Modern definition: “The art of preaching.” Webster’s 1828 definition: “A branch of practical theology, which teaches the manner in which ministers of the gospel should adapt their discourses to the capacities of their hearers, and pursue the best methods of instructing them by their doctrines and examples.”
When you begin to think about teaching others, you should think about the times you were in the audience.
- What did you like? Why?
- What did you not like? Why?
- What do you remember from the teachings you have heard? Why do you remember those things?
- What made an impact on you? Why?
Chances are that the people in your audience will feel like you do about teachings and presentations. If you like something and it made an impact on you, make note of that and make it work for you. If you did not like something in a teacher or preacher, why subject others to it?
Choosing a topic:
- Teach the Word of God. The Bible is the literature of eternity. It is “living and active” (Heb. 4:12). The words of the Lord bring spiritual life (John 6:63). There are times when the Word of God does not need to be taught, but a weekly fellowship meeting or Sunday Service is not one of them. God speaks to the hearts of people when His Word is read.
- Have a point. A good teaching is like a straight pin or fishhook–it has a good point. What do you want your audience to “take home”? They will not remember everything, and if they remember only one point (which often is the case), what do you want it to be?
- Have a reason for what you are teaching, to whom you are teaching it, and when it is being presented. You might do a wonderful teaching on the husband-wife relationship, and make a great point, but if you are teaching to a group of teens in a juvenile delinquent home, your reason for picking the topic is questionable. The topic should be relevant to the people in some powerful way.
Stuck in choosing a topic?
Charles Spurgeon has a couple suggestions: “To the poor, stranded preacher, who cannot launch his mind…I recommend him in such as case, to turn again to the Word of God itself.” Many teachings have come to mind as ministers just went page-by-page through the Word of God, thinking and praying. Also Spurgeon suggests, “Read also good suggestive books, and get your mind aroused by them” (Lectures to My Students, pp. 92, 93).
If you are going to teach regularly, it is advisable to have a file with ideas in it. As you are reading and studying on a daily basis, and ideas come to you for teachings, keep them in the file. Also, people might come to you and ask you to teach on a specific subject, so keep those suggestions in your file.
Choosing a teaching style:
This is closely related to “Choosing a Topic” above. Three styles or types of teaching are: Topical teaching, Expository teaching, and Preaching.
A topical teaching centers on a topic (say, “thankfulness”) and follows that topic through many places in the Word. An expository teaching is based on a section of Scripture (say, Matthew 5) and expounds what it means. “Preaching” is less centered on the text and more centered on salvation, godliness, morality, etc., without reinforcing each point with a written scripture or explaining any particular verse.
The teaching style is not as important as having a point and purpose for what you are doing.
The best thing to remember about an opening is the phrase, “Tell them what you are going to teach, teach it, and then tell them what you taught.” A Bible teaching is not a mystery novel. It should not unfold and have an ending that surprises the listeners. If you try to do that you will lose many of them early on, and may not get them back. Let the people know up front what you are trying to communicate.
When you take the lectern, you may want to open with a prayer. That is fine, but not necessary. Similarly, you may want to close with a prayer, which is also sometimes appropriate, but not necessary. Never use your opening prayer for “crowd control,” i.e. to get a noisy audience to settle down. Prayer is holy communication with the Lord and should never be used for such base purposes! Buy a whistle if you need to get the crowd to quiet down, and use prayer as it is intended, to worship and bless the Lord.
The body of the message:
Go to any theological seminary library and you will find dozens of books that cover teaching and preaching. If you have never read any, reading one or two can be helpful. They cover many subjects, most of which are related to things that make a spoken message pleasant to listen to. It would be impossible and undesirable to turn this short work into a book on the many techniques of preparing the text of a sermon or teaching.
Teaching is more an art than a science. Even though you have 5 Bible verses, 4 personal incidents, 3 funny anecdotes, 2 famous quotations and a partridge in a pear tree, you may not have a good teaching. Books on preaching often do not say that God has given the gift ministry of a teacher to certain individuals in the Body of Christ. Furthermore, some people who may not be called as teachers in the Body teach better than others. Great teaching is a combination of natural ability, training, experience, and something that springs forth from the relationship between the teacher and the Master, who is Jesus Christ. Develop your relationship with the Lord, and you will find your teachings improve. Just because teaching is a natural ability does not mean that instruction and practice cannot improve it. They can. Also, someone who struggles with teaching can get better with instruction and practice.
On a practical note, remember that the body of the message contains the point you are trying to make and the reason you are making it. Develop, substantiate, and clarify them. After you outline your teaching, go back and reread it to see if the things in it all contribute to your point and purpose.
It is very important not to drag out the closing. When they come to the close of their sermon, many preachers and teachers suddenly lose confidence that they have delivered their message clearly, so they restate, reiterate, and recap ad nauseam. Close crisply. Remember, all of your recapping will not actually help the long term memory of the audience if your points were not delivered clearly in the body of the message.
Making the teaching live:
- If it does not live for you, it will not live for your audience. This is one reason why the character of the teacher is so integrally linked to the teaching. A minister who teaches about prayer, but does not pray, will find that his sermon sounds hollow, no matter how many verses he quotes. Good teachings flow from a knowledge of the Word together with an experiential knowledge of the subject.
- Use personal incidents. Third person stories are nice, but nothing has the power of a first person incident. Many times, long after the sermon, the only specific thing people remember is the personal incident.
- Make eye contact with individuals in the audience. It is very unnerving for an audience to feel “disconnected” from the teacher. The people in the audience came to hear you, and you are trying to influence them toward a closer walk with the Lord. Look at them. Let them know by your eye contact that they matter to you. Do not look out over the audience into space or bury your head in your outline.
The blessing of teaching:
You always learn more when you prepare a teaching and then teach it than you do if you just listen to the subject being taught.
Things to know:
- Your nervousness does not bother the audience nearly as much as it bothers you. Public speaking is very difficult for most people, and they empathize with someone who is nervous. Do not think it will ruin your teaching. It will not. If you have dry mouth, take a sip of water.
- Books on homiletics make a big deal out of openings and closings. “Cute,” “cool,” or “well planned” openings and closings can be nice, but they are not nearly as powerful as warmth, openness, and honestly. You are delivering the sermon and presenting yourself at the same time. If you are bringing Christ to the audience in your way of being, that is much better than any so-called “effective opening” (that is not to say that they are necessarily exclusive). Bring Christ to your listeners and they will have all they need.
- The way you live your life conditions the minds of your audience. The Word you present has a greater impact if they know that you live it. Remember the words of Edgar A. Guest:
Sermons We See
I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day;
I’d rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way.
The eye’s a better pupil and more willing than the ear,
Fine counsel is confusing, but example’s always clear;
And the best of all the preachers are the men who live their creeds,
For to see good out in action is what everybody needs.
I soon can learn how to do it if you’ll let me see it done;
I can watch your hands in action, but your tongue too fast may run.
And the lecture you deliver may be very wise and true,
But I’d rather get my lessons by observing what you do.
For I might misunderstand you and the high advice you give,
But there’s no misunderstanding how you act and how you live.
Edgar A. Guest.
If your audience perceives you as a hypocrite, they will tune you out or even be irritated at your teaching. John Wesley, the famous preacher and teacher, said this to one of his students whose ministry lacked power: “Your temper is uneven; you lack love for your neighbors. You grow angry too easily; your tongue is too sharp—thus the people will not hear you” (Bryan Chapell, Christ Centered Preaching, p. 29). A teacher of the Word is always teaching, so be Christ-like in your life.
Things to avoid:
- Avoid teaching to please people. It is always great to finish a teaching and look at a sea of smiling faces, but the minister’s desire should be to please Christ and deliver the message the Lord wants delivered. Sometimes this will bless, sometimes convict, sometimes anger (if people are not responsive). Do not get caught up in people pleasing and getting a rush from knowing the audience is emotionally charged. This is not to say that getting feedback about your teaching from the people is unimportant.
- Avoid wrongly handling the Word of God. This usually happens when we do not do our homework on a subject or we try to teach “something new.” There is a time to teach things that are “new,” but there is still safety in a multitude of counselors. If you are breaking new ground in the Word of God, that particular teaching can wait a few weeks while you get with other knowledgeable ministers and check out in more detail what you are going to say.
- Avoid going too long. People remember less if they get tired and tune out the teaching.
- Avoid boring people. Even short teachings can be boring. Make sure your subject gets the attention of the audience. The golden rule of teaching is to have something worth hearing.
- Avoid being overly upset if people remember little or nothing about what you said. Most people, you included, have heard hundreds and even thousands of teachings in a decade. How many have you heard? How many of those do you remember anything specific about? If someone remembers one thing from your teaching six months down the road, be thankful. The bare fact is that most people listen to sermons to get impressions and feelings. They come to church feeling “down,” and get a boost from the teaching. They remember the boost and that they were blessed to listen, but they often do not remember specifics about the teaching. That is just life. People’s short memory is also a reason to expound the meaning of verses in the Word. If your teaching helps a person understand what the Bible is saying, he will tend to remember that information down the road.
- Avoid any language, examples, humor, or stories that are inappropriate. Know your audience. If you do not know them, do not take risks with jokes, stories, etc., that might be misinterpreted. The minister of the Gospel exhibits love and the fruit of the spirit; he is good and kind.
- Avoid inappropriate or distracting clothing. Obviously, this includes immodest clothing that draws people’s attention to your body and not to Christ. However, it includes bold pinstripes or dots that make the audience’s eyes tired when they look at you. It includes clothing that does not fit the venue, such as soiled clothes in a nice setting, or jeans in a “coat and tie” church.
- Avoid getting a “swelled head” if everything goes right and people are blessed and delivered. Yes, the teaching was the catalyst for people’s deliverance, and you did bring the message, but the work in the heart is the Lord’s. He is the true deliverer. On the other hand, you need to recognize the work you did and accept people’s compliments or thanks in a gracious way, not with, “It wasn’t me, it was the Lord.” If it wasn’t you, then why did you teach? The Bible says that we are co-workers with the Lord (1 Cor. 3:9). Give the Lord credit for his part, and take credit for your part.
- Avoid including too much in your teaching. It is a teaching, not a book, and people cannot put you on “pause” to organize their thoughts as they can when they are reading a book. Too much detail or extraneous information will actually cause people to lose the point you are making. One of the common sources for the “too much detail” mistake is that when you are preparing the teaching you see something in the Word that you have never seen before. Naturally, that is exciting. Since teaching preparation generally includes at least ten times more information than the teaching itself, it is common that the teacher sees more than he will present. Do not give in to the urge to teach all the “new things” (or even old things) that you have seen just because they are exciting to you. If they fit naturally into the presentation, great. Many times they do not. Remember, a teaching is not about what excites you, it is about communicating Christ to the listeners.
- Avoid thinking that the subject of your message has to always be “by revelation.” If you walk hand-in-hand with the Lord and pray, he can give you the selection of your teaching by revelation. But sometimes he leaves the choice up to your wisdom (look around you and pay attention). Charles Spurgeon, one of the greatest pulpiteers Christendom has ever known, and a teacher of many ministers and pastors, wrote: “We ought to be always in training for text-getting and sermon-making. We should constantly preserve the holy activity of our minds. Woe to the minister who dares to waste an hour. A man who goes up and down from Monday morning till Saturday night, and indolently dreams that he is to have his text sent down by an angelic messenger in the last hour or two of the week, tempts God, and deserves to stand speechless on the Sabbath.” (C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students p. 93).
- Avoid teaching with a “holy voice.” It so happens that when some people preach they change their voice to make it “holier” or whatever. Speak like you normally talk.
Some areas of concern:
- Avoid making the notes you teach from too detailed. It is helpful for starting students to outline their teachings and list the scriptures they will use. This will give a comforting framework to the teaching. However, be careful of writing too much out. When you are teaching it can be very difficult to find your place in a paragraph of written information. More than one minister standing behind the lectern has been completely mystified as he scanned paragraph after paragraph looking for a certain note buried there, only to find it easily after the sermon was over. When you are in front of the audience, outlines and bullet points are easier to work with.
- Avoid raising your voice to the audience and “yelling” at them, especially reproof. There are times when passion is appropriate, but it is usually more harmful than helpful.
- Watch your language. “Potty mouth” is almost never appropriate. Get a vocabulary builder and work on developing the art of expressing yourself powerfully and appropriately. Get in touch with your feelings and use language that expresses them without using foul language.
- Gesturing. Making your teaching come alive by being “into it” physically as well as verbally is very important. However, gesturing can also distract from what you are saying, because people naturally get more information from the eye than from the ear. If you are turning your teaching into a stage event with gesturing and gyrations, you may find that after the teaching the people do not remember what you said, but only what you did.
- Regaining attention. For all sorts of reasons (the most common of which is that you have taught too long), you may “feel” the energy in the room drop. People do not seem to be paying as close attention, some are doodling, a few are sleeping, a child is getting restless, etc. It is usually a mistake at that point to try to “reenergize” the room and get everyone’s attention again so they can hear the last of your teaching. Close things out quickly and reserve the rest of the information for the next time. In plain language: when you feel the energy in the room drop, Stop!
- Know your subject. It is much better to teach a well known and well loved subject like Daniel and the lion’s den (and pray for ways to make the lesson sink into the hearts of the people) than to find something in the Word you do not know much about, such as Jotham’s fable, and try to put together a teaching from that text. The teacher of the Word spends time in the Word regularly. Read your Bible! Your teaching ministry will naturally expand as you grow in your knowledge and understanding of the Bible and biblical matters.
- Pray for insight into the text and how to communicate to the people. Prayer works. The verses in the text have been around a long time, and unless you are teaching a group of new Christians, they will have already heard the verses you are using. Do not avoid the well-known and well-loved verses, but pray for ways to communicate them that will touch the hearts of your particular audience.
- Practice reading out loud. It is amazing how many preachers and teachers stumble when they read. Get alone and practice. And while you are doing that, practice pronouncing the names and places that are in the Bible. Reading from the first ten chapters of 1 Chronicles can really help in this area.
- Good biblical presentation requires a good sense of timing, enunciation, pronunciation, tone, vocabulary, etc. One good way to practice timing and tone is to tell jokes, because doing so successfully requires a sense of timing and tone, and also requires you to tune into the listener to see if he is listening and understanding. I have rarely met a good teacher who cannot tell a joke. Another thing to do is to practice reading out loud stories and records that have multiple speakers (plays are a good source for that). Can you make the characters live? Can you properly capture the timing of what they are saying? Remember, you are going to present the literature of eternity to people, many of whom love the Lord, so any preparation that will help you be effective is very important. You can make the text come alive as you read, or you can kill it with a monotone voice and mispronounced and slurred words.
“Extras” to the teaching:
- Music: A powerful song before, during, or immediately after the teaching can be a blessing in some circumstances. Music usually elicits strong emotion. Remember, however, emotion is not the main goal of a teacher. This point can almost get lost in today’s world of, “I want to hear a teaching that makes me feel good.” Teaching and preaching the Word of God should produce change in a person’s life, to the end that those who hear think and act more like Christ. It is nice if a person feels good after hearing a teaching, but sometimes personal change, commitment, and godliness are the result of introspection and tough decisions, and these may not “feel good” at first. It is later that the person experiences “a harvest of righteousness and peace” (Heb. 12:11). If a song and the accompanying emotion will help drive the point of the teaching home, wonderful. However, an emotional song that gets people away from “decision mode” and into “feeling mode” can often derail a powerful teaching and keep it from bringing people to the point of making tough decisions.
- Maps, charts, “PowerPoint,” overheads, etc. These can be very helpful, especially if the teaching is technical in nature. Be careful not to let the chart do the teaching for you or be so stuck on the chart that you cannot deviate from it. That is a major drawback to programs like PowerPoint. The very nature of the program can determine the course of the teaching. Know what you have on your PowerPoint well enough that you can make it a part of your teaching, and not have it make you an accessory.
- Handing out outlines, teaching notes, etc. This can be very helpful if the topic is more technical or involved, or if there are definitions, Greek words, or lists that will be covered quickly. As with PowerPoint in #2 above, the danger in giving the audience an outline is that the teaching can quickly become a recitation of the outline. If it does, it will be dry and boring.
Remember: we plant and water, but God gives the increase. So do your best to have God’s blessing on your life and ministry. Live in a godly manner. Avoid even the appearance of evil. “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (1 Pet. 3:12).