This old master knew exactly what two things it takes to be a great teacher. HINT: They’re not what we usually think of today.
Because I teach children’s classes at church, I sometimes hear of a need for a teacher in another class and end up asking someone I know to consider teaching. Of course, I ask people whom I think would make great Bible teachers.
Most people say no, which is fine. It’s best to have teachers who want the job, no matter how good I think they might be at it. Most of the time, they give me one of two reasons for not wanting to teach. They either say they don’t have time or they aren’t good with kids.
One of those reasons I never question. With the other, I sometimes push back a bit.
With people who feel too busy, I never say they should try to teach anyway. I’m more likely to agree with them that good teaching requires a time commitment. I’ll say, “You’re right, you need to be able to devote at least a few hours each week to Bible study and prayer.”
But when people tell me they aren’t good with kids, I might tell them other things matter more in making a good children’s ministry worker—especially one whose primary job is to teach Bible lessons. Sure, it helps greatly to have a way with kids. You need to like kids and be able to communicate with them. But this is not the most important quality to look for when picking a Sunday school teacher.
What is? John Newton, the pastor who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace, once said the following in a letter to a seminary student. He was thinking of what makes a good pastor, but his insights apply equally well to any Bible teacher.
The chief means for attaining wisdom, and suitable gifts for the ministry, are the Holy Scriptures and prayer. The one is the fountain of living water, the other the bucket with which we are to draw. And I believe you will find, by observation, that the man who is most frequent and fervent in prayer, and most devoted to the Word of God, will shine and flourish above his fellows. These means are of universal importance. The wisest can do nothing without them; the weakest shall not use them in vain.
— John Newton, A Letter to a Student of Divinity
Our churches’ classrooms tend to be stocked with teachers who’re good with kids. Some of those teachers are also people of the Bible and prayer. But I wonder what difference it would make if those classrooms were filled with prayerful, Bible-rich people who know God well, some of whom were also good with kids.
Teachers who are strong in the Bible and prayer are delighted with the gospel of Jesus, and they share that delight. They are humbled by their sin. They are confident in their Savior. They are awed by God’s majesty and are earnest about serving him. The Holy Spirit brings depth and conviction to their teaching because they themselves have been taught by the Spirit through his Word. And I find that most of these teachers, with a little practice, end up being pretty good with kids, too—simply because they have big hearts.
For me as a teacher, Newton’s words are a reminder that I must never rely on my “way with kids” to make my teaching strong. My time with God matters more. I especially need to pray, which has always been a weakness for me. I know from Newton’s other writings that he would be quick to tell me to pray anyway, even if I pray badly or inconsistently. My Father welcomes me because of Jesus, so there’s no pressure in prayer—there’s just trust I must learn and strength I may access.
So there’s the secret. To be a great teacher, just be a faithful student of God. Study the Bible and pray. It’s true that “the wisest can do nothing without them; the weakest shall not use them in vain.”
Thoughts? Please share or comment below. I love feedback and discussion—it’s how we learn from each other! (Pick any name you like, and no one but me will see your email address—and I won’t use it, I promise)