The Limitations of Lecture

There is a place for lecture, but lecture has its limitations, especially in a group setting. I can think of two primary limitations of the lecture method.

Lecture is an extremely difficult method.

If you take up piano, you will learn that some songs are more difficult to play than others. If you ever play cards you know that some hands are more difficult to play than others. If you take up golf you soon realize that some courses and some holes are much more difficult than others. The lecture is an extremely difficult method to perfect. If you disagree with the thesis of this book, that Good Questions are the best way to teach adults, allow me to gently warn you. If you choose to lecture, you are dealing yourself a very difficult hand to play. It is extremely difficult to present a forty-five minute, interesting and life-changing lecture each week. Extremely difficult. Let me invite you to humbly consider the fact that you might be boring people. Do you have anyone in your life who would tell you? Most people will be polite. There is a chance–a good chance–that if you adopt the lecture method each week that your group is bored and won’t tell you.

I know what you are thinking. “Not me. Other people might be boring, but not me.” We all fall victim to a tendency to evaluate ourselves more highly than is warranted. Even pastors who preach on humility fall victim to this tendency. Ninety-percent of preachers describe themselves as above average. One hundred percent of teenagers think they are above average. There is a good chance you see yourself as above average. Be careful. Romans 12 warns us not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought. It is very difficult to teach an interesting, life-changing lesson every week if you use primarily lecture. You might be boring. 

Lecture doesn’t do a lot to create community.

Even if you do get it right and your lectures are interesting, stimulating, funny and life-changing, there is still a problem.

Lecture does not stimulate relationship-building.

It does not create community. It does not allow us to get to know one another.

Church is not just about getting to know God and learning to live the Christian life individually and privately. It is not just about a vertical relationship with God. It is also about a horizontal relationship with one another. Lectures don’t help us do that much. Conversations do.

The truth is, we need both lecture and conversations. But we get lecture in the worship service. We get lecture in the sermon. Group time is about relationship building. It is about community. Discussion based teaching helps us do that.

David Francis, head of Sunday School for Lifeway Christian Resources, told me that according to their research, in most churches Sunday School is not a small group time at all. It is a mid-sized group time. It is a stand-and-deliver-a-lecture time. It is sit-in-straight-rows-and-listen-to-a-talk. It is mini-sermon time.

If this is true, it follows that many believers have never really experienced group life. They have experienced sit-in-straight-rows-and-listen-to-a-lecture, but they have not experienced group life. They have not experienced one another life. The skillful use of good questions helps us create group life.

Relationships are about conversations. Good questions create conversations. Good questions make class interesting. Good questions stimulate life-change. Good questions create community. 

Fun and games have limited usefulness with adults

By fun and games I mean everything from watching a video to acting out a drama to cutting pictures out of magazines to listening to songs to taking a field trip. It is everything we do that is creative and unusual.

Some of this is great. Variety is the spice of life. It makes group life fun. . . to a point. But, I think you can do too much of this with adults. Too much and adults get to feeling like, “Where is the beef?” I am not sure that kids would ever feel this way, but adults will.

Admittedly, this is rarely a problem. It is rarely a problem that groups are too creative, too lively, or too much fun. But, my point is that these creative elements make a good garnish for the lesson, but a poor entrée.

I remember attending a retreat once where the leaders had us listening to secular songs and comparing the theology of these songs to what we understood to be biblical theology. They had even printed out the words to make it easier for us. It was fun for a while. It was interesting and helpful for the first song or two, but we did this for an hour or more. After while, I got to feeling, like, “Does anyone around here have a Bible? Any chance we could open the Bible and read a bit and talk about what it means to us and how we could apply it to our lives?”

I think most adults are this way. We are O.K. with doing some creative activities. Some. Some creative activities. We will go along for a time. But, after a time, we want someone to open the Bible and get into it.


Good questions strike a happy balance between lecture and fun and games

Good questions have groups talking. Good questions are interesting. Good questions challenge they way we think. Good questions challenge the way we live. Good questions guide us off the broad way into the narrow way. Good questions challenge our assumptions. Good questions help us get to know one another. They test our knowledge. They create community. Good questions are the best bread-and-butter way to teach adults.

There is a place for lecture. When an expert is in the room we do well to lecture. In short bursts lecture can be effective. But not too much.

There is a place for creative activities. There is a place for the unusual. But, enough is enough. 

Good questions are the core, the centerpiece, the meat and potatoes of good teaching in a small group or Sunday School class.

From Good Questions Have Groups Talking: the book.