Teaching a Mixed Class
Both young and old Christians have the same need: a fresh encounter with God’s Word.
Though the benefits are great, teaching a mixed class of old and new Christians, where you can bore the mature or overwhelm the neophyte, requires skill and technique. The easy way out is to offer classes for the new believer and classes for the mature believer. And there is a place for that. But most of the time I prefer them to attend the same class together. This allows mature Christians to see younger Christians discover old truths, while new believers learn from the wisdom of older believers.
The Diverse Challenge
I believe that both a lack of knowledge and an excess of knowledge can find their resolution in Scripture. Given the chance, the Bible molds and shapes us, and remolds and reshapes us for a lifetime. Young believers have limited information. But older Christians have essentially the same problem: they have information, but they often don’t understand the information they have.
So, I have the same goal for both groups—to make the language fresh, to make it come alive, helping them discover what it means. Both groups need to see how exciting the text is, how filled with meaning it is.
I’ve found that happens especially when I let the Bible speak for itself, when I study it inductively, not coming at it with preconceived categories, but attempting to discover what it says about itself. Inductive study alone, of course, is no magic key. I still have to shape classes so that they help people see the text in a fresh way. I use a number of techniques to do that.
1. Study short passages. For example, I might play this game with my class. “I’m a Roman soldier living in the first century,” I’ll say. “Late one night, a young man with a scroll tucked under his arm comes running down an alley. He looks suspicious, so I grab for him, but he’s too quick. All I get is a little piece of his manuscript. So I take the evidence in to headquarters. They fold it neatly and send it over to the Roman CIA, Caesar’s Intelligence Agency, because they want to know what kind of a document might be carried by a mysterious runner in the middle of the night. The agent unfolds the scrap of manuscript and spreads it out under the light of his lamp.
“Now, if you were that CIA agent and that piece of scroll—the first few verses of Philippians—was all you had to work with, what could you tell me from the document? Why was it written? What kind of people was it written to? What do they believe? What are they trying to do?”
I don’t care how much or how little Bible knowledge people have, this kind of approach creates an incredible Bible study experience. New believers have as much to work with as the older ones. Forced to concentrate on a single portion, older Christians also make new discoveries.
2. Visualize the passage. Another method I’ve used helps people see the text, literally: I have them draw or doodle.
I’m a great believer in people doodling when I’m teaching. With people sitting at a table, each with some paper, I might say, “Before we discuss this passage, make some stick men and stick women—draw a picture of what you see happening here.” This works for the Gospels and the letters of the New Testament. Paul’s epistles, for instance, are full of imagery (thorn in the flesh, crucified with Christ, running the race, etc.).
Such a procedure not only reveals the vividness of the text, it puts everyone, new believer and old, on the same level. When people are saying, “This is what I saw” or “This is what I felt,” there are no experts. There is no right or wrong answer to such questions.
Naturally, I want to take them beyond this level, because in the end the text has something to teach us. There are right and wrongs we must learn to distinguish between. But I begin by helping everyone start the journey to the deeper level from the same place.
3. Define the terms. One of the responsibilities of the teacher is, as C. S. Lewis put it, to tell people “what the hard words mean.” That is also a good way to teach a class mixed with new and mature believers.
How do I do that? First, I ask my 21st-century readers for their own definitions. “What do you think of when you hear that word grace?” As discussion ensues, I’m able to determine what baggage, background, and understandings people bring to the word. Then I can better compare or contrast the use of the word in its own setting.
Second, we study the use of the word in the text itself. In this way, no one can intimidate others with specialized knowledge. A skillful teacher in the inductive method can help a class see the meaning of the word 90 percent of the time by simply examining the word in its context.
For this to happen, however, we must take the time to allow the text to reveal itself. We cannot jump in to define words too quickly. I try to create an atmosphere that enhances discovery. Bible studies become boring when we don’t allow the text to develop, unfolding in a natural progression of thought.
My experience has shown me that when the average young Christian and the typical older Christian get a chance to see the text unfold in a way that’s fresh, they’re wide open to Bible study and eager for it. That’s because both the mature and the neophyte seek the same treasure: biblical truth that’s alive and fresh.
—EARL PALMER is senior pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, Washington.
The above article, “Teaching a Mixed Class” was written by Earl Palmer. The article was excerpted from Mastering Teaching, © 1991 Christianity Today International. For more articles like this, visit CTLibrary.com.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”