While milling around at conferences, I occasionally bump into pastors who say to me, "Prof, you once changed the whole course of my life."
"Fantastic!" I reply. "How did it happen?"
"Years ago in class you made one statement that opened my eyes to a whole new perspective on ministry."
I never cease to marvel how powerful truth is—even one sentence of truth—and how profoundly teachers can motivate others. Successful teaching not only opens the mind but also stirs the emotions, fires the imagination, galvanizes the will. If I didn't embrace that, I would despair, for I live not just to teach truth but to change people.
Help Listeners Identify with You
My wife belongs to a fraternity of journalists that some time ago sponsored a talk by playwright Arthur Miller. She got two tickets, and I jumped at the chance to go with her. After his presentation, Miller invited questions.
"Mr. Miller," someone asked, "How can you tell when you have a good play?"
"When I sit in the audience during one of my plays," he answered, "and in the midst of it I want to shout. 'That's me!' then I know I've got a good one."
Miller has hit on one of the most important principles not only of great plays, but of motivating teaching: our soul is moved by what we can identify with.
People want to see themselves: their dreams, their needs, their problems, and their heartbreaks. Nothing moves listeners more than their reality, their experience, their emotions, their struggles. They don't want to hear something brand new as much as something relevant to them. They want to feel, This teacher understands me.
There are several things we can do to help people identify with us.
• Tell it like it is. Shun euphemisms, candy coating, fluff, party line. On the other hand, direct, honest speech is powerful. They want gutsy, realistic truth.
I'm not advocating shock teaching but forthright teaching. People identify with real-world advice, not Utopian, spin-control sayings. They're less interested in the way things are supposed to be than in the way they are.
• Major in human interest material. Master the commonplace, where 99 percent of people live. I try to relate my teaching to the frustration parents feel about their preschoolers, the discouragement business people feel in their careers, the anxiety young couples have about money, the crazy and cute things kids do, the fun of playing softball.
• Share your own struggles. After attending one seminar, a friend said to me, "I wish just once the teacher would have admitted he had sinned or at least had a tough time. Either he plays in a different league, or I don't know what the Christian life is all about."
A super pious, ultra spiritual teacher often does more to discourage people than to motivate them. By the end, listeners feel, I guess I just don't have it. I can't cut it. I could never be like that.
On the other hand, I find whenever I share a failure or mistake, my students come out of the rocks to tell me how much it meant to them. Suddenly they feel, Hey, there's hope for me.
I'm not talking about an emotional strip tease, revealing things that are intimate, but teaching as if I don't have everything down pat. The approach is "Look, I don't have all of the answers about prayer, but I'm sure involved in the process. Let me share what God is teaching me about this."