Preparing Yourself to Teach

I avoid Sunday morning meanderings by cultivating textual fluency, people fluency, and schedule fluency.

No one wants to blur or block the message of the Lord. Yet, sometimes on Sunday morning we climb into the pulpit or stand behind a lectern and, for any host of reasons, haltingly deliver an ill-prepared message or lead a Bible study that just goes nowhere.

The symptoms of such sermons and classes vary: (a) use of clichés, due to a shallow grasp of the text, (b) fogginess, due to heavy biblical spade work but light cultivation for human consumption, (c) apathy, due to sparse focus on the implications of the text. But whatever the symptoms, the source is often the same: lack of preparedness.

I avoid Sunday morning meanderings by cultivating three fluencies during the week: textual fluency, people fluency, and schedule fluency. Let me illustrate this by showing how I prepare for preaching, which for me is the main format for my teaching.

Textual Fluency

Textual fluency means knowing the content of a Scripture passage thoroughly enough that it leaves its mark on me. And textual fluency requires a journey from biblical text understood to discipleship implication addressed. In my journey, I take five steps, posing five questions to every preaching passage.

  1. Technical questions. C. S. Lewis says, "Tell me what the hard words mean" (in their own setting, when they were first said). He maintained that a lexicon profited him more than a thousand commentaries. After all, a text is built with words.

  2. Historical question. I must view the text in its own setting, both the historical within the material itself and that which lies behind the material. The historical research within would be, for instance, to learn about the identity of a person mentioned. Who is John the Baptist? Who are the Pharisees? Or the Sadducees?

  3. Theological question. If that's what it says, what does it mean? This requires some interpretation, which is the dynamic part of the great journey. For example, when I determine that the parable of the Prodigal Son is not about the son as much as the father, that's a theological evaluation.

  4. Contemporary question. I ask, "Now, how would Christ's point collide with his own world, with his contemporaries?" In the parable of the Prodigal Son we see within the text itself a collision occurring between Jesus and the Pharisees over his eating and drinking with publicans. At that point, I play a game with the text and ask, I wonder how the Pharisees would respond? Who would they identify with? How would they feel about what Jesus does with the elder son? Now I'm getting inside the skin of a first-century person—what some critics call audience criticism—to understand how and why the collision would occur.

  5. Discipleship question. Where I put myself personally and representatively under the text. I must ask, "What is this text saying to me? How does it collide with my life? Where am I challenged to change?"

Obviously this journey demands time and work, both of which I gladly invest in order to avoid three dangers:

Inaccuracy. Research prevents historical errors, which can cripple the message. If I say something inaccurate in an illustration about airplanes, the pilots and aircraft-hobbyists in the congregation will downgrade everything else I say.

Flatness. Research kindles a valid urgency. After significant study the material itself grips you.

One education study of a few years ago sought to discover the factors that raise teenagers' sat scores. They found one particular variable that did that: teachers who believed their subject matter was crucial, who felt a student couldn't make it without knowing their subject. Instructors who know the material but couldn't care less if you learn it, or strict disciplinarians who merely want the right paper at the right time but don't seek true learning, are less effective. I must passionately believe the scriptural material is invaluable.

Limiting the gospel. We don't want to shortcut the journey by prematurely deciding what discipleship implications we want to affirm. For example, a well-meaning pastor may say, "I want to tell people God loves them," and then simply hunt for some supporting verses on Saturday night to undergird his or her intuitions. This approach doesn't give the full gospel a chance to break through.

People Fluency

Some pastors love working the early stages of the journey but never get around to asking what it all means. They can stun us with Greek word studies but never arrive at discipleship implications.

Truth be known, we may be wanting to hide in the text, always talking about what the text says; as long as I don't get down to what it means, it never really bothers me or anyone else. Then I'm not meddling. There is a comfortable distance in "On the one hand Calvin said this. On the other, Luther said that. Bultmann went this way, and Barth that way." But what about me and you?

What are we going to do?

That's where people fluency—understanding myself and my people—comes in. By sustained listening, I understand the questions on their minds, where they're coming from and what's happening in their lives. In fact, I can be a prophetic speaker to them only when I've been a prophetic listener.

For example, when I'm with teenagers, I try to understand what motivates and energizes their culture. Since it's sometimes strange to me, I'm tempted to distance or disconnect myself from it, or, what's worse, disdain or criticize it too quickly. Instead, I try to shift into a learner mode. When teenagers are bragging about some new music, I ask myself, What is it that really turns them on about that music? What do they feel when they hear it? What do they like about that group?

A prophetic listener is quick to hear and slow to speak. You can attend an opera, for instance, in the closed mode saying to yourself, This is going to be boring, or in the learner mode, I wonder what has caused the Italians to love these operas so much? A prophetic listener pauses to listen and watch.

Schedule Fluency

I want to explode one myth. I believe pastors have the gift of time more than most professionals. Except for Sunday morning, pastors wield the whip hand over most events in the church week. We largely control when people will schedule appointments with us, when special classes will be offered, when we'll talk with outsiders. Granted, this scarcely means we abound in free time, but given our authority, we can, if the resolve is there, establish a rhythm to our week.

I have found that in order to be a good student (and for the sake of my sanity) every day needs to be different. I ease up at one point while toiling at another, interact with people at one point and withdraw at another. With such a rhythm I can reserve study time. But when every day is a jumble of random sameness, I'll never stay balanced; these are the kinds of days that create burnout.

The key for me is to see my life in units of seven days. Rarely can I spin one day in balance, and I can't think in terms of a year or even a month; that's too long. But seven days—that biblical model works for me: Six days shalt thou labor, one day shalt thou rest.

Monday I meet with church committees, write my newsletter columns, pen correspondence, meet with individuals. Tuesday I'm with my staff. Wednesday I have classes and my prayer group and teach an adult class across town.

Thursday morning I finish my sermon for the coming Sunday. I can do that because Thursday afternoon and Friday is uncontaminated time (with Saturday as my day off). On the previous Thursday afternoon I have excavated for this next week's sermon, and on Friday I've done general research.

Advancing deadlines for essentials, like the sermon, has helped me escape the garbled tyranny of the urgent. When pastors wait until Saturday to pound out their sermons, the undone sermon has overshadowed every day of that week. This kills thorough research. Therefore I begin preparing Sunday's sermon a week and a half early, and finish it the week it's due by Thursday noon.

This helps me use Friday in freedom. Friday I can read Les Miserables or the latest book on C. S. Lewis or a new commentary on John. I couldn't do this if my unfinished sermon was hanging over my head.

My week becomes a rhythm, then, a rhythm that enables me to become textual and people fluent.

Paying the Rent to Become Fluent

In order to maintain cooperation from the congregation to do this, I've found they will grant freedom for whatever we hold to be the linchpins in our ministry, especially if we're careful to "pay the rent." To do anything valid in a church, anything we crave in ministry, we must earn the right. A tenant pays the rent before enjoying a house; otherwise he's continually looking over his shoulder for the landlord. After paying the rent, he relaxes. He can do most anything he wants there. In the same way a pastor pays at least four rents for the freedom to pursue the essentials of his ministry.

People must perceive that we know and are under the text. Pastors must master the Scriptures and proclaim them clearly. In addition, our lives are to be under the Word, congruent with it. In his letters to the Ephesians and Philippians Paul says, "I want your life to be worthy of the gospel." The Greek word for worthy also means "congruent." We don't have to be perfect, but people must feel that our life affirms the message.

People must sense growth in us. If not, they worry about us and, ironically, give us less time to study. They begin to hover around us, discipling us because they think we're going stale, going downhill. They expect a payoff for what they're allowing. Seeing growth, they want us to do even more of whatever caused it. They'll say, "Hey, listen, whatever you're doing, keep doing it."

People must know we're working hard. We don't have to publish a work schedule, because most of the time people can catch it, feel it, when we're working hard. By our actions and demeanor they sense vigor. They sense an honest day's work for an honest day's wage. It's not the pastor waving his flag and saying, "I work so hard." (Besides, people often pinch the freedoms of a workaholic.) They just sense the pastor's pulling his oar.

People must know we love them. When pastors show that they like their people and treasure them, the people go to bat for the pastor. If they are convinced the pastor is for them, they'll let the pastor take the time to become text and people fluent.

I once read an article in The New York Times by Norman Mailer on the subject of writing. He observed that some of his best writing had been done at times when, ironically, he was the driest. That's because when dry, he did more research, which resulted in some of his best breakthroughs.

At any given moment, sweet fluency, whether with people, text, or schedule, can seem like an unreachable goal. And that's just the time to give ourselves wholeheartedly to becoming fluent. For that's just when we may be closer to eloquence and effectiveness than we think.

From the bookMastering Teaching, Copyright 1991 by Christianity Today, Inc.

Free Newsletters

More Newsletters

Follow us