Teach Principles, Not Points (part 1)

Years ago a friend recommended a book to me by Dr. John Bisagno.  The book, Letters to Timothy, was Dr. Bisagno’s way of writing advice to younger pastors, giving fatherly advice from his years spent in ministry.  One of the chapters focused on a change he made in his preaching, and I adopted this in the Sunday School ministry of the churches I served, teaching adult leaders how to teach principles, not points, in the Sunday School classroom.  I later expanded that message and taught it in conferences and workshops all over the country, and everywhere I spoke I saw teachers become excited about how they might be able to more fully engage their learners in the Bible study process.

Dr. Bisagno said, ““I consider this to be a very important part of my preaching ministry.  I learned it from Rick Warren some years ago and believed it so firmly that I made a conscious decision to change my preaching style.  I consider it simple but profound:  The outline should consist of principles, not points.”  (p.157)

Why not teach a point-centered lesson?  Most teachers do.  What’s the big deal?  Consider Dr. Bisagno’s thoughts about teaching points:
1.Points are predictable
2.Predictable tends to turn off the listener
3.Points don’t inspire or capture the imagination
Case in point:  Have you ever listened to a sermon and raced ahead to fill in the pastor’s outline?  Sure you have!  Point-driven messages are very predictable, and once you’ve filled in the blanks and know where the guy is going, it’s easy to let the mind wander to such important questions like, “I wonder what’s for lunch?”, “Did I set the DVR to record the game?”, and “I wonder if we’ll have food in Sunday School today…I’m starving!”
Consider these 3 reasons to change the way you teach and use principles to outline the lesson:
1.Principles grab people’s attention
2.Principles apply to people in every culture
3.Principles capture the imagination and are inspirational
Now, how does this look in real life?  How would I change my point-driven outline, really?  Great question!  Let’s take a quick look at how you might teach/outline a study in Nehemiah chapter 1, for example.  You remember the background, right?  Nehemiah received word that Jerusalem’s walls and gates were torn down and the people were discouraged.  A point-driven outline might look like the following:
Point #1:  The pain of Nehemiah (he was grieved)
Point #2:  The prayer of Nehemiah (he reminded God of His promise to His people)
Point #3:  The place of Nehemiah (he was cupbearer to the king, and as such, an important court official)
Now, this is not a bad way to outline and walk a class of adult learners through Nehemiah chapter 1.  You’ll teach the Bible, the learners will learn something, and everyone will go away with new knowledge.  But is this the best way to teach?
A point-driven outline of the same chapter, one that would really grab learner’s attention and capture their hearts and imaginations as they apply it to their own lives, would look like this:
Principle #1:  We must all deal with life’s disappointments (Nehemiah got word from home that Jerusalem was in shambles and he was upset).  Have you ever received bad news you had to deal with?  Loss of a job, death of a loved one, been overlooked for a promotion?  We all have!  When you teach a point, people start applying it to their own lives.
Principle #2:  God doesn’t always answer our prayers immediately. Now there is a powerful principle!  Nehemiah sat around for days and prayed…and days turned into months…several months passed between his prayers in chapter 1 and the events of chapter 2 (and he was still praying).  Have you ever prayed about something, needed God to answer, but there was silence from heaven?  I think we’ve all been there, too…I know I have….and it’s good to know that a principle in Scripture is that yes, we have access to God and we can bring our concerns to Him, but even though He hears those prayers, it may be some time before he answers them.  It doesn’t mean He doesn’t love us, or that He is ignoring us, but that He is operating on His timetable.  Do you think the people in your class could relate to that? I bet so!
Principle #3:  Your prayers don’t have to be long and drawn out to be heard by God.  Remember in chapter 2 where Nehemiah, after praying for months about the situation in Jerusalem, finally has a chance to speak to King Artaxerxes?  The king asked him why his face was downcast, and the Bible says that Nehemiah “…prayed to the God of heaven…” before answering the king.   Now remember that Nehemiah is standing in front of the most powerful ruler in the ancient world, and he doesn’t have time to drop to his knees and go into a long, drawn-out prayer.  He has to answer his king quickly.  But because he’d prayed so much over the past months, he was “prayed up” and ready to speak to the king, so he  uttered a quick prayer to God (we don’t know if it is one he prayed silently, or if King Artaxerxes might have heard it).  Learners should understand they can utter a quick prayer to God at any time themselves…before a big presentation at work, before their son or daughter participates in an extracurricular event, or before they have to lay off a co-worker.  God hears…and has been hearing…their prayers.
Think your teachers might benefit from this blog post?  Pass it along, have them subscribe to it, and encourage them to start using principles in their Sunday School lessons!
In part 2 (I’ll release that later this week), I’ll wrap up this topic with some practical ways to put together principle-centered lessons.
If you have thoughts or ideas, share those with the rest of us here at the blog!  Thanks for dropping by and reading.

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