Over the last three months I’ve described a “right-handed” model for thinking about what we do in Christian education. It pulls together five “right” aspects of what we need to focus on in our teaching: right relationship, right knowledge, right passion or heart, right will, and right actions. For the next few months I want to explore and unpack a “coaching” pedagogy that helps promote real growth, not just increased knowledge. Let me start with a verse from one of my favorite Psalms and a story.

Make me know Your ways, O Lord;

Teach me Your paths.

Lead me in Your truth and teach me,

For you are the God of my salvation;

For You I wait all the day

Psalm 25:4, 5

When I was a sophomore in college, I participated in a Sunday evening Bible study at the home of a math professor, Jake. He was a faculty advisor for our class and several of us had grown to appreciate him because of his caring nature and Christian maturity. A group of students asked if he would be willing to lead a Bible study for us and he agreed. For the first few months we studied Romans 12. Most weeks, after we sang a few songs and prayed for each other, we would study only a verse or two of what Paul had written, with the majority of our time being spent talking about the challenges of living as Paul was instructing us. Our struggles were not in understanding what we were reading, but in working through what it meant to faithfully live it out. Some weeks, people would share about the struggles or successes of putting into practice what they had learned in previous weeks. We would revisit the verses and the issues we had been talking about, and we would recommit ourselves to living them out well. Jake never grew impatient, but lead us deeper along God’s paths for us. It was slow going, but though I had grown up attending church and participating in Sunday School and youth groups, I had never learned so much about living my faith before. While we did not cover a lot of Bible content in those months, we went deep into issues of obedience and the lessons learned impacted the way I saw myself as a part of Christ’s body in this world. These lessons have continued to challenge me over the last 30 years.

In Matthew 28, when Jesus commissioned His disciples to a discipling ministry, He described the outcomes in terms of both a new identity in baptism, and a new lifestyle of obedience to His teaching.

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them inthe name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:16-20, NIV, emphasis added)

As modern disciples, our call is to teach Jesus’ instruction in ways that lead to obedience, not just comprehension. If we want to teach in ways that help people learn and to encourage genuine spiritual growth and formation, we need to rethink how we approach the task of teaching, and our roles as teachers. Some of our old approaches just won’t get us where we want to go.

Teaching for Knowing

When it comes to helping people learn a body of knowledge, the field of education has provided us with valuable research, theory, and models of teaching. For decades, research on effective teaching has helped teachers in all fields determine more effective teaching strategies to improve student comprehension and retention of information. Strategies like structuring new information for easy recall, connecting new information with what is already known, and encouraging active learning to increase retention are all helpful. Much of the teaching that goes on in the church today draws to some degree on this kind of teaching for knowing. This approach is very helpful in many ways, but it has its limits. While not intentional, this basic approach has led to two unfortunate tendencies in our study and teaching of the Bible.

Tendency One: Knowing and Valuing – But Little Follow-Through

Although many published study materials encourage some kind of application of Scripture to life, our study time together tends to gravitate to the task of understanding and appreciating the passage we are studying. We work hard at understanding the text, background information that can help us appreciate its message more fully, and we strive to understand why it is of value for us today. All too often, our time runs out before we can more fully explore how we might respond in light of what we have learned, how and where it challenges us, and what would have to change if we were to strive to be more obedient to God. This lack of time invested in deeper reflection together leads to a second problem.

Tendency Two: Biblical Amnesia and Aborted Application

When we leave our study time together, every person is on their own to follow through on what they have learned. Some may do this well, some may try but struggle, others may simply forget it. When we get back together for another study, we tend to ignore what we discussed in our last session and dive into a new portion of Scripture with new truths to be learned. There is little or no follow-up on what we studied previously – no chance to check in to see if anyone put it into practice, if they had challenges and new questions in light of their experiences, or if there were good things to share because of how God had helped them put it into practice. Any consistent attempt at application is aborted through neglect. We move through our material too quickly, before it can be assimilated into our lives, resulting in shallow learning and limited retention.

This kind of pattern has inherent dangers for us. James writes of the difference between listening and doing, the risk of settling for just “knowing,” and the blessing that comes with putting into practice what we learn.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does. (James 1:22-25, NIV, emphasis added)

After years of learning the Bible in a “listening” kind of way in Sunday School and youth group Bible study sessions, I had retained little real knowledge and understanding, and it had resulted in little spiritual transformation. I needed a different kind of teaching approach that would take me deeper into God’s Word, allowing Him to teach me His ways so that I could learn to live them out in obedience.

Teaching for Growing: A “Coaching” Approach

A challenge in the teaching ministry of the church is that knowing the content of the Scripture, as important as it is, is only a starting point. We want to teach the Bible in ways that help learners take the content of Scripture and allow God to work it into their lives so that the way they live is characterized by the things they have learned. It is to result in a heart transformation and increasing obedience to what God wants of us and for us. Teaching for ongoing growth, not just knowing and valuing specific things from the Bible, requires a particular kind of teaching, that of “coaching.”

For several years, a colleague and friend of mine, Richard Leyda, and I collected and read every article and book we could identify on coaching as a form of teaching. Our goal was to explore how understanding this approach to teaching might help us develop a better teaching model for helping people grow spiritually in Bible study settings in the church. We studied and wrote on the topic, and I want to share a summary of what we learned with you.1

Coaching as Teaching

Coaching is a form of teaching that emphasizes learning and developing skill in something in ways that allow the learners to achieve some predetermined goals. This could be something like achieving a personal best in an individual sport, or winning an upcoming competition. This coaching approach to teaching involves four phases that take place in the context of a relationship with a coach.

Coaching: Phase 1 – Preparation

The coaching process begins with three preparatory steps, not unlike those for any teaching situation.

First, the coach identifies some purpose or goal that the athletes are to strive for and accomplish. This can include the development of some particular skill, winning the next game/meet, or beating a previous personal or team record.

Second, the coach assesses the athletes’ current knowledge, skill level, attitude, and motivation that are necessary for the accomplishment of the identified purpose or goal. This leads to the identification of areas for instruction and improvement.

Third, the coach sets objectives and develops a training plan to motivate and prepare the athletes to achieve the objectives that will better enable the accomplishment of the purpose or goal.

Coaching: Phase 2 – Practice

When the training and practice begin, the coach is concerned with three basic aspects of the athletes’ development: skills, strategy, and motivation. The athletes needs to develop the ability to execute the skills necessary to win, the ability to execute them in strategic ways that make winning more likely, and the motivation to focus and give maximum effort to the competition.

During the practice session the coach lays out the practice plan to the athletes. In the area of skill development, the coach presents the skills to be learned to the athletes, doing so both verbally and with demonstrations. The presentation is followed by the opportunity for the athletes to practice the skill, both mentally and physically, thinking it through and trying it out. The practice is supervised by the coach, who spends time giving feedback to the athletes in the form of praise and reinforcement, correction and re-instruction, and encouragement to “hustle,” stay focused, and stay motivated. The goal of this practice time is to help the athletes to develop a high skill level, the discipline and motivation to execute skills well, and the ability to reach a level of “automatic implementation,” a state of overlearning where the skills are exhibited at appropriate times without a lot of forethought or mental effort. Along with an emphasis on skill development, the coach also helps the athletes develop game strategies, thinking through how to utilize the skills in effective ways and how to respond to the changing conditions of the competition.

Coaching: Phase 3 – Performance

When the competition begins, the coach’s work is not done. The emphasis shifts from skill and strategy development to implementation, motivation, and strategy adjustment. The coach provides feedback on the athletes’ performance in competition, acts as an encourager to draw out maximum effort, and assists in identifying ways to adjust the play strategy in response to the conditions of the game, including facilities conditions, the opponents’ skills, strategies and efforts, and the athletes’ own physical, emotional, and mental states.

Coaching: Phase 4 – Post-game

Following the competition there may be a time of celebration if there has been success, or consolation and encouragement if things have not gone well. Eventually there is a time for evaluating the athletes’ performance and the development of a plan for improvement and/or preparation for the next competition. This phase leads back to Phase 1: Preparation.

Coaching: The Person of the Coach

Through the leadership and teaching of this individual, the entire process fits together and flows. He/she integrates the four phases through a blend of a particular coaching philosophy and individual coaching style. The coach’s personality traits, character qualities, and caring relationship with the players give a personal texture to the process that renders it human and not simply mechanistic. The personal example and life of the coach reinforce the lessons learned on the field yet cause them to extend far beyond it.

That completes the coaching pedagogy model. Next month I want to look at Paul’s ministry and how his teaching reflects aspects of coaching, and then talk about how to approach our teaching in the church from a coaching perspective. It makes a big difference in how we use our time in our teaching sessions and what we expect from those we teach.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Think of a Bible teaching context in which you felt you were learning a lot and being challenged to grow in your walk with God. What made that such a powerful experience for you? What did the teacher/leader do that encouraged or promoted the growth you experienced?
  2. Think about your own teaching ministry. To what degree is it promoting “Teaching for Knowing” instead of “Teaching for Growing?” What is hindering a deeper learning experience?
  3. When you look at Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching ministries reflected in the New Testament, what evidence, if any, do you see of them “coaching” those they are speaking or writing to? We’ll look at this more next month.
  4. Does this “coaching” approach to teaching make sense for the kind of teaching you see needed in the church? Where does it fit well? What aspects do not fit as well?