The Self-Reflective Teacher in Christian Ministry

Six Questions to Re-invigorate Our Teaching

John Witvliet

It’s true for nurses, plumbers, seminary professors, and workers of all kinds: some of the most promising approaches to our work come to us after a day that didn’t go so well. As we walk or drive home, cook supper, and tuck our children in bed, we ponder how we could have done it better. Some of the best cures for a dry spell in our work often come from a co-worker who arrives at work with the words, “You know, last night I was thinking about our common challenge, and I wonder if we might ….”

For teachers, these reflections are part of an age-old tradition that goes by the formal term “pedagogy.” “Pedagogy” refers to the strategies, approaches, and methods that a teacher uses to form students, convey knowledge, and instill virtues. Pedagogy takes center stage on television sports shows when basketball coaches talk about how they teach zone defense or in-bounds plays. Pedagogy is the life’s work of educational specialists who study how philosophical (and even theological) commitments are both reflected in and shaped by teaching strategies.

For most of us who teach in the church—whether in a church school or catechism class, a marriage prepara­tion seminar, a worship team or choir rehearsal, an orientation session for new office-bearers, an adult class on financial management or approaches to parenting, a correspondence course for prisoners, or a seminary class—“pedagogy” is the name for the searching questions and reflections that arise out of our deep longing to convey the power and beauty of the gospel more convincingly.

Following are six pedagogical questions I’ve overheard from teachers in elementary and high schools, colleges and seminaries, churches and non-profit ministries. Each one is fruitful for anyone eager to teach the gospel of Jesus, especially for those of us who come home from teaching wishing it had gone better.

1. What are the “scales” or “dribbling drills” our students can best work on?

Most teaching time in athletics and music is devoted to working on drills. Young children spend much of their soccer practices working on dribbling and passing drills; young pianists and violinists play scales. These drills work by isolating a particular skill, and then training the body’s muscles to perform that skill without thinking.

The practices of faith are just as embodied as soccer or piano, and thus are perfectly suited to learn by drill. So what drills can you imagine for your teaching?

Here is a good drill for seminary worship students to work on: “Watch the news each night and then prepare one very concrete petition for next Sunday’s intercessory prayer.

Here is one for Sunday school and Bible study students: “Read a Bible text, and prepare a four-sentence prayer that asks God to help you obey it—with as many tangible examples as possible.”

What about other teaching settings? What are the scales you could practice in an elder’s meeting, in a marriage preparation class, or in a financial management seminar?

After you identify what those drills are, remember this: soccer coaches and piano teachers don’t just talk about these drills, they actually do them. It’s the repetition that makes them effective.

2. How can our students see the big picture?

The focused skills we learn through drills are crucial, but they are not enough. I met with church school cur­riculum writers who were rightly wor­ried that while we do well at teaching our kids individual Bible stories, we don’t do as well at showing them the big picture of God’s plan of salvation. Kids often remember the details of David and Goliath, but don’t have a clue about whether Abraham comes before or after Jesus.

Similarly, I recently heard one elder say, “I wish I knew the big picture of what an elder’s job is—even if there’s not time for us to be trained in every aspect of our roles.”

Good teaching is like one of the most useful features of an internet map web­site—the “zoom” function. It lets us focus on the details when they are helpful, but it also lets us zoom out to get a sense of the larger landscape.

When your Bible study group starts a verse-by-verse study of Matthew or Romans, consider reading the whole book in one sitting at the beginning—and at the end. When you teach a Bible story to third graders, consider working up a chart of the whole timeline of the Bible’s narrative, and remind them where the story of the day fits in.

At Calvin Theological Seminary (CTS), we’re working hard at new integrative courses which help faculty and students see how all the parts of the seminary cur­riculum come together. Seminary offers rich experiences in learning the Bible, the­ology, church history, ethics, missions, pas­toral care, worship, preaching, education, leadership, and more. Our new integrative courses will offer students the opportunity to explore how all the parts fit together, with each type of course offering wisdom that is desperately needed in addressing challenging ministry situations.

3. How can we give our students multiple exposures to the same material, with each one going a bit deeper?

One elementary student recently observed: “When we learn at school, it gets harder and more interesting every year. When we learn at church, we hear the same basics repeated over and over again.”

Now there may be good reasons for this: biblical literacy is low, children spend a lot less time learning in church than at school, and churches rightly want to teach people with no knowledge of the Christian faith.

Still, the student is on to something. A lot of our learning at church never really gets beyond the basics—even in commu­nities with two Sunday services, regular catechism classes, Christian boys and girls clubs, and Christian day schools.

The problem also challenges us at CTS. The huge list of topics we must cover means that most of them can only be covered in an introductory way. To address this, we’ve constructed our new curriculum on a development model. We’ll begin with lit­eracy courses that cover the whole range of ministry topics in a basic way, then move to analytical courses that challenge us to delve more deeply into individual topics, and then conclude with the integrative courses described above.

In churches, this same question could lead to some new approaches to learning. For pastors, what about occa­sionally preaching on the same text two weeks in a row? While the second sermon would need to review the basic themes of the text, it could also probe the text more deeply than the first one. For those who offer pre-marital counseling, what about offering a set of four sessions prior to mar­riage, and then repeating those sessions a year later—perhaps for all couples in the church? The second time through the material would allow for a richer discus­sion—particularly after couples have expe­rienced the early months of marriage.

4. How can we help students Eat This Book?

I recently heard a teaching colleague worry that too many university classes simply “give students practice at reading badly.” His point is that professors often assign lots of reading which students skim hastily before class. Students spend so much of their college years skimming that they never really learn to read a text care­fully and lovingly.

While some skimming is necessary in any walk of life, this can’t be the only way we read texts, especially the Bible. We need to read the Bible so that it is “hidden in our hearts.” We need to chew on Bible texts like a dog chewing on a bone, says Eugene Peterson, author of Eat This Book.So professors need to also ask students to approach at least some texts in a different way—to read them slowly, to memorize and savor them, to write down which phrases inspire them and which trouble them.

What a useful strategy for teaching in congregations! Don’t just have your Bible study group prepare answers to questions in workbooks; ask them to also truly savor a single verse ahead of their next lesson. And what a useful strategy in seminary! One of our hopes for the new curriculum at CTS is that each student who graduates will have at least one hundred Bible texts that they have truly wrestled with, con­templated, and savored.

5. How can we interweave “principles” and “practices,” “theories” and “applications” throughout our teaching?

One of the most common student complaints in many fields of study is that the instruction is too theoretical. As a professor of practical theology, part of me cheers when I hear that deep concern for vital practices.

Yet merely teaching techniques is also inadequate. All the technology techniques students learned in the 1980s are obsolete. In an ever-changing world, principles and theories can be some of the most practical parts of an education.

However, “can be” is the operative phrase here. It all depends on whether students learn to use those principles and theories in a variety of situations, and learn to perceive and cherish their value. This happens best when they are given many opportunities to practice making “boundary crossings” between theory and application.

The problem is that one of the most common ways of teaching, that of first exploring theories and then learning applications, actually gives students and teachers very few opportunities to explore those boundary crossings. Yet, this has long been a common approach to learning not only in colleges and seminaries, but also in church life. In contrast, many of the best sermons, lectures, and class sessions interweave principles and practices. They begin with a story or case study, then explore a guiding principle, then return to the case, then offer some clarifying definitions or opposing points of view, and then imagine the implications for a totally different situation—the more border crossings between theory and practice, the better.

6. How can our teaching and learning leave room for testimonies and doxologies?

The best television commentators for tennis, hockey, and football games know just when to say, “Isn’t this the greatest game on earth!”

I remember similar testimonies from some of my most memorable teachers: the choir director, biology teacher, and literature professor who interrupted class to exclaim, “Isn’t this remarkably beautiful!”

This sounds a lot like the apostle Paul. In the middle of several complex chapters that work out the implications of sin and grace, the old and new covenants, justification and sanctification, Paul breaks out in a testimony: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Rom. 11:33a). Similarly, Jonathan Edwards, in the middle of his work on the doctrine of the Trinity, once remarked, “God has appeared glorious to me on account of the Trinity.”

Now here is an approach to teaching that belongs in the church! Whether you are teaching a church membership class, a nursing home enrichment course, a deacon’s training event, your high school youth group, or a seminary-level theology class, you have the opportunity to unfold nothing less than the beauty, power, and glory of the gospel of Jesus. When its grandeur strikes you again, there is no need to contain your joy. Your testimony may end up being contagious.

These six questions are just a sampling of the pedagogical questions we’re asking at Calvin Theological Seminary. We would love to hear questions that you enjoy asking as part of your self-reflection on teaching. We welcome you to send your thoughts to email hidden; JavaScript is required.

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