Chalkboards, classrooms, and open books dominate web search results for teaching-related imagery. When we include the word Christian, then pulpits, pews, and Bibles join the mix.
Because we are heirs of the Enlightenment and citizens of the Information Age, our concept of discipleship and teaching is often conflated with the notion of sharing information. We think, They don’t do, because they do not understand. We must tell them. Surely, once they have the correct information, they’ll apply it. This is how we so often approach discipleship. We pack our sermons and Sabbath school classes with so much information that no one can remember it all, much less practice it.
When Jesus told His disciples to make more disciples by “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you,” sharing information would have been only a small part of the picture they had in mind (Matthew 28:20b). What did they picture? Probably hillsides and healings, parables and parties, wells and wheat fields, and walking miles down dusty roads. His disciples understood that He spent every minute of every day and night teaching them. Class was never dismissed because as long as Jesus was with them, school was in session. He transformed their lives, not by giving them a lot of new information but by inviting them into a new chapter of what God was doing on earth. It reshaped their understanding of God and showed them how to walk in the ways of God’s kingdom.
While the twenty-first century world is vastly different from first century Judea, Information Age research has revealed a number of effective, timeless teaching techniques. Whether you teach adults from behind a pulpit, or your own kids from the front seat of your car, these tools will add more dimension to your disciple-making.
Root your teaching in a contextual story. The narrative arc of the Bible is the story of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ students were already rooted in this story. Your students, however, may not be as familiar with how God established His realm and rule in Eden and determined to bless the entire earth by expanding this kingdom. However, everything else you teach them will find its context if they see where they fit within this storyline.
Narrow down what you need to teach, and focus on these things. What aspects of God’s kingdom (as embodied by Jesus) are not yet a reality for your students? Write them down. In our teaching, we can easily get sidetracked by tangents and can “major on the minors.” When Jesus taught, He focused on equipping His disciples for what they would need to do when He left. He didn’t let Himself become distracted from that task.
Don’t limit teaching to the classroom or the pulpit. Effective teachers see the world as their classroom. Aware that students are always watching, they apply what they teach in the potluck line, on the phone, at the grocery store, and in their homes. When appropriate, they use words.
Associate lessons with physical objects. A sparrow is so synonymous with Jesus’ teaching that I can’t even hear the word sparrow without thinking about God’s care for us. As a result of a sermon I heard about time, I wore my watch upside-down for two years to remind myself that God’s view of time is different than ours. What everyday objects could be used to remind your students about kingdom principles?
Use easy-to-remember sayings. I doubt that a scribe was present to record Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. So why were His students able to remember it? In addition to powerful imagery, Jesus used linguistic techniques like poetry and hyperbole. Their structure made it easy for listeners to remember what He had said. While we do not live in an oral culture, when we hear the same sayings and phrases often enough, we remember them!
Tell stories. It is said that a picture paints a thousand words. The same can be said for Jesus’ parables. These stories communicated complex truths and caused emotions to engage with these truths. Despite our proclivity to elevate objectivity, emotional engagement is a key to inciting action. When we tell stories, we invite students to find themselves in these narratives. The stories become part of them, making it more likely that they act them out in their lives.
Teach the same thing in multiple contexts. Not only are Jesus’ teachings timeless but they are applicable at home, work, church, school, and around the community. However, students often need help associating teaching with multiple contexts. The more locations they connect to a teaching, the more pervasive that teaching becomes.
Get your (and their) hands dirty. Remember the demons the disciples couldn’t cast out? Jesus let His disciples get their hands dirty and fail. He showed them how to do it, then He let them try. However, when the disciples still needed more help, He gave it to them. Every ministry in your church is an opportunity for ministry leaders to provide this type of coaching and teaching.
If discipleship is about knowledge, we’re all destined for failure. We will never know as much as the Word, through whom and by whom the world was made. Jesus’ goal was to invite disciples into His life to walk in His ways. When we do this and teach others to do likewise, we too take part in this grand tradition of discipleship.