One of the reasons why churches lean on Bible studies produced by groups like Lifeway is the work of turning a topic or passage into a lesson. Creating a lesson plan takes work and is not always easy. If you've ever created a lesson plan as a schoolteacher, you know this to be true!
It's not impossible. It just takes care and attention.
I recently mentioned Elmer Town's classic Sunday School book that's filled with all kinds of helpful topics for teachers of any kind. I like his simple principles for a healthy Bible lesson. What I'm going to do in this article is take his principles, add my own steps, and end up with a short guideline for taking a Bible passage and turning it into a small group lesson.
Principles from Elmer Towns
A healthy lesson . . .
Relates that week’s passage to the whole of Scripture (remember: the story of the Bible is God's plan of salvation).
Relates the lesson to the whole of your student’s life (takes a big picture look at life stages).
Uses real illustrations from modern life.
Uses positive role models from Scripture.
Identifies positive role models in life.
Solves problems (and helps students see how it helps them uniquely)
Points out relationships (connects the dots between Bible books, between doctrine and life, between each person and God).
Points out principles (shows that our faith is not blind but reasonable).
Motivates students to live by those principles (a healthy lesson does not just teach—it motivates).
Relates new principles to those already known (whether from Sunday School or sermons).
Those are great principles. And they can almost be treated like a checklist. When you get to the end of your preparation, you can get this list and ask yourself a question like "did I put a real-life illustration in here?".
Steps to Creating a Solid Bible Lesson
Read the entire passage thoroughly - but read it before you read any lesson plan; get a sense of what it says on your own without going through someone else’s opinions. The "good" of using a pre-published Bible study is they have done the work of creating a plan of passages to study. The "bad" of that is the temptation to follow their notes without using your own brain and relationship with God.
Create an outline of the passage. This takes some work and practice, but it is invaluable. A pre-published Bible study usually does this outline for you, but you do not have to follow that outline! Every good study Bible includes a detailed outline of every book of the Bible. The value in an outline is it helps you understand how each passage/section contributes to the purpose of the book as a whole, so you can know the intent of the verses. Then, you use that outline to create the structure of your lesson (for example, Lifeway often breaks their lessons into three points, related to the three major divisions of the passage their chose.)
Identify the key truth you find in each part of your outline, then identify the key truth for the entire passage. Those key truths will be what you try to communicate in your lesson. And this is the great value of using an outline -- you have to summarize the point of each section in just a few words. Further, you can easily see how each section contributes to the whole. That makes it much easier for you as a facilitator to clarify your goals.
Ask yourself questions about the passage. What do you not understand? What is the context or the history? What questions might your class ask? Where can you go (commentary, me) to find those answers so you can be ready when Sunday morning comes? Anticipating important questions can help you allocate your limited class time. For example, if there is a thorny question, you can make plans to give adequate time to it, or, if necessary, have a plan to set it aside for another time.
Identify helpful teaching tools. What did it take to give you an “aha” moment about the truths in the passage? What can you do to recreate that “aha” moment for your class? Perhaps that was a thought-provoking question or discussion topic. Maybe it was a song or an object or an illustration. The things that helped you learn might also help your class. But also remember the various learning styles!
Create a one-sentence summary of your entire lesson. Do the same for each section you have broken your passage into. This will help guide your selection of tools and topics. If it doesn't directly feed your one-sentence outline, you don't need to use it. Your time is limited enough as it is.
Create a one-page outline of your lesson. All you need to take into class is your Bible and this one page. On it, you should have (1) Your one-sentence summary. (2) Your outline of the passage. (3) Within each section, you will have your one-sentence summary, discussion question ideas, learning activities or illustrations, and a summary of any trouble-topics you encountered. Finally, it should have (4) your idea for how to begin the lesson time (attention-getter) and how to end the lesson time (main application). That will help you make sure you get to everything you think is important, and not waste your time chasing unnecessary rabbits.
Guidelines for Creating a Lesson
These are guidelines repeated throughout my articles on leadership. But until they are an ingrained habit, they bear repeating.
Remember the five purposes of Sunday School: Evangelism, Discipleship, Ministry, Fellowship, and Worship. You can’t ‘program’ all of these, but when you put together your plan, remember that you shouldn’t spend all of your time in prayer, in chit-chat, or in lecture.
Identify how you want your lesson to end. Know what you want to make sure you accomplish so you can build it into the lesson and not be caught off guard when time slips away from you.
Make time-segment estimates. As David Miller said in his list, you need to make every minute count—and every minute equally matters. Don’t throw away class time on unguided chit-chat, and don’t miss your main applications because you didn’t realize how long you spent on your second illustration.
Grab attention from the beginning. Have you ever noticed that preachers often begin with a catchy story? It’s very hard to get someone’s attention back. Choose a strong activity/discussion to start with that will communicate truth and get attention.
Plan on a variety of teaching methods and learning activities. Very few teachers are so gifted that they can just come up with various teaching activities on-the-fly. You need to think about such activities ahead of time and plan them into your schedule.
Incorporate all seven essentials of transformational teaching into your plan. In other words, make sure your lesson establishes the Bible as the authority, identifies what the passage says and what it means, helps your learners discover how it applies to them, encourages everyone to struggle with, believe, and obey the Bible’s truth.
I'll have much more to say about the steps of spiritual transformation in another article. Suffice it to say for now that discipleship is an intentional process; we do not throw out lessons randomly and hope that people catch them. We have a plan for leading people toward Christlikeness, and that requires engaging minds and hearts and challenging people's status quos.