What a difference good teaching makes! In my last book, You Can Double Your Class in Two Years or Less (Group Publishing, 1997), I emphasized all the things you can do to make people want to become a part of your class or small group. I suggested that you invite every member and every visitor to every fellowship every month, that you give Friday nights to Jesus, that you invite group members and group prospects to a time of informal hospitality in your home, and that you recruit a team of people to help you in this work.
These things are important, but none is as important as “teaching a halfway decent lesson each and every week.” I have seen teachers who did very little outreach but grew their classes marvelously on the sheer power of their teaching. On the other hand, as someone in Oklahoma remarked, “Good visitation cannot overcome bad teaching.” People come to where the food is. Word of mouth can grow a class if the teacher consistently delivers the goods.
Don’t hear this as a recanting of the things I said in my earlier book. It isn’t. I still believe we can reach America with the gospel through groups that are doubling (reproducing) every two years or less. I still believe that most people who are opposed to the gospel are not opposed to love. I still believe that if we will love people they will come to love our Lord.
However, I have an increasing conviction regarding the vital role of teaching. Teachers who teach well never lack for an audience. Teachers who teach well change lives. Teachers who teach well make disciples.
Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church, for example, has led the way with the seeker-driven paradigm, the seven-step strategy, networking, and various other innovative ministry strategies. But when I hear Bill Hybels preach his average weekend seeker message or midweek New Community message, I think to myself, “Willow Creek’s strategy could be dead wrong, and he would still fill the auditorium.”
You see, it’s really not about networking or the seven-step strategy or all the rest of these excellent approaches. It is about the fact that Bill Hybels puts it together on stage. When he talks, people listen. I just smile when I hear that Midwestern accent because I know he will probably deliver another great message.
It’s the same with Rick Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church. He has clearly articulated his ideas about the purpose-driven church. He can identify differences between his approach and Willow Creek’s strategy (though to the casual observer the two sound rather similar). He can explain the difference between form and function well enough that I know what can be applied directly and what I must adapt. But when I hear one of his sermons, I think, “What a difference good teaching makes! People would come to hear him even if he had no strategy at all.”
That’s why I’ve come to believe that the number one variable in predicting the growth (or nongrowth) of a church is not its program or philosophy of ministry. It is not the pastor’s theology or the church’s location. The single most important factor is the pastor’s ability to teach. If the pastor preaches well, growth is easy, almost assured. If, on the other hand, the pastor doesn’t preach well, no amount of drama, contemporary music, seeker-sensitive services, or other outreach strategies is really going to help. In the same way, the single most important variable in predicting the growth of a Sunday school class or a small group is the teaching ability of the teacher.
Now, if your small group or Sunday school class is not growing rapidly, you could respond in several ways. You could become depressed that you are the reason for your group’s lack of growth. You might even reject the notion that the communication skill of the leader has more to do with the growth of any organization than anything else and blame the lack of growth on some other factor. Or you could optimistically see that communication is something you control. If your group’s growth has more to do with your ability to teach than any other factor, this is good news because it is the one thing over which you have the most control.
The best thing is to have great teaching and great strategies, and there is no reason you cannot have both. Outreach strategies can help you double your class in two years or less, assuming that someone has something to say when people show up for class. But if someone is not doing a reasonably good job teaching, no amount of inviting, parties, or ice cream will help.
Rick Warren, The Purpose-Driven Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995.