Updated: Nov 13, 2020
This article is condensed and adapted from Elmer L. Towns, What Every Sunday School Teacher Should Know: 24 Secrets That Can Help You Change Lives (Gospel Light, 2001). It's an excellent little book, a quick read. His main goal is to convince you that no one is "born" to be a teacher--you have to be taught. But we can be taught! I hope that idea is as encouraging to you as it is to me! Let me share some of his points (read the book for the rest):
God can use you. He gives three simple instructions: remain faithful, stay available, and believe God’s promise. All of us can do those things!
God has uniquely equipped you.
Students learn differently. I will cover this elsewhere in an article on learning styles, but he offers four very simple categories: some need to talk it out, some need to see it, and some need to do it; finally, remember that stories can help communicate.
Effective teaching begins on your knees. This is a repeated point for Towns, and we should not forget it! Pray for a teachable spirit; pray for the Spirit’s ministry; pray for guidance in preparation; pray for your class’s needs; pray for your class’s growth.
Actions speak louder than words. A phrase I will use elsewhere in these articles is "The leader is the lesson". If you make no attempt to practice what you preach, your class will always know.
Your lesson plan is really important. Towns is absolutely right about this: if you take the time to create a plan for your small group meeting, your chance for "success" skyrockets. I will put more ink into how to turn a Bible passage into a lesson, but his three steps are so simple and easy to make happen: (1) identify a central theme; (2) write the lesson in one sentence; (3) write a simple outline. We can all do that.
Know your goal for the lesson and for the year. This is something I tend to overlook, the need to balance our short-term plan with our long-term plan. We need to have a goal for every individual lesson, but we also need to have a goal for our group for the year that each lesson can build toward. Towns gives three guidelines: fill the mind, stir the heart, and challenge the will.
Be able to ask good questions. This is easier said than done, and you won't always get them from the leader guide. These are the guidelines you should have for the questions you ask the group: keeps attention, leads to truth discoveries, focuses discussion on a theme, encourages responses, and provides practical application. The thing to take away here is that you should put thought into your questions.
Sometimes teaching is lecturing. Teachers seem to either love to lecture or hate to do it. There is a place for lecturing.
Build on what students already know. In other words, know where your group is and use that as your foundation.
Memorizing is necessary. Not just for you but also your group!
Your first minute’s impression is key. Put extra thought into the first minute of your group time. Don't let it get swallowed up in random small talk or interruptions. Take control of it. Make it interesting, memorable, or engaging. Control where and how small talk and prayer requests enter your gathering.
Application is everything. I address this elsewhere: don't assume that your group members will understand how to take what they have learned and apply it to their daily life. That's a skill that develops over time. As the leader, you need to help them with this, at least by giving a number of examples.
Review is important. We have all heard that repetition is the mother of all learning. This is just as true with the lessons from God's Word! I like not only to refer to previous Sunday School lessons, but also refer to recent sermons. Help your group see how what you are learning connects with what the pastor is preaching.
Good behavior doesn’t come naturally. In other words, if you never get any pushback from your group, you're probably missing the point. God's Word challenges us to be different than what we are. It starts with the leader (see #5), but it must continue with the learners (see #13). We need to be confronted with our tendencies and repeatedly encouraged to change them.
Create a wonderful environment. I love the word Towns chose: "wonderful". He's right. In Acts, the new believers were filled with wonder at all they learned and experienced. We want to have a space where people want to come. I would say that this is most dominated by the people (we will endure discomfort to be with our friends), but he gives three guidelines for how we can control our space: bright and cheerful, comfortable, clean and inviting.
There you go. Simple and encouraging, right? I'm not going to say that this is easy, but I think Towns is right is saying that it is doable. With work, we can do all of these things.