What’s the key to effectively teaching the Bible to others, whether in a Bible study, a sermon, or a Facebook conversation?
Love your audience as yourself. Loving God is most important, of course, but it’s possible to love God supremely and yet fail in your efforts at communicating the truths of Scripture to others. If you love your audience as yourself, the next Bible study you lead, the next sermon you preach, the next blog post you write, is much more likely to hit home. The Blogging Standards Administration says I must now present three to seven reasons why I think this is so. Let’s go for five, although I have a feeling we could keep going for a long time.
1. Love will keep you from assuming knowledge they don’t have.
If you love the rambunctious kids in front of you, you’ll naturally begin to consider what they know and don’t now before you start teaching them a Bible story. You won’t be so focused on your nervousness or your limited preparation time—or even their rambunctiousness—that you forget your audience’s level. The only way you can lead people is by helping them take a step from where they are to where they ought to be.
If you don’t love those kids, or those addicts, or the others in your small group, you’re a lot more likely to bore them, to focus your teaching efforts on the pleasures of listening to yourself talk and getting to the end of your allotted time without tanking. You’re a lot more likely to confuse them, misshaping their understanding of whatever it is you’re teaching. You’re more likely to offend them when you didn’t intend to, and less likely to offend them when the Bible is trying to do just that.
Because Jesus loved his neighbors as himself, he spoke within the social and material circumstances of his day. So should we. Those of us who have never seen a mustard tree or even sowed seed in a field don’t always connect immediately with Jesus’ wording because he aimed it so squarely at his original hearers. Sounds like a good model for us.
2. Love will keep you from using words not in their vocabulary.
Even when Jesus’ parables were told precisely to hide truth from people (Matt. 13:10–17), their difficulty lay not in their vocabulary but in their ideas.
I’ve heard it too many times—educated people who don’t stop to consider how often their verbiage leaves their hearers in the dust. I’ve heard PhDs speak to the functionally illiterate and use words they should have known were ten grade levels too demanding. (I’ve also heard preachers who don’t stop to consider how often they’re arrogantly presuming to speak to matters their audience knows more about than the preachers do. But that’s probably not your problem. A little humility can help you reach down or reach up.)
I don’t know for sure whether Frame and Lewis loved their neighbors, though reading personal correspondence from both of them suggests strongly that they did (and do, in the case of Frame), but as a reader I feel loved when an author makes it easy for me to follow.
I’m not saying that flowery or demanding speech is never appropriate, only that it had better serve the goal of loving your neighbor.
3. Love will help you work at finding the best ways to help them take the next step.
Maybe a word that is not in your hearers’ or students’ vocabulary is one that needs to be in there. If they have no idea what “propitiation” is, it may be your divine calling next Tuesday night to remedy that problem: otherwise they won’t understand some of the most precious and theologically important sentences in the Bible, Romans 3:21–31.
A Bible teacher who loves his or her audience will work hard at finding the best way to move someone from ignorance to knowledge.
Jesus, again, is a model here. In my own Sunday School class I’ve thoroughly enjoyed teaching through Jesus’ parables (I love the work on the parables done by Snodgrass, Blomberg, and Doriani). As probably the leading homiletician of our generation, Bryan Chapell, has said, it’s a denial of God-given human nature to refuse to use illustrations. They are often precisely the right tool for leading people to take the next step in knowledge or spiritual growth.
Finding good illustrations is the most difficult and time-consuming—and most rewarding and enjoyable—part of my Bible-teaching. When I began to realize that I was gifted and called to teach the Bible to others, I became an illustration squirrel, faithfully hiding away for the winter every good story or quote or image I thought might be useful for my work.
In fact, one of Chapell’s wonderful illustrations—an illustration about the power of illustrations in a book on Using Illustrations to Preach with Power—has stuck with me for more than a decade both because it’s such a great story and because I knew I’d need to use it to help others. That illustration is worth the price of the book, and you should buy it or I would tell it to you; it helped me take the next step in my growth as a Bible teacher.
4. Love will give you the energy you need to push them forward.
I don’t always have the energy to answer the barrage of questions that hits me as a parent of young children. That’s true even when I, the theologian-Dad, face softball theological questions by my six-year-old: “Dad, why do parents have children when they’re so bad all the time?” “Dad, why did God create the world if he knew Adam was going to fall into sin?” “Dad, isn’t it Adam’s fault that I hit [my sister], not mine?”
These are actual questions he asked me, and they’re hard enough to answer for adults, let alone for literal-minded six-year-olds who always seem to change the subject (“Look what I made!”) before you can complete your answer. It takes a silent prayer, a deep breath, and real physical energy for me to even try to respond. But I love my kids, I really love them, so I do it. It’s tempting to outsource the exhausting work of forming my kids’ minds and moral compasses to Sunday School and the Disney channel. The love it takes to find out where they are and then work to push them ahead—that’s a tough love to muster even for our own kids, let alone for others.
You feel that love and that energy in the apostle Paul—a man who could wish himself accursed for his countrymen (Rom. 9:3), a man who said to a church and meant it, “I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19). And he told Christians, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that they were supposed to follow his example (2 Thess. 3:7; 1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Phil. 3:17; 4:9; 2 Tim. 11:13; cf. 1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Tim. 3:10; 1 Thess. 2:14).
Could God push people forward on his own, without your help? Sure. He does it every day. He does it for you. But he’s giving you the opportunity to get involved in his work in others.
5. Love will alleviate improper pressure on you to please others.
Tim Keller, an acknowledged expert on preaching, has said that one subtext of every sermon by a preacher under 30 is, “Do you like me?” Everyone who speaks in front of others, even in the coziest and least threatening of settings, feels some pressure to be thought well of. Nobody wants to be a bore or a dud or a verbal klutz. I will never forget the time I emceed an event and literally no one laughed at my carefully prepared dry humor. I have never been more embarrassed (it helped a little that a sympathetic friend later told me she tried to laugh but somehow couldn’t because no one else was laughing). The fear of that terrible situation is powerful.
So love for your neighbor had better exceed it. If your goal is someone else’s good, if what you count as your good is helping others, then you won’t be tempted to alter God’s message to please them. You won’t be so focused on yourself that you forget the (second most important) thing you’re there for: others.
It will also keep you from showing off if you really are that good. One famous and gifted preacher I know of says he purposefully moderates his personality, particularly his humor, during preaching so as not to place the focus on himself.
The Bible speaks of people who “loved praise from men more than praise from God” (John 12:43). Ironically, it’s a true Christian love for your neighbors—one subsumed under love for God (Matt 22:37–39)—that will keep you from loving them in the wrong way, from loving their praise instead of loving them. Beware “when all people speak well of you” (Luke 6:26).
Love Gets Creative
When I have experienced what I believe to be genuine love for people, I am more likely to get through to them. Love for neighbor, in my experience, is the only thing that really crosses the sometimes deep and fraught cultural gaps between us and the people whom God has called us to serve.
Love gets creative when people are weak. It gives them a leg up. It remembers a Facebook video that would be perfect for explaining “propitiation” to fifth-grade boys. It won’t let those boys walk away without light dawning on their faces—it won’t let you and me ramble on without checking to see if they understand.
Love your audience as yourself.