When I was on staff at Las Canada Presbyterian Church, a group of women said to me, "We want to do a small group Bible study, but we want more than a series of Bible lessons. Frankly, we get bored and turned off by that."
Since these women were from Hollywood, I agreed that they would need something a little more creative. So I began by asking what was going on in their lives, where they were struggling, how meaningful their prayer lives were, what they were learning about their faith. From that I got a fix on their needs and their learning style. Together we designed a study on the Book of Psalms that became a turning point for many of the women.
I've noticed over the years that if a few principles are followed, knowing what to teach and how to teach it becomes less of a mystery and more of a ministry.
First, I want to take people seriously. I don't just want to entertain or impress people. This is not show-and-tell time. I want to choose and teach subjects that really matter to people with an eternal destiny.
I think it's terrible stewardship for a class on building Christian relationships to sit around answering the question, "What is your favorite vegetable?" People are dealing with life-and-death issues, and they don't need to sit around talking about their favorite vegetable. I think you can build nurturing relationships as you interact with significant content that challenges and deepens Christian understanding.
This doesn't mean everything has to be deep, somber, and serious. In fact, learning needs to be fun; it should intrigue. But whatever we do needs to be worthy of people's time.
Second, I want people to learn and grow as Christians. My goal isn't to display my learning, to teach creatively, to convey information, or a host of other things. Instead, I want most of all to see changed lives—obedient Christian disciples in the world.
Many years ago, while teaching a series on Romans, a member of the class said to me, "I love your teaching on Romans. You make it so clear. I really feel like I understand it when I'm with you. I feel dumb when I read it myself at home; I can't make any sense out of it."
She thought she was complimenting me. It was actually a rebuke. She was impressed that I understood Romans. But she didn't. She couldn't read her Bible for herself and make sense out of it. But I'm not going to be with her when she hits a crisis and needs to know that is God's Word to her.
Third, I want people to experience authentic Christian community. Jesus may call us as individuals but only so that we might join others in the journey of faith. Discipleship is communal, not isolated. We not only need to love one another, we need each other in order to live the Christian life. It's crucial in my teaching that I help people connect with each other, like the group of women did who studied the Psalms.
Know, Feel, Do
When I teach a class, I want to affect the whole person, not just the mind but also the heart and will. So as I prepare, I ask myself three questions.
1. What do I want them to know? It never hurts to remind myself of some of the fundamentals of learning, for instance, that we must learn at foundational levels before we can learn at higher levels. We need knowledge before we can apply it; we need to dissect material before we can put it together in a new way.
Too often, in our hurry to get to application, we design courses that assume knowledge that our people don't have. The result is that people are given more than they can handle, and learning doesn't occur. We can also fail if we underestimate what people know.