Teaching Essentials

By James M. Rochford

Picture3Good Bible teaching plays an integral role in the health of the Body of Christ. When a group is struggling with morale, it is important to have the best teachers up in front of the group every week. Less gifted teachers should be willing to teach less, so that the stronger or more experienced teachers can teach more. While this is sometimes a shot to the pride, everyone on the leadership team should be willing to put the needs of the group above their own personal desire to teach. It’s always exciting to have your non-Christian guest out to hear a great teaching. Likewise, it’s painful to have a friend visit when the teaching quality is poor.

Basics of Teaching

Good Bible teaching consists of several basic principles. As you prepare to teach, read through your passage, jot down notes, ask good questions of the text, read commentaries, and listen to a teaching on the topic. After you’ve done your study (see Hermeneutics and Inductive Bible Study), start to think in terms of how to present your material.

1. Memorable Main Message

If your audience was to forget everything else that you said, what is the one single thing that you would want them to remember? Karia writes, “By the time your audience leaves your presentation, they’ve forgotten 20% of what you said. The following day, they’ve forgotten 50% of your message. Within four days, they’ve lost 80% of your message.”[1] If you asked a friend what your teaching was about, could they answer in just a few short words?

Consider Martin Luther King’s speech “I Have a Dream.” You might forget many of the details about this talk, but you will always remember this memorable phrase that captures the main message. The key to a memorable main message is to make it catchy without making it corny. Otherwise, you might sound condescending or manipulative. Here are a few memorable main messages:

Spiritual Warfare: “The battlefield is in your mind.”

Sanctification: “God changes lives.”

Apologetics: “Faith is not wishful thinking.”

Suffering: “Growing or groaning with God.”

While your teaching may have many points, distill your topic into one memorable phrase or quote that will lodge in the memory of your listeners. You can often derive your memorable main message from the text (“Why this waste?”).

2. Antithesis

The most boring teachings often fail to develop a strong antithesis. Without a strong antithesis, our teaching will sound like Sunday school class. Predictable. Routine. Boring! When the listener senses that two perspectives are fighting over control of their lives, it creates tension and demands us to pick a side. To develop a strong antithesis, consider these questions:

What would happen if our homechurch never adopted this biblical concept? What would we expect to see breaking down around us? What effects would this have on us?

What would motivate Christians NOT to follow God’s word in this area? What false beliefs do they have concerning this portion of God’s truth?

Picture someone who has disagreed with this biblical principle (either actively or passively). How would I persuade them that the Bible is true on this point? How would I argue my case with them?

There are a number of ways to build a strong antithesis, including (1) using a white board with two separate columns, (2) research your opposing view and use statistics and quotes, (3) play devil’s advocate, and (4) read common song lyrics, slogans, movies, TV shows, advertisements.

3. Discussion

Discussion is the premier way to teach a homechurch or cell group. In fact, even gifted lecturers will often point out that they prefer to teach through discussion on the homechurch level. There are some basic principles to teaching through discussion that should be considered:

Steer away from personal examples. If you ask for personal examples, it takes a while for people to share. It feels like pulling teeth. Instead, ask for abstract application in the third person. When you do this, you’ll find that people end up sharing personal examples. Compare these two questions: (1) How has servant love changed your life? (2) How do you think servant love would change someone’s life? Isn’t the second question immediately easier to answer than the first?

Steer away from thesis questions. When people discuss the thesis, it feels like Sunday school. By discussing the antithesis, the thesis becomes clearer. As the teacher, you can teach on the thesis. Let your audience discuss the antithesis. Compare these two questions:

(1) What will happen if a believer learns to become a servant?

(2) What will happen if a believer never learns to become a servant?

Isn’t the second question easier to answer than the first?

Infuse the discussion with PASSION—not PASSIVITY. Discussion teachers need to drive the discussion by bringing passion and zeal. Passion will typically not come from the audience; it needs to come from the teacher. In one sense, the leader is over the discussion, while in another, she is in the discussion. On one hand the leader is listening, but on the other they are leading. If a lot of hands are raised, you should typically talk less, so others can talk more. If the group is quiet, do your best to infuse passion into the room through your interactions with others. Know your tendency: If you are naturally passive, you should make a mental note to bring extra enthusiasm. If you are extroverted and talkative, make sure to not give mini-lectures in the middle of your discussion! This will bring the momentum of the discussion to a halt.

Write your questions out verbatim. Edit them to make them as short as possible. Long, convoluted questions are confusing. It is often helpful to email your discussion questions to your coleaders before you teach, so they can help in crafting provocative discussion questions.

Strong Types of Discussion Questions

Avoid “recitation questions” that ask for basic facts or information (e.g. “What are people’s idols in our culture?” or “What are some things that people are afraid of?”). These questions are not provocative, because they are too easy to answer. Instead, consider these types of questions below:

Heretical Questions: Suggest a hypothetical (or real) Devil’s Advocate interpretation. Search through liberal commentaries, emergent books, new age books, cultic interpretations, or fundamentalist websites. For example, read a quote from Joel Osteen that says we should serve ourselves, or a quote from Richard Dawkins that says religion is the root of all evil. Encourage the group to assess the truth of the statement.

Cultural Questions: Study where your culture is suffering (e.g. anxiety, depression, isolation, loneliness, broken relationships, divorce, etc.). Have your audience suggest causes for why people are hurting (e.g. wanting to isolate self, self-centered, materialism, etc.). Try and get your audience to uncover the needs of your culture. You might ask, “I recently read that more people live alone now than ever before… Why do you think this is the case?”

‘Why Would God’ Questions: Ask your group why God operates in a certain way. This gets us to draw out the indicatives. You might ask, “Why would God call on us to do this? Is it because he is sadistic or controlling?”

Hypothetical Questions: Ask your group what you would expect to see in a believer, if they were NOT practicing or believing this truth in their life. What would be the symptoms of this spiritual disease? You might ask, “If someone failed to believe God in this area, what would you see? In other words, if they had this spiritual disease, what subtle or blatant symptoms would you expect to see in their life?”

Compare and Contrast Questions: Ask your group to explain the similarities and differences between two concepts. It’s especially useful to utilize the white board for this. For instance, you might ask, “What is the difference between being a servant and being a doormat that gets walked all over?” or “What are the similarities and differences between godly leadership and worldly leadership?

Harmonization Questions: Find another passage in the Bible that appears to contradict this passage. Hold the two at tension and force the group to harmonize the two. You might ask, “How can God give us the desires of our heart (Ps. 37:4) if our hearts are deceitful and sick (Jer. 17:10)?”

Counseling Questions: Suggest a scenario where you need to counsel a younger Christian. Invent a scenario that would stumble or mislead a young Christian. You might ask, “If a younger Christian was struggling with serving, how would you counsel them? What questions would you ask them?”

‘What Would Happen’ Questions: These are good questions to close the teaching on, because they generate urgency. For instance, “What would happen to a believer if they never learned to model this truth in their life? What effect would this have on those around them?”

Email your discussion questions out to your coleaders a day in advance, so that they can give you feedback. This will also help members to come prepared to the meeting (Heb. 10:24).

4. Burden

Some Bible teachers claim that burden is the most important aspect of teaching. Burden gives your teaching electricity and power. This gives us an ability to preach and not just teach. A day before your teaching, pray quietly before God. After you’re done preparing the teaching, pray over your outline. If you do not finish far enough in advance, you will have no time to develop a strong burden. Ask God:

How has this truth impacted me?

Why do the people in my group need to hear this teaching?

How will the church suffer if they don’t understand this message?

What about this material is going to pierce someone’s heart?

Think through specific people in your church, and ask what would happen if they never grasped this truth in their own lives.

5. Storytelling

Storytelling adds a lot to teaching. It helps abstract content become practical; it is memorable; it helps recapture your audience’s attention if they are fading. It’s amazing to see how your audience will regain interest and focus when you tell a good story.

Tell embarrassing stories about your own mistakes. These break down self-righteous barriers between the teacher and the audience. This is an excellent way to teach younger Christians. As the teacher or leader, they look up to you. When they hear a story about how this passage applied to your life, it can be very powerful for them grasping and owning your central message or application. Make sure not to glorify yourself in the story. It’s better to share how you struggled with this principle, and how someone around you applied this well (e.g. your spouse, roommate, friend, etc.).

Utilize vicarious teaching. Tell stories about people from your past that learned (or failed to learn) the principle of this passage.

Tell stories that create mental movies.[2] Good storytelling engages your senses. You can see the scene, hear the sounds, and feel the emotions of story. It’s better to be specific, than general, in storytelling.

Don’t say, “I gave my life to Christ a few years ago…” Instead say, “I gave my life to Christ on April 4, 2012…”

Don’t say, “He was really angry…” Instead say, “His face turned red, veins burst from his neck, and his voice was trembling as he spoke…”

Avoid “thought” verbs. As in good fiction or narrative, eliminating thought verbs (e.g. thinks, knows, realizes, wants, remembers, etc.) helps show what happened, rather than telling them what happened. Author Chuck Palaniuk explains:

Instead of saying: “Adam knew Gwen liked him.” You’ll have to say: “Between classes, Gwen had always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it. She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume. The combination lock would still be warm from her butt. And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”

Tell stories that are not predictable. Stories usually end with a lesson or punchline. Keep your audience guessing where things are headed. The listener should not know where the story is going, and the ending should surprise them.

6. Analogies

Analogies help people to understand abstract theological concepts, and they are often very memorable for learners. Jesus and the apostles taught through analogies or parables often.

Read and study good authors, who illustrate well. Read authors like C.S. Lewis, Watchman Nee, and Tim Keller. They are great on analogies and illustrations.

Keep a record of good illustrations and analogies. The Bible teachers at our church are excellent on analogies. Whenever you hear a good one, write it down. Save these in a Word document for later teachings, or just write it in the margin of your Bible.

Get help. Give your analogies to a friend before you teach. Ask them to help sharpen your illustrations.

Keep them simple. If you need to explain the analogy for too long, it might not be a good analogy! It’s supposed to be easier than the abstract, theological concept itself.

7. Humor

Humor helps the listener feel like they have entered a fun atmosphere, rather than a boring lecture. Humor helps us to bond with the teacher, making them less intimidating. It alleviates tension, especially when covering difficult content. Moreover, if you feel like you’re losing your audience, humor can reclaim their attention.

Work your humor into your storytelling or your illustrations

You could say that one sin is similar to squeezing one drop of poison into a glass of water, poisoning the entire drink. This is a good illustration, but not very funny. Instead, you might say that one sin is like squeezing off one torpedo of poop into a pool, ruining a hot summer day for everyone.

Set-up an expectation and then break it

A “set-up” in comedy is how you prepare your punchline. Karia writes, “A comment is humorous when it creates an expectation and then suddenly breaks it. We laugh when we are surprised. This is why we usually burst into laughter when we see someone suddenly trip and fall on their face. It was unexpected—it was a surprise—and it causes us to laugh.”[3] Most humor comes from an unexpected punchline.

“My grandmother would always bake me cookies and tell me stories about actors and singers from the 1950’s. I would think, ‘Wow! If I was born during the Great Depression, this would be really interesting!’”

“In Joshua 5, God called the soldiers to be circumcised… You could imagine Joshua yelling, ‘You got your swords?’ (YEAH!) ‘You got your shields?’ (YEAH!) ‘You guys still got your foreskins?’ (YEA… Wait… What was that last one again?)”

Make fun of yourself

Some of the best humor can also be some of the most offensive if you’re not careful. By making fun of yourself, you eliminate the risk of offending your listener. Karia writes, “Self-deprecating humor refers to making yourself the butt of the jokes. If you’re willing to make fun of yourself, you’ll never run out of humorous possibilities.”[4] This can be accomplished through embarrassing stories or details about your life—made funny.

“I’m so bad with directions that I can get lost walking from the living room to the bathroom.”

“I was born with these big, bug eyes… I’ve been told that I look like Arnold Schwarzenegger… in that scene from Total Recall when he’s exposed to the Martian atmosphere without his space suit.”

Exaggerate or embellish stories

The best humor comes from not looking like you’re trying to be funny. Exaggeration lets your audience know that you’re kidding without committing yourself to telling a joke.

Exaggerate people’s reactions (“They had that look on their face like they were trying to pass a kidney stone or something” or “My first teaching was so bad that I curled up in the fetal position and cried for hours”).

Exaggerate people’s weaknesses or abilities (“I was so strong that I could curl those green plastic weights six or seven times in a row… without taking a break” or “She was talking so fast that I thought I might have to perform an exorcism on her”).

Exaggerate people’s optimism or pessimism (“I was at a wedding recently… When I told people I teach the Bible for a living, they said, ‘Why did I get stuck at your table? I was really looking forward to a great night out, and now I’m stuck with you!”).

Make cultural allusions

Comedians spend most of their time making cultural references. It helps the audience know that you are engaged in culture, and you see the world the same way. In our culture, it is also commonplace to pick on celebrities, so you don’t run the risk of unnecessarily offending a listener:

“Here is a picture of Judge Judy… This is the first picture in recorded history of her smiling… Seriously, it’s easier to get a picture of Sasquatch.”

“The hatred between these two groups was awful… It was almost worse than Mac and PC users today.”

“Following the law is impossible… It would be easier to fit 40 people into a Smart Car.”

“My friend looked so depressed and discouraged that for a second I thought he might have just come from watching a Cleveland Browns game.”

Use funny comparisons (similes or metaphors)

Good similes and metaphors make us laugh because they’re clever and unexpected. These are also good for humor, because they’re quick comments—not long and drawn out jokes. This helps you keep to your content, so you’re not wasting time on humor:

“This guy was so Type-A that he made Arnold Schwarzenegger seem like Michael Cera.”

“The guy was so boring to listen to… He sounded like Ben Stein… on Nyquil.”

“The reunion was so tense that it felt like an episode out of The Walking Dead.”

“This guy looked crazy… He scared me almost as much as Gary Busey… Almost.”

“It was so awkward to be in the same room with the guy after our conflict… You could hear a pin drop… It felt like watching an R-rated movie with your grandmother.”

Warnings regarding humor

(1) Don’t offend your listeners for the sake of humor. The point of humor in Bible teaching is to connect with your listener—not alienate them.

(2) Don’t allow humor to become a narcissistic endeavor to glorify yourself. You’re only using humor to draw people in—not to be a comedian!

(3) Don’t let humor become distracting. Insecure teachers will use humor to lighten the conviction of a passage. Resist doing this! Don’t diffuse what the Holy Spirit could be doing through the Word just to crack a joke.

(4) The best humor is that which connects to the passage that you’re teaching. This is especially useful in teaching biblical narratives, because it helps people to connect with what they’re reading. Consider Scott Risley’s teachings on narratives for a great example of this.

8. Gospel Presentation

Many people will be convicted to receive Christ, when they are sitting under a strong explanation of the gospel. The non-Christian guest has come to a Christian meeting presumably to hear what the Bible is all about. The non-Christian guest usually sits quietly, without interrupting, while they hear an uninterrupted gospel message. What an opportunity! We should learn to maximize these opportunities. For helpful illustrations, see our earlier article “Do Good People Go to Heaven?”

Instead of telling the person that you’re pleading with them, you should just plead with them to meet Christ. This sounds like a subtle difference, but it isn’t. Why tell them if you can show them instead? Charles Spurgeon writes, “Preach… as you would plead if you were standing before a judge, and begging for the life of a friend, or as if you were appealing to the Queen herself on behalf of someone very dear to you. Use such a tone in pleading with sinners as you would use if a gibbet [gallows] were erected in this room, and you were to be hanged on it unless you could persuade the person in authority to release you. That is the sort of earnestness you need in pleading with men as ambassadors for God.”[5]

Encouragement for the teacher

Ole Hallesby: “It is hard to be a preacher. In the first place, there is a great responsibility involved in preaching the Gospel, in rightly dividing the Word. In the next place, preachers are exposed to unusually many and great temptations. They are tempted along two lines in particular: either to conceit or to discouragement, all depending upon how well they succeed or how badly they fail in their work as preachers.”[6]

Ole Hallesby: “The most remarkable thing would be that the sermons would not be a bit more wonderful than they were before, but there would be a new power in them. The Word would strike home to the consciences of believers and unbelievers alike with greater effectiveness.”[7]

Millard Erickson: “One simply cannot account for the effectiveness of those early believers’ ministry on the basis of their abilities or efforts. They were not unusual persons. The results were a consequence of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Students in a homiletics class were required to prepare sermons based on various sermons recorded in the Bible. When the students came to Acts 2, they discovered that Peter’s address at Pentecost is not a marvel of homiletical perfection. All of them were able to prepare sermons that were technically superior to that of Peter, yet none of them expected to surpass his results. The results of Peter’s sermon exceed the skill with which it was prepared and delivered. The reason for its success lies in the power of the Holy Spirit.”[8]

If you ever get nervous before your teachings, commit a few of these verses to memory. Repeat them in your mind instead of focusing on how badly you’re going to blow it! Focus on believing these words about God’s power in preaching.

(Acts 18:9-10)  ”And the Lord said to Paul in the night by a vision, “Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; 10for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.’”

Paul was terrified to preach in Corinth. Carefully reflect on Jesus’ words for him. Compare with 1 Corinthians 2:1-2.

(1 Cor. 4:20) “For the kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power.”

Pray that God will give you power and excitement for your teaching –rather than fear and nervousness. God wants to make his “appeal” directly through you (2 Cor. 5:20).

(1 Pet. 4:11) “Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God.”

We often say that God wants to speak through us. Do we mean it? God wants to use your temperament, personality, and study, and he wants to anoint your words to make them His.

(Heb. 4:12) “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

God’s word is a fierce weapon. Just teaching it and explaining it can have a multifaceted and potent effect.

(Rom. 1:16) “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

The gospel is God’s power. It can have an omnipotent effect on the hearts and minds of the listener.

Further Reading

Gary Delashmutt’s “Homiletics Worshop.”

Karia, Akash. How to Deliver a Great TED Talk. 2013.

[1] Karia, Akash. How to Deliver a Great TED Talk. 2013. 16.

[2] Karia, Akash. How to Deliver a Great TED Talk. 2013. 106.

[3] Karia, Akash. How to Deliver a Great TED Talk. 2013. 149-150.

[4] Karia, Akash. How to Deliver a Great TED Talk. 2013. 151.

[5] Spurgeon, Charles. The Soul Winner. New York, NY: Cosimo, 2007. 74.

[6] Hallesby, Ole. Prayer. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Press, 1994. 74-75.

[7] Hallesby, Ole. Prayer. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Press, 1994. 76.

[8] Erickson, M. J. (1998). Christian theology. (2nd ed., p. 1050). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.