No wonder most people walk away from church with little to show for it.
Recent Barna research revealed that most people (61 percent) cannot recall gaining any spiritual insights the last time they attended church.
Part of the problem stems from uninspiring content—answering questions no one is asking. (I recently sat through a sermon about theological speculations on vegetarian dinosaurs.)
And part of the problem has to do with garden-variety poor teaching methodologies. Teachers fail to engage their people in learning.
The best teachers and preachers know that communication/learning is two-way. People need to actively engage in the process if they are to gain new insights.
To help facilitate this type of engagement, many teachers ask questions. But all too often their questions fail to evoke learning or engagement. Most of these well-intended but poorly crafted questions seek factual recall. They’re closed-ended questions—the type that beg a pat answer, usually pre-determined by the teacher.
Watch this actual scene from a children’s Sunday school class as the teacher asks a closed-ended question. (The answer she’s looking for is “manger.”)
Sadly, this scenario is painfully common. Why do teachers ask such questions?
Asking a closed-ended question to a room full of people, waiting for one smarty-pants to cough up the one correct answer, is a hopeless waste of time.
This poor teaching methodology is not limited to children’s ministry. Just this week an adult colleague of mine told me of a veteran church teacher who baited his class with a question that sought his pet, pat answer. He finally wrote his pre-determined answer on the board.
My friend said, “From there he lectured for 45 minutes. We weren’t really discussing or thinking—just regurgitating. Needless to say, I will not be going back.”
If you wish to engage your people—of any age—ask open-ended questions. Ask questions that evoke different thoughtful responses from each person.
For examples of good questions, go through the gospels and underline every question Jesus asked. You’ll find an abundance of open-ended questions that caused his people to think, grapple, and make personalized discoveries. Examples:
- “Why did you doubt?”
- “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”
If you want the kind of ministry that makes a difference in the lives of your people, dig into questions that matter. And ask questions that cause your people to plumb deeply and reflect on what God is stirring in their souls.
Sad but true! I remember a time when you asked “what was the topic of the sermon at your church on Sunday”, you asked this on a Monday and I struggled to come up with the answer. Obviously it was not memorable.
Great thoughts, Thom! I believe the reason teachers (and I use that word very lightly and liberally!) resort to close-ended questions, lectures and passive learning is all about control and fear. My peeve is how many teachers/preachers can’t speak beyond their “pet” doctrines, Bible books or social issues. They also lack imagination and visuals. Some of the worst PowerPoints (and I love PowerPoint personally) are in the church.
Too many teachers are also unprepared, have not thoroughly studied or invested in the creativity to do anything different. The “lecture” is not evil nor does it have to be boring BUT it does have to be engaging, interactive and insightful, as you rightly pointed out Thom.
I remember one of the worst preachers I ever endured proudly proclaim his method for sermon preparation was to wait until Saturday night, when he would go into his den, read the passage five times and wait for the Holy Spirit to tell him what to say!
Rick, I think you’re on to something. How many teachers really understand what they believe? Do they KNOW the Old Testament and what that says about the character of God. Do they KNOW the New Testament and what that says about grace and the fulfillment of the Character of God and His expectations of Man?
With that foundation a teacher can build a discussion and give unrehearsed answers to real questions, whether they come in from left or right field.
Wow I laughed out loud when the teacher said “like we usually do, we’re running out of time.” No wonder! They spent 3 minutes digging for the word “manger.”
Actually the human brain learns in stages. See http://www.welltrainedmind.com/classical-education. Gradeschool children are wired for learning facts (the grammar of the Christian faith). Their brains thrive on memorization, names, places, recitation–what the church has traditionall called catechism. The brain does not really have the capacity to analyze, apply, and defend information until later (middle school, high school). Gradeschool children are far more excited if they can tell you a fact they’ve memorized than they are if the can tell you how they feel about poverty in India and what they think can be done about it. The contemporary church has succeeded in raising an un-catechized generation–youth that are experts in expression but infants in the grammar of the faith which has caused outrageous harm to the church. Once children have the facts of the faith, then in their later years they can analyze and develop their opinions about them. Education across the board (Christian and secular) has suffered because we no longer follow the classical Trivium (Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric) as the basic pattern of learning. We try to get 1st graders to express logic and rhetoric before they have the grammar. I am all for teachig first graders that Jesus was born in a manger rather than asking them how they would feel if they were born in a barn.
John, this is what I was talking about above. We can no longer assume that the foundation is understood. I work with “thinking idiots” all day long. Their basic logic is flawed, as a result the conclusions are wrong. What they “know” is their common sense, not “reality” common sense.
A Teacher or Pastor must know the foundation of who God is; why He is the way He is, so that, we as humans can know what God expects and appreciates.
I understand you are referring to a teaching method but as a whole we must communicate in such a way that we are speaking from the same playing field. Build a basis of knowledge and then examine that knowledge. The progression of milk, to baby food to solid food. What are the facts, how did the facts effect that situation, how does this make you feel and affect you, what are you going to do about it?
John, I agree that facts are good. And children need the facts. My problem comes with chewing up time with closed-ended, fact-seeking questions posed to a group. Even if one smarty-pants child blurts the correct answer, the rest of the group may sit idly by. If it’s important for children to know that Jesus was placed in a manger, there are many more effective ways to teach that fact.
I agree with what you have said about teaching on the elementary level, my students are so excited when they can come in with a factoid for me that they remember from the previous week, or a passage they have memorized. Look at how well they do with memorizing songs! I think their needs to be a healthy dose of what you call “grammar of the faith” with some analyzing/opinion forming to “make it real for the children. Ie: knowing where jesus whas born-manger–will be remembered once childen think about what it would be like for them to experience it too.
As usual, your writing is timely and great! I have tweeted and will be using it in my upcoming presentation!
William D. Hendricks has a book called Exit Interviews: Revealing Stories of Why People Are Leaving Church. The book doesn’t deal with theological matters as much as practical reasons people leave the church. I haven’t read it, but it has been used as a source in one of my classes. It may be worth a read.
What an important topic to share. Thank you!
[…] well, but she makes a mistake that I personally have made many, many times. This video, found at Holy Soup, shows a leader talking about Jesus’ birth. Watch as she tries to get kids to say […]
[…] On his blog, Holy Soup, Group founder Thom Schultz shared a video of a prime example of a fill-in-the-blank question. The teacher asks, “Who can tell me where Jesus was born?” For three minutes kids try to answer […]