By Ken Braddy
Nervous. Anxious. Unsure. Those words describe how I felt the first Sunday I taught a group of teenagers at my church many years ago. My wife and I were invited to become part of the student ministry’s Sunday School team at our church, and I truly had no clue what I was doing. Thankfully, the student pastor trained me, and I got better over time.
Perhaps you are new to your role as a group leader. It’s a heavy responsibility to teach God’s Word to a group of people. In fact, group leaders along with their church’s pastor are in the small number of people tasked with opening God’s Word and guiding people to understand and apply it. The apostle Paul reminds us to rightly divide the Word of Truth, and to guard our doctrine closely.
Over the years I’ve learned (sometimes through trial and error) how to engage a group in Bible study. I used to mistakenly think my job was to do what my pastor did every weekend – stand in front of a group and do a lot of talking. After all, that’s what my pastor did when he preached, and he was the church’s best teacher. It seemed reasonable to model my in-group teaching after him. But it wasn’t. If you’re newer to teaching a group, here are some teaching tips that will help you do a better job as a group leader.
- DON’T DO ALL THE TALKING. I mentioned this above, but it bears repeating. One of the greatest teaching tips I ever received was the idea that the group members should talk at least as much as the group leader. What a revelation and paradigm shift. I thought my job was to study throughout the week, then regurgitate biblical truths, showing my mastery of the biblical text and wow the group of teenagers I’d been asked to teach. Wrong! The truth is people learn as they process information and talk things out. Encouraging group discussion allows people to process their thoughts and articulate their understanding of the biblical text. I have been the most bored in a group when a well-intentioned teacher delivered a 45-minute lecture. If group members can’t jump in, ask questions, and sometimes go down rabbit trails, they’ll mentally check out. All this to say, study and be prepared to guide the group’s Bible study, but don’t think it falls on you to do all the talking. That relieves a lot of pressure on the leader.
- DON’T BE AFRAID OF SILENCE. A cardinal sin that group leaders commit is answering their own questions. In this scenario, a group leader asks a question and the people simply stare back at them. A few seconds pass—tick tock, tick tock—and the nervous group leader blurts out the answer because they’re so uncomfortable with the silence. The truth is, you’ll want to master the art of asking questions, and outwaiting your group members is key. Robert Pazmino, a great Christian educator, researched this and found that the quality of people’s responses goes up significantly after 20 seconds. The trick is not to answer your own question. Ask, then wait. Sit down if necessary, look at people directly, take a sip of coffee, but don’t offer the answer. Someone in the group will be more uncomfortable with the silence than you and will answer the question. After they do, others normally jump in and respond.
- SHAKE THINGS UP. People like variety, and people learn differently. When you put together your teaching plan, be sure to incorporate different learning approaches. There are 8 different ways people learn (Visual, Verbal, Relational, Nature/natural, Reflective, Musical, Physical, and Logical). You don’t need to use all 8 methods in a single session but do use all 8 over time. As a group leader, you will gravitate to a few of those methods as your preferred way to learn. I’m a “logical/visual” learner—I like outlines, charts, maps, and other things. I have to watch myself because my preferred ways to learn can become my preferred ways to teach. Over time, if I’m not careful, I’ll teach the same two or three ways repeatedly, leading to a predictable and boring Bible study experience for the group members.
- USE A CURRIULUM SERIES. I cannot stress this enough. If you’re writing your own materials, stop it! This doesn’t mean that you aren’t capable, but it does recognize the fact that curriculum that is created by a publisher such as Lifeway Christian Resources is theologically sound, created by experts who have dedicated their ministry careers to helping group leaders teach, and can be trusted to fuel ministry. Use the suggested teaching plans (modifying them for your group) and follow the larger scope and sequence (the topics studied and the order in which they are approached), so that your group members receive balanced Bible studies over time (Lifeway’s studies are balanced between Old and New Testament passages and consider the need for group members to be exposed to all genres of Scripture over time). The time you save not having to research and write your own studies can be better used to invest in the lives of your group members and guests.
Those are four things I wish someone had told me when I first became the group leader of a bunch of teenagers. Enjoy the journey, welcome to the club, and always thank the Lord for the privilege of teaching His Word to people.
Ken Braddy is Lifeway’s Director of Sunday School, a person who has started and led groups, and is a champion for Sunday School and small groups.