By Ben Mandrell
We’ve all been there at some point in our ministry: We’ve waited until the last minute to add final details to our lessons or sermons, pushed the envelope when it comes to finalizing materials, and barely made it to the church, home, or classroom on time.
It’s not a good feeling, and it sets the stage for a rushed, disjointed time with those we serve.
As a pastor for 17 years, I’ve tried to demonstrate an extreme preparation mentality for my ministry teams.
My goal was to finish my sermon manuscript by midweek, with any visual aids pre-selected. All this would get turned in to the media team days in advance so they could also practice extreme preparation.
On Sundays, I would plan to arrive at church at least an hour early to run through the slides with the team, and to go back over the message another time or two.
I would want to be in the main room and ready to go, greeting people with a calm, peaceful smile on my face as they found their seats.
I tried to model this behavior because I wanted our team to do the same in their respective ministries. A well-prepared atmosphere makes a world of difference.
But intentionality and preparation should go beyond the preacher delivering the weekend sermon; it also applies to a Bible study group leader.
One of the price tags of leadership on any level is being extremely early for any ministry activity—be it sermons, discipleship classes, small groups, or special events.
If you show up five minutes before a gathering starts, you’re at least 15 minutes late.
A group leader, for example, who is running around the room laying out supplies and frantically getting things ready is hardly a good host.
A steady leader exemplifies intentionality. Intentionality means thinking through the details of the group experience and leaving little to chance.
If you’re a Bible teacher, let your message marinate in your mind for the full week. Start your study days before the group gathers. Draft your outline as soon as possible to provide room for creativity.
But once the people are gathered, how can you best continue fostering a fruitful environment? The key is to have strong, unforgettable Bible lessons.
I’d like to offer eight tips for taking your small group teaching to the next level. These principles apply for all ages, and I’ve had the joy of teaching all ages.
1. Start with energy.
Your body language should express enthusiasm. If you’ve spent enough time with the material—you’ve internalized it and allowed it to sanctify you—then you have something urgent to say.
The introduction to your lesson is the key to setting the hook. If you don’t give them a reason to listen, they won’t. Start off the lesson with a gust of energy.
2. Get into the Bible within two minutes.
One of the ways I’ve taught my own children to discern a strong biblical preacher is to time how long it takes them to read the Bible or get into the Scriptures.
The introduction to a lesson should guide the group into the text, and it shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes.
If you’re 10 minutes into your lesson and you’re just beginning to read the Scripture, many people in your group will feel like this message is going to go too long. They’ll likely give up and tune out.
3. Tell short stories—not long ones.
People love to hear stories and learn through story. But most times the listener isn’t nearly as interested in your story as you are.
When a teacher takes five minutes to tell a story, that feels like 15 minutes to the listener. Rehearse the way you tell a story and cut out unnecessary details.
Keep your stories succinct, or you’ll lose people in the clutter.
4. Don’t have too many points.
A typical message should hold only two to four points. If you have more than four points and 20 minutes to cover them, your message will end up shallow.
You can’t effectively unpack and illustrate that many points. People will start to feel like they are wading in the kiddie pool.
A point worth making is a point worth illustrating. Have fewer points, flesh them out more, and help the listener absorb the ideas.
5. Regularly use the phrase, “If you’re new to the Bible…”
This is a phrase I’ve grown to love. Any time I’m introducing an idea that would feel foreign to a person brand new to Scripture, stop and explain it.
If Paul is saying we should give our lives as a sacrifice, and you make reference to Old Testament temple sacrifice, stop for a second and explain: “If you’re new to the Bible, you may not know what animal sacrifices meant in ancient times.”
Don’t alienate people who have no previous knowledge. Be kind to newcomers.
6. Freely admit when a biblical principle is hard to believe.
Some of the truths we teach in Scripture are tough pills to swallow, and it’s important to be real with people about the challenge of faith.
Acknowledge the skeptics, especially students. Say things like, “You may find it to be a hard truth that God created a place called hell, or that one day all the graves will be opened and all of humanity from history resurrected … .”
You’re not casting doubt on the Scriptures. You’re showing compassion for the person who lives every day in a naturalistic, scientific worldview that rejects the supernatural.
Show compassion toward those who feel guilty for having a hard time with faith. Living by faith isn’t easy, so admit when certain parts of the Bible are tough to wrap your mind around.
7. Use visual aids as often as you can.
Many people learn by seeing. The words from your mouth are good, but until they can visualize a concept, they can’t fully absorb it.
Put your main points on a screen, but also include a good picture that’s worth a thousand words.
People remember pictures much more than they remember your points. When your audience can absorb a vivid image as you explain a concept, the enjoyment of learning increases tremendously.
It’s surprising to me how many preachers and teachers use little to no visual aids. It’s a huge miss in this highly visual society.
8. Always end with takeaways
Paul said, “Knowledge puffs up; love builds up.” You don’t want to leave your listener with a head full of information but no real tangible ways to apply the information to their lives.
Always end by saying, “Here are three suggestions for how to apply the message this week.” Then offer ideas on what obedience looks like.
Your audience may or may not put these ideas into action, but you can help them connect the dots from head knowledge to life application.
For example, if you teach a passage on fasting, end by suggesting three different kinds of fasts. More than food, you could suggest social media, sugar, or video games. Suggest multiple ways a listener could go and do.
Culture is created by the positive behaviors we celebrate—and the negative behaviors we tolerate. Let’s celebrate the positive behavior of intentional preparation and effective teaching.
The teaching is “the meat.” If the food isn’t tasty, people won’t be eager to return.
So, take these as suggestions, and hopefully you’ll create a group culture that helps people connect deeply with one another and with the Scriptures.
BEN MANDRELL (@BenMandrell) is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources.