Creating Tension in Class

by Josh Hunt

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

Have you ever noticed that it is nearly impossible to leave a movie during its final five or ten minutes, but people gladly leave Sunday school in the final five minutes to go sing in the choir? It never seems to bother them. They almost seem happy to slip out early.

Why is this, and what does it have to do with great teaching? What do great movies, great books, and great teaching have in common?

They all have cloud of "Who dun it?" hanging over. You can't leave during the last five minutes of a movie because by that time you are so involved, so worked up, so curious that you just can't leave.

Ever read a novel that you just couldn't put down? What are the chances of getting to the final four or five pages and just wandering off. It will never happen. If the author has done his job, there is an atmosphere of suspense that will not let you go. It is that creative tension that keeps you flipping pages until the very end.

No amount of special effects or cinematography or even great acting will overcome a bad plot in a movie. A good plot keeps you guessing to the final moment how the whole thing will work out. The writers build in a problem that demands to be solved. We gotta know who dun it.

Good lessons are this way as well. Good teachers create more problems than they can solve. That is what the light of the Word does: it creates problems. We didn't know what the problems were when they were in the dark. Our life was a messy garage with the light out. Now, with the light on, we can see the problems plainly. Good teaching is not just about solutions, it is about creating problems. Until the problems are in the light, there can be no solutions.

Good teachers leave a little creative tension in the air the whole hour. There is an atmosphere that you can almost touch that just reaches out to you and says, "How is he going to explain this one? What is the answer to this dilemma? How do I solve this mystery? What is the solution?"

Mediocre teachers prefer to avoid tension at all costs. They like everything settled, everything neat, everything as it should be. They don't like any questions, any uncertainty. All is at peace. All is quiet. All are bored.

Skilled is the teacher who can employ creative tension. People dare not leave because they want to see how this whole thing shakes out. Everyone keeps paying attention because they are curious. No one looks at their watches. If they do, it is because the wonder how in the world the teacher will bring this thing to closure in the time remaining.

This is what makes a ball game exciting, isn't it? You are wondering who will win. No matter how exciting the play by play, if you know the outcome, the predictability makes it boring. Too many Sunday school lessons are too predictable. We need an element of creative tension--a bit of "who-dun-it" in every lesson.

Here is an example of creative tension in practice. Suppose the text for the day is Philippians 1:6 "Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." A teacher could approach this text by simply explaining the meaning of all the words--the Greek for confident, the history behind good work, some cross reference material on completion, and so on. Or, the teacher could create some creative tension by asking: Whose job is it that we grow to maturity in the faith: Ours? God's? The church's? The pastor's?

Nine times out of ten people will answer that it is our job. Then read the text to them and ask, "Then why does God say he will take on the responsibility for our sanctification?" Get real quiet and let them begin to chew. If they beat you to the punch and quote Philippians 1:6, follow up by asking, "Then what is our role in sanctification?" or, "Then is our role strictly a passive one--'let go and let God' as some put it? Let's suppose this is true, that ours is a strictly passive role in sanctification. Why does Philippians 2:12 say to work out our salvation with fear and trembling? Does that sound passive to you? What about these verses: (pass these out on strips of paper or have individuals look them up.)

Luke 13:24 "Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.

Romans 14:19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.

Hebrews 12:14 Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.

II Peter 3:14 So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.

"The Bible cannot contradict itself. So, why does Philippians teach that God is bringing our salvation to completion while these verses say we are to make every effort to move toward maturity?

Long pause. Make them struggle. Don't solve the problem; create the problem and leave it with them. Make the problem as tough as you can: "Look at Hebrews 4:11. What are we to make every effort to do in this verse? How do you make an effort to rest?"

Between each of these questions the teacher should pause and let the group think. Let them discuss it. If the small group is not very small, break them up into groups of four or five. Let a real dialogue take place. Let them fight just a bit. Don't let it get ugly, but let the discussion be real. Let some real creative tension develop. Let them grapple with problems before you give them answers.

When they start to get settling on a conclusion, rattle them again. Set Hebrews 13:17 before them:

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Then ask: "What are leaders responsible for? Doesn't this passage teach that it is not God's responsibility, or our responsibility, but the responsibility of those who are in leadership to bring us to maturity? How do you fit this in?"

Be quiet, and let them chew on it. No one will look at their watches. No one will yawn. No one will leave early for choir. You might make an enemy of your choir leader, but so be it.

How not to do it

I contrast this method with a lesson my Dad tells me he heard one time. The text was the story of the rich young ruler (Matthew 18:18 ff). A great passage to create creative tension. The passage begs to stimulate controversy. But not this day. Not this class. The teacher read the passage, then explained, "Now, this passage, of course, doesn't really mean we should give away everything. No. We should all tithe, of course, and be willing to give a little extra from time to time, but God doesn't expect all his children to give up everything to follow him. Why, that would be works theology and we all know that isn't right."

Everyone one nodded in agreement. Everyone felt better. Another discomforting passage of scripture successfully laid to rest. All was at peace.

If I had been a student in class, I would have nailed to the wall. Why does Luke 13:33 say, "In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple." Then I'd be quiet and let them chew on it. If they came to an answer too quickly, I would press them harder. Make them squirm. Make them think. That is how disciples are made.

By the way, please note that the teacher's theology was orthodox. It is generally believed that God does not expect every believer to give away everything he owns. I have no quarrels with the teacher's theology. But, there are far better ways to communicate this. I think the rich young ruler squirmed and our students ought to squirm when they talk about it.

Toward the end of the hour, you can release the tension in a simple summary. You might say, "God may not want every believer to give away everything. But, he certainly wants every believer to be willing to give up everything. Sometimes he will come into our lives, place his hand on something of value, and say, 'Do you love me more than this?' We need to be willing to say yes. Let me ask you to bow your heads. For the next 90 seconds, ask God this question, 'Is there anything that I have withheld from you that you would ask of me? Anything of my time? My talents? My treasure? I lay it all on the altar again. As Abraham laid Isaac on the altar, I lay everything I have on the altar. Do with my life what you will. I give complete control to you.'"

Unresolved tension

You might want to leave the group with the tension unresolved. Leave them wondering. Leave them asking. Leave them talking. Study the teaching style of Jesus. He left a lot of things unanswered. We want everything to be tidy and neat.

Has anyone ever called you during the week and said, "Teacher, I have been thinking all week about our lesson, and I think I have some insight into it. Have you ever thought about. . . ?" When they do, you will know that learning is taking place.

You might think that this approach will get old week after week. You might think that after a while people will get used to this tension/resolution cycle. You might think that after a while they will not really involve themselves in the tension, knowing that a resolution is certain. It seems like they might, but they don't.

I have a friend who is a western novel buff. After he curls up for a weekend with a good western novel, his wife will ask him, "Well, did the hero get the villain and ride off with girl?" He smiles and echoes, "Yeah, the hero got the villain and rode off with the girl." "Good." She squeezes his hand and smiles. All is as it should be. They rode off into the sunset together. Next weekend, he will read another good western novel. Gotta find out who dun it.

In the same way, creative tension in class never gets old. It is effective week after week. If you want to double your group every two years or less, employ creative tension in your teaching. It will help you to be more than halfway decent.