Teaching the teacher.
Prior to becoming a Church Communications Director, I worked in the education field. In my 11 year teaching career, I served in several capacities in the public school system. But instructional coaching was the biggest period of professional development for me. I got the opportunity to dig into the research, read what the experts had to say about what good teachers do, and then work with teachers to see how these practices benefited their students. This opportunity helped me realize the importance of making instructional decisions based on students, not content. Because ultimately, the purpose for instruction is student learning.
And now for something… not all that different.
When I began working as the Communication Director for my church, I was given the opportunity to help build sermon series and revise messages with the lead pastor. My pastor was really working to get his sermons to stick with people. I suggested some different strategies and structures I used to help teachers to increase student learning. These principles really made sense to him.
As we began to build sermon series together, I modified a unit planning template to help us build a cohesive plan for each series, complete with overall descriptions, week-by-week outlines including Scripture references, and ideas for overall and weekly next steps for people to take. As time went on, we expanded this to developing other content, such as podcasts, sermon bumpers, and social media posts. The more I worked to develop content for church, the more I saw how strikingly similar the fields of pastoring and teaching really are.
Best Teaching Practices for Teachers and Preachers
The reasons for my career change aren’t important, but the realization I had is that whether you’re a professor or a preacher, best teaching practices are best teaching practices. So, here are five important takeaways from the field of education that churches can use to plan content and messages that reach people with the love of Christ.
1. Know Your Audience.
The best instruction is data-driven. Teachers work hard to get to know their students personally and academically, which is why they use every available data point to get a picture of who each student is and how they can reach them instructionally. While pastors don’t give tests, they still have data points available to them to help them get to know those they’re preaching to. Knowing demographics, beliefs and values, interests, and needs of the congregation and community surrounding the church helps a pastor to know what messages are going to meet people where they are.
A few data points to consider include:
- Census data, such as that provided by sources like MissionInsight
- Website analytics, like those provided by Google Analytics and Gloo Insights
- Social media insights from platforms like Facebook and Instagram
- External survey data from sources such as Pew Research, Unstuck Group, and Barna
- Internal survey data from visitor and congregational surveys
- Interviews, counseling, and other one-on-one interactions with congregation and community members
Everyone needs to hear the saving message of Jesus. We know the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of people who hear the message, no matter what we say. And, this data can help churches know how to best share this message in a way that is going to stick with those who hear it.
2. Visuals Are Impactful.
Teachers know that all their students learn differently. So, they plan their instruction to share content in multiple ways to reach their students. Pastors have these same diverse learners in front of them, and incorporating visuals helps to reach more of these learners with the message of Jesus. With many modern churches utilizing screens, it’s never been easier for pastors to incorporate visuals into their messages. Visuals for screens might include:
- Scripture references
- Artwork or photographs (royalty-free or with licenses)
- Video clips (with proper licensing and permission)
If screens aren’t at your disposal, props or easels work to add visual interest and impact to a message. One of the most impactful presentations I’ve ever attended was a man with well-chosen words written on different pages of an easel pad! No matter what makes sense with your message and context, strive to utilize visuals to support your message of the hope we find in Christ.
3. Stories Matter.
There’s a reason the movie industry grosses billions annually. Humans are naturally drawn to stories. Teachers seek well-written stories, news articles, and media to help students learn empathy, understand history, and remember important concepts. Jesus, the master Teacher, used parables (stories) to teach people about God’s kingdom.
In addition to Biblical stories, pastors can use stories to share Christ’s love with their congregations and communities. Well-crafted sermons incorporate stories to help people relate to even the most difficult parts of Scripture and apply them to their lives. Some churches show the impact of Christ in the lives of their people through interviews, testimonials, and blogs. No matter how you do it, stories help the Good News of Jesus stick with people long after the worship service is over.
4. Mind the Attention Span.
This might shock you, but attention spans are getting shorter. Teachers have learned how to break up their 60-90 minute class periods into 5-7 minute chunks to keep their students engaged.
Pastors can apply this same principle to their weekend services. In addition to service elements such as music, readings, announcements, videos, and slides, pastors can break up their messages too. Incorporating visuals, readings, engagement opportunities (like turn-and-talks or “put it in the chat”), or videos every few minutes in the message shifts the attention of the audience just enough to keep them engaged, but not too much as to be distracting. This takes intentionality and planning, but it will be worth the work when people are consistently engaged in the message of Jesus.
5. Plan the Next Step.
Traditional teaching is sit and get; the philosophy was that the teacher taught, and it was the responsibility of the student to get it. Teachers today, on the other hand, know that it’s their job to facilitate learning opportunities to help students develop academically.
Pastors are called to share the message of Jesus and inspire people to be His hands and feet. Like teachers, pastors can structure their messages to give their congregation a next step. As they prepare messages, pastors should consider the following questions:
- What do I want people to know about God? This might be a take-away phrase, a particular Bible story, or a Scripture verse to remember.
- What do I want people to understand about God? This is more than just a fact or memorized verse; it is a change of heart. Pastors can consider a concept or aspect of God that they want people to come to believe.
- What do I want people to do as a result of the message? Consider a spiritual practice, a prayer, or a Gospel-motivation action you want people to take once they’ve heard your message.
These next steps are great ways to share Jesus beyond Sunday. Share them on social media, provide a handout for people to take, send a text or email reminding them about this step. Preach to go beyond Sunday.
Too Important To Get It Wrong
Developing content for the classroom and writing messages for the pulpit are two sides of the same coin. The church can and should learn from their counterparts in the education field because the goal in both fields is to reach people.
For pastors, however, the impact goes far beyond this life. Reaching people with the love of Christ has eternal implications. We can’t afford to not use whatever resources we have – including what we can learn from other professions – to make sure that everyone hears the Good News of Jesus.