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10 Marks of Great Teaching

by Josh Hunt

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An unexamined life is not worth living. Unexamined teaching is not all that great either. If you would improve your teaching, begin by evaluating.

  • What do you do well?
  • What comes naturally for you?
  • What do you struggle with?

Evaluation is the beginning point of any improvement process.

I use ten characteristics to evaluate a good lesson. Every one of these does not have to be in every lesson. Build on your strengths. The quickest way to improve your teaching is not to focus on making your weaknesses better. Rather, the best way to improve your teaching is to make your strengths stronger. Work on overcoming your weaknesses as well, but concentrate on maximizing your strengths. Here are ten benchmarks of great teaching. Use these as a plumb line to evaluate your teaching.



Did you present the truth with some fire? If the truth does not matter to you, it will not matter to them. Howard Hendricks is fond of saying, "if you are going to bore people, don't bore them with the Gospel. Bore them with calculus, bore them with earth science, bore them with world history. But, it is a sin to bore people with the Gospel." Someone asked Spurgeon once, "What is the secret of great preaching?" He replied, "Get on fire with the Gospel and people will come to watch you burn." This was the approach of the Psalmist in Psalm 39:3: "My heart grew hot within me, and as I meditated, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue." This ought to be the goal of every teacher: to cultivate a hot heart before you speak. I have seen teachers with mediocre content who spoke with such conviction that you just had to listen. This is not one of those either/or things. You can have both good content and communicate it passionately. This is teaching at its best. Apollos was an example of accuracy and fervor:

Acts 18:25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. It is possible, of course, to have a passionate heart and not let it come out. Often times, gestures and voice inflection need to be overdone in order to appear interesting at all. Animation in teaching is like stage make-up. The point is not to look like you have make-up on. The point is to look normal. If you do not have make-up on when you are on stage, you will look flat. In a similar way, the point of animation in teaching is not so much to appear animated, but to appear normal. If you use a normal voice in teaching, you will probably sound flat (read, boring). Not many teachers are too animated. Err on the side of overdoing it. Ultimately, the point is not how fired up you appear, but how fired up you really are. How deeply are you excited about the grace of God? I close with my favorite verse in Romans. Note that this is a command from God: Get fired up and stay that way.

Romans 12:11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.

Rate yourself on a scale of one to ten. How passionate are you in your teaching of the greatest news ever?  



Imagine yourself teaching your group this weekend. Now, in your imagination, write a sign in red paint on each of their foreheads that asks, "So what?" If your students were not so polite, they would ask you the question out loud. That is what they want to know. "What difference does this truth make to my Monday morning?" If you do not have a ready answer to that question, go back to the study until you get one. Teaching is about application.

Did you give specific application that can be applied to life this week? Did you teach for a life-change? People are not interested in accumulating information that does not relate to their life. We are not out to make smarter sinners. We are seeking to change lives. Disciple making is about application.

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The key thing is to ask for small, specific, incremental changes. Do not push for monumental changes every week, just try to get a little bit of change each week. Ask things such as, "What is one thing you could do this week to demonstrate your concern for the lost." When someone says, "I could pray once for my neighbor, John," make a hero out of that person. That is application that begins to make a difference and it paves the way for further application. The ship begins to turn. The application does not need to be, "See ten people come to faith this week." That is good, but too lofty for most people. It is like asking someone to high jump 6 feet. Most of us need to start with eighteen inches. Get people jumping over the bar before you move it too high. If the bar is perceived to be too high, people will not even attempt to jump it.

"Pray once this week" may be enough. Some application is better than no application at all. Application needs to be specific and have a time orientation. It needs to be something people can do this week. If it is something that they are going to do next winter, or when the kids are grown, or when they grow old, forget it. Application needs to be small, and it needs to be something people can do this week.

It is also a good idea to ask each week about the application suggested the previous week. "Last week we talked about praying for our lost friends. Did anyone do this? What other steps could we take?" In an open group such as a Sunday school class or cell group, accountability needs to be kept pretty simple. Don't hold people accountable for the last 25 verses they have been memorizing if you expect new people to feel comfortable in the group. Those kind of intense, accountability oriented discipleship groups are great in creating depth. But in providing an open place for people to come, they are a killer. Week-to-week accountability, however, will not run people off.

Accountability needs to find the razor's edge of speaking the truth in love. If we communicate condemnation to those who fail (and everyone fails) we miss the gospel entirely. There is no place in Christian experience for condemnation. There is, however a place for truth spoken in love. If someone says, "I want to have a quiet time five days this week and I want you to hold me accountable," we need to do so.

I am familiar with a group leader who was holding a group accountable for daily quiet times. When the group failed to have quiet times, he would say, "That is OK, no big deal. I didn't have any quiet times this week either." That kind of accountability will not make disciples. We need to speak the truth in love. We need to communicate that disobedience never cancels grace. It never calls into question God's love for us. Sin does bear its consequences. We reap what we sew. Condemnation says, "You are bad because you sinned." Grace says, "You sinned. You are bad. That is obvious. But, there is grace. You are accepted. You are forgiven. You are loved."

In addition, there is a fine line between accountability and controlling. Accountability is holding people accountable for their goals. Controlling attempts to manipulate people against their will. The issue on the table is not the goodness of the activity. The issue is, who gets to decide? Suppose you were to try to "hold someone accountable" for not watching R rated movies because you have a conviction about R rated movies. Suppose that they hold no such conviction. Suppose you try to hold them accountable anyway. That is not accountability. That is controlling. Accountability is holding people accountable for their goals. About such matters Paul said, "each one should be fully convinced in his own mind." (Romans 14:5)

Bruce Wilkinson gives an extensive treatment of the importance of application in his work, The Seven Laws of the Learner. He tells of reading through and marking the manuscripts of great preachers in order to identify the portions that were application and the portions that were not application oriented. The best preachers, both contemporary and in the past, had between 50% - 75% application. Your teaching also should emphasize application.

Finally, all application does not have to do with doing. Sometimes the application is to feel or to believe. The application of Psalm 23 is to believe that God is my Shepherd and that I need not want. I am obedient to the truth of the passage when I rest in Him. The application of Philippians 4:4 (Rejoice in the Lord always. . . ) is to enjoy God. Many of the issues of Christian discipleship are issues of the heart. If we do not see this, we run the risk of being Pharisee makers instead of disciple makers. The Pharisees had application down to a science, but they missed the issues of the heart.

Evaluate yourself on a scale of one to ten. Give yourself a ten if every week you are teaching for a specific application. Give yourself a one if you hardly ever do so.



Were there points when the group laughed together? Were there time when the group grabbed their sides. slapped their knees, threw back their heads and laughed? Laughter is one of the best indicators of health in a group. When a group loves each other, when they enjoy being together, when Christian fellowship is what it should be, people laugh. When their is tension and ill will in the body, however, no one laughs.

I am not talking about telling jokes. I am talking about the spontaneous, unrehearsed laughter that bubbles up from healthy relationships. There is nothing that makes the class time more enjoyable than a little humor. Humor is the jam on the bagel.

Humor can often be used to open up the group to receive God's truth. It lets everyone relax. Their guard comes down and they become more responsive. You have probably had the experience, as I have, of laughing until your side hurt, only to find a dagger in your side. A speaker had skillfully used the sword of the Spirit in such a way that you did not even know an incision had been made. Laughter was the anesthetic.

It ought to be fun to come to class. It should to be more than fun--it should be informative and life changing and all the rest, but still fun. Your class will tend to grow if people like to come to class.

I am not talking about pretending to be a stand up comic. (Although if you hear a good joke that relates to the topic that is O.K. too.) The key thing is to allow humor when it comes; you don't have to plan it.

Never force humor. There are few things as disgusting as someone trying to be funny who isn't. Forced humor is worse than no humor at all. But don't be so serious about studying the Word that you will not let people enjoy the Christian fellowship and pleasure of being together.

Rate yourself on a scale of one to ten. How well do you use humor in your class?



If you want to make your teaching interesting and effective, make it personal. Teaching that does not apply itself personally to people does not apply at all. Good teaching is not about vague distant abstractions. God is personal, and the process of Christian discipleship is personal. Ask yourself:

  • Did you touch them where they live?
  • Were you open about yourself?

You need to make the application personal to your group, and you need to be open enough to show how the truth works in your life. Do not use exclusively personal illustrations, but do use some. This is a small group. There is something very personal about small group ministry. But you must set the tone for the rest of the group. They will generally be as transparent and open as you are. One reason we have small groups is so the universal message of the Gospel can be personalized to the individual. Your job is to take the cloth and to tailor it to fit the individual.

Being personal is also one of the best ways of creating interest. People are interested in people -- especially the personal lives of people. That is why the tabloids sell. Personalness is interesting. If you ever sense that people's interest is slipping, remember this: one of the best ways to grab the attention of the group is to tell how the truth applies personally to you.

Don't take this too far. This is Sunday school, not therapy. I was in a group once in which a member confessed to a previous life of prostitution. The group was on the edge of their seats, holding their breath. Her story held the interest of the group, but she never came back. She felt too exposed and was embarrassed to show herself again. She got caught up in the moment and was too transparent. This is not what I am advocating.

I am talking about being as open, as transparent, and as honest as you can be within the bounds of good sense and discretion. Unfortunately, my experience has been that most groups are not personal enough.

Put yourself on a scale of one to ten. Do you teach in a way that is personal and touches people where they live?



Was everyone interested? Were they "with you"? Did you most of the group participate in the discussion? Did over half the group talk? Or were they looking at their watches?

One way to insure that people are involved is by asking questions and getting the group talking. When you are talking, they may or may not be interested. When they are talking, you can be sure that they are interested. That is one of the advantages of asking questions. I will devote a whole chapter to the art of asking good questions later in this book.

Of course, people can be involved without saying anything. But if they are answering a question, you can be almost sure they are paying attention. Only very rarely can people talk and not listen to themselves. These people are really difficult to teach. If they are not involved, they are not learning, you are not teaching, and disciples are not being made.

Examine yourself. Was the group involved and paying attention?



Did you prepare well enough to present the lesson with confidence? Confidence is everything. You will never master every detail of even a short passage. That is the beauty of the Bible: we never plummet the depths of its beauty and insight. But we do need to have a basic grasp of what is in the text. Do not be afraid to tell people that you do not know. On the other hand, try to know as much as you can! Preparation shows itself both in content and in confidence.

One of the best ways to do this is to read the passage daily as part of your devotional discipline. Read it often so that you have a good feel for the text. Read it in several translations. Read it early in the week. Ask your friends questions about the text. Involve yourself in the text so you are very familiar with it and can speak confidently about what the text says.

Preparation that yields confidence cannot be gained in the final hours. You cannot look at a text for the first time on Saturday night and teach well on Sunday morning. Preparation that yields confidence is built slowly. Enjoy the passage. Learn from the passage. Let the Holy Spirit be your teacher before you are your group's teacher.

Evaluate yourself on a scale of one to ten. Was your preparation strong enough to give you a sense of confidence in teaching the passage?



Did you reveal some interesting background not evident from a casual reading of the text? You need to know the text, but also you need to know what lies behind the text. You need to be able to answer the questions the text asks. For example, suppose you are teaching on Luke 13:4

Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them -- do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? There is an obvious question that you better know the answer to: what is the deal with this tower? You as the teacher ought to give a simple, straightforward answer to this question without looking at any notes.

Sunday school needs to be more than a "pooling of ignorance". You will have a few people in your group who will have studied, and you should encourage them to do so. Still, you, the teacher, need to bring that extra level of depth that makes the group feel it was worth coming because they learned something they did not know before.

The longer you are at this, the easier this becomes. One of the joys of studying the Bible is the accumulation of knowledge over years of study. But, be careful! All our brains are buckets with holes (for some of us it is mostly holes!). We need to make sure there is a constant input of fresh information. That is the joy of preparation. That is why many teachers love to spend money on books.

Place yourself on a scale of one to ten. Did I understand the background well enough to dice the conversation with some fresh information that is not obvious from a casual reading of the text?



Did you seize their attention the moment you began? Did you begin the lesson with something that pulled them to the edge of their chairs and made them take notice? Or, did anyone secretly say to themselves, "Oh, gee whiz, another Sunday school lesson. Yawn."

Two parts of the lesson ought to be especially well-prepared, the beginning and the end. Here are some tools you can employ to wake the group up and get everyone paying attention:

  • A thought-provoking question.

    Example: is Christianity easy or hard?

  • A heartwarming story

    Example: A boy was walking the seashore picking up starfish and tossing them back into the ocean. Someone asked him what he was doing. "The starfish will dry out and die if they are not thrown back into the ocean." The beach was littered with mile after mile of starfish. "You can't make a difference with all these star fish. Look around. They go on for miles." The boy was silent. He stopped down and lifted a drying starfish from the sand. With a flick of the wrist, he tossed it to the safety of the water, saving it life. "I made a difference with that one."

  • A shocking, or controversial statement.

    Example: The world is lost and dying and going to hell, and you don't give a damn. What is worse, you are more concerned about the fact that I said the word "damn" than you are about the fact that the world is lost and dying and going to hell.

Holding the group's attention during the whole hour is difficult enough. The easiest time to get the group's attention is at the beginning. If they do not lend you their attention then, they probably never will. Remember, if their mind is wandering, you are not making disciples.

Evaluate yourself on a scale of one to ten. Did you come off the starting blocks with zest? Did you begin the lesson with an attention-getting opening?



Did you attempt to inspire them to do what you wanted them to do? Teaching is more than telling them what happened or what ought to happen. It is inspiring people to do what they ought to do. You may not be the nation's best Christian motivator. You are not Zig Ziegler, but you can learn from Zig Ziegler. People need, want, and crave inspiration. Motivation is 90% of almost everything. Do not be afraid to "preach a little." Challenge them to the worthy cause of living fully devoted lives for Christ.

Most of know far more than we actually do. In most cases, the problem is not knowledge, it is motivation. You must provide both how-to and want-to.

There are two ways to motivate: with a carrot and with a stick. You motivate by teaching the benefits of obedience (carrot) and the bad things that happen when we are not obedient (stick). It is not very motivating to be told we simply ought to do something because it is right. Hebrews 11:6 teaches that faith has its rewards: "And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." Teachers need to show what these rewards are. Giving has its rewards. Fidelity has its rewards. Honesty has its rewards. Paint these rewards in large, colorful letters.

On the other hand, the Bible is not squeamish about punishments and neither should teachers. Warn them as a profit that bad things will happen if they are unfaithful. Paint compelling word pictures about the pain of disobedience.

Inspiration also has a lot to do with enthusiasm. People are not going to get any more excited about living the Christian life than you are about teaching your lesson. Motivate with enthusiasm. Remember, enthusiasm means, "God in me."

A final component of inspiration has to do with your confidence in your class members. If you believe they can do it, they probably can. There is something very motivating about having someone in your corner who believes you can do it. Teach from a positive faith that we can do all things through Christ.

Evaluate yourself on a scale of one to ten. Did you go beyond telling the group what they ought to do? Did you inspire them to do what they ought to do? Do you use an appropriate balance of carrot and stick?



Did you have one "big idea" that you attempted to drive home throughout the lesson? Did you hunt with a rifle or a shotgun? The great danger for many teachers is not that they say too little but that they say too much. Your lesson needs to have a central focus, a big idea. If someone stopped you before you walk into your class and asked, "What are you teaching today?" You ought to be able to respond in one sentence, "Today, I will be teaching my class . . ." If you think this is an unrealistic goal, I challenge you to ask your pastor sometime, "What is the big idea of today's sermon?" Effective pastors will not stutter in their reply, "Today, I will be preaching on . . ." One pastor told me he asks his kids at Sunday lunch, "Ok, kids, what was the big idea in today's sermon?" If they can give it to him, he feels he has done pretty well. It is ok to chase a few rabbits, but drive to a central, focused verdict.

The unexamined life is not worth living and the unexamined teacher is not so good either. Evaluate yourself regularly on these criteria. On the following page is an evaluation sheet. Make copies and evaluate your self each week. If you are really brave, have your spouse or a class member do the evaluation with you. The fastest way to grow a class is to increase the effectiveness of the teaching. Every teacher can improve. You can. I can. Even Chuck Swindoll can. If you are going to double your class every two years or less, you have to teach a half-way decent lesson each and every week; nothing less will do.


Rate yourself on a scale of one to ten with one being poor and ten being excellent.

Passion. Did you present the truth with some conviction?

Practical. Did you give specific application that can be applied to life this week? Did you teach for a verdict?

Humor. Were there points when the group laughed together?

Personal. Did you touch them where they live? Were you open about where you are at?

Involvement. Was everyone interested and with you? Did you have a good number of people participate in the discussion?

Preparation. Were you well prepared enough to present the lesson with confidence?

Background. Did you bring some interesting background not evident from the casual reading of the text.

Introduction. Did you grab their attention at the first?

Inspiration. Did you attempt to inspire them to do what you wanted them to do?

Focus. Did you have one or two "big ideas" that you attempted to drive home throughout the lesson?

Note: permission to copy granted.