“Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. The Levites instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read” (Nehemiah 8:5, 7).
“As to my doctrine, I have taught faithfully, and God has given me grace to write what I have written as faithfully as it was in my power. I have not falsified a single passage of the Scriptures, nor given it a wrong interpretation, to the best of my knowledge; and though I might have introduced subtle senses, had I studied subtlety, I cast that temptation under my feet and always aimed at simplicity” (from “John Calvin’s Farewell to the Ministers of Geneva,” May 1, 1564, 26 days before his death).
I’ll not soon forget it. I was a youthful and passionate seminary student, completely consumed with the nuances of systematic theology, Greek aorist verb forms, and Hebrew pointing. That Sunday I’d driven across the city to hear a preacher of some renown, a man who had made a name for himself in the theological debates of the day. He had written several books and countless articles, had taught and lectured on several academic levels for many years, and had a library which seminarians drooled over. His name was Dr. Leonard Greenway, and I was prepared, paper and pen in hand, to hear profound depth in his message, to be awed by amazing scope, to be challenged by nuanced reasoning and homiletic brilliance, and to take memorable notes.
What I heard was a simple message, one so simple that little children could—and did—understand. Even the liturgy was explained simply, its components introduced so that everyone, including old-timer and first time visitor, would understand. When he called us to worship, he explained the importance of why and how we met corporately with God. When he prepared to read the Law, he told us the reason. When we prayed before the sermon, he explained that we weren’t there to hear him, but Him!
And what a sermon. I should have been listening merely in faith, seeking to know God’s Word to us that morning; I must confess however to spending much of my time that morning wondering how he had made such a complex passage (Romans 5:1–5) seem so clear, so easy to understand, so deserving of a response in my heart and life. I’d have been disappointed by his sermon if I hadn’t been so gripped by it.
When after church I shook his hand and remarked (as only a brazen seminarian would do) “you made it so simple,” his answer rocked me. “A man doesn’t go into the pulpit to impress people, son. He goes into the pulpit to make God’s Word plain to God’s people. Remember that.” I never forgot it.
Recently, both the citations at the top of this article came across my reading in the same week. Preparing men for leadership in our church, I had been walking them through Nehemiah in an early morning Bible study, challenging them to note the how and why of covenant revival and restoration, The words of the passage cited above hit me like a ton of bricks: “… making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.” I began to wonder how many preachers, elders, deacons and even parents aim at clarity in their communication of God’s truth? I know many who are most impressive in their delivery, erudite in their knowledge, able to explore subtle theological distinctions and wrestle with the nuances of textual meaning. I am aware that such study of God’s Word is crucial, too, for those who would grow in its depths and practice its commandments. Yet I wondered then, and do so still, how many stay in the subtleties, move about in the nuances, and never come to the light?
How about you ? You who read this column are people who, most likely, have been asked to teach in Christ’s church, Elders are expected to teach (remember I Tim. 3:2?); deacons increasingly must instruct individuals and groups in the Biblical material relating to stewardship of gifts, time and resources. And many who read the pages of this journal are ministers, “preaching elders,” whose very life’s calling is to preach and teach God’s Word to His people, both young and old. Are you, like Calvin, more concerned with aiming at “simplicity” so that God’s people can understand, or are you caught up in the nuanced subtleties of theological argumentation? Time to take a test. Maybe the following will help.
1. Check your ego. Sad to say, all who teach will be tempted here. It’s so easy to try to impress students, to teach in such a way as to make oneself look good. But if you do that, you will get in the way of God’s message. If you have a problem here, confess and repent now, before speaking to God’s people again!
2. Ask yourself: after you have explained some Biblical passage or Bible truth, do your students register confusion, boredom, lack of interest? Or do they come up to you afterwards to tell you “I see!” or “That’s so clear. I don’t know why I never saw it that way before.” In other words, ask yourself what your students are telling you—formally or informally—about your teaching. Is it clear? Transparent? Does it engage their minds or merely rattle around in their heads? Does it tickle their theology or go beyond that to grip their hearts? Does your teaching bore them half to death? Could they, if asked, state in just a few words just what the point is? If not, it’s time to review your teaching!
3. Check your language. If you are speaking to 4-year-olds and are using words like “sanctification,” you need a reality check as well as a language check. Remarkably similar, but less obvious, is the awkwardness of someone discipling a new Christian but using Reformed theological jargon. Merely because you are able to use language you learned during years of growing in the Reformed faith does not mean that a new believer will correctly understand “election,” “reprobation,” “sovereignty,” or even “grace.” Fact is, the “language of Zion” is learned by training and studying God’s Word, not by instant osmosis. If your language is jargon-filled, it isn’t clear. And you are getting in the way of the lesson!
4. Review your lesson plans. First of all, be honest with yourself I and ask: “Do I have a lesson plan?” I find many teachers today waltz into a classroom with a grasp of the material, but with no specific (or even general) plan for communicating it to the students. Every lesson plan should have a clearly stated goal: “At the end of this class, the student will be able to explain ‘forgiveness’ and will know whether or not she/he has been forgiven by God.” Next, every lesson plan should have clearly defined learning activities. For example, one learning activity (seldom the most effective) is a lecture that explains the doctrine. Another is telling a story (Jesus used parables frequently). Still another is role-playing a “forgiveness” situation. Yet another is having each student write a list of his/her personal sins down on paper, and then burning the paper to symbolize God’s “not holding our sins against us.” Finally, every lesson plan must seek consolidation. Often teachers run through their learning activities without taking time at the end to make sure the students “got the point.” I remember Dr. Greenway, in virtually every sermon, saying something like this near the end: “…and if, boys and girls, your Mom or Dad asks you on the way home what the message was about, this is what you say.” With that simple device, he brought it all home, and not only for the children, either!
5. Ask others to review your work. Have other elders, deacons, a wife, a trusted friend, sit through the class with you and critique your teaching. Specifically ask them to rate you on clarity, on simplicity. Ask them specifically to relate to you what the central point of the lesson was. If they get it wrong, chances are the kids did too. Then go back and work on developing greater clarity in your teaching.
6. Review yourself. After a class presentation, go back over your teaching notes. Listen to audio tapes, or (most painful of all, I think) watch a video of your class. Observe presentation habits that hinder clarity (Do you cover your mouth with your hand, for example, or speak often with your back to your class, or avoid eye contact, or make distracting hand or facial gestures?). Analyze your organization (Is there an outline a student can follow? Or are you “winging it” (or worse, not “winging it” but totally disorganized?).
7. Sit with some preschoolers from time to time and tell them Bible stories (seriously!). Practice using facial expressiveness; practice making funny sounds that enhance the story (try telling the story of the storm-tossed sea without wind sounds; or relating Jesus’ “Peace, be still” without the contrast of quiet). Be imaginative. Ask questions that children—and adults”would ask. Questions like, “What were the people outside the ark thinking the day that God shut the door with Noah and his family inside?” Or, “What must it have been like when and all the water of the Nile turned to blood?” My point is simple: if you can’t make the story of the Bible clear to children, you will certainly not be able to do so to adults!
8. Finally, but certainly not last in terms of importance, be prepared! Jay Adams, author of Competent to Counsel and about 70 other books, long-time teacher of preaching at Westminster Seminary, and passionate pursuer of teaching with clarity, used to say to students: “if your wife pokes you in the ribs at 4:00 on a Sunday morning, wakes you out of a deep sleep, and demands to know what your sermon is about that morning, and if you can’t instantaneously tell her the point in 25 words or less, you aren’t ready!” He’s right.
Dr. Sittema is pastor of Bethel CRC in Dallas, TX and contributing editor of The Outlook.