Teaching That Connects
Tips for communicating truth that will change lives.
1 Peter 4:11
BuildingChurchLeaders.com spoke with Nancy Ortberg about the challenges of teaching in the twenty first century.
For a number of years, you served in a ministry that was focused on students and twentysomethings. How do you connect with a young, postmodern audience?
We worked really hard to be creative, intentionally provocative, and culturally relevant without losing the heart of the gospel. We tried to surprise people and make them think about God in new and unique ways. We intentionally addressed topics that we hoped would plant a seed in somebody’s mind so that they would continue to think about it during the week.
In those audiences there must have been a wide range of biblical knowledge. How do you convey a message to such a diverse audience?
The first thing you do is believe you can. Don’t make the choice to either speak to believers or speak to seekers. I think it’s possible to speak to both. Doing so causes you, the teacher, to think through the gospel. What did Jesus really mean when he said this? What does the Bible mean when it says this? What topics do we not talk about in church? And how can we tackle those really important topics?
Connecting with an audience may be as simple as saying, “For those of you that have been following Christ for a long time, here’s what you might need to think about. And for those of you here who aren’t sure what you believe—if anything—about God, here’s something you might want to think about.” By saying that, you’re authentically acknowledging that there are both kinds of people in the audience.
Once you have people’s attention, how do you keep it?
You have to think provocatively while you’re preparing the message so that you can use stories or something from your research to put a new slant on a familiar idea. When you’re speaking to people who have been following Christ or have been in church a long time, familiarity with a passage is sometimes your worst enemy. People assume that they know what a passage says and how to live it out.
Scott McKnight writes that people change in two circumstances: when they’re on a quest or when they’re in a crisis. Now, I can’t create people who are on a quest, but I can create a crisis. Part of the job of a communicator is to create a rhetorical crisis in the lives of the listeners. The stories I tell, the questions I ask, and the tension I set up should cause some cognitive dissonance in people’s minds, so that they walk away thinking about the message.
When you sense that people aren’t tracking with you, what do you do?
Good communicators learn the skill of reading an audience. You have to be able to simultaneously deliver the message and ask yourself “What’s the Holy Spirit doing in this room? What’s the energy like?” You have to be able to read the room and respond appropriately.
When you sense that you’re not connecting, you can make shifts as you talk, especially if you’ve done thorough work and research to prepare the message. You’ll be surprised how much that’s not on your paper is still in your head because of your preparation. Then just try to listen to the Holy Spirit in the moment and say, “Is there another direction that I can go?” Sometimes you just have to live with the reality that when you teach on a regular basis, they’re not all going to be homeruns.
How much do relationships between adult teachers and adult students contribute to what’s being learned in the class?
We learn most deeply from people we trust, so the relational component is crucial. I don’t want to put the burden on teachers to say that they have to go hang out with their students all the time, but teachers must be available at a relational level for people to know their teachers and for them to know their students. Also, teachers need to stay in tune with the challenges people in a church are facing. It’s too easy to become cloistered and give messages that completely miss where people are living. A relationship between teachers and students helps guard against that disconnect.
What can volunteer Sunday school teachers do to develop their teaching skills?
There has to be somebody guiding them and overseeing the process. You could call it a mentor or a leader. It could be another teacher. But somebody has to help with the preparation. When I first started teaching at Willow, we would brainstorm different approaches and structures for the talk ahead of time, and a number of people would listen to the talk and give me immediate feedback. Then I would make adjustments. To really improve your teaching, prepare early enough to practice your lesson on a mentor or another teacher.
We all have ups and downs in our spiritual walk. What advice would you offer a teacher that is experiencing a low point in his or her walk with God?
That’s a great question for which I have two answers: take a break or keep teaching. I don’t know which one’s right. When my husband John and I were at Willow Creek, John went through some very difficult things—mostly an internal kind of processing—for about a year and a half. I thought, He’s going to need to take a break from teaching. It’s just too much right now. But quite the opposite was true. Teaching was a haven for him. His teaching actually improved. There was an authenticity in it that deepened. It was a gift from God that his teaching continued and even deepened in its impact during that period. I don’t understand it, and I don’t think it’s prescriptive. Sometimes it’s entirely appropriate for teachers to take a break. In either case, you have to pray about it, think it through, get counsel from those around you, and then make a choice. In either case, churches ought to be gracious. While your gift is important, it’s not more important than your spiritual health.
—NANCY ORTBERG is a founding partner of Teamworx2, a consulting firm that helps organizations overcome team dysfunctions. She is most recently the author of Looking for God:
An Unexpected Journey through Tattoos, Tofu, and Pronouns.
© 2008 Christianity Today International/BuildingChurchLeaders.com
1. What kinds of topics might need to be addressed in your church? How can you talk about them in a new way?
2. Who have been significant teachers in your life? In what ways does a good student-teacher relationship enhance learning?
How can you improve mentoring and coaching for Sunday school teachers in your church?
The above article, “Teaching That Connects” was written by Nancy Ortberg. The article was excerpted from BuildingChurchLeaders.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.”