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September 23, 2020
Sunday school lessons have a reputation for being dry.
Is that fair?
The google image results for “Sunday School Lesson” contain a horde of small text, 90s clip art, and simplistic concepts, and child-oriented language.
But your church doesn’t have to choose between making your Sunday school lessons (1) a dry theology lecture, and (2) a kiddy 1st grade flannelgraph.
You can host engaging, interesting, and exciting discussions during Sunday school that all ages find instructive, and don’t sacrifice depth for simplicity.
Achieving an engaging Sunday school culture in your church all comes down to following a few key principles about audience engagement.
People are more than willing to listen to audio lectures, books, and talks for hours.
TEDx talks have billions of views online.
Podcasts are currently the largest source of consumed media in the world.
Companies such as The Great Courses, Audible, and Master Class all keep hundreds of millions of people captive for hours.
In this article, we’re going to help unpack and apply those audience engagement principles that make deep content exciting, and then apply those principles to a few Sunday school lesson ideas to help you start planning a new kind of Sunday school lesson for your church—the kind that attracts interested (and interesting) people, but doesn’t sacrifice depth for teachability.
Let’s jump right in.
The principles we will unpack here are the often overlooked rules that every master communicator follows. However, we’re going to articulate them in a way that makes sense for Sunday school teachers so that we don’t have to translate foreign concepts into the Sunday school environment.
Master these skills, and you’ve mastered the foundation of building an engaged Sunday school audience.
This is the most important thing.
If you give a 13 year-old a lecture, they’re going to tune you out in 10 seconds. They have a nose for these things.
If you give an adult a lecture, you can basically expect the same thing.
If you apply childish principles to the design or content of your Sunday school lesson, they’re going to tune you out, because they feel condescended to.
However, you need to apply child-appropriate activities, participation opportunities, and teaching tactics to a room of children if you’re ever going to teach them anything.
What’s the TL;DR here?
No matter your audience, you need to be engaging. The burden is on you to be engaging, not on your audience for being attentive.
If you bring an entitled attitude to your Sunday school lesson, you’re going to have a dying Sunday school ministry. Nobody will want to come back.
Once you’ve decided to take the responsibility to be engaging, you need to ask yourself: Engaging for whom? Children? Adolescents? Late teens? Adults?
Then, adjust accordingly.
Children want to be physically engaged. Get them acting physically in unison. “Raise your hand if…” “Touch your nose if…” “Has anyone ever…?” Think: Controlled chaos. Pick one point, and spend the whole time illustrating that point with physical participation. Keep it to one point.
Pre-teens want to be humorously engaged. Do you want to hear a joke backwards? You do? Very good, start laughing. Ha. … But seriously. If you can make them laugh, you can make them cry. No joke—come with at least 10 jokes. Seriously. This is not a joke. Keep it to one point.
Late teens want to be engaged existentially. They want to know how things apply to real life. They’re going to assume that anything you say is just as boring and irrelevant as biology class. Start where they are, then move on from there. Keep it to one point.
Adults want to be engaged intellectually. This is the one audience who can track with you for more than one point. However, don’t just give them a firehose of information. The best way to get adults interested in what you’re saying is to ask an intriguing question.
Why is it that when Jesus is accused of blasphemy, he responds with this question: “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?”? Why does he respond to blasphemy with a question? See what I did there? Why didn’t he just say, “I’m not a blasphemer!” Why did he ask a question in response to this serious allegation?
Now you want to know the answer. Boom. Consider yourself Sunday schooled.
Apply these audience-specific principles to your Sunday school lesson preparation as you write your lesson plan.
Don’t complicate things.
Are you teaching on a topic or a text?
What do a topic and a text have in common?
They both contain ideas.
No matter what, you’ll be trying to communicate what preachers call “The Main Idea.”
But don’t try to use a text as a platform for some hobby topic, or use a topic as an excuse to talk about theology without any application.
Both will require biblical reflection.
Both will require conceptual unpacking and application.
But narrow down very specifically:
Am I teaching on a topic or a text?
Then: What topic or text am I teaching on?
Pick only one.
Even if you have 3 points, you should be able to summarize your idea in one claim.
Don’t say “I’m teaching on forgiveness.”
Say: “I’m teaching that forgiving others is crucial for experiencing God’s forgiveness.”
Don’t try to stay on-topic. Try to stay on-claim.
Thinking in this way forces you to always stay on-claim. It doesn’t let you start sermonizing, rambling, getting off track. It forces you to always come back to the claim: “How does what I’m saying right now unpack, illustrate, defend, or deepen our understanding of this claim?”
This is a good discipline for every teacher.
Don’t print 10 pages of notes and read them to your students.
Putting everything on one page forces you to make eye contact with your students, master your content, and engage your audience face-to-face.
Nobody needs you to read an article to them.
Sunday school should never be reading a manuscript.
If you need notes so badly that you have to read them verbatim, it means you’re not sufficiently prepared.
Teach a concept that you understand well enough to teach from a one-page.
We have already said that you should keep it to one point. More than that—one claim.
However, it’s fine to break that point down into multiple sub-points.
Often, the very nature of teaching is breaking down a simple concept into multiple more nuanced concepts.
This is fine.
Just make sure that you are always explaining how your sub-points relate back to your main point.
If you can’t illustrate it, you probably don’t get it.
This puts you back again to your preparation.
None of us could illustrate every idea we understand on the spot.
But with some prep time, I could probably come up with an illustration for every concept I truly understand.
Do your students the same courtesy.
If the lesson is too abstract, it won’t stick with them.
People don’t remember abstract concepts. People remember pictures, smells, sounds, and stories. Use those elements as the prime matter of your lesson.
I can’t stand it when people end lessons with “Any questions?” and then wait in silence.
What questions should I be asking?
Could you take the lead?
As a teacher, lead discussion, not by asking “Any questions?” but by asking your students a question: “What came to mind when Jesus did this …?” “How did you feel when David …?” “Why do you think Paul said this and not that?”
By coming up with questions, you are engaging your audience’s imagination throughout the lesson, giving them less time and opportunity to space out.
Even for complicated topics and texts, speak in vocabulary, concepts, and ways that are as simple as possible.
Don’t use a Sunday school lesson as an opportunity to show how smart you are.
There’s some wisdom about acting that applies here. If you’re watching a movie and think to yourself, “He’s a fantastic actor!” then he’s not a fantastic actor. If you’re watching a movie and think “That character is so evil! I hate him!” That is a good actor.
Same for teaching.
Help your students to be in awe of the ideas and stories about Jesus, not you.
Don’t do a lesson on Romans or John unless it’s a “New Christians” class.
Pick a topic, perspective, angle, or approach that is novel.
Most Christians have heard all the cliches, books, and lessons already.
Give them something new. Find a way to make Sunday school fresh, and rescue it from its reputation of being so stale.
Sunday school lessons are notorious for being “Series.”
Don’t fall into this trap.
The problem with doing a series is that if people miss one lecture, they feel they can’t come to the next for fear of being lost.
It’s not bad to do a series.
Just make sure that not all your classes are a sequence or series so that people feel they can come even if they missed a few weeks.
We already mentioned that you should write a one-page for your Sunday school lesson.
But more importantly, you should write your one-page before you do anything else.
Establish overall conceptual coherence and flow first. If you don’t do this, you will simply be writing a stream-of-consciousness treatise. It is extremely hard to create coherence and flow from a stream-of-consciousness manuscript.
Create order first.
Builders don’t put up the drywall, hang the lighting fixtures, and paint the house before they build the frame. That would be ridiculous.
Same with planning your Sunday-school lesson.
These prompts are intended to give you a starting point for writing your Sunday school lesson plan. They are categories of Sunday school lessons that you can use to build an exceptional one-time lesson, or a short series, depending on what your church audience enjoys.
There are many modern issues which capture the minds and hearts of church members that are ripe for biblical engagement. You simply need to ask: “How do I think of these things biblically?”
These issues not only provide stimulating conversation, but will likely draw more people to come to Sunday school in order to hear what the Bible has to say about these important issues.
Christians deeply desire to understand their Bibles.
Sunday school teachers and pastors have the opportunity to open up difficult texts and explain them so that God’s word can become clear to them.
People want to know what these texts mean—the witch of Endor, the baptism of the dead, Paul’s entrance into the third heaven … what do they mean?
Even if you explain the “common views” and don’t come down on an interpretation yourself, people will at least be instructed in the common ways of making sense of a passage that, on its face, is nearly impossible to understand without historical and theological help.
The church didn’t just zap into existence 30 years ago.
It’s existed for 2,000 years.
Some say it is the oldest, longest-lasting institution in the history of the world.
That informs what it means to be a Christian.
People have been struggling with issues Christians face for thousands of years.
How did people in the middle ages face the problem of infant mortality?
How did people in the Reformation deal with the issue of church in-fighting?
What can Augustine’s conversion teach us about what God can do in the human heart?
The lives of the saints (and sinners) that compose church history are instructive for us.
Some people find theology itself very interesting.
I find it best to find topics closer to the heart of peoples’ interest in theology—such as theological mysteries, including the problem of evil, prayer, and the like.
By digging more deeply into theological issues, you may be serving a demographic that hungers for understanding where they only see mystery. You can help them to gain clarity and resolution about confusing issues at the heart of their faith journeys.
Many Christians want a deeper relationship with God, but aren’t sure how to study and apply the Bible to their own lives.
It’s possible to teach a hermeneutics 101 course in just an hour with the best online resources people can use to aid their study.
If your one-hour class (including Q&A) generates interest, you can create a longer course.
Use these principles of audience engagement and lesson planning to build a deeply engaged church audience.
If you do, you will find that by word of mouth, more people will show up to Sunday school.
People will start treating your Sunday school lessons as an exciting new live podcast—and not as a dry old lecture that’s all about showing everybody how smart the teacher is.
Use these principles.
Draw from these prompts.
Grow your Sunday school attendance from the lingering faithful few to an eager and lively community of engaged learners.