I remember sitting in my first week of theology classes as an undergrad at Biola University. I was hearing many new terms such as propitiation, infallibility and incarnation, but the concepts were familiar.
In Old Testament classes, there were passages of Scripture I never had read, but the main stories and redemptive arc were familiar. Where had I learned these stories? How did I know them?
I remember not being able to nail down the specifics except for a Walk Through the Bible weekend we did and a week-long series on Jonah. Beyond that, it had to have been Sunday School and countless sermons I’d absorbed during church. I’m certain the cumulative effect of every message I’d heard made a lasting impact on me.
As a full-time youth minister, I learned early that many of the messages I gave were really for me.
I spent more time on wild illustrations and funny stories than on exegeting and applying the Word of God. It seemed the first purpose of every message was making sure everyone liked me. After speaking at a church in Sacramento, the pastor commented, “That was a good message. I was worried you never were going to get past your stories to get to it.” Ouch! He was right
There were times I flip-flopped, priding myself on presenting messages so challenging, so in-your-face that everyone would be sure not to like me. This was simply me failing to elevate the message so I could do some passive-aggressive soothing for my own benefit.
Sometimes it’s hard to determine what we really are trying to accomplish with a message. Jeremiah says our hearts are so deceitful it’s hard to understand them. James is more specific, warning that few of us should teach because we will be judged differently due to our influence.
It’s important that we seek humility in our speaking and teaching. Here are some practices you may find helpful:
Have Your Teaching Critiqued
One of the most humbling things we can do is seek honest feedback. I recently spoke at an event with Brooklyn Lindsay, a youth minister from Florida. When she saw me, she asked if I would take notes and give her feedback. I was impressed. So few people want feedback. The best time for receiving feedback is immediately after you speak. Set up a time after your talk to hear a critique from a trusted friend. Recording yourself and watching can be helpful if you don’t have someone to evaluate you. If you hate watching recordings of yourself, consider that others may feel the same way about watching you live! You owe it to them to watch yourself.
Proverbs says, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” Be careful of those who pump you up too often; find those who tell you the truth.
The Speed of Assimilation Is Slower than the Speed of Dissemination
At our PlanetWisdom conferences, I ask staffers take clipboards into the crowd during breaks and have them ask a few questions about what was taught in the prior session. The feedback was heartbreaking. Sometimes nothing was recalled from teaching that was delivered only moments before. We refined messages until we saw better results, but I often think we are fooling ourselves about how much content actually is absorbed from a single message. Once, a popular youth ministry author participated in some small group conversations at the National Youth Workers Convention on a topic he had written about extensively and had given thousands of seminars. He was floored by how little understanding there was about the subject to which he’d devoted his life.
Work in Community
Most of us don’t have larger teams we work with, so most of the teaching and message preparation falls solely on us. I have found that those who are willing to work with others to plan messages grow faster in their effectiveness, and the message becomes more important than the messenger. Getting a group of people together to co-teach is an important step toward effective teaching. It removes us from the center of all messages and allows different voices to connect with students.
I still believe sermons are effective for teaching our students (and the more we can incorporate interaction the better), but this method needs a dose of humility if we are going to be effective. Reflecting on all I learned through my own experiences in church, it’s comforting to know God’s Word does not return void despite how often we get in the way, but let’s not rely on that. Let’s give our students the best we can by demonstrating humility in our teaching.