Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Preparing to Teach

I need a little help, especially if you are a Bible teacher or preacher, or for that matter, a learner. First, for those of you who don’t know, I teach a young adults Sunday School class at Northcrest Baptist Church. I’ve been doing it for about seven years. We began with six people, grew to about 50, split into two classes, and now have about 30-35 people. It’s a great class, and is a lot of fun. This week, we will finish up a year-long study of the book of John that has been incredibly challenging and satisfying. We’re about to begin a shorter, three month survey of some Old Testament history books. So I think this transition time is a good time for me to start thinking about some changes in my preparation and presentation style. I think I’ve fallen into a bit of a rut in my preparation, and I might not be using my time the best possible way I can, and I’m looking for some ways to improve that. So I’m just going to share with you my weekly preparation schedule and goals, and see if any of you have some hints that might help me improve.

I usually work all week on my lesson for the coming week; a little bit every day. I start on Sunday, and wrap up that next Saturday. I put a lot of work into it, but I wonder if I could be better using that time by changing up some of my study and preparation habits.

I look over the passage I’ll be teaching for the coming week, and try to get a feel for it. I begin thinking that day about what the major themes of the passage are, and start brainstorming how I can present them.

I really begin studying. I have a couple of commentaries I use, an ESV and HCSB Study Bible, several other books of theology to consult as needed, and some online resources, as I really try to unravel what the passage is all about. I’m looking for the Biblical and  historical context, along with difficult to understand phrases, words and sentences. By this time, I hope I have a feel for the main thrust of the passage, and a general idea of what the application of the passage will be. On Monday morning, I try to write out a brief introduction.

I spend the next four days working on an outline. And I think this is where I often get bogged down. My outline used to be 3-4 pages long. Now it is 7-8 pages long. In many ways, the outline is just a way to help me think through the passage. I use it when I teach, but only to kind of help me keep my place, and to help me remember the 3-4 main themes I want to talk about. It also helps me to remember if there is something specific from an application standpoint I want to use, or if there is some specific phrasing I want to use at a particular point. During this time, I try to work through the particulars of the main themes. I try to develop those main themes into more specific ideas, and show how it all fits together coherently. I will regularly re-consult the my commentaries, books and online resources as I’m doing this. I usually about 45 minutes per day doing this. It’s amazing how pretty much every week this ends with an outline that is 7 pages, plus one paragraph long. It’s uncanny.

I spend just a few minutes reviewing my notes, remembering my main points, trying to clarify in my mind anything that doesn’t seem to make sense. I’ll usually go to sleep Saturday night thinking about what I’ll say Sunday morning.

Let me also say that I spend a good deal of time during the week thinking about what I’ll be teaching. Many of the ideas that I’ll sketch out in my mind during my morning study come to me as I’m thinking through them at some other point in the week. Here’s where I think my real weakness lies. I think I’ve become to attached to my outline. It feels sometimes like as long as I have my 7 pages plus 1 paragraph, then I’ve done what I need to do. I’m not sure that’s always the case.

Let me say something about my general presentation also. I usually take our class through a 3-step process: tell the story, interpret the story, apply the story. Now, not every passage we study is a story, but it still works the same way. If it’s not an actual story, we simply discuss the context of the passage, then interpret it, and finally apply it to our lives. I try to mix in a fair amount of questions and discussion time as I lead the class through the passage. Some weeks I do better than others. Some weeks I talk too much. But that is my general process, and certainly my goal each week. I think I often fall short in the application phase. There’s a real danger here, I think. Sometimes you can under-apply something, and other times you can over-apply it. In other words, you can be so short on application that nobody understands what the passage is supposed to mean for their lives tomorrow. But you can also be so specific on application that you rule out other ways it can be applied, and people miss out on applying it themselves. So I lean toward under-application I think. I don’t want the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction, but I would like to do a little better on that end.

So that’s me. How about you? If you are a teacher or preacher, what does your preparation and presentation look like? Do you see any ways I can improve? Is there anything specific you do that you think might help me do a better job? Any questions about the way I do it that might be a help to you? If you are a member of a Bible study class, is there anything in particular you hope to hear or experience during your group study that you think I’m leaving out? I want to know!


Wendy Mari said...

Sounds like preparation is covered. It has been a few years since I've been in a teaching/facilitating role for adult Bible study. One thing that has always disappointed me about Sunday School for adults is that it is usually "boring"; kid Sunday School is fun and engaging then we grow up and its not. Not that the message is boring, or the presentation is off, it just has become "big church" but no choir and a smaller audience...and breakfast if you're lucky. How do we keep SS from becoming big church part 1 on Sunday mornings? I think, and have experienced, a class that comes prepared and gradually opens up with each other and engages during their quest for Biblical truth is fun. A couple of ways this is was/can be accomplished is in emailing "homework" beyond just a passage to read, send out thought provoking/life change questions...then follow up on them next SS. Small groups within the small group help too. Maybe y'all are doing that now, seems like I saw a reference pop up on FB. A lot of times there is a pressure to cover the stuff you prepared for and the time constraint just won't allow for it. Relax, simplify, break it down. Don't rush for the sake of checking off all the points that were prepared. Sometimes the Word needs to marinate in hearers hearts and minds, let the Holy Spirit work. Also, I think a lot of teachers forgot the reason why we have SS in the first place. Sure, Bible study; but wasn't it designed for relationships? Its the time at church when we can be with folks and pray for one another, encourage one another, and get into God's Word together. I don't think super deep Bible study is the purpose of SS, a small group Bible study during the week is better for that. It may be that the prep time/tactic change or refresh you're looking for will come with a fresh look at Sunday School. You are an excellent communicator. I pray that God directs you and the class to be more than just Sunday morning breakfast eaters and good listeners! "We ARE!"

Wade Phillips said...

I agree with a lot of what you've said here. We do small groups within our small groups. We have a lot of discussion. We have a class Facebook page where I put "homework," each week, dealing with our lesson. And we put a lot of emphasis on relationships. There are times when we do these better than others, for sure.

The one place I might take issue with what you have to say is about whether SS is a place for "super deep" Bible study. I guess it depends on what you mean there. "Deep" is not necessarily the same thing as "inaccessible." When I think of "deep" Bible study, I simply mean that I want people to understand what the particular passage we are studying is all about. I want them to see how it connects to the verses around it, how it connects to the entire Biblical narrative, and most importantly, how it connects to who Jesus is and what the Gospel is about. That's what I think deep Bible study is, and I think it's vital, whether no matter where you are on your faith journey.

Now, if by deep you mean dry and boring and more concerned with teaching facts than helping people see Jesus, then I'm with you. No need for all that. But I've had enough of Bible studies that are nothing more than moral lessons, that could just as easily be gleaned from Aesop's fables as from the Bible. And that's what some of our shallow Bible lessons, even in adult classes, all too often become.

Thanks for the words of encouragement! And thanks for reading!