Practical teachers are more likely to produce spiritually vibrant people — by a wide margin. Groups where the teaching was described as very practical were more than twice as likely to report high levels of spiritual vibrancy.
Groups where the teaching is practical were also more likely to be growing.
I was watching the clock in Sunday School. About five minutes to quitting time. The conversation was interesting–even spirited–but I wasn’t sure exactly where we were going. I raised my hand. My teacher called on me.
“In about five minutes, we are all going to be walking out that door. (I pointed to the door.) What exactly do you want us to do about what we heard today?”
(Aren’t you glad I don’t attend YOUR group?)
That line got to be the running joke in class for months to come. If ever the conversation would get the least bit off subject, my teacher would say, “We need to get back on topic, because I know what Josh is thinking: what do you want to do about what we heard today?”
The truth is, everyone of your students is thinking the same thing. Every week. All the time. What do you want me to do about what we heard today? They may not say it. They may not be as frank as I am (My middle name is Frank). But they are thinking: what do you want me to do about what we heard today?
Every teacher every week ought to provide a clear answer to this question: what do you want me to do about what we heard today?
Practical teaching matters. It was the second most likely predictor of spiritual vibrancy. Those who enjoyed very practical teaching were 125% more likely to be highly spiritually vibrant to those whose teaching was only somewhat practical. Practical teaching matters. Practical teaching produces spiritually vibrant people.
In some circles, practical teaching is seen in contrast with deep teaching. Deep teaching is spiritual and theological, and, well, deep. Practical teaching is seen as light and fluffy, shallow, and sometimes, man-centered. How-to preaching and teaching doesn’t get all that much respect.
But, how-to teaching is what Jesus taught is to do. This is one of my favorite examples. See if you can find the mistake in this rendering of the Great Commission:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20 (NIV)
Did you find it? Here I will quote it right. See if you can find the difference:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20 (NIV)
Find it? “Teaching the to obey,” not, “teaching them everything I have commanded.” The difference is crucial. The object is Christian teaching is not to make smarter sinners. It is not to create people who can quote the facts of the Bible buy live like the devil. It is to create people who act like saints. We are out to create people who are a little more loving, a little more joyful, a little more kind, a little more at peace, a little less anxious, a little less angry, a little more like Jesus.
Spurgeon said, “It is a right thing to have practical teaching in connection with sound doctrine, and common-sense in conjunction with deep spirituality.” –Spurgeon’s Collected Sermons – Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit.
John MacArthur said, “Paul returns from the lofty heights of theological instruction (chaps. 1 and 2) to the basics of practical Christian living. For Paul, theology was not merely abstract reasoning, but practical truth to affect daily life.” –MacArthur New Testament Commentary – 1 & 2 Thessalonians.
Practical teaching is not an add-on. It is not an extra. It is not optional. It is not just nice-to-have. It is not left to the individual to figure out how to make the application. Application is what teaching is all about. Application is the point. We are to teach people how to. How to pray. How to know their spiritual gifts. How to serve. How to be a good dad. How to give. How to control your tongue. How to beat bad habits. How. How. How. How to live the Life.
Speaking of how, let’s talk about how to teach practical, life-changing lessons.
Good application comes from good doctrine
There is nothing more practical that clear-headed thinking about theology. The book of Ephesians is a great example
- Chapters 1 – 3 Theology
- Chapters 4 – 6 Practical application of theology.
If you want to build people of faith, confidence, optimism and high self-esteem, don’t start with how-to. Start with good theology. Don’t talk about the student. Talk about God–how God is all loving and unconditionally accepting. Talk about the fact that we are sinners and God accepts us in spite of our sin. Talk about how the cross made it all right. Once we have those truths straight, we go on to how we can apply those things to our lives.
If we want to help people with their finances, we don’t start with teaching them to buy Quicken. That might come later. We start with God–how God owns everything and He has made us to be stewards. Talk about how the purpose of money is to glorify God. Talk about the poor. Talk about giving. Then, when the foundation is laid we can move on to practical steps to manage money.
If you want to teach people about service, don’t start with a spiritual gift test. Start with God. Talk about how God is a worker. Jesus said, “My Father is always working.” Work is good. Work pre-dates the fall. It is not a punishment. When we are working near the sweet-spot of our gifting, we find fulfillment and joy in life. Lay the foundation of theology, then get practical.
Always end with “so what?” Remember these three letters: YBH (Yes, but how?) Remember my question to my teacher: what do you want me to do about what we heard today.
The opposite can also work. Start with life and ask, “What does the Bible have to say about this?” Give biblical answers, not answers from Readers Digest or Oprah. Illustrated, perhaps, from Readers Digest, but answers from the Bible.
Good teaching is about connecting the Bible to life. It needs to have both the Bible and life. You can start with the Bible or you can start with life, but be sure and include both. Be sure and connect the two.
Distinguish: what we could do and what we are going to do
It is helpful to distinguish between what we could do and what we are going to do. By making this distinction, it frees the mind to think of multiply ways that might help us apply the Word. Ask questions like:
- What are ten ways a husband could serve his wife?
- Let’s go around the room and each person state one way we could reduce worry by 50%.
- Let’s divide into two teams. You will each have two minutes. Let’s see which group can come up with the most different ways we could be involved in evangelism.
Try to emphasize as you are in this phase that we are not committing to do anything. We are just brainstorming things we could do. Because we are not committing, it frees the mind to be creative. There are no bad ideas in brainstorming. We are just talking about things we could do.
Then, we ask for the sale: what are you doing to do? or, what do you want to do about what we talked about today?
This application can take of of two forms.
Baby steps and the big order
Often times, the best way to do application is to ask for baby steps. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Sometimes we ask people to live holy and godly lives and they can’t figure out how to get to square one.
The Navigators have a little booklet called Seven Minutes with God. The point is not limit your time with God to seven minutes. It is to make quiet time accessible. It is to make it doable. Who can’t set their alarm seven minutes early? It is a baby step. Anyone can do it.
Once you get there, you might have so much fun that you want to do more. But, if the teacher asks for an hour of prayer, it might be so overwhelming that he gets nothing. Sometimes we do well to ask for baby steps.
Sometimes, we ask for too little. We do well to go beyond–way beyond baby steps from time to time. Sometimes we need to ask the group to lay down their lives and follow Christ. Sometimes we need to ask them to quiet being half-hearted. Sometimes we need to ask them for commitment. Sometimes we need to ask for the big order. There is a place in this world for the big challenge.
This is how Jesus operated. At first, he asked for baby steps. He said, “just follow me.” No big commitments. No contracts. No signing on the line. Just follow me.
Only later did he say, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24 (NIV)
Often we need to ask for baby steps; eventually we need to ask for the big order. You have not because you ask not.
Cost / benefit
I read this in my quiet time this morning: “Honor your father and mother”–which is the first commandment with a promise–“that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” Ephesians 6:2-3 (NIV)
Whether stated or implied, this is the promise of all commands: that it may go well with you. God gives us commands so that life will go well with us.
If you want to persuade people to apply the teachings of scripture, point out often that the commands are given so that it will go well with us. It is always in our best interest to live the Christian life. This is the subject of next week’s article, and the #1 thing distinguishing classes that create spiritually vibrant people.