Leadership: Revitalizing Bible Class, Part 2

bible-studyHere are a few tips on how to revitalize Bible classes:

    • Teaching is a gift from God. Not everyone has it. Don’t put someone in as a teacher who is not gifted to do so — even if this means having fewer classes. If your church doesn’t have enough gifted teachers, consider merging with another church. (And maybe God chose to gift some of your women members. And if that’s God’s decision, it’s his decision.) But don’t put an unqualified person in as a teacher. Nothing kills a class faster.
    • Even gifted teachers need training. And I don’t know the best way to do this, but even poor training is better than no training. Some approaches are —
      • Have a “master teacher” pre-teach each class to the teachers for a given quarter, perhaps the Wednesday night before the Sunday when the class is to be taught. This may be an actual class or it might be a discussion of the materials. It could be a group effort to prepare discussion questions.
      • Have a master teacher rotate through the classes and take notes on how the teachers can do better.
      • Survey the students and ask them how the teacher can improve his skills.
      • Have a novice teacher team teach with an experienced teacher.

  • Rotate teachers at least once every six months. Now, in Churches of Christ, this is very unconventional, but it’s important.
    • We have a habit of letting Brother Smith teach the same class for 30 years. And then we teach how sinful it is to say, “I’m of Apollos” or “I’m of Paul.” I think keeping the same teacher with the same class for year after year violates this principle.
    • Students get tired of the same voice and same jokes, no matter how good. If they don’t fit well with Br. Smith or Br. Jones, then they leave Bible class forever because no one else will ever teach.
    • Churches that split tend to fracture along Bible class lines because we’ve taught two different perspectives on grace, faith, or what have you for years. Remember, it’s class not a fan club.
    • Young members need the chance to teach for a quarter or less to hone their skills and for the church to find gifted teachers. Don’t let the old guys hog the teaching slots!
    • Sometimes a member develops an excellent set of materials on a difficult subject. He should be allowed to rotate through all the classes teaching what he’s really good at.
    • Sometimes the church needs to be moved toward a better understanding of a difficult topic — such as grace. And Br. Jones may not be the best choice to teach grace. In fact, he may be the reason you need to teach grace.
    • Members who might one day become an elder need to teach so that the church understands their views and their hearts. If you don’t let young, talented people teach, then you doom the church to ordaining virtual strangers as elders.
    • If the same teacher hears the same students year after year, and if the same students hear the same teacher year after year, both will assume that what is taught is believed by everyone in church — when in fact they may be in the distinct minority. Elders especially need to be exposed to every age group and social class in the church. And vice versa.
    • You see, teaching is a gift. And a good teacher will teach a good class even if the material isn’t ideal. But ideal materials will not make a bad teacher good. So good classes are far more about finding, training, and supporting good teachers than the format, the style, the methods, etc. — so long as you remember to —
    • ROTATE TEACHERS! This includes the elders.
  • Mix up expository classes with topical classes. Occasionally use a DVD series to bring in some of the world’s premier teachers. (The Ray Vander Laan videos are excellent.) But don’t use them all the time. You’ll stunt the growth of your teachers. Variety of styles and materials is essential in a media-saturated age. Don’t go overboard with PowerPoint and videos, but use the new technology for what it’s good for.
  • Don’t expect much out-of-class preparation by the members. Your students aren’t stupid or lazy. But most are really busy.
  • Don’t water down the material to middle school level. Teach challenging material — but keep it practical. I’m not sure we need to spend any time at all on the documentary hypothesis, but a class on where we got the Bible or apologetics will do well in almost any congregation.
  • Every theory of how to teach a class is wrong.
    • A while back I surveyed 30 or so members on which classes they’d gotten the most out of over the last 10 or so years. Nearly every class mentioned was predominantly a lecture class. Questions and answers were allowed, but the essence of the class was an expert teacher providing new ideas and materials to the class — with some discussion of the new materials. Not a single discussion class — where most of the talking was by the students — was memorable to the students.[1]
    • I once gave a class a list of topics to rank in order of preference for teaching. Five years later, we’d covered nearly all of them. The classes that scored lowest at the beginning were almost always the most popular, and the classes that scored highest were almost always the least popular. It’s more about the teacher than the topic. And students will often resist studying an unfamiliar topic because of its unfamiliarity, even though they’ll enjoy it and benefit from it the most because it’s new material.
    • Teaching from a popular book rarely works well. I mean, once the class has read Max Lucado, well, he’s done such a good job in his book that there’s little left for the teacher to say. And most evangelical pop literature is pretty thin — that is, most of these books only have five or six really good points, and that’s not enough to fill a quarter.
    • Kill the auditorium class. Move it to a classroom. Auditoriums are not conducive to good teaching or learning. They are great for students being anonymous and hidden in the vast space — which is not good discipleship. But they’re terrible for questions and answers. The distance between students kills class discussion.
  • Do not interrupt classes. If there’s a worship assembly, there should be classes, except on Christmas and maybe New Years.
    • I’ve studied the numbers. Our attendance is always down on Labor Day weekend because we’re close to the beach. If we cancel classes, the numbers go down even more — a lot more. You may need to combine some classes for that weekend, but attendance in a Church of Christ is impacted by whether there’s a class. (And, no, a single combined Bible class in the auditorium will not do for the same reason that auditorium classes need to be killed and buried.)
    • You cannot tell your church that classes are important and then cancel classes for holidays, special Sunday events, etc. If you’re getting pressure to cancel classes, then take that as a sign that you need to improve your classes. But don’t cancel classes. Instead, improve your classes.
    • People are creatures of habit. If you force them to break a good habit, attendance will decline, and it’ll be your fault.
  • One reason class attendance is down in many churches is the creation of small groups. One of the appeals of Bible class was the chance to be with friends and to make new friends. That need is now met — better — in small groups. The horse is out of the barn. That being the case, realize that classes will no longer do well just because people want to be with their friends. That means class needs to serve other purposes well.
    • Think in terms of discipleship — meaning training members for works of service. Have some classes that talk about how to support a friend who is dying or in the hospital. Discuss other practical ways to help each other and those outside the church.
    • Teach classes on how to study the Bible.
    • Have an occasional class for novices. Those of us who grew up in church forget that most people don’t know Habakkuk from Revelation. Where will adult converts learn these things?
    • Have classes on how to raise children or to be a better spouse or how to handle family finances. These are topics where the needs are both felt and desperate — and where the church should have some answers.
    • Talk about dealing with an addict in the family. Talk about putting parents into hospice. Work through real-life issues with teachers who’ve been there.
    • Don’t be controversial for the sake of controversy — and don’t have discussion classes where controversial topics are discussed but no one has done the hard work of digging out real answers. If you’re going to cover divorce, be sure the teacher has excellent resources to lead the class to an informed conclusion.  Don’t impose conclusions, but do provide the class with the information and resources to come to a responsible conclusion.
    • Teach teachers how to make students feel safe to disagree and to be disagreed with. Make classes a safe place to ask the really challenging questions.

Last point: the adult Bible class program needs leadership. It won’t run itself. It won’t fix itself. Make sure someone is in charge and has authority to do what needs to be done (including the authority to ROTATE THE TEACHERS). And provide some continuity of leadership. Don’t change leaders every year. Make sure you take advantage of institutional memory so that you aren’t constantly repeating mistakes.

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[1] After I wrote this, I received this comment from David Himes, a long-time reader —

Last summer, I began leading a class during the Bible class time, which has no fixed topic. It’s a discussion class, in which the topics for discussion are instigated by those attending the class each Sunday morning.

It’s an opportunity for participants to bring up any topic or question that is on their mind. Some of the topics have been very textually oriented, some very “news” oriented, some almost “off the wall.” But all of the topics have come from the class.

This is certainly not an approach for the faint of heart, because it’s impossible to know what may come up. But at the same time, it’s an opportunity to talk about matters that many have never had a chance to talk about before.

Overall, it’s mostly about how we actually apply what we believe to life. But it’s also about learning how to think about what we believe.

It’s about helping people along their journey to and thru their faith.

We often have conflicting views. And rarely do we have definitive answers.

As facilitator of the class, one of my primary objectives is to engage as many as possible in the discussion.

Admittedly, even the idea of the class is uncomfortable for some. But for those who attend and participate, it’s been very engaging.

One woman (who clearly qualifies as a “senior” citizen) told my wife, she loves the class. Even though she has never spoken up in the class, she loves hearing what other people have to say and is fascinated by the diversity of views and understanding that is evident in the class.

This class isn’t for everyone. And it’s certainly not a solution for anything, on its own. But I think it’s a good option and a potential component of “reinvigorating” Bible class time.

Sounds like an excellent idea to me — but it requires a David Himes equivalent to facilitate the discussion. Discussion classes that are about the pooling of ignorance get old quickly. But if a gifted leader can help the class find its way to its own answers, based on a mature understanding of God, Jesus, and the scriptures, well that’d be a seriously excellent Bible class.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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