How to Teach the Bible So Others Understand
My phone flashed with a text as I began my day. “Hey. Can I come borrow some resources from you?” It was my friend Lisa, and she was preparing to teach a message to a large women’s study. I could tell she was nervous. “I’m teaching on the sovereignty of God and I’m overwhelmed. I’ve read Tozer, Wright, Lewis. Can you recommend anything else?” My first reaction to this thread of texts was sheer delight. I was getting a front row seat to my friend’s growing calling as a Bible teacher, and I loved it. My friend was being challenged in her faith and stretching to take on a thorny issue that often is treated with either Christian platitudes or not taught at all. I smiled as I considered how to reply—then decided this conversation would be best face-to-face.
Lisa grabbed a chair in my office for a quick chat. In many ways, Lisa is the perfect picture of a woman with the right stuff to teach the Bible. After spending several years as an elementary school teacher (with a master’s degree), Lisa transitioned into a ministry role directing our church’s kids programming. After passing off that role, Lisa now volunteered in our women’s ministry, taking care of every administration need. As she continued growing, she started leading the teaching team for the women’s ministry, a small group of women who take turns teaching each week. She has all the right raw gifts—a thirst for knowledge, the discipline for research, the skills for preparation, and, most importantly, a growing passion for God’s Word and its relevance for our modern world. What Lisa was working to gain was both confidence and competence in her ability to translate this ancient text into effective teaching to engage both head and heart.
As I talked with Lisa, I felt myself growing encouraged, knowing that as good as video curriculum can be, growing local leaders who teach the Bible to their own community bring life and vitality and realness. It tells the woman at the bus stop that someone like her reads and believes the Bible. It tells the businesswoman that God’s Word has power in her life—it’s not reserved just for persuasive, professional communicators.
“Sovereignty of God is like varsity-level teaching,” I told Lisa. She nodded in agreement and added: “My head is going in a million different directions. What about pain? What about people who’ve never heard the name of Jesus? What does our church really believe about predestination?” I laughed and nodded with her, feeling both her excitement and angst.
“You’re right to ask all those questions. Let’s try to get them in some structure and see where it takes us,” I said. I shared with her some of the basic tools I’ve used as an author and pastor, and I share them with you today. No matter where you are in your growth as a Bible teacher, here are four foundational layers that build great Bible teaching:
The Divine Is in the Details
Before you teach from a passage, read it over and over again. Try to see it as a scene in a movie. Do the research needed to know the backstory and the context. Then, engage every sense as you begin to paint the scene in your mind. What does it look like? Feel like? Smell Like? What’s happening in each frame of the scene? What are the expressions you would imagine on the faces of people who are listening or watching the action? What would you be feeling or thinking if you were there? You might not share all of this detail in your teaching, but you are doing the work to bring it alive in your heart. The more you see it, the stronger your engagement will be.
Many times we skip over the crucial step of engaging our imagination because we are trying to hurry to the point. But the enjoyment of learning is to listen to a teacher who brings words to life. JoHannah Rearden’s recent WomenLeaders article, Straight to the Source, gives some great tips to grow in your observation and interpretation skills.
Bring Modern Life to Ancient Words
A great starting point in your teaching is to make sure your audience understands the theological words in a passage. Christians use an absurd amount of words that don’t easily translate into our daily life. From sanctified to redeemed to living sacrifice to sovereign, the Bible is full of words that don’t immediately register—or they register with vague notions that don’t actually help us live out our faith. What’s more, many people also suffer from bad church experiences that ruined beautiful words with legalism and judgment.
So don’t assume your audience will understand the words in a passage. When you teach a word that doesn’t immediately translate (read: every other word in the Bible), slow down and ask yourself how you would paraphrase that concept. For Lisa, this meant starting her teaching with an overview of what “sovereignty” means in the Bible, and taking her listeners to two or three concepts in Scripture that illustrate the sovereignty of God.
Ask the Hard Questions
I became a Bible teacher in the counseling office. I spent the first eight years of my career as a therapist. In that office, hard questions are not only welcome, they are expected. That training taught me always to take a skeptical eye to what I would teach. Every time I stood up to speak, I thought of people facing disappointment, unanswered questions, and deep losses. I stopped myself from saying cute tweetable things that didn’t apply to people like the ones in my counseling office. As Bible teachers, we have to ask the hard questions, and we have to be comfortable enough with God’s mysteries to not have all the answers.
When it came to the “sovereignty of God” question, I encouraged Lisa to press into the hard questions and see what was beneath them. As we thought about our own places of hardship and loss, we realized that our disposition toward God—as either loving or punitive—is what makes all the difference in understanding his sovereignty. I encouraged her to name that in her teaching, to walk with her listeners through some hard questions that reveal what beliefs are driving our understanding of God—and then to bring perspective from Scripture that he is both sovereign and loving.
Passion Always Reads
I once heard a storyteller say, “Passion always reads.” In other words, you may not be remembered for every word you’ve spoken, but you’ll always be known by your passion—and that’s not something you can fake. It’s one thing to grit it out while teaching a math lesson; it’s quite another when we’re talking about communicating the truth of God.
One of the most important things we can do while preparing a message is let the message work in us. This means stepping away from the resources and the study material and letting the Word of God dwell in you and with you. It means asking yourself why these truths matter to you, and asking God for the faith to believe that you are the right person to deliver this message. It means believing that God’s Word never returns void (Isaiah 55:11). And it means trusting that God has truth to communicate, and you are his chosen vessel—for this specific truth at this specific time, for your specific audience, be it 10 or 100 or 1000 people. After all, God chose the exact times and places which we are to live (Acts 17:26), so he certainly has chosen you for this moment.
One of my favorite quotes is from John Wesley: “When your heart is on fire, people love to watch it burn.” Let God light up your heart for the message he’s given you. Don’t shortchange your time in prayer and with the Lord because you think you need to be more prepared. Nothing can prepare you for a message like the Spirit of God, dwelling in and working in you.
As Lisa left my office that morning with a few resources and some scribbled notes, I reminded her that God had given her a gift and was pleased with her using it to glorify him. And it reminded me, too, that God is always reaching for his people, always looking for those who will give themselves, heart and mind, to his Word and to the belief that his Word is what brings us abundant life.
I once heard Beth Moore pray, “Lord, let me teach your Word with authority and affection.” May we do the same, confidently believing in the power of God’s Word—with all the passion God will provide.
Nicole Unice is a Bible teacher and author of several books, including her latest, Brave Enough: Getting Past our Fears, Flaws and Failures to Live Bold and Free. She serves as one of the pastors at Hope Church in Richmond, Virginia. Find her speaking schedule on her website.