Last week I mentioned that when it comes to teaching we cannot continue as we are. Teachers are the tongues of the church. Even though they comprise a small part of the congregation, relative to the number of students, what they say and teach carries a great deal of weight within the congregation. So how do we improve our teaching? The answer is time, tools, and training.
It takes time to be a great teacher. It goes without saying that the longer you teach, the more you should improve in your teaching. It is not unusual for beginning teachers to struggle, so give it time. Yet this is not the investment of time to which I refer.
Study Time –
Again, it goes without saying that teachers should spend time in study. Great teachers do not cram. They are disciplined and calculated. Great teachers are great planners. They are able to say “no” to things that threaten time in study. Life is full of interruptions. Yet even then a great teacher is able to manage his time in such a way that time lost to interruption is somehow regained later on. I will talk more about study in a later post.
As a pastor on a constant schedule of producing material I have found that the greatest time I spend preparing through the week is not in study, but in what I call “incubation.” Incubation is the time a teacher spends allowing what he or she has studied to seethe in the soul and intersect with life. It is not time in a book, it is time in the car. It is time over coffee. It is time in conversation. It is time grilling with the family. If a teacher will commit himself to study early, he will be amazed at how many great thoughts about the upcoming lecture or lesson will be birthed at odd and unexpected moments. Be sure then to have a notepad handy. Or in the digital age, to have your smartphone handy. My iPhone is full of notes born during incubation, at odd moments in the day.
The late Stephen Olford once taught preaching students the concept of “incarnational preaching.” His idea was that sermons must be conceived in the soul of the preacher much like Jesus was conceived in Mary. Literally, the Word must have time to incubate, to grow to full maturity before it can be born in health.
In his biography of James A. Bryan (1863-1941), pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL for 52 years, Hunter Blakely shares that “Brother Bryan” as he was affectionately known, had very few books in his personal library. Though a Princeton graduate, Brother Bryan’s habit was not to spend a great deal of time in books, but rather with people. He would give himself to study of the passage he was to preach early on Monday morning. He would then spend the rest of the week talking about it in conversation in a street car or as a devotional piece for firemen or at the dedication of the opening of the new factory. In this way the passage had ample time to incubate in the pastor’s soul and to intersect with daily life before it was birthed in full health before the congregation on Sunday.
For a Sunday Sermon I try to finish my exegesis of the passage (the book work) by Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday morning at the latest. I then try to talk through the passage (usually with my wife) or to use something from the passage in conversation a few times through the week. It is in these conversations that I usually have my “aha” moments when it all comes together.
Poor teachers begin their preparation at a time that should be dedicated to finalization. It is in the process of finalization that we give ourselves to prayerfully asking, “How will anything I have studied this week make a ‘hill of beans’ difference in the lives of any of my hearers?” Or if you are less Southern fried than I, a more proper question may be, “What difference does it make?” It is here that the teacher will find that his or her most difficult task is to trim down and cut away great notes and nuggets that may be wonderful truths, but are not necessary for the moment. It is hard to say to these great notes, quotes, and stories, “Not this week.”
Great teachers teach from an overflow. They always have way too much. We do not put lessons together to merely “fill time.” We aim to teach well because someone is graciously giving us “their time.”
During finalization you are trimming down, bringing cohesiveness to your lesson, and developing a strategy to drive home the point. Great sermons and lessons bring the hearer to a verdict. They not only share information, but they make an argument. If ample time is given to study early in the week, incubation throughout the week, the process of finalization will be an experience of joy without pressure. Here we are not trying to produce a lesson, we are merely trying to refine our argument.
Start early in the week. Do the academic work it requires to be a great teacher, but also be sure to give the passage time to incubate in your soul. Great lessons are not conceived on desks, but in the course of daily life, in conversation, during interruption, in the most unexpected moments. The culminating act of preparation should not be cramming, but finalization. Great teachers do not aim to “share it all” but to “share the best.” Great communicators make an argument and drive the hearer to a verdict.