The first time I stood in front of a group of people to present a teaching from the Bible, my heart was beating furiously, my knees trembled and my voice quivered. I knew that God had given me something to say, so I struggled on through, trying not to hyperventilate or sweat too much. Although I considered myself to be a fairly articulate person, I turned into a quivering mass of jelly in front of the group—and the group contained only five people!
Since that time many years ago, I have taught in small groups and large. I eventually discovered some biblical principles and practical tips that made teaching enjoyable for me.
You do not have to have the gift of being a charismatic teacher to be effective in teaching, especially in a small group. Everyone in the Body of Christ is called to impart truth. Teaching others in a small group is simply imparting truth to others.
An Effective Teacher Loves People
To be an effective teacher, you must have a genuine love for the people you teach. Love and service to people overflow out of your love for Jesus that floods your heart with caring and compassion for others. As you teach, the warmth of your unique God-given personality will flow out to the group. If God calls you to teach in a small group, you simply will be sharing your life and the truth that God has imparted to you with others. You are being obedient to help others know Him better through His Word.
When teaching is bathed in prayer, it becomes a part of our lives so that we can impart it to others. Luke 6:12 tells us how Jesus prayed: “Now it came to pass in those days that He went out to the mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God” (NKJV).
I read once that Charles Finney, a great American evangelist living during the nineteenth century, got up at 4:00 A.M. and prayed for four hours. When he taught the Bible, people came under intense conviction. Thousands were converted under Finney’s teaching.
Prayer will prepare people’s hearts to receive the teaching we give so they can be changed and become more like Jesus. Be specific when you pray! Pray for each person by name, asking the Holy Spirit to open each heart to the Word of God.
When you have spent time praying, you will find that people will be drawn to you as a teacher, because the favor of God will be on you. Psalm 5:12 tells us, “For You, O LORD, will bless the righteous; with favor You will surround him as with a shield” (NKJV). Expect the Lord to place His favor on you as you teach His Word.
Teach the Word, Not Your Opinions
Someone once said that opinions are like the nose on your face; everyone has one! A teacher needs to teach the Word, not merely ideas and opinions. The fact is, our opinions will never change anyone’s life; only the Word of God changes lives.
Teachers need to “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2, NKJV). God’s Word stands up by itself. It is powerful. Have the people you teach look up the Scriptures you are using, so they can see it for themselves. Remember, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17, NKJV).
Use Visuals and Illustrations
Many people are visual learners. Mental pictures always help to focus a message and make it easier to remember. A man in the African bush once asked an American what the Empire State Building looked like. The American used a mental picture the man could relate to. He said it looked like 200 mud huts stacked on top of each other with a banana leaf sticking out of the top. To a man who had never seen a tall building, it was the closest thing he could understand. Be practical in your teaching and use illustrations people can readily understand.
Jesus constantly used parables or story illustrations that conveyed a spiritual meaning when He taught. “All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them” (Matt. 13:34, NKJV). Jesus knew that spiritual things are often not tangible until we “see” a natural illustration that points us to the spiritual implication. Jesus used mental pictures of a sower sowing seeds or a lost sheep or a hidden treasure. These pictures helped the people understand what He was saying. A good teacher will use stories describing current events or famous people to relate a spiritual concept to the people he is teaching.
Years ago, I read a book of sermons by D. L. Moody, the renowned evangelist of the late 1800s. I was amazed that two-thirds of the content of his sermons were illustrations. This evangelist, who led one million people to Jesus, knew the importance of using stories and illustrations to help people understand spiritual concepts.
Some of the greatest illustrations you can give as a teacher are those from your own life. When I teach on prayer, I often tell of the time my family prayed for money to pay a bill and found money scattered on our front lawn. It only happened once, but it is a powerful illustration to tell of God’s supernatural ability to answer prayer. When I teach on salvation, I give my testimony. When I teach on marriage, I use examples from my own life. People love stories! It helps them remember spiritual truth.
Don’t Use Christianeze!
Use plain, everyday language when you teach, not the church-y language that only seasoned Christians can understand. Words like “sanctification” and “propitiation” will not be understood by a young Christian unless you take the time to explain the words to him. A newly saved young man went to a church meeting and told me later, “That preacher used thousand-dollar words. I didn’t understand a thing.” The preacher was talking over the heads of the people and probably lost many in the process.
John Wesley practiced his sermons on his eight-year-old servant girl. If she understood the points he was trying to get across, he used the sermon. One day Wesley took one of his preachers-in-training to the market, where they came upon two women who were fighting and cursing each other. “Let’s get out of here,” said the preacher.
“No, wait a minute,” said Wesley. “I want to teach you how to preach.” He wanted the preacher to understand and use the language that the common people used (minus the curse words, of course!), and not the church-y language of the day (which most clergy used while preaching).
Speak the Truth in Love
Don’t speak down to the people you are teaching. This often happens when a teacher preaches at his audience instead of including them as he teaches. This creates a chasm between him and the group. He is talking at them instead of to them.
A good teacher endeavors to develop a rapport between the group and himself so that the flow of communication moves smoothly between the two. He often uses words like “we” and “us” to build a relationship with his audience. He makes the group feel as if he, too, has struggled or is struggling with some of the life issues he is addressing. When a teacher speaks on the people’s level, he lifts them up rather than pushing them down and discouraging them.
Teach with Enthusiasm
Did you ever sit in a Sunday School class, Bible study or other church meeting when the speaker droned on endlessly and practically put you to sleep? Although what was said concerning God’s Word was true, it may have been presented like a list of facts or like a grocery list, which wouldn’t hold anyone’s attention.
God has called us to minister His life when we teach. It’s not the words themselves that are going to cause people to listen, but how we say them. If the teaching presented is one that we believe ourselves, having received the life of Jesus in us, we will communicate this life-giving message. We will engage the group, having caught their attention, because we are excited about the message. Things that are personally important to us always come across with great impact to those we teach.
When we are totally convinced of the reality of Christ, our enthusiasm will show. An actor in London was talking with a pastor, who admitted, “I don’t understand it. On Saturday night your theaters are full, and yet on Sunday mornings, we can scarcely get anyone to attend our meetings. You use fiction and move the assembly to tears. We ministers represent reality and scarcely obtain a hearing.”
The actor replied, “Maybe it is because we represent fiction as reality and you represent reality as fiction!” I think the actor was correct. A teacher should not be afraid to act while he is teaching. Speaking in front of a group is different from conversational skill and takes more active mental “thinking on your feet” kind of skills involving concentration, coordination and quick response to distractions.
Did you ever watch someone teach who never moves? Your eyes start to glaze over and your mind drifts off. When a teacher moves his hands and body, it proves he is alive. He is not glued to his chair or the podium! Movement obligates the group you are teaching to keep their eyes open!
Teach in Faith
A study listing what people are most afraid of showed that speaking before a group is the most fearsome thing in life—worse than insects and bugs, flying, sickness or loneliness. If you have never taught before, it may be scary at first; but even experienced teachers get nervous—it’s normal! The experienced teacher has simply learned to make use of his tension and put it to good use. For example, he may turn the nervousness into greater expressiveness.
Whenever you face a group as a teacher, you are making yourself “stick out” (the others have the anonymity of the group). That’s why your nervous system is going full-throttle. People are looking at you, expecting to receive something—often hoping it will be brilliant!
Since you believe you have something worth saying and have studied and prayed and want to communicate it clearly to your listeners, your jitters will soon disappear as you gain confidence after a minute or so of teaching. It helps to pick out the friendliest and most interested face in the group and talk to him or her first. Soon you will make eye contact with more people and feel increasingly relaxed as they respond to your teaching.
The good side to nervousness is that it activates your adrenaline supply. It makes your eyes shine and animates you. It also activates the brain and helps put an edge on what you are saying. And you can depend on the fact that you are not alone. The Holy Spirit is there to help you speak His words. As you pray, the Holy Spirit replaces all fear with faith!
Speak with Authority
You have received authority from God, as a believer in Jesus Christ, to share His Word. Jesus, the most effective teacher who ever lived, spoke with authority: “On the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:21-22, NKJV). Jesus amazed the people because He taught differently from the other religious leaders of His day. He knew where He got His authority, and it showed.
Not only have you received God’s authority, but you have also received authority from the leaders of the church where you serve. Whenever I speak in a local church, I submit to the authority of the leadership there. In order to have authority, we need to be under authority, both God’s and the church’s. A policeman who holds up his hand to stop traffic has authority, which is backed up by the government. You, as a small-group teacher, have spiritual boldness and authority given to you by God and by your church leadership.
Take time to prepare the teaching for the small group. A quick five-minute glance at teaching notes and a hurried prayer do not constitute preparation. Rambling words are distracting and bore people.
Over the years, I have attended many different small-group meetings and have found some teachings to be boring and others dynamic. In almost every instance, after speaking with the teacher, I discover that the key is whether or not the teacher has adequately prepared. A teacher who has prepared—who has studied his topic and prayed—will be enthusiastic and confident, and that spirit will flow out to his audience.
Good preparation of a teaching, along with complete dependence on the Holy Spirit to communicate that teaching to others, is a better understanding of “God giving us the words to say.” One teacher of a small group once said, “I have my notes, but I am still free to obey God as He leads me, by the Holy Spirit, sometimes in other directions.” I heartily agree.
Any audience, including a small group, usually reflects the attitude and manner of the teacher. Think about it. If you are a funny guy, people will be relaxed and smile at your humor. If you are stilted and nervous, the audience will be uncomfortable, holding its collective breath. And, of course, if you are boring, they will be fast asleep!
As most teachers know, if no relationship is developed between the teacher and the audience, it can hinder a vital message from being received. The Holy Spirit uses relationships to build trust between the teacher and the audience. When a teacher shares heart issues from his own life, he is no longer just communicating facts; he opens up his life and is vulnerable to those He is teaching, causing them to be more susceptible to receiving the teaching. Otherwise, people go home without their needs being met, and it turns out to be just another useless meeting.
It is important for a teacher to initially draw people in. By looking people in the eye, you connect with them, telling them they are important. Continue to focus on individuals as you speak and include their names during the teaching: “So you see, Sandy, our heavenly Father loves you so much; He calls you His child!”
I was in a small group one time and attempted, during my teaching, to include a man who had just been released from jail. As I occasionally used his name during the teaching, he felt love and caring extended to him. At the end of the evening, he took a step of faith and asked us to pray for him. God’s love broke down the walls of fear and intimidation in his life.
Receive Constructive Criticism
No teacher is beyond the need for improvement. Most teachers want to know if they are using excessive hand gestures or constantly repeating the phrase “you know.” After I preach or teach, I have often asked people to give me good constructive criticism so that I can grow in my ability to teach. A good teacher learns to accept criticism and profit by it. Discovering your weaknesses is the first step to correcting them.
One excellent way to personally critique yourself is by videotaping yourself while teaching. You can see yourself as your audience sees and hears you and immediately recognize your strengths and weaknesses as a speaker. This self-evaluation can be a great time to upgrade your teaching skills as you learn to correct your weaknesses and emphasize and develop your strengths.
Share this chapter on teaching with those you ask to teach in your small group. Perhaps give them the opportunity to teach a mini-message of five minutes or so the first time, so it is not too daunting for them. And then give them lots of encouragement. This is what mentors do, they get under those the Lord places in their lives and they pray for them and spend extra time with them. This is a key to healthy small-group ministry. We’ll learn more about mentoring in the next chapter.
Larry Kreider, What Every Small Group Leader Should Know (Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen, 2010).
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