The Art of Lesson Preparation
A Sunday School Teacher head bowed, meanders out of his class, harried, haggard, and bedraggled. “Throwing in the towel” seems like a very good idea.
Another teacher confident and composed, steps from the same Sunday School department unruffled, unjaded, unscathed. The idea of resigning from Bible teaching is alien to his mind.
Why such disparity in the honored task of teaching God’s Word? What makes the difference?
Many factors make a Bible class session spiritually successful or unsuccessful. One factor is, almost invariably, lesson preparation.
I. Why Prepare?
A teacher who comes unglued in class is usually not adequately prepared. Conversely, a teacher who enjoys his Bible class has usually prepared diligently and thoroughly.
Benjamin Franklin hinted at this when he quipped, “By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail.”
No doubt you have sensed the difference in your own teaching. One week you are amply prepared spiritually, intellectually, and creatively. The Lord blesses your class hour. Another week your preparation is hurried and skimpy, and somehow the hour seems to fumble. You sense you aren’t getting through.
Disaster on Sunday morning often can be traced to negligence during the week. The more you perspire before your lesson, the less you perspire during your lesson.
“But,” some may respond, “placing too much emphasis on the teacher’s lesson preparation is relying on human ingenuity, on the energy of the flesh, isn’t it?”
This view overlooks the fact that teaching God’s Word is a process involving the divine teacher (the Holy Spirit) who seeks to teach through the human teacher. Like a sharpened tool in a worker’s hand, the human teacher’s effectiveness as an instrument of the Holy Spirit increases with his own preparation.
The Apostle Paul knew that ultimately spiritual progress is accomplished only by God. But he also recognized the role of the human as God’s servant:
“I have planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (I Cor. 3:6). The Holy Spirit provided the spiritual dynamic for Paul’s unflagging ministry (1 Thes. 1:5).
Adequate lesson preparation, then, increases the Christian teacher’s spiritual potential; slovenly prepared lessons reduce it. Two giant-sized benefits await the competently prepared: direction and confidence.
A teacher’s lesson plan is like an architect’s blueprint, a road map to a traveler, or a recipe to a cook. A lesson plan guides the teacher step by step to his destination. To begin construction without a blueprint, to launch a trip without a map, to start a gourmet dish without a recipe, is to flirt with failure.
Go to your class well-prepared and you’ll experience a calm assurance, aware that by your preparedness you are more flexible in the hands of the Holy Spirit.
II. Four Steps
Four ingredients in Bible lesson preparation are indispensable to communicating God’s Word in a spiritually productive way. These four steps are pray, evaluate, study, and plan.
Teaching the Bible, however, is more than a diligent pursuit of certain steps. It begins with a prepared life.
Ezra did not attempt to teach the Jews God’s statutes and ordinances till he had first studied God’s Word and practiced it (Ezra 7:10). You must live out God’s truth in your own experience, in obedience to the Holy Spirit, in order to effectively encourage others to heed it.
A teacher who does not know Jesus Christ as his personal Saviour cannot lead others to salvation. A teacher who is not walking in daily fellowship with Christ can hardly encourage others in a dedicated walk. A teacher who is living in unconfessed sin cannot motivate others to lead a holy life. A spiritually stagnant teacher is unable to guide his pupils into a vibrant, growing relationship with Jesus Christ.
Your preparation begins with an evaluation of your own spiritual condition. Ask the Holy Spirit to quicken you and to make you a doer of the Word and not merely a hearer (James 1:22).
The more you appropriate Bible truths to meet your life needs, the better you are prepared for proficient Bible teaching. Preparation is also enhanced as you attend Sunday School conferences and teacher training sessions and courses. Books, magazines, and cassettes on teaching can also add to your growth as a Bible teacher.
A. Pray. Each week, as you undertake the preparation of the lesson, begin with prayer. Because Bible teaching is a spiritual task, you need spiritual power-obtainable through diligent praying.
Without prayer, your preparation becomes routine and your teaching anemic. With prayer, you tap spiritual resources for effecting spiritual changes in the lives of your pupils.
1. Pray for yourself. Ask the Lord to bless you through your study of His Word, to align your own conduct and attitudes to His standards.
Ask Him to speak to you in your preparation so He may speak through you as you teach the lesson.
Confess specific sins in your life, asking for His cleansing and His power to forsake those sins (Prov. 28:13; I John 1:9). Set aside any sin that may be weighing you down and – hindering full spiritual joy and Spirit-filled power (Heb. 12:1; Eph. 5:18; 1 Thes. 5:19).
Ask the Lord to give you the proper attitude toward Him, His Word, your class, and others, because you teach by your attitudes as much as by your admonitions.
You want your pupils to be enthusiastic about God’s Word! Then you must be enthused about it! You want your pupils to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord to please Him in all respects”! (Col. 1:10, New American Standard Bible). Then you must walk in that way! If you want your pupils to study the Word, then you must do the same!
2. Pray for your pupils. To pray for each pupil by name, asking God to meet their specific needs means that you must know them well enough to be aware of their needs. Talking with them before and after class, over the phone during the week, visiting in their homes, getting acquainted with their families are ways to get to know where they are spiritually.
Some teachers keep a small notebook with a page for each pupil where they write general information, spiritual needs, and other pertinent facts.
3. Pray regarding your last lesson and your next lesson. Before the next steps in preparation, pray that the Lord will cement in your pupils’ lives the truths taught in your last lesson, that they may carry out the ideas discussed in class on how to obey the truths studied.
Then pray for spiritual enlightenment for them as they study for the coming lesson. Seek God’s enabling and insight for your own study and preparation.
B. Evaluate. Each Sunday afternoon, do a self-evaluation of your teaching that morning.
Ask yourself: What was my strongest point? What was my weakest point? What changes would I make if I taught that lesson again? To what extent did the introduction capture attention and interest? Were the methods of anticipation employed wisely? How effective were the visuals I used? How interested were the pupils? Was the scriptural material covered adequately? Were my lesson aims accomplished? Was the lesson timed correctly? Writing down specific items in your “How-did-it-go?” evaluation will enable you to plan your forthcoming lesson.
1. Study the Bible. First comes the study of the Scripture passage itself. Studying the Word yourself before going to the published teacher’s manual will give you fresh insight that will be specially “yours.” This will add to the richness of your teaching and therefore is an essential step.
To gain the most from your preparation, begin on Sunday afternoon. The Saturday-night manual-grabber hardly has time for “idea-incubation.” As you study through the week, you have time for the lesson to simmer, time for ideas to germinate and come to fruition, time to gather illustrations, visuals, and other materials. Many Bible teachers teach without adequate visualization of the truths taught and with few illustrations because they begin late in the week. Once you get in the habit of an early-in-the-week start, you’ll sense its great advantages.
Pursue your study of the Bible passage in the following ways:
a. Eagerly. Approach God’s Word not from a sense of duty, but in a spirit of excitement and anticipation. Going to the Bible eagerly will help you make your teaching a joy rather than a job.
b. Personally. Study the Bible as God’s love letter written directly to you. Seek to discover what He has for you personally in the passage. As you are blessed by the Word, you help others to discover spiritual riches for themselves.
c. Searchingly. Like a detective, search carefully for all the facts in the text of the passage. Read the material as if you were seeing it for the first time. Picture the characters, places, and actions in your mind’s eye. Scrutinize the Scriptures by writing down answers to these questions:
* Who? (What persons or groups of persons are mentioned?)
* What? (What events took place? What actions were the persons involved in?)
* Where? (What locations and geographical sites are mentioned?)
* When? (What time elements are mentioned-year, month, day, time of day or night, etc.?)
* Why? (What purposes or intents are stated or implied?)
If you are teaching a doctrinal or other non-narrative passage, also look for patterns of thought (such as causes, results, reasons, climaxes, contrasts, comparisons), literary features, etc.
d. Probingly. Write down questions about the passage that may not be clear. Keep your pupils in mind as you read. Write down the questions they might ask from the passage to help you gear the lesson to them.
e. Thoughtfully. Let the passage soak into your mind as you read it and reread it. Ruminate on the text, seeking to gain all you can from its contents. Even the most advanced Bible students find something new in each musing on a passage. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you grasp its core of spiritual truth. Ponder the passage on your way to work. Muse on its meaning as you go about your housework or as you pause for lunch.
By beginning your study of the Scripture on Sunday afternoon, you will have several days in which to come back to the passage, each time approaching it differently and more deeply and with greater enjoyment.
2. Study the publisher’s manuals. The teaching materials produced by evangelical publishers can be an invaluable aid in your Bible-teaching ministry.
a. They conserve your efforts, work, and time. Few laypeople have all the time and resources necessary to prepare their own materials. The time they do have can more profitably be spent preparing lessons from materials already professionally produced.
b. They provide ideas for every part of the lesson. Publishers’ materials usually include detailed suggestions for pre-session, unit and lesson aims, lesson openers, methods of instruction, illustrations, applications, pupil activities, visuals, with materials for both teacher and pupils.
c. They provide a planned series on a long-range basis. By following a planned graded curriculum you know years in advance where your department and entire Sunday School are going.
d. They provide professionally prepared instructional materials and supplementary teaching aids. Most editors of Sunday School lesson materials are specialists in the age group for which they write, spending extensive amounts of time testing and reviewing materials.
Approach your published materials, then, with appreciation. Recognize that the ideas have been carefully written to the understanding and needs of the designated age level. Not intended to be predigested lessons, needing only your mental can opener, curricular materials can stimulate your thinking.
As you study a given lesson in the teacher’s manual, note these parts: aim(s), Bible memory verse (learn it), introduction, Bible content, suggested teaching plan, methods for student participation, applicational truths, class activities, through-the-week carry-over projects, assignments. Choose ideas you can use; adapt or adopt others; omit what may not be useful for your class.
Then study the pupil’s manual. Write answers to the questions and fill in other activities in the workbook. Mark certain items that you will want to refer to in class.
Note the other materials provided by the publishers, such as take-home papers.
3. Use other sources. As necessary, go to other helps such as other Bible versions, Bible dictionaries, commentaries, maps, and concordances. If you are preparing a difficult lesson with which you feel you need still further help, consult your pastor.
D. Plan. You are then ready to decide your lesson plan, your procedure, or strategy, for action. To attempt this fourth step before you have prayed,
evaluated, and studied is to weaken your action plan.
1. Know the unit and lesson aims. As you begin to develop your teaching plan in detail, note how the week’s lesson fits the aim or objective of the unit of lessons for the month or quarter. Then note carefully the lesson aim.
Ideally, each lesson should help your pupils develop in three areas of the spiritual life: what they know, what they desire, what they do. These pertain to the areas of knowledge, feeling, and action or skill. They challenge the mind, the heart, and the will.
If you aim “to help the student know” or “to help the student understand,” only part of your teaching responsibility is fulfilled. Paul prayed that the Colossian believers would know God’s will “in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Col. 1:9). But he went beyond that! He longed that through that knowledge and insight their conduct (“walk”) would be affected (1:10). So Paul was deeply concerned also about their attitudes and actions.
2. Outline and go over the lesson story or content. Make a sketchy outline of the Bible story, writing one phrase or sentence for each paragraph or main point and subpoint. Using those notes, practice telling the story or teaching the lesson content, filling in additional notes as necessary, and deleting others as possible. Your goal should be to teach from these brief notes so that you need not take the teacher’s manual to class.
3. Decide on the pre-session activities and the lesson introduction. Select pre-session activities from the teacher’s manual or choose your own. Many
Sunday School teachers fail to take advantage of the valuable ten or fifteen minutes that precede the official beginning time of the Sunday School hour. Those moments after the first pupil arrives help you get acquainted with your pupils, to engage them in meaningful lesson-related activities, to involve them in interesting review of previous lessons, to stimulate their thinking in preparation for the day’s Bible study.
Presession can be valuable for all age levels. Preschoolers can go to interest centers. Primaries and juniors can view a model, make a visual, find locations on a map, take review quizzes, go on a picture walk, get acquainted with each other, retell a flannel story, select pictures. Young people can correspond with a missionary by recording brief greetings on a cassette recorder. They can also consider thought questions on the board, look up assigned verses, plan opening worship for the following Sunday. Adults, in addition to doing pre-session ideas suggested for young people, can get acquainted with others in the class, and recite the lesson’s memory verse. Look on pre-session as a valuable “lesson-stretcher,” a way to gain more m.p.l. (mileage per lesson).
Each Sunday before class teachers of youth and adults should write on the chalkboard a question, interesting statement, or Bible verse.
Design a stimulating lesson introduction that will transform the pupils’ ho-hum attitude to “Wow!” Avoid beginning with, “What was the lesson about
last week?” Begin with a true story, a provocative question, a case study to be solved, a startling statement, an illustration, a skit.
4. Determine illustrations and applications. Use illustrations from the teacher’s manual, from newspapers, magazines, the radio, television, conversation with others. Pray, “Lord, what can I share with my class to illustrate the reality of this truth?” Be open to sharing your own spiritual struggles and victories.
Plan the lesson application carefully, keeping in mind that this is the apex which the entire lesson should be leading up to. Guide your class in deciding implications of the truths studied and motivate them to put those implications into action that week. The “decide” element of the lesson plan asks the question, “How should this Bible truth affect my life this week!” And the “do” aspect asks, “What can I do specifically to put into practice this truth?”
Sunday School teaching is a spiritual task for which you are responsible to help pupils interact with God’s divine truth. Your overall aim is to encourage spiritual growth, to bring pupils’ lives into conformity to the truth of God.
5. Select methods of participation, class activities, and discussion questions. Research studies have shown that pupils retain only 10 percent of what they hear but that they retain 90 percent of what they hear, see, and do. This underscores the need to choose methods that will involve the pupils, Most lesson materials suggest such a participation lesson plan to involve the pupils in ways geared to their capabilities. For children, these will also include memory work and handwork.
An important key to effective teaching is to prepare discussion questions in advance. Carelessly-worded questions that do not elicit meaningful discussion are worse than no questions at all. “How” and “Why” questions are usually more thought-provoking than “Who,” “What,” or “When.”
Prepared answers to anticipated questions will keep you from being taken off-guard in class discussions.
To encourage class participation use the pupil’s manual. As you prepare, decide on one or more ways to use the manual in class: Refer to a statement in it, raise a “to-think-about” discussion question, ask the pupils to share answers they wrote on items.
6. Time your lesson plan. Think through how long each part of the lesson plan will take. Practice the story or giving the Bible content, timing it as you do. Allow ample time for discussion questions and other activities. Do not crowd the application (decide and do) time. If you have too much material, revise your plan as necessary. The lesson will help you.
Timing your lesson will help you avoid a common teaching problem: running out of time without having dealt sufficiently with the application.
7. Gather and set up teaching aids. The use of visuals multiplies the retention of content five times over. Therefore, the wise teacher asks himself: What can I have my pupils see? Numerous visual possibilities are available: teaching pictures, flannelgraph, chalkboard, Puppets, maps, globes, filmstrips, slides, overhead transparencies, films, sand tables, dioramas, objects, interest centers, magnetic boards, charts, posters, materials in teaching aid packets and in pupils’ handwork packets.
With juniors and those older, the chalkboard is a versatile visual, useful for drawing stick figures, for writing the lesson outline, for jotting comments contributed in discussion, for assistance in learning the memory verse, for thought questions.
If possible, put up pictures; arrange bulletin board displays, worship centers, and interest centers; or prepare the visual aid equipment on Saturday to be sure everything is arranged properly.
Want to stay in the saddle on Sunday morning! Then pray, evaluate, study, and plan during the week. As Hal Cochran once wrote, “It’s smarter to get
set before you go ahead than to go ahead and get upset.” And as Paul wrote, “If our gift is. . .teaching let us give all we have to our teaching. . . Let us not allow slackness to spoil our work. . .for God” (Rom. 12:7b, 11, Phillips).
(The above material was published by Scripture Press Ministries in Glen Ellyn, IL.)
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