Teaching the Bible: It's About the Relationship
The American Heritage Dictionary 4th Edition defines the word ‘teach’ as to “impart knowledge or skill; to instruct in; to cause to learn by example or experience.” It further defines ‘teacher’ as one who teaches, especially one hired to teach. Biblically, of course, this definition misses the mark. For while a Bible teacher certainly is interested in these definitions in their common understanding, that of ‘one who imparts knowledge,’ the motives for this are quite different. In the Biblical context, the Bible teacher is interested in communicating the truth and relevance of the Word of God out of conviction and it not usually hired to do so.
Teaching the Bible is a ministry, not a job. An effective Bible teacher must have the proper motivation and understanding of their responsibility. Teaching the Word of God is not simply the opportunity for a teacher to have access to a captive audience that has to listen to what is taught. While Bible teaching can be the opportunity to pass on to others information, experiences, and lessons learned from the scriptures, it is also showing why those things have meaning to the audience. As a spokesman for God, and a teacher of His children, the Bible teacher must make sure that lessons furthers God’s design.
Fulfilling this role requires that I have more than simply a willingness to teach. It requires me to have a willingness to also know my students, so their spiritual needs might be better met. It requires me to have a willingness to know the Word of God, so that I might understand the mind of God. Most importantly though, it requires that I, as a teacher of the Bible, know personally the author of the Bible, Almighty God, so that I can know from experience the importance of a relationship with Him. Without these requirements forming the foundation for my teaching, success in my endeavor will be understandably limited, if not altogether ineffective. Building this foundation requires me to spend time with all three: God, the Bible, and the student, in that order of priority. This is imperative for my development as a Bible teacher.
To ensure this is done, I set aside daily time for prayer and the study of God’s Word. Additionally, I must make sure I am in contact with my students. This will be guaranteed by being the first to arrive in my classroom, have regular contact with my students via e-mails and other correspondence, and scheduling regular activities with my students, as a group and as individuals, so that we may get to better know each other. The result will be lessons that are more personal and relevant to my students’ individual lives and a more personal investment in my students’ success.
Recognizing and understanding the individuality of my students should directly affect my lesson planning; not all of my students will learn the same way or for the same reasons. Some of my students, the intrinsic learners, will stay focused on my lessons simply because it is something new and they love to learn. The only motivation they need is the learning itself. I have had the privilege of teaching many of these learners. It is not enough that I prepare and teach a lesson every Sunday and assign homework during the week to supplement their Sunday school class. These people want extra work. They ask well thought out and difficult questions. While they do not need any motivation from me, they certainly motivate me…to prepare a good lesson that I must be thoroughly familiar with if I am to meet their desire to learn.
On the other hand, I have some in my class who do not seem to have any desire to learn anything. Sitting in my class serves only to meet some invisible church requirement they have. Sure, they are polite and attentive, even filling out the worksheets I give them. But they often do not look to see the relevance of what I am teaching them; they are content with just recording information. Consequently, I need to motivate them by showing them the relevance of the lesson.
Motivation for them must come from without, extrinsic, for these students. While there are several ways to accomplish this, the first step begins with my relationship with them. If it is not personal, they will see that I do not really care about them. Naturally, they will not care about my lesson, either. However, if I have a personal relationship with them, and my lessons reflect their individual needs because of that relationship, they will take a more active interest in the subject being taught.
It is, however, more than a relationship. It is also communicating my subject in way that is conducive to learning. With adults in particular, the old classroom setting with the authoritarian teacher demanding attention, that they learned to loathe when they were children, must be abandoned. These are God’s students; I am merely the messenger. These students are not objects to boss around; they are people who need to be nurtured in their faith. It is not my job to be their sole source of information. My job is to direct them to the only source of information, God. In this way we share the learning together, not just as teacher and pupil, but as a group of people seeking the Lord together.
These group dynamics are important in the life of any learner and, as a teacher, I have a direct impact on the attitude of my students. While the personal relationship between teacher and student is important, it is also important that a teacher encourages strong relationships between the students themselves since believers are all members of one body of Christ. Personally, I take the first five minutes of my Sunday school class just talking about whatever is the hot topic of the day, from the latest baseball trade, the Super Bowl, the hot button political issues, and the weather. I have seen fifteen year olds chat intimately with sixty year olds during this time. We all laugh together, debate each other, and rib each other. More importantly, we all grow together in our relationship to one another. When the good weather arrives, we usually try to have one good barbecue together. By being involved in each other’s lives, in a context we are all comfortable with, we serve to encourage each other—to learn, to grow, and minister to others. The apostle Paul recognized the importance of this, using this truth in his own ministry.
This environment of encouragement serves as a fertile ground for learning. With the students encouraging each other, the teacher’s job is made significantly easier if the right methods are employed. It is not enough, though, even in this fertile environment, to just stand up and teach. A farmer, to use an analogy, once he has tilled and fertilized his soil, does not just simply throw seed anywhere without thought or plan. He carefully selects, by using many factors, what he will plant, where, and how. Since the Word of God is called a seed by the Lord Jesus, Bible teachers can take a lesson or two from the farmer. The farmer must learn first what he can sell at market; it makes no sense to grow something he cannot sell. A Bible teacher’s lesson must be relevant; it must find a market. Teaching on Levitical law may have its purpose, but if your students are suffering through hard financial times, perhaps teaching on faith and responsible stewardship will find more fertile ground. A farmer also organizes his crops, sometimes planting them in different soils according to a crop’s ability to grow in certain environments. The Bible teacher must also understand that each lesson may “grow” differently in each student and that must be considered in the presentation of any lesson.
Finally, the teacher must have an organized approach to communicating information with a clear objective in mind, whether it is specific application of knowledge or knowledge for personal enrichment. Very few students will stay on the ride if they do not know where it is going. To return to the farmer analogy, he also has a destination, to reap crops. But his process is very systematic—plan, till, fertilize, plant, water, grow, and harvest. If the process is in any way out of sequence, his yield is affected. If the Bible student knows where he is going, why he should go there, the plan for reaching the destination, and the reason for the trip, the struggle to get him there is greatly diminished. In specific regard to application, when the system for instruction is clearly given, with the reasons being fully understood, the knowledge that is imparted to the student, once he has agreed to take the ride, has a greater chance of taking root and being applied in his life.
Having been a teacher in several different capacities—home school parent, Sunday school for junior high students, Sunday school for adults, adult corrections at the state criminal justice academy, or general studies at a local college, I can offer some advice. First, to be credible, a teacher must know the subject matter. For the Bible teacher, it is not simply knowing what the Word of God says, but knowing the God who wrote it; know His Word and you will be credible with your audience. Second, know what subject matter is important to your audience and the only way to know that is to know the students on a personal level; spend time with them, get to know them, and let them get to know you. If they know you care, they will listen to you. Third, do not be afraid to share personal experiences with your students, even if they portray you in a negative light. It shows you are genuine and gives more power to your testimony and your teaching material, especially if what you are teaching has proven true in your life. If it is good enough for you, chances are it will be good enough for them. Lastly, be prepared, even if you think you have good command of the material. Poor preparation will manifest itself in a hurry and it will demonstrate to your students that you do not really care about the material; if you do not care, neither will they. Impart knowledge with the passion that reveals a true concern for your students and their lives and you will always have an attentive audience that will apply what you have taught them.
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