When I first started teaching the Bible about fifteen years ago, I was given a Sunday School class at my church. It was a “college and career” class. I was inexperienced in teaching and was very nervous every Sunday, but I had such a strong desire to teach I was willing to endure the stress each week. I remember that I had red splotches all over my neck and my chest evidencing my green nervousness. (I still am nervous each time I teach, but just in a different way).

When teaching the class one Sunday (I don’t remember the subject), a certain gentleman raised his hand. I thought it was going to be a question concerning the subject we were on, but it was not. He began to complain to me and to everyone there how much he did not like the way I taught and how, exactly, he thought I should change. I was speechless, embarrassed, humiliated, angry, and hurt.

Looking back all these years I have been able to see his problems more objectively. In fact, I think he was right on in his criticism. Everything he said was true about my teaching style and it did need to change. However, he was also very wrong and he should not have said what he said. While nothing that he said was wrong, he lacked a great deal of wisdom in his tact and approach.

The point of this post is this: Saying the right thing without tact is wrong. This is true of Sunday school or any other venue. We are not only called to say the right things, but to say the right things at the right times in the right ways.

Here are a few things to remember when you are the learner.

You are not the teacher

No matter where you are when you are not the teacher, do not act as if you are. So many times I see people who are looking to spring board off other people’s platform. I have been in classrooms where I know who’s hand not to call on. Some people just take over and want to show the class how much they know. You may have the best intentions when you do this and what you say may be right, but, unless the venue expects this, you are not called by God to teach at that time. I am sorry. That is just the way it is.

If the teacher is wrong, and I mean dead wrong, you are still not called to teach. You are called to respect the teacher and listen. Even if the teacher asks you your opinion, you must be very careful not to dishonor the platform that this person has been given.

You don’t have the respect of the people

You must remember that people have gathered to listen to someone else, not you. No matter how smart you are, people don’t care that much about what you have to say. In fact, attempting to be the teacher will be counter-productive. No matter how learned you are in the subject, your arrogance will turn all the others against you and you will only serve to annoy the audience.

You have to gain an audience with the teacher in other ways

You may feel obligated to correct the teacher, but you have to gain an audience first and you have to do it at the right time. The gentleman who corrected me during that class so long ago did not have my ear. In other words, I did not really know or respect this person and I had no past with him. Under these conditions, he was in no position to correct me. Not because he was not right, but because his words only served to make me self-defensive. It does not matter how persuasive you are, speaking to people without gaining their respect does no good. You must first gain the right to correct. This involves time with the person. It involves much more than corrective criticism, but a history of friendship and respect. If you don’t have this, don’t bother trying to correct during the middle of class or any other time.

Let the venue and culture be your guide

Most teaching venues (pulpit, Sunday school, lectures, presentations, etc.) assume respect to the person who has been placed in the teaching position. Therefore, you are never the teacher. But there are some venues that allow and expect a different type of interaction where you are encouraged to interact in a different way. These venues include some blogs, debates, and forums. This does not mean you have any right to disrespect the teacher or that your meanderings will be more attractive to the audience, but it does mean that your disagreements are already welcomed to some degree. The culture of the venue is your guide. For example, this blog is more open than some to discussion and disagreements. But this does not mean that you will necessarily gain the ear of the readers or the authors. In fact, once you begin to use this blog as a surrogate blog, other readers will be offended and discouraged from reading any more than the main post. You have to be tactful even in these type of venues, but they are more open than others.

For some of you, these points all come easy. You are too timid to expose your thoughts or feelings in public in any way. These points are much harder for those who feel a burden to teach or who are well educated. This is because they will usually have some points of intelligent disagreement. This disagreement intensifies their passion as they, with good intentions, simply want people know the truth as they know it. They also think to themselves that the have an obligation to correct false teaching. Therefore, they often cannot help themselves. But the point I am making in this post is that knowledge without tact is counter-productive – always.

In the end, we need to calm down. Don’t think that you have to correct everyone. Respect others even when they are wrong. Let them be wrong and, yes, let them teach this wrong. You really can’t do anything about it with emotionally motivated actions that lack tact and wisdom.

James 1:19
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. (ESV)

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C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]

    20 replies to "How to Listen in Sunday School"

    • Bo Shirah

      Hi Michael,
      Liked this post. Would you please add the multiple scriptural references that led you to post this subject?

      Thanks,
      Bo
      p.s.
      BTW, I took an Intro to Theology class from you at Stonebriar back in the Fall of 04. Thoroughly enjoyed that class.

    • JRoach

      When I was a young Christian I was one of those annoying people that basically took over because I wanted to share what I had learned. More than one Sunday School or Bible Study teacher was angered by what I did. Looking back I can see how disrespectful I was and I understand Michael’s post. I get embarrassed just thinking about those times even though they were more than 20 years ago.

    • rayner markley

      Thank you, Michael, for this essay and for this forum. The latitude to express differing opinions in a tactful attitude is essential for a healthy community. It makes this a lively place. Of course you wouldn’t want to hear only agreement, and in that case you would have many fewer participants here. And even in a church body it’s important not to just dictate to listeners. That’s when members wander, and churches and denominations split apart.

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      Oh yeah. I agree with CMP’s post. When I teach I communicate the same things that CMP does when he’s communicating to students:

      o You are not the teacher.

      o You don’t have the respect of the people

      o You have to gain an audience with the teacher in other ways

      Way to go CMP! Authoritative classroom management!

    • Cynthia

      I don’t think I have ever read an article on this subject…very interesting

    • Lisa Guinther

      Thank you Michael, In my own experience here recently, I was flattered when an aquaintance of mine wanted to take a look at a paper I did; 1. as a class final and 2. entered into a contest. Having been led astray by flattery (I never realized I could write) I let her see it. After a day or so, she cornered me after a bible study and proceeded to “pound” me in a “you allway’s” ad hominem attack( never writing anything before, nor discussing anything with her before). I did realize that I wasn’t fairly balanced in my paper (yet, 2 of the 3 judges thought I was)…but the out come of the whole thing is my extream caution around her (even if she may have something of worth to share with me), and to not listen to flattery, and to absolutely not get “ahead of” God.

      It was, however, an excelent lesson in no matter how well you think you communicate an idea, you will be misunderstood!

    • Lisa Robinson

      Lisa G. said “no matter how well you think you communicate an idea, you will be misunderstood!”

      Welcome to the world of blogging!

    • Ron

      Michael,

      As a Sunday School teacher, I appreciate your remarks… as a Sunday School student, I’m also humbled. It’s hard for a teacher to be still when he’s listening to error. I’m sure that I am often too quick to point out questionable teaching. I have a good relationship with mt fellow teachers and I don’t think I’ve gone too far stepping on their toes. But, I will definately keep your admonishment in mind when I sit under someone else’s teaching. Thanks, I needed that!

      Ron

    • scott gray

      cmp—

      over the past few weeks, you’ve laid out a fascinating set of essays (and delightful rants) that are most stimulating. i want to weigh in on several, all in one fell swoop here.

      i find my most rewarding teaching begins in venues where those i’m interacting with are change-ready. or as psychologist kurt lewin would say, unfrozen.

      elementary-age kids seem to be very change-ready. i think they are developmentally wired for it. On the other hand, high school kids who are taking my chemistry class because they need it to graduate, and are enduring the class to punch the ticket, are not change-ready. unless you have excellent strategies for unfreezing them, teaching such a class is a particular kind of challenge.

      junior college students are a mix anymore; some are kids out of high school, some are continuing ed adults. I find the level of change-ready, or willingness to become change-ready, vary.
      confirmation kids (high school age, in my case) who wish to think about their faith are change-ready; those who are there to punch the confirmation ticket because mom is forcing them to be there are not.

      children and spouses who are listening to a sermon because they wish to please their family members, or because it is expected or required of them, are probably not as change-ready as the teacher/preacher might wish. They probably require some ‘unfreezing’ first.

      as a teacher, one picks one’s venues. one looks to add as many tools and strategies to the ‘unfreeze people to a change-ready state’ as one can. and a good teacher has to be change-ready as well.

      some people seem born change-ready; always looking for something new and interesting. i find that true for me quite often. it’s one of the reasons i find your blog so interesting—you introduce me to new ideas and stimulate me to do good thinking.
      other people come to a venue change ready because of a hardship or drastic event in their lives. the event serves to ‘unfreeze’ them. i welcome such students, but they require different strategies for meaningful change than do ‘interesting stuff junkies’ like myself. As you very well know, a pastoral touch is essential in such teaching.

    • scott gray

      in your teaching, you are teaching in a confessional scholarship setting (as opposed to a critical scholarship setting). i think martin luther’s faith model (notitia, assensus, fiducia) that you talked about a few posts ago is a very reasonable way to look at teaching in a confessional scholarship setting.

      i’m not sure you’ve got the separations clear, though. i think notitia is more about knowledge, especially evidence-based knowledge, than it is about principles that are the conclusion of an argument. ‘jesus is lord’ strikes me as assensus; where as ‘the christian scriptures state that jesus is lord’ is clearly notitia. sometimes in your teaching content, you are clear about the difference; other times you are not. if the intent of your teaching is to present notitia, it’s best not to mix assensus into it without clearly delineating the difference, even in a confessional scholarship setting. i find as a student, no matter what the topic: scientific, theological, sociology, economics, or whatever, that when teachers present assensus as though it were notitia (and it happens quite often outside the theological teaching setting), i begin to question the competence, and the underlying agenda, of the teacher. i don’t mind when a teacher is presenting assensus, mind you, as long as it’s clearly explained as such, and not presented as notitia. could this be the source of some student unrest in your settings?

      of course, fiducia is the ideal setting for changing lives. it’s the favorite venue of jesus in the jesus teachings. jesus didn’t present notitia very often. jesus’ trust in his notitia and assensus led him to act, and that’s where fiducia is at it’s richest—when it’s lived out in action.

      jesus didn’t say, ‘i’ve been called to talk about the poor in a classroom setting. i’ve come to preach about the hungry and homeless.’ he said, ‘i’ve been called to set them free, to minister directly to them.’ notitia is what you discuss with others while your building a house together for habitat for humanity, or while you’re serving food together in the soup kitchen, or when you’re boxing up food to be given out at the soup pantry. and ascensus is what you celebrate on the ride home, and on sunday morning s in community with others who live their fiducia.

    • scott gray

      but this essay you’ve written above isn’t really about change-ready students, or about content of teaching material. it’s about domination.

      the venue you’ve chosen, that of the classroom, where you are the teacher and others are students, is about a relationship of domination. to dominate is to rule over, or to control, or to prevail. you’re asking for domination through tradition—the tradition one associates with a classroom setting. you also exercise domination through power—you decide who gets to answer a question, and you can always control things by talking louder in the microphone. and you can always ask people who are not change-ready, or whose behavior you feel is inappropriate, to leave the classroom.

      but there are other ways to dominate a teaching setting—domination through competence. or domination through guiding influence. or domination through changing venues. or domination through changing you ‘unfreezing’ techniques.

      Or you can change your relationship with your students to something other than domination altogether.

      so based on what your skills are, and what your content is, and who is paying you how much to do what, you can pick the venues that are most appropriate for what you bring to the teaching table. just choose only those venues where your dominance is assured—students who are change-ready, who acknowledge the authority of a classroom setting, who value the content you present to them.

      or, if you wish to succeed at reaching a wider audience, change some of your methods.

      Thanks again for the stimulus for good thinking. While I find I disagree with at least half of what you say, I appreciate the material 100 per cent.

      peace—

      scott

    • havoc

      Thank you, Michael. I needed to read that.

    • #John1453

      I always appreciate your material, Michael. I believe that the interaction between the students and between them and the teacher depends on the context, the teacher, the students and the material. While I do agree that in some cases your proposal is appropriate, I also agree with Scott Gray that in other cases a different approach is more appropriate. Your model is certainly not the current view among adult educators (nor taught in the teaching methods courses that I have taken). When I have taught I have actively discouraged your model and if my students did not challenge or make their points of view known I considered the classtime a disappointment if not a failure. I think that if we have a humble and servient approach to the material and the students, then in most cases it will not be appropriate to take an indoctrination approach to the material and the students.

      Regards
      #John

    • Darin Duphorne

      I concur with Scott Gray (11) above. This post seems to reflect an unhealthy (but normal) attitude prevalent in the mainstream bible study teaching models.

    • mbaker

      John said:

      “I think that if we have a humble and servient approach to the material and the students, then in most cases it will not be appropriate to take an indoctrination approach to the material and the students.”

      Agreed.

      While I believe in respecting the teacher and the time it takes to study and prepare a lesson which communicates doctrine effectively, yet gives room for both questions and other perspectives, I think every good teacher can admit that we often learn as much as we teach from our students.

      I know I do, and it is often humbling. And that’s a good thing, because there are always points, and counterpoints, that should sharpen us and expand our knowledge as well, by being challenged to look at other perspectives objectively, rather than subjectively viewing things through our own lens.

      Such is the advancement, and the advantage, of the learning process for all concerned.

    • […] Sunday School Listener Posted on June 10, 2009 by Kevin Jones Michael Patton has some good advice: No matter where you are when you are not the teacher, do not act as if you are. So many times I […]

    • […] How to Listen in Sunday School […]

    • anita

      Having been an instructor in a highly technical professional environment worldwide, I concur with the latter remarks. Respect goes both ways. Thanks Scott, Darin, mbaker, John.

    • Oun Kwon

      Whether it is within or without family, the uttermost thing to be kept sacred is ‘saving face of the other’ in the oriental society which is based on honor and shame. It doesn’t matter whether it’s religious, political, of business, or scholarly in nature.

      It is especially when other party has made something wrong that people will be shown how mature they are. Often, that would become a seed from which lasting friendship is formed and deepened, or they become foes with feuds ;-<

      Speaking of a Sunday school, I had an experience when we of small group was in a Bible class (Friday), where someone (joined there invited by her friend) asked the pastor about what to say when other brings up a question of Jesus being the only way for salvation. I was flabbergasted by this reply: he said that his answer to the person asking the question would be 'I do not know' – without blinking eyes. To relieve some tension in the group, I came up an answer (which is correct) for a way out – there is a problem we have to solve, which is the definition of 'salvation'. Jesus IS our salvation. In other religions (esp. Buddhism, Islam, etc.) there is no concept of salvation as such. As they got indoctrinated, they don't have a need of salvation as such. Jesus IS the way to Father; there is no other name in which anyone can be saved. I'm still uncomfortable with the pastor's mind-set and genuineness of his 'faith'. They get mad upon hearing that the Biblical truth, but they have no reason to get mad!

    • Tio Papo

      Took a class in informal logic once it mess me up, for just about everything I hear or read falls into the nonsense basket….Need to work on preventing my speech and writings falling there as well!

      I am guilty as charged!
      🙂

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