If you study writing, you will learn about two good (and
opposite) ways of writing. The same ways can be applied to teaching.
Article style: don’t bury the lead. Good articles are written like an inverted pyramid, so that the most important things are first. If you only read the first two paragraphs, you get the gist. If you want more detail, keep reading. It is a good way to teach.
Novel style. A good novel has a twist; it has a surprise ending. You keep this surprise buried. This too is a good way to teach.
Test: which style is this article?
Clearly the first. If you don’t read any more, you get that there are two good and opposite ways to teach. Good communicators lean in one direction or the other, they don’t try to do both. It you want more information, keep reading.
What is the big idea?
My life was forever marked by listening to the fine preaching of my friend Sam Shaw. He was my pastor for five years and is one of the best communicators I have ever heard. You wouldn’t have to listen to Sam talk for long before you heard him speak of the big idea. Every sermon has to have a big idea: a main central truth that the communicator is trying to communicate. Whether you use the article style (don’t bury the lead) or the novel style (surprise ending) you need to be clear about the big idea.
I ought be be able to stop you before you walk into class and ask, “What are you going to teach today?” and in a sentence or two you ought to be able to give me the central truth that you are trying to communicate.
I ought to be able to ask any one of your students after class, “What did you talk about today?” and they should be able to give the same big idea.
Good teaching has focus. Good teaching has simplicity. Good teaching has one big idea. Andy Stanley says it this way: less is more. Here is a Josh Hunt slogan: we teach so little because we try to teach too much.
Once we have the good idea in place, then we need to decide on one approach or the other of communicating this big idea. Either tell them right up front, or, spend much of the hour making them thirst for the answer. Depending on the content, either approach could work. You do well to lean one way or the other.
These days, I am using the “don’t bury the lead” approach in my Double seminars. It starts this way:
My goal in this seminar is to infect you with an idea about doubling groups. Doubling groups are intriguing to me for two reasons. First, it is so incredibly possible. All it takes to double a group every two years or less is for the average group to go from ten to fourteen in a year. That is 40% growth and if you keep that up you can double your class every two years or less.
Doubling groups are intriguing to me for a second reason. A group of ten that doubles slightly more quickly, every eighteen months, will reach a thousand people in ten years. There is a world-wide movement by which this is happening. I want to invite you to join God in what God is doing in a world-wide movement of doubling groups.
If you don’t get anything beyond that, you get the big idea. If you want more information, keep reading.
On the whole, I probably prefer this approach. Simple. Straightforward. Clear. But, there is another effective (and opposite) way.
How to make the surprise ending work
It starts with the big idea. I think I said that already.
This big idea is framed in the form of a question:
How can an undisciplined person become effective in having a regular quiet time?
How can a shy person help with evangelism?
How can we get over really bad hurts and forgive–really forgive those who have hurt us deeply?
With the question in place, we offer some answers. The order of these answers is crucial. Save the best for last.
The surprise ending often has to do with a balancing truth. It leads people into the narrow way. It is easy to fall of one side or the other. Effective teachers teach balance.
Suppose you are teaching on how to be pleasing to God. Some key points could be
It takes faith
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. Hebrews 11:6 [NIV]
It takes living by the Spirit
Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. Romans 8:8 [NIV]
It is a gradual process
Note the phrase, “more and more.”
Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. 1 Thes. 4:1 [NIV]
You already please God. You are His son or daughter. He loves you. Nothing you could do would make him love you more. Repent of the idea that if you just behave just so that you will earn God’s approval. He sings over you as a mother singing lullabies to her baby:
The Lord your God is with you,
he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
he will quiet you with his love,
he will rejoice over you with singing.”
Zeph. 3:17 [NIV]
One more example
Suppose the big idea is all about the developing the Biblical character of diligence. Here are some key verses:
He who gathers crops in summer is a wise son,
but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son.
Proverbs 10:5 [NIV]
Diligent hands will rule,
but laziness ends in slave labor.
Proverbs 12:24 [NIV]
The lazy man does not roast his game,
but the diligent man prizes his possessions.
Proverbs 12:27 [NIV]
The sluggard craves and gets nothing,
but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.
Proverbs 13:4 [NIV]
All hard work brings a profit,
but mere talk leads only to poverty.
Proverbs 14:23 [NIV]
You spend much of the hour talking about the benefits of hard work and the cost of laziness. You give examples, ask the group for examples, read verses, make lists of cost and benefit of working hard, show a video clip, pound, pound, pound on the idea that we need to be diligent. Then, you turn a corner. Here is the surprise ending.
Don’t work too hard:
In vain you rise early
and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat–
for he grants sleep to those he loves.
Psalm 127:2 [NIV]
For some of you, your sin is not laziness, it is drivineness. Work has become your god. You need to lay down in green pasture or the Good Shepherd will, as Psalms 23 has it , “Make you lie down.” Sometimes, the most spiritual thing you can do is rest. Resting one day in seven made it into the the top 10, the 10 Commandments.
What not to do
What I wouldn’t do is both of these approaches at once. Give the big idea right up front, or save it back as a surprise ending, but don’t let it get lost in the middle.
Research on learning suggests we tend to remember two parts of the talk most: the beginning and the end. Don’t let the big idea get lost in the middle.