Teaching for Change, part I

When I signed up to serve as a pastoral intern during my seminary years, I knew I wouldn’t be able to preach on Sunday morning, but I would be given other opportunities to grow in preaching and teaching. One of those opportunities came in the form of our Adult Sunday School class. The popular and engaging regular teacher handed me the reigns for a half dozen or so weeks that first semester. I studied, I crafted a syllabus, and I wrote out a manuscript for the class’s first week. I handed out the syllabus (that included weekly homework) and launched in, hands gripped to the podium, with passion and verve.

I got a friendly call from one of the campus ministers who attended our church (and that Sunday School class) that week and he invited me out to coffee. Over mugs at the local caffeine dive, Small World, I had a brief conversation that was worth a semester’s worth of seminary education. It changed the way I have taught ever since.

“John,” he said with a warm smile, “obviously you are thoughtful and put a lot of work into the lesson this past week. But were you happy with how it went? With the response from the class?”

“Not really,” I responded. “They didn’t seem that engaged in the lesson and didn’t have much discussion around the questions I asked.”  

“I think I know why that is,” he said. “Do you?”

“Not really,” I said.

“You asked questions that had one answer, and you had that answer. People are intimidated answering questions when the right answer is in your mind,” he suggested.

“Okay,” I replied.

“You prepared your lesson like you would prepare a sermon. But teaching and preaching are different activities.  There wasn’t anything wrong with your lesson if it was a sermon. But sermons aren’t built for interaction. That’s why you felt people were disengaged. You didn’t give them a real opportunity to engage.”

“Can I suggest a different way to approach teaching?” he asked.

“Please do,” I said, trying to absorb the criticism in the spirit in which it was offered.

He asked me how I prepared to preach or teach and I walked him through my method, which was virtually the same for the two and included the study of the passage, language study, commentary study, and then crafting a message built around one main point.

“Do you think there is any difference between preaching or teaching?” he asked.

“Teaching should be more interactive and participatory,” I said.”

“I completely agree,” he replied. “That is why that I think that the most powerful way to prepare for teaching is to prepare a lesson around three to five key questions that engage the class. They can’t be questions that have one word answers and they can’t even be questions that you know the answers to. They have to be genuine questions that pull you and the class into the text so that you can have a meaningful dialogue around the text.”

“That is teaching for change,” he concluded. “When you wrestle with the text together with the class, you invite them into participating in the process of discovery and change.”

That conversation has completely changed the way that I approach teaching classes and leading small groups ever since. What do I really want as a teacher? To be changed by the Spirit and to be a midwife to the change the Spirit will bring about in the group I’m leading.

Being the midwife is a tremendous privilege and one that we forfeit when we treat teaching like preaching and make our classes and groups observers and not participants. Next week I’ll tease out more about how I’ve developed this central insight of how to teach for change over the years.


Photo credit: Alain Wong/Unsplash

For more on the Teaching for Change series, see:

Part 1: Teaching for Change, part 1

Part 2: Teaching for Change, part 2