Years ago my brother-in-law, a pastor of a smaller church in Garland, Texas, called me to tell me about a problem that he was dealing with. His church, which didn’t have many guests over the course of a year, had a visiting family that actually attended age-appropriate Sunday School groups before they attended the church’s worship service (normally people visit worship first, then a Bible study group).
Ron, my brother-in-law, noticed the visiting family while he was preaching. He determined to meet them immediately after the worship service to say thanks for visiting, and to invite them back for next week’s service. The father thanked Ron for his sermon and the hospitality, but told him he and his family would not be coming back to the church. Why? The answer shocked my brother-in-law and caused him to call me, seeking help:
The Sunday School teacher read the lesson to the group directly from the curriculum materials.
Before the family had ever experienced worship or heard a sermon, they decided not to return based on an experience in the Sunday School. The teacher, well-meaning as he was, accidentally ran off a potential new family because of the way he taught (or didn’t teach) his group.
Over the course of leading training conferences for Bible study teachers, I’ve heard about other teachers doing something similar – reading from their Leader Guide, or reading large portions of the PSG (Personal Study Guide). This is why I lead workshops on using the 8 ways people learn (verbal, visual, relational, reflective, natural, physical, musical, and logical).
If you are a teacher who tends to drift toward reading a lesson to your group, please consider the following reasons why that is not a strong approach to engaging your group in Bible study:
- It ignores the other 7 learning approaches – Every Bible study group has people who are wired by God to learn differently. Each of us prefers to process information in one or two of the ways listed above (I am a visual/logical learner myself). A verbal approach to teaching, like reading large portions of the Personal Study Guide, is enjoyable to a verbal learner, but not to everyone else. If this approach were used by a teacher in a group where I was a member, I’d quickly find myself looking for reasons to attend a different group.
- It’s boring – It’s hard enough to deliver a compelling, interesting lecture to a group. But when your face is buried in study materials and you are simply reading large sections to group members, you lose their attention quickly. People’s attention spans are short today, shorter than they used to be, and their attention is always running away. It’s the job of the group leader to capture attention and bring learners back to the Bible study before their minds drift.
- People can read – Your group members don’t need you to read to them – they can do that for themselves! Reading to adults feels juvenile, and in the case of the family that visited my brother-in-law’s church, it was the primary reason the father decided not to return the following week.
- It proves you don’t really know how to guide Bible study – The old adage is true: “You tend to get only one chance to impress.” A teacher who reads to his or her group members demonstrates a lack of understanding about the need for a variety of educational approaches when presenting a lesson and guiding Bible study. It also shows laziness in the preparation stage; if I’m going to read a lot to my group, I don’t have to use my God-given creativity, nor do I have to think about how to engage the people in my group in active Bible study. Ultimately, it shows that I haven’t been trained well, and it reflects poorly on my church.
For now I won’t get into my other pet peeve – teachers who sit behind little desks to teach! In some places, Sunday School has a bad reputation for being boring, and teachers who sit behind small desks like school teachers from the 1940s aren’t helping the cause! It is much better for a teacher to sit among his or her learners than to sit behind a desk or to stand behind a large pulpit-like lectern. But I digress. Back to the subject at hand!
If you are a teacher who has fallen into the habit of reading to your group, then I would like to suggest you try a few things:
- Learn more about the variety of learning approaches you can use to engage your people in active Bible study. Pick up a copy of the book 7 Kinds of Smart, which details the various approaches to learning you might use to teach your group members.
- Read chapter 1 of the book David Francis and I co-authored, 3 Roles For Guiding Groups. In the first chapter, the one on the role of Teacher, we address the need for a variety of learning approaches when the group gathers for Bible study.
- Follow your Leader Guide. I can’t stress this one enough! I can’t speak for other Bible study providers, but in my role at LifeWay, we always seek to create easy-to-use teaching plans that employ a variety of learning approaches. Simply follow the instructions, and you’ll do a good job leading an engaging Bible study session!
- Use the PSG (Personal Study Guide) wisely. As I teach my Bible study group weekly, I direct them to the PSG, but I don’t read it to them. I might say something like, “The author says something compelling on p.95 – please read the second paragraph silently, and then we’ll discuss it.” That’s a perfectly valid way to use the PSG without reading large portions to my adult group members.
- Ask for help and training. There’s no reason to get frustrated and quit teaching your group – just get better! Raise your hand and reach out to your pastor or other staff leader and ask for help in becoming a better Bible study leader. They may have resources available to help you, and if not, they can find them and help you become a better-trained group leader.
- Get outside your comfort zone. Like I said earlier, we tend to gravitate to one or two learning approaches, and as a teacher, those tend to become the ones I use all the time to teach my group. If I lean heavily toward a verbal approach to learning and have become that teacher who reads to my group, I must (and I repeat, must) get comfortable trying other approaches to learning, even if they aren’t my favorite ones. Someone in the group needs me to teach them in a way they prefer. So even if I feel like relational activities are “dumb,” I’m going to commit to trying them occasionally, breaking my group down into even smaller groups to answer a key question or to engage in an activity.