible study from a booklet).
5. Congregational education on the denominational doctrines and distinctives to a level of repeatability.
6. A provision for and endorsement of congregational prayer, specific as well as generic.
7. Church leadership (beyond the paid pastoral staff) actively and obviously engaged in the clear Biblical requirements – spiritual guidance, teaching, preaching and congregational care.
8. Remove church growth from the congregational or leadership agenda. It is a side effect of Glorifying our Lord through primary exercise of the faith and sharing of the Gospel (see Witness for the Lord), not an proper activity.
So there you have it. Again, as stated at the beginning, there are surely better analyzes and corrective actions. That does not, however, reduce the present magnitude nor the growing significance of the problem. In the current tide, and without a change in direction, it is likely to only get worse…