by Karen Wingate
After teaching children in the local church for more than 30 years, I have reached two conclusions. First, there’s never enough time to teach all I want to teach. Second, my students may not be ready to hear what I have to say on any particular day.
A Type A personality, I loved creating carefully crafted lesson plans. Like a tastefully decorated room or the perfectly accessorized outfit, every part of my session, from the opening activity to snack time, even my time-filler ideas, pointed toward my specific goals for that day. I’m surprised my students didn’t see my teaching motto for lesson plans, “Hook, Book, Look, and Took” shimmering on my forehead. I set the clock by each lesson segment, determined to let nothing distract me from reaching the end of my curriculum so my students would walk out the door, life application activity in their hands and takeaway in their hearts.
Then I met Jeff.
Jeff was a bright 10-year-old boy with a shock of red hair. He was one of those goofy kids who was always pushing your mental buttons. Some days I wondered if it was Jeff’s sole responsibility to derail my carefully laid plans with ridiculous questions. Ruffled by his mischievous outbursts, my teaching instincts urged me to tell him to be quiet and pay attention so I could neatly tie up my lesson by the end of the hour.
Something deep inside me, however, told me to stop and answer his questions no matter how off-track they might be. By patiently working through his inquiries, I learned the concept of the teachable moment.
Make Every Moment Count
In the words of Chuck Colson, the teacher’s job is to help our students “know what they believe, why they believe it, and why it matters.” We need to equip them to competently convey the tenets of the Christian faith to the next generation.
We aren’t merely teaching ethical standards; we are entrusting our learners with the very essence of truth as found in the person of Jesus Christ. Like a driver protecting the cargo in an armored truck, our job is to deliver biblical truth into the hands of the next generation intact and without perversion. Scripture gives us our marching orders in 2 Timothy 2:2: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.”
We don’t have the luxury of time on our side. Public schools, the media, and other influences of a dysfunctional culture gobble up the majority of hours in a child’s week. Church workers are left with little time to influence students with the gospel. We can’t waste a moment.
Thoughtful planning is imperative for any Christian teacher. If I’m teaching about Noah, I don’t show a VeggieTales® video about Jonah and the Whale. If my goal is to teach the books of the Bible, I don’t paint Mother’s Day flowerpots that same day. We can’t afford to do a throw-together, mix n’ match approach to Bible learning.
The Unexpected Moments
If our students aren’t spiritually or mentally ready to hear what we have to teach, or are thinking of something else, or are withering inside because of a poor home life, even the best of lessons will bounce off their brains like Ping Pong® balls. We need to be prepared to teach “in season and out of season” as Paul told Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:2.
Planning is important. We cannot let classroom moments slip away, victims of our own lack of organization. Yet a wise teacher is equally prepared to teach outside the carefully planned lesson. It’s called planned flexibility.
I made the decision to answer Jeff’s questions simply and briefly, then return to my lesson. Sometimes I had to answer, “I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you next week.” At times, I capitulated to my baser nature, saying, “Come on, Jeff, get on track.” Nothing detoured him; the questions kept coming.
Over time Jeff’s questions changed. Still off-track, they lost their goofiness. The defiant glint of challenge in his eye softened to a smoldering fire, a determination to know. Week after week, he kept saying, “I just don’t get this cross thing” or “What is it about the Trinity?” Finally, Jeff told his parents, “I get it. I want to be baptized.” I knew then that deciding to push the pause button on my lesson plans in order to seize the teachable moment had been the right choice.
Finding the Opportunities
Successful teaching in the contemporary church happens when we are able to fill every available moment with solid biblical teaching in a way that meets our learner’s needs. I’m not suggesting we fill our teaching time with boring lectures. Fun times can provide meaningful teaching moments if we are willing to use every available resource at our disposal.
I love teaching kids in the 21st century. Never in the span of human history have we had so many resources available to teach our children. We can seize teachable moments by using crafts, drama, music, games, and technology. A teacher doesn’t have to have a large budget; instead she can use everyday items to communicate the gospel message to her students. Once I wrote a column in my children’s ministry blog (www.childrenteach.blogspot.com) on 10 different ways to use a coffee filter during a Sunday school lesson. Ways to teach are as unlimited as our imaginations.
Just as teachable moments can occur outside the confines of our lesson plans, so resources abound beyond the supply cabinet. I’m glad one minister chose to seize a teachable moment with me. One day, at the know-it-all age of 16, I confronted my minister. “Why do we celebrate Christmas?” I asked. “It’s just a pagan holiday.” R. Lowell Applebury could have scolded me for being sacrilegious. He could have lectured me on the importance of celebrating Christ’s birth in spite of what the secular world has done to discredit it. Instead, he simply said, “Use every available opportunity to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord.”
It was a concept I never forgot. My treasure trove of teaching resources expanded to include any opportunity to proclaim Christ, whether holidays, learning styles, family crises, a probing question, or a child’s admission of problems at school. Jesus used an argument among his disciples to teach a lesson on humility (Mark 9:33-41). Another time, he used his followers’ impatience over lunch to challenge the watching Pharisees on their attitudes about Sabbath rest (Matthew 12:1-8). The shrewd teacher will turn opposition and obstacles into teaching opportunities, for those moments give us a glimpse into what our students are thinking and what is important to them.
As a teacher, you are your greatest resource. You may have left your coffee filters and colored pencils at home that morning, but you still have you and the Christ who lives within you. You have your passion for Jesus, your knowledge of the truth, and your love for your students. When you live, act, and respond like Christ, your character showcases the message of Jesus’ transforming power as you embrace the teachable moment.
The Ultimate Goal
When I caught up with Jeff 10 years later, I discovered that he now serves as a substitute preacher for his small congregation in rural Kansas. A video clip of 2 Timothy 2:2 played through my mind. The golden baton of the gospel message, passed from Lowell Applebury to Karen Wingate, then on to Jeff Blundell, would now be entrusted to other reliable Christians who, in turn, would proclaim Christ as Lord to the next generation.
What is the essence of Christian education in the local church? It’s knowing doctrinal truth well enough to entrust it to faithful listeners, seizing the teachable moment when you sense your learners are ready to hear, and using every available resource to speak to the hearts, minds, and spiritual needs of your listeners.
Karen Wingate is a freelance writer in East Sparta, Ohio.
For Further Reading:
Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions
by George Barna
(Regal Books, 2003)
Energizing Children’s Ministry in the Smaller Church
by Rick Chromey
(Standard Publishing, 2008)
9 Things They Didn’t Teach Me in College About Children’s Ministry
by Ryan Frank
(Standard Publishing, 2011)
Building Faith At Home: Why Family Ministry Must Be Your Church’s #1 Priority
by Mark A. Holmen
(Regal Books, 2007)
The Creative Storytelling Guide for Children’s Ministry
by Steven James
(Standard Publishing, 2003)