Today’s post by David Bond is the ninth and last installment in our Coach’s Guide to Sunday School resource provided by the office of Sunday School and Discipleship. To see the full guide, visit ALSBOM.org/coachsguidetosundayschool.
On a visit to an eye doctor, patients are sometimes asked to look at a chart posted on a wall some distance away. The chart contains rows of letters that are very large on top and increasingly smaller as the rows move closer to the bottom. A patient’s ability to focus on the eye chart tells the doctor something about the strength and clarity of his or her vision.
Enter any Sunday School class, in any church, in any part of the country, and one thing is likely to happen in every gathering. At some point, someone is going to attempt to teach the group. Teaching is so central to the Sunday School experience that coaching leaders to teach good lessons is critical.
In coaching Sunday School teachers, the following “I-Chart” can serve as a guideline for developing lessons that are clear and focused for those who will lead and participate in them.
Allan Taylor, minister of education at First Baptist Church, Woodstock, Ga., has said that a leader should not speak of teaching the Bible in Sunday School. His reasoning is that “you can’t teach the Bible anything.” In reality, leaders must understand that we are instead teaching people the Bible. The difference in this approach is of vital importance.
In order to teach people the eternal truths of God’s word, leaders must have insight into the people whom they are attempting to teach. Who are the people in attendance each week? What are their concerns? What questions will they likely have concerning the truths found in this passage of Scripture? What life experiences are happening among people in this group? What contemporary issues present in the world might be on the minds of the people here? These questions and others will give the leader valuable insight that will help the teaching connect in a powerful way.
Insight into lives of learners can be obtained through the following ideas:
- Create time for ministry needs to be made known. Most classes likely have a time for prayer needs to be made known. This can be a valuable resource for insight into the lives of individual learners. Even better, consider assigning learners into smaller care groups and provide opportunities for each group to share with and pray for one another. The teacher can compile information from each care group so that especially urgent needs can be addressed.
- Identify a target group that will be the focus of your class. Many classes are made up of adults of all age ranges, life stages, and family structures. More effective insight can be obtained when groups are especially focused on a narrower “people group.” For example, a leader of a class for married couples with children can become an expert on how the Scripture speaks specifically to issues related to this group. Leaders of classes in which there is no such focus will be forced to be much more general in how they relate truth to the group.
- Spend time among your target group of people. With a target group identified, the leader can choose to spend some time at places where the people of and prospects for the class will likely gather. Observing the people group in settings outside of Sunday School will yield tremendous insight into behaviors, popular activities, habits, patterns and priorities.
- Become a student of the culture surrounding your people. One key way to develop insight into your people is to simply pay attention. Popular movies, music, television and other events all affect the people in your class. Read news items and opinion pieces, including those that are not in line with your personal views. Even casual conversations can yield valuable nuggets that will inform your teaching preparation.
- Use social media. Finally, the rise of social media is a gift to those who seek to gain insight into the people in your class. Following posts and interactions on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram will yield amazing insight into the lives of your students. You will find information that they freely share and likely more than you care to know!
Effectively teaching people the Bible begins with knowing the people who will gather in your class each week.
The second line on the “I-Chart” is about creating Interest in the lesson that you desire to teach. Researchers in adult learning have found that adults are motivated to learn something if they believe it will help their lives in some way. For example, a man who wants to save money on an auto repair will consult a manual or watch a video on how to do the job himself. A woman might enroll in a community college course because she believes the education will qualify her for a promotion and a raise at work. When adults are convinced that what they are about to learn has a tangible benefit for their lives, their motivation to learn increases dramatically.
In Sunday School, the temptation for many leaders is to dive directly into the “what” of the lesson. Instead, teachers of adult learners should spend time at the beginning of the teaching time to demonstrate the “why” . . . why will what we are about to talk about change the life of an adult learner?
In their book, Creative Bible Teaching, Lawrence Richards and Gary Bredfeldt call the beginning of the lesson plan the “hook.” This crucial moment is necessary to draw the learner out of their private thoughts and concerns and to become motivated to focus for the Coach’s Guide to Sunday School 45 next half an hour on a truth that will make a difference. How will you “hook” your learners into participating in the lesson?
- Share a story. Draw from personal experience or from a recent news account of a person whose life dealt with the truth from the lesson. The more “localized” the story is to the class, the more powerful it will be.
- Intrigue the mind. Interest can also be generated by sharing the results of a survey or a research study. Ask a difficult question. Present two sides of a debate or contemporary issue. Pose a hypothetical situation. Anything that peaks the curiosity of the learner will engage them in the lesson to follow.
- Use an activity. Have the group come up with lists related to the topic at hand. Divide into smaller groups and look up passages of Scripture to identify recurring words or phrases. Begin a group brainstorming session. Have someone read an anecdotal situation and engage in a brief time of “what would you do?”
Try to vary the type of “hook” from week to week. In doing so, leaders will provide opportunities for a variety of learners to connect. Ideas for creating interest are a great way to promote collaboration among teachers in the Sunday School ministry.
The next “I” on the “I-Chart,” Information, has received a bit of a bad reputation when it comes to teaching in Sunday School. One oft-repeated admonition to Sunday School leaders is that we teach for transformation, not information. While it is correct that we don’t teach for information, we don’t teach without information either! In his Discipler’s Model, William Yount notes that life transformation happens when the “correctly handled” truth of God’s Word intersects the lives of learners at the point of their need. Making sure that the Bible is related accurately to the learners is essential to effective teaching.
The wide variety of good curriculum choices and teacher helps make accurate information readily available to every Sunday School leader. Pastors and Sunday School directors can alleviate a great deal of concern over accuracy by choosing a curriculum that offers a clear plan for teaching the whole Bible as well as providing supporting materials for each leader.
In the absence of such a printed curriculum, Dave Veerman created a helpful outline for teachers to follow when preparing lessons from Scripture. The complete outline can be found in Veerman’s book, How to Apply the Bible. When considering a passage of Scripture, each of these elements contributes to our ability to rightly understand its truth:
- People – Who are the people in or addressed in this passage of Scripture?
- Place – What is the original historical and cultural context of this passage?
- Plot – What is going on here among people or between God and people?
- Point – What was the application to the original audience?
- Principles – What transferrable principles are embedded in this passage for all people in all times?
Getting people to sit still while the teacher spouts information is never the goal of a Sunday School teaching time. But because accurate information (truth) is the fuel for life transformation, teachers will want to represent the Word of God with great care.
The fourth element in the “I-Chart” is involvement. In his classic book, Teaching to Change Lives, master teacher Howard Hendricks shared his Law of Activity which states: Maximum learning is always the result of maximum involvement. One of the key components of preparation for the Sunday School teacher should be directed toward how to involve learners in the teaching time.
Ways to involve learners are almost endless. Regardless of how you choose to involve learners, some basic principles and tips may be helpful:
- Commit to the idea that involving learners is not optional. Make planning for learner involvement a regular part of your teaching preparation each week.
- Choose involvement methods that relate directly to the point of the lesson.
- Use a wide variety of methods so as to appeal to the greatest part of your group over a period of time.
- Do not be discouraged by a slow start to class participation, especially if the learners have been used to an environment that has been predominantly lecture driven.
- Collaborate with other teachers on ideas for learning activities.
- Don’t be afraid to give simple assignments for learners to complete during the week. These assignments can provide a “built-in” way of creating interest and promoting involvement from week to week.
- Use learner involvement as a spontaneous teaching tool. For example, if someone poses a question in the group, the leader should not feel as though he or she has to provide an answer. Put the question back to the group and have them consult the Scripture for insight.
- Be flexible in your preparation. Remember that learner involvement may come during any part of the lesson plan: Creating Insight, Sharing Information or Internalizing (Making Application).
- Keep learner involvement constantly moving toward the ultimate teaching aim of the passage – avoid rabbit chasing!
- Take time to craft good, open-ended questions that initiate and sustain good discussion.
Effectively involving learners in the teaching will greatly increase their attention to and retention of the truth.
Finally, teachers should seek to help learners Internalize: apply the truth to their own lives. Matthew, Mark and Luke all include Jesus’ parable of the seed and the soil. The seed that finds root in good soil is the seed that springs forth, grows and bears fruit. Likewise, when the word is “implanted” (James 1:21), learners experience spiritual growth and fruit.
A key aspect of adult learning is the inescapable presence of life experiences. Adults evaluate truth through the lens of their own experiences. For accurate application to be made, leaders should guide adult learners to interpret their life experiences on the basis of God’s truth and not the other way around. God’s truth is not interpreted, confirmed or debunked by our life experiences. The word of God is our authority – absolute and eternal. However, leaders can demonstrate love, compassion and grace as they help learners align their lives to truth in response to the conviction and counsel of the Holy Spirit. Application and sanctification (becoming more and more like Jesus) is the lifelong journey of every believer.
Internalizing God’s Word means being willing to ask the right questions. An infamous common question heard in many class is “what does this passage of Scripture mean to you?” This is a dangerous question! This question allows us to manipulate meaning according to our experience. Believing in the authority of God’s Word causes us to ask instead, “What does this passage of Scripture mean for me?” In light of God’s truth, how should I respond?
From How to Apply the Bible, Dave Veerman again offers these steps:
- Present – What do the principles of truth found in this passage mean for today?
- Parallels – What do the principles found in this passage of Scripture say about my own personal life? My home? My work? My actions?
- Priorities – What immediate adjustments does this truth require? How does this truth affect my values, beliefs, attitudes or motives?
- Plan – What are some “I will” statements that can help me begin to act today upon the truth that I have learned? What is my first step? Who can help me make sure that I follow through? Where do I pray that the application of this truth will take me in the future?
As leaders prepare to teach each week, consider the “I-Chart” as a tool for bringing clarity and focus to the teaching:
- Insight – Do I know about the people who are gathered here to learn?
- Interest – Have I motivated adults to learn?
- Information – Can I confidently and accurately represent the truth of God’s Word?
- Involvement – Have I maximized the potential for learning by planning for learners to participate?
- Internalization – Have I considered how this truth will be implanted into personal hearts and lives?
These five keys will help teachers prepare and lead better lessons each week in Sunday School.
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