When Not to Teach

by Josh Hunt

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This is an excerpt from Disciplemaking Teachers, (Group, Jan. 1998)

 Sometimes, the most spiritual and helpful thing you can do for a group is to set aside your lesson. Sometimes you need to deal with an issue on the table. Sometimes you need to pray. There are times when you may want to spend the hour planning and cultivating the body life of the group. Disciple making teachers know when not to teach.

Disciplemaking Teachers do not teach because they have a need to speak the truth. (Although, in a very real sense, they do have an internal need to proclaim truth. They feel some affinity with Paul: "Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" (I Corinthians 9:16) The point is, they don't let their need to teach get in the way of the disciple making process. The point is making disciples, not teaching lessons. Occasionally, other things take a front seat to teaching.


When Not to Teach Your Lesson

Occasionally when prayer requests are shared, (assuming this is done at the first of the hour), a need will arise that will call for the lesson to be set aside. You may want to teach a wholly different lesson based on the needs of the group. This is one of the great things about small group work. We are flexible. We can teach to felt needs that are on the table at the time. We can reach people when they are at a teachable moment. Far better to teach the group on issues that relate to their current life than teach a lesson that theoretically they will need to know some day. For one thing, if you teach this way you can forget the obstacle mentioned earlier about the need to break their preoccupation. It is easy to get and keep a group's attention when you are talking about how the Bible relates to them--now.

Here is an example. Suppose you are taking prayer requests and someone says, "Please pray for wisdom for us. Our 4 year old is out of control. We have tried everything and we just can't seem to get a grip on him." There may be times when you will want to jot that down, pray for it and say nothing. Personally, I cannot imagine doing that. At the very least you should talk to the person later. An equally valid approach, however, is to set aside you lesson for the day and say, "Let's talk about that a bit. What does the Bible teach us about how to discipline our children?" Let them talk. You share what you know. Glean some wisdom from books that group members have read, but don't let this teachable moment pass. Not only will this be more interesting to the person who had the request, my experience is that the rest of the group will find it more interesting as well. There is just something about talking about the Bible and real life stuff, rather than the Bible and hypothetical situations that might come up. We are talking about giving them information, inspiration and strategies that can help their Monday morning this Monday morning; seize the moment. This is one of the best ways to make disciples.

If you follow through the following week you will cause the level of life change to go up even more. Ask the group the next week if they had any reflections on what the group discussed, and how they were able to implement ideas and applications that were offered the previous week.

If the topic really hits a hot button, I would even consider setting aside the whole unit to deal with the felt need of the group. Of course, it needs to be the felt need of the entire group, but if everyone was struggling with parenting, I would set aside whatever it was I was studying and go through a Dobson book or Smalley video.

Teaching like this lets the group know you care about them. If you are interested enough to invest in their life and set aside a lesson you worked hard on they will get a lot more interested in what you have to say. But first, they gotta know that you care about them more than you care about presenting your material. The old saying is, "You are there to teach a group, not a lesson." The lesson has no need to be taught. The group has a desperate need to be taught.

Sometimes these issues come up in the middle of class. We will be discussing something and someone might say, "I have been doing a lot of thinking about this, how can we be sure the Bible is reliable, anyway?" You could say, "That is a good question, and I am sure the people who designed our curriculum have included that in their long range plan. I am sure we will get to it some day. In the mean time, we are here today to talk about the 4th chapter of John-will you open your Bibles. . .?" You could say that, but I wouldn't recommend it. Far better to take some stab at it, get with them privately or agree to have some information for them the next week. Whatever you do, don't blow them off if you want them to listen to you.

Obviously, this has to be a real issue or I would not set aside my lesson. Truthfully, this does not happen very often. We do pretty regularly take short, five to ten minute detours to deal with issues on the table, but rarely do we set aside the whole lesson to discuss something else. Occasionally it does happen.

One of the advantages of teaching over a long period of time is that you get better and better at fielding off-the-wall questions. A new teacher may struggle with dealing with anything other than what she is prepared to teach that day. An experienced teacher has the advantage of digging deeply into a wealth of helpful information from books read and lessons taught. This enables him to deal with a question like the reliability of the Bible on the spur of the moment.


When Not to Teach at All

There are even occasions when I think it is best not to teach at all. Sometimes the prayer time is so rich and so powerful that you will set aside your lesson to pray. This should be the exception. People come to get fed. Still, occasionally it is fine.

I have had a very profitable hour at times just spending the time in evaluation of the class and of the believer's lives. We often do this at the end of the year. With it I challenge them to make some goals for the following year. Sometimes we will take time in class to do some planning and talk about body life issues. Remember, this is not just a class, it is a basic Christian community. This is the body of Christ fellowshipping and sharing life together. It is OK to occasionally take some time to work on these issues. We normally do this planning outside of the class hour and those who are interested come. But, if you need to take the time in class, I'd encourage you do to so.

The other side, of course, is that these should be the exceptions. Day in and day out, we should be challenging people with the word of God. It is the truth that sets them free (John 8:32). They are transformed by the renewing of their minds (Romans 12:2). People come to be fed. We should not disappoint them. But there are exceptions. Day in and day out we should be serving up choice morsels of a spiritually rich diet.

How do you know how to set this balance? How do you know how often you should not teach your lesson, or not teach at all? The best way is to follow the Holy Spirit. The wind blows where it will. (John 3:8) Still, this is not foolproof. The Holy Spirit is always right, but I don't always hear right. I'd ask the group from time to time how they feel about this. Give them some choices. See what the Holy Spirit is saying to them. Do they feel we are spending enough time in the Word together, or are we dabbling in other things too much?

If you want a ball park estimate, I probably set aside the lesson to teach something else once or twice a year. It may be every year or two we don't have a lesson at all. It may be every quarter. That's ballpark. The important thing is to follow God.