Often we sunday-school teachers leave our classrooms on Sunday discouraged because the students—whether young or old—seem to have missed the touch of God upon their lives that morning. Then that verse in Isaiah, “My word shall not return unto me void …,” flashes to mind, and we think, “All is not lost. God will work it out and will not let his Word return void.”
But have we not taken comfort in an idea that is not biblical? The verses preceding Isaiah 55:11 suggest a need for response and involvement among those to whom the Word is given before we can claim the promise of verse eleven. And it is evident that our Sunday-school class was not responsive or involved.
When God gives us a responsibility, he is neither magnified nor exalted when we fail to fulfill that responsibility and then say, “Well, God will turn it out for good in the end!” If our preparatory study is shallow, if we make only a hurried attempt to fit the truth of God’s Word into the lives of our students, we cannot expect them to feel the life-changing touch of God during the Sunday-school class.
In the evangelical churches, the facet of biblical exposition that is perhaps most in need of improvement is application. Truth correctly fitted inevitably has impact. The Word of our Father cogently applied shatters our shallow spirituality and floods our being with His power and presence.
Following are some guidelines for application:
1. The application must be related to the student’s life, rather than the teacher’s. As the teacher studies the text, the passage begins to filter into his life and find its mark among his own fears and pressures. But when Mr. Brown tells his class how faithful God was in giving him favor in the boss’s eyes when he refused a contract that involved a kickback, Johnny may leave class thinking, “When I get a job I’ll ask God to help me.” What Johnny needs to see is how that same eternal principle relates to a ten-year-old. And to accomplish this his teacher needs to know where Johnny lives and what tears at his heart. Johnny must see that God is able to give him favor in his friends’ eyes when he refuses to go along on a shop-lifting expedition.
2. The application must be parallel with the truth of the passage. If the teacher is discussing Colossians 3:1–4, for example, about setting our affections on things above, he should not conclude with an example of how drinking killed a teen-ager and wrecked a family. An inappropriate application not only lacks impact but often causes resentment among the hearers. If the application flows naturally from the passage, however, then any negative reaction is generally between the student and the Spirit of God; he realizes that the idea comes from the passage and is not the teacher’s pet peeve of the week.
3. The application must be specific. If the application is general, the student will probably do one of two things. First he may leave it generalized and never bring it down to his own life, to where the rubber meets the road. This means he will not change his conduct.
The more specific the application, the greater the impact of the truth upon the student. But we do not want to be so specific that we single out one or two hearers and exclude the others. The principle is to think in terms of common denominators (what do most of the students have in common in the areas of family life, school life, friends, and so on). The smaller the group, the greater our opportunity to tailor the application to specific needs.
The other option the student may take when presented with a generalized application is to apply it to an area of his life where he is currently doing well. This leads us to the next guideline.
4. The application must be in an area of weakness. If the truth is not pointed to an area of weakness, the hearer will think of the truth in terms of his strength. If the message is on stewardship, then the student who gives liberally but spends no time on the things of Christ will tend to think of stewardship in only the financial area. For the message to change his life he must see that truth in light of his weakness.
We do not try to step on our own toes. If the teacher or pastor misses our particular weaknesses, then we tend to think we checked out okay.
Again this emphasizes the necessity of knowing where our students live. It is amazing to see how readily students reveal their weaknesses to someone who takes the time to build bridges of love and communication.
5. The application must be motivating. There are two major ingredients in motivation. First, the truth must touch a felt need of the student. If he sees that the Word of God speaks to the issues that claw at his heart, then he will respond to the Scriptures with enthusiasm and obedience.
The second ingredient in motivation is the teacher’s belief. If the teacher believes something deeply, then this belief is translated into enthusiasm, and enthusiasm can be communicated. If the teacher is not deeply committed to what he is teaching, then he cannot be really enthusiastic about it, and his students will think, “If he doesn’t care, why should I?” Contagious enthusiasm at the level of his felt need stimulates the student to positive response.
6. The application must be unhurried. The truth or principle in a lesson is comparable to the payload in a rocket, and the application of a lesson is parallel to the engine thrust of that rocket. Without the thrust the payload is useless. So with Scripture: truth taught in a manner that does not infiltrate a student’s life will yield today what it always has—Pharisees.
The teacher needs to become a clock-watcher and jealously guard the application time of a lesson or progressively weave the application into the lesson.
To fulfill all six of these principles is no easy task; it requires time, knowledge, and sanctified creativity in conjunction with the Spirit-given gift of teaching.
But the alternative of weak or invalid applications produces students who, though they may be biblically literate, are spiritually ignorant—an alternative the teacher cannot choose if he seeks to touch his students with the presence of God.
WILLIAM BOYD, chairman of the Department of Christian Education, Western Bible Institute, Denver, Colorado.
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