Deal-Killers to Disciplemaking
Unless the room temperature is above 65° it is not likely that learning will take place. If the temperature rises above 80° it is not likely that learning will take place. God has made us amphibious beings, with one foot in the spirit world and one foot in the physical world. We are not spirits with bodies; nor are we bodies with attached spirits. We are spirit-bodies, amphibious beings not totally at home without both elements. Our spirit side influences and affects our physical side. That is what is called psycho-somatic illness and it as real as it is common. Our physical side also effects our spirit side and certainly effects learning. That is why we cannot learn unless the temperature is roughly between 65° and 80°.
It is not only true of the temperature. A number of things in the physical environment can be absolute deal killers with reference to learning. Maybe we ought to be mature enough to rise above these, but most are not. Unless the physical environment is right, the right things cannot happen in class in the student for the disciplemaking process to progress.
The temperature of the room is among the most important of the physical factors in the room. Another issue is the quietness of the room. It is difficult for learning to take place when there is a screaming baby next door, a loud video across the hall, or screaming teenagers in the hallway. People ought to be able to filter this kind of thing out, but they will not. Loud noise that distracts the students will abort the learning process. No matter now well you pray, how well you prepare, how long you study, if there is a wailing baby in the room next door, it is not likely that learning will take place. Conversely, if your group is the one watching the video, it must be loud enough for everyone to comfortable hear. This is true even though the group next door may need for it to be more quiet. People cannot learn from what they cannot hear.
Everything in the physical environment either contributes or distracts from the learning process. Hard chairs tend to distract from the learning process. Little piles of junk--last quarter's Sunday School books mixed with a few maps and some discarded Bibles--tend to distract from the learning process. On the other hand, an attractive, quiet, well-decorated room with comfortable chairs tends to make it more likely that the right things will happen in the student in class. Attractive art and tasteful wallpaper tend to help people relax so that and concentrate on the business of learning. If his body is relaxed, his heart can learn.
Chairs in a circle will encourage groups to talk to one another, whereas chairs in straight rows will tend to discourage people from talking to each other. Humans are simply not used to talking to people that they cannot easily look at face to face. When the chairs are set up in straight rows, the best we can hope for is for conversations to take place between the student and the teacher. If we want students to talk to each other, we will need to arrange the chairs in a circle. I have seen the group dynamic of a class change dramatically and instantaneously by the simple rearranging of chairs.
Physical arrangement of chairs, room temperature and the hardness of the chairs affects learning. But it is not the only thing that affects learning.
An appropriate physical learning environment is not the only prerequisite to learning. Emotional and social issues are equally important. For example, people don't learn well from people they do not like. Conversely, students will lap up every word spoken by a teacher they adore. We learn best from the teachers we like most. If students do not like the teacher, it is not likely they will learn much from her. They will tend to notice her mistakes and be uninspired by her brilliance.
It is difficult to learn from someone we are angry with. I have heard brilliant teachings from people that had irritated me and was completely unmoved. This is why Jesus put such an emphasis on relationships. He said if your are driving to church and remember you promised to get your neighbors lawnmower to him and it is still sitting in the garage, turn around and take care of it. (Paraphrased from Matthew 5:23ff) Relationships matter to God.
Teachers ought to seek to be as well-liked as they can be. Not for their own sake; not because it makes them feel good to be popular; but because people learn best from people they like best. This principle, of course, could be taken too far. There is such a thing as loving the praise of men more than the praise of God. (1 Timothy 2:6) That is not what I am talking about. I am talking about serving God by being obedient to the command to "live at peace with everyone" (Romans 12:18) Jesus and Paul were enormously popular, though both had their enemies.
How do you live in such a way that people like you and are therefore willing to learn from you? The most important issue is to genuinely love the students and be interested in them. We tend to like people who seem to like us and take an interest in our lives. "Love covers a multitude of sins," (1 Peter 4:8) and if we truly care about people, it will show. This will go a long way toward cultivating the kind of relationships that will maximize learning. On the other hand, no matter how charismatic the personality, we will not be drawn to someone who seems uninterested or cold toward us.
We tend to be drawn to people who are obedient to the command to, "Be kind and compassionate to one another." (Ephesians 4:32) This includes being courteous and polite. If you want people to come to your Sunday School class, be nice to them. The command to be kind and compassionate is the most often violated command in church life. We teach our children to memorize this verse and flagrantly violate it as adults.
A final issue related to popularity is rapport. Rapport is that feeling of having something in common. When we learn that someone grew up in the same little home town that we did, we have immediate rapport. Ultimately, our rapport is based on the fact that we have a common faith. Skilled teachers look for things that accentuate their rapport with students. They try to find things they have in common. They try to relate to students. Paul said he had become all things to all men so that by all possible means he might be able to save some. (1 Corinthians 9:22) Skilled teachers try to do the same; they try to find as many things in common with their students as they can.
With some, we will struggle to find anything in common. One of the reasons why we need to reproduce new groups is so that we can offer to people a number of small group opportunities in which to find rapport. If you are an engineer and you disciple a farmer and reproduce your group and you turn that group over to the farmer, you have done more than create a new group. You have created a new opportunity for farmers to find rapport. That teacher and that group will be more likely to reach other farmers than you ever would. The more groups we have, the better positioned we are to reach more people and more kinds of people. The future of the church is the multiplication of groups precisely because although we try to be all things to all men, we cannot be everything to everybody. Computer people like to become disciples under the teaching of computer people. Out doorsy types like to learn from people who have back packs in their garage. People with grease under their fingernails tend to distrust people whose fingernails are clean. They hesitate to be taught by them.
If we would seek to maximize our impact on people, we do well to live at peace with all men. This means loving, it means being polite, and it means finding rapport with people. If the student is not at peace with the teacher, it is not likely that the right things will happen in the student in class.
The student needs to be at peace with the teacher, but that is not all. The student also needs to be at peace with the other members of the class. Relational rifts are educational killers. It is not likely that learning will take place in an environment where the members of the group are angry with one another.
Eighty five percent of all unchurched adults have had a prolonged period of time during which they consistently attended a church.(1) The unchurched used to come to church; at least, most of them used to. Most of them left because of some relational issue. They got mad at someone and left. It is usually not a theological issue of some issue of great importance with reference to the direction of the church. Usually, it is some people-issue that was not handled with effective people-skills. An important issue in every church I consult with is teaching people to get along with each other. Churches all across America are filled with people who disagree with each other and do not know how to effectively and lovingly communicate that disagreement. Every pastor ought to preach at least one series of sermons a year that help people learn to get along. Every Sunday School teacher ought to give major attention to the issue of helping students to get along. We claim to be a hothouse of love. In many cases we are found wanting. We are not hot houses of love and encouragement; we are ces pools of gossip, anger, pettiness and the like.
Students will not learn in an environment like this; no matter how well we prepare, no matter how much we study, no matter what. Relational rifts within the class are deal killers to disciplemaking.
Effective teachers help students to get along with one another. This is what Paul admonished the Philippian church to do in the case of two of their members who were struggling to get along. "I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life." (Philippians 4:2 - 3) Paul is asking Mr. Loyal Yokefellow to help these women get along. I believe God would ask every Sunday School teacher to do the same. Jesus stated is simply, "Blessed are the peacemakers." (Matthew 5:9) Squabbles among class members are deal killers to learning. There is one more.
When life tumbles in and the storms of life crush our house into a pile of rubble it is difficult to teach. There is not too much a teacher can do about this. We want something to happen in class in the life of the learner. If the learner is preoccupied with life's troubles they will not be impressed by our brilliant discussion on the second coming. If she is wondering if her husband will leave her, she will not hear what you have to say about how to have an assurance of salvation.
I talked to a public school teacher recently who told the sad story of one of his students who had been killed in an automobile accident. He reported that he was almost completely unable to teach because the class was so preoccupied with their recent loss. External things affect the mood of students. We can control that. We can be aware of it. Troubled students may not be able to concentrate on the subject at hand.
On the other hand, troubled students can be unusually teachable. Often that rare "teachable moment" comes in the middle of the storm. In some ways, we have a better opportunity to alter the trajectory of a student's life during a dark time than any other time.
I have known people who were completely unresponsive to teaching until the went through a storm. This teaching, however, has to be personalized to the individual. People will not listen to a generic lesson in the middle of their storm, but the are extra sensitive to a message personalized to their needs.
Disciplemaking Teachers know their students. They know when they are hurting. They care enough to listen and, when appropriate teach what the bible has to say to the broken and wounded at the point of their need. Disciplemaking Teachers take advantage of the especially sensitive time that occurs when people are hurting. The make the most of these teachable moments. They also know that not every moment is for teaching. There is a time to teach and a time to be silent. There is a time to give a warm hug and a time to bring a warm casserole. People need good teaching, but they need other things as well. They need someone to listen to them. They need to be served in physical ways. They need to be loved.
There are a number of prerequisites that must be in place in order for the right things to happen in the student in class. These include an appropriate physical environment and complementary relationships both between the student and teacher and between students. In addition, in order for the teacher to maximize his impact on the student, he needs to know what is going on in the life of the student. If this is a crises time, the student will be unresponsive to a generic message, but may be unusually responsive to a personalized message tailored to his situation.
It takes more than a good environment and good relationships and so forth for disciplemaking take place, and that is the subject of the next chapter. Still, these matters are deal killers. If we do not get them right, we may not have an opportunity to do thing things that cause discipleship to take place. Assuming that we do have these things right, the next chapter will show us exactly what must happen in class in the life of the student in order for us to make disciples.
1. George Barna, Evangelism that Works (Ventura, California: Regal, 1995), page 50.