For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been cleaning up — shoveling out is more like it — my home office. That’s where I do 90 percent of my ministerial and writerly work.
Neat freak that I am, I sort through the waist-high stacks of yellowed sermon notes and cart away the crusty soup bowls every 15 years, whether or not the place needs it. (My wife won’t even enter my office. If I leave the door open, she shuts it and scurries off in despair.)
Among the detritus that has emerged from this recent cleaning is a set of suggestions I’d written for my congregation in 2002.
At the time, we had an unusual number of people who were considering ministries as preachers or teachers.
I’d put together a document for them. Exhibiting my genius for creative alliteration, I titled it “Tips for Teachers.”
I reread it last week. Except for the lame title, it seemed to hold up well.
Frequently, readers tell me my newspaper columns turn up in their churches. Their Sunday school teachers use the columns as grist for class discussions. Their ministers cite them to illustrate their sermons.
I’m flattered, of course. It’s always good to know people have found something of value in what I’ve written.
So, given that apparently some teachers and preachers read my scribblings, I thought I’d pass along here a much-abbreviated version of my teaching tips. I hope you’ll find one or two of the points helpful.
Don’t complain. It’s an honor to teach in God’s house, not a chore. Thank the Lord every time you speak that he’s entrusted you with his children. You’re not worthy, and neither am I.
Remember that most people in our audiences are friendly; they’re rooting for us. They’re not listening for our mistakes, but applauding our successes.
Do as much research, reading and thinking beforehand as time will allow. Yet don’t overly rely on your studies. Trust the spirit to startle your listeners — and you.
Employ scriptures in their proper context. We tend to preach selectively, to pull out our favorite Bible verses that “prove” the points we want to make. But in doing that we can miss the larger truth of God’s word, and we can mislead people.
Before taking the podium, perform a humility self-exam. We all know in part and prophesy in part. We might indeed have a word from God — but we certainly don’t have the only word from him. There are people in our audience who need to hear what we’re about to say. There also are people in our audience who know the subject far better than we do. It’s good to keep both truths in mind.
Read the Bible regularly, but also read history, theology, the social sciences, literature, biology, politics, biographies, true-crime books, cereal boxes or whatever else you can get your hands on. Be a sponge. The more we know, the better prepared we are to talk about God. It all relates to him.
As you prepare and present a lesson, keep in mind this gem from Proverbs: “A good teacher makes learning a pleasure.” That is, for the pupil, a teacher who has honed her craft is a joy to study under. But also, on the other side, a teacher who wants to communicate effectively will find creative ways to make his lessons entertaining.
Edify the audience. Even when we must speak corrective words, we should coat them in honey. God doesn’t browbeat his children. Mercy is always God’s first choice. And his second choice. And his third. Build people up.
Don’t be embarrassed by your own struggles and failures in life. Use them in your sermons. Be real. You’ll find an amazing number of kindred spirits, and people will remember and respect your candor.
As you teach, announce your points plainly. As Aristotle suggested, tell listeners what you’re going to say. Then say it. Then tell them what you’ve just said.
Use illustrations and personal stories where possible to enliven those points. But don’t use examples from the lives of people in the congregation without their permission.
Don’t imitate other ministers. God didn’t call you or me to be Joel Osteen or Pope Francis or T.D. Jakes. One of each is sufficient. God called you and me to be us, in all our own considerable glory.
Once you’ve finished a teaching or sermon, don’t obsess about people’s responses. We’re not responsible for others’ reactions. We’re responsible for doing the best job we can under our particular circumstances, given our individual gifts or lack thereof. We’re responsible for being faithful. We’re responsible for showing up. The results are none of our business; results are the Lord’s business.
Don’t pay too much attention to anything I’ve said here. All these rules, as with rules generally, were made to be broken. Do what works best for you, your audience and the Lord.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.