Last month I shared a “coaching” model for teaching that I believe can help us deepen the impact of our teaching, helping us avoid the problems of biblical amnesia and aborted application. This month I start by looking at Paul’s teaching ministry to see how this coaching approach fits with his efforts. Then I go back through the phases of the coaching model and talk about what that would mean for us as teachers in the church. What does it look like to begin teaching like a coach?
Approaching Our Teaching as Coaching
In the New Testament, we see an example of a “coaching” approach to teaching in some of Paul’s writings. Paul gave new instructions to the churches he was writing to, but he also took time to review, to revisit lessons learned by those he taught, and to correct or affirm and encourage them in ongoing faithfulness. One example of this is found in his first letter to the Thessalonians,
Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you; so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need. (I Thessalonians 4:9-12)
Here, Paul provides feedback on their success in learning, offering encouragement and motivating them to still greater faithfulnessin practice. People who are learning truths that point to new life responses need someone to “coach” them through the process of learning new habits, of practicing and developing new ways of living. They need a coach to help them review how they have lived out what they have learned, offer counsel, consider options, affirm effort, and maintain a vision of the goal of Christlikeness. When this happens, people are better able to persevere in the challenging effort of changing old habits and establishing new ones. Without this, lessons are quickly forgotten and we easily get into a pattern of ignoring the connection between what we are learning and what we are doing. Coaches also respond with correction when athletes revert back to old bad habits. Paul does this with the Galatians when he writes,
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard? (Galatians 3:1-5, NIV)
These are strong words, but Paul had developed the kind of relationship with the Christians in Galatia that allowed him to rebuke them when he thought it was necessary. Knowing does not always result in doing, and Paul was urging them to live out what they had learned from him.
It is not enough to mentally affirm something. Our lives need to reflect the truth we affirm. Without this, our beliefs have little real impact. James warns us of the dangers of believing but not doing when he said,
What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, “You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2: 14-18)
Much of our educational efforts in churches do not help with this process of living out what we are learning. We are too busy going on to the next lesson each week to take time to review past lessons and examine our lives in light of them. We settle for communicating information and affirming understanding. Do we really expect changes in attitude and behavior to result from our teaching? Are we afraid to look at what people really do with what they learn? Is our teaching to partner with God in the sanctification of His people, or to maintain the status quo? Our actual teaching practices speak loudly about our expectations. I am afraid we have too often expected too little. If we are to go deeper in our teaching and learning, deep enough to see sustained inner and outer transformation, we will need to approach our teaching more like coaches than communicators of important information.1
Teaching like a Coach: Being a Player-Coach
I’m convinced that a critical starting point for developing a deeper teaching ministry is in how we see ourselves as teachers. Our own sense of identity, and the image we have of our task, will influence what we try to do and what we will be satisfied with. When it comes to teaching the Bible or leading a Bible study in a group setting, we are not experts passing on our wisdom, but learners together from God as He uses His Word to examine our lives and teach us His way. We are like “player-coaches,” who offer guidance to the team because of our knowledge and experience even as we play the game with them, not coaches on the sidelines yelling in instructions. Good “player-coach” teachers will pursue four aspects of their own development and their relationship with those they teach.
First, they will desire to know their students well and develop caring relationships with them. The better we know those we teach, the more easily we can discern where the Bible content we may be teaching will be a challenge or an encouragement to them. If we build caring relationships with them, we will get to know them and we will want to do our best in our teaching for their sake. This will also help in creating a more open atmosphere in the group, allowing people to more freely share their questions, doubts, challenges, and failures. When we can be more open with each other, we have a greater opportunity to learn and grow together.
Second, good player-coaches will put in the necessary time to know what they are to teach. This involves careful study of the text, but this is not just knowing what the Scripture says and means. It is also a knowledge of what it is like to personally pursue obedience in these areas. This kind of experiential knowledge is important if we hope to lead those we teach to real growth. Without it, we end up teaching “truth at arms length,” something to be affirmed, but with little significance for our lives.
Third, related to the above, good player-coaches will be committed to their own growth and that of those they teach. They will be dependable, consistent in their pursuit of increasing obedience and faithfulness to God. That does not mean that teachers must have mastered all of what they are to teach. Some of what we learn in Scripture is a life-long pursuit, not something we master. But they must be examples of people committed to learning and growing in these areas, even when it is hard.
Fourth, they will have hope that allows them to be positive and enthusiastic about what they are teaching, knowing that God is at work in them and in those they teach. They will strive to teach in a hopeful, expectant manner, with confidence in God’s love and grace, even when He disciplines those He loves. If those we teach know we are for them, and that God is for them, it can give hope and foster stronger motivation to learn and grow together.
Teaching like a Coach: Phase I – Preparation
Earlier in this book we shared about the kind of “closet” preparation for teaching that leads to deeper teaching impact. It is not just a matter of studying and understanding the passage to be taught, but requires investing time with God so He can teach us and work in our own hearts and lives before we attempt to teach others. It also requires time reflecting on those we will teach, asking God to give us insight into their lives and needs so that we may be better able to guide them into learning from God’s Word those things that they need to grow in love and obedience to Him. This kind of dual focus of preparation – knowing the material and knowing those in the group – is critical to a deeper teaching impact.
Coaches invest time in getting to know the game and the skills needed to achieve well. They know the challenges of the game, the obstacles that need to be overcome, and the kind of effort needed to succeed. Teachers who prepare like coaches will strive to invest time in the following efforts:
First, they will strive to be clear on the purpose and goals they are pursuing. They need to understand the big picture of what God is striving to accomplish in the lives of those they will teach. In light of this they will set some goals for their group that they can pursue together as they study God’s Word. Understanding the big picture and the goals for the group gives added motivation for those who are a part of the group. It helps them know where they are headed and why it is worth committing time together to get there.
Second, as they spend time with those they teach, they will get to know them well enough to know their areas of need and their areas of growth. They will take time to get feedback on previous lessons to know where they are succeeding and where they are struggling. This can help the teacher know whether there is a need to revisit previous lessons or the time is right to move on to new ones. This kind of assessment helps in focusing the study on the growing edge of their lives.
Third, when the first two are done well, the teacher is able to develop clear lesson plans with specific aims and objectives. They know how they want to spend their time together to address the needs and understanding of those they teach, and how to connect the lesson to their lives in ways that are motivating.
Teaching like a Coach: Phases II & III – Practice & Performance
In sports there is a clear distinction between the contexts of practice and performance. Practice is to prepare you for performance, where what you do will be evaluated and compared with others. Coaches typically have more access to their athletes in practice sessions than in the final performance, but they often can still offer some guidance, encouragement, and motivation in the game itself. For most of us who teach the Bible in a group setting, this is like the “practice” opportunities athletes have with their coaches. Time is taken out of the “game of life” to study, reflect, and pray about how to better play the game. However, teachers also have opportunities to interact with those they teach outside their study time, to connect and share how the game is going and to offer encouragement and strategy adjustments for better performance. There is a lot that we can learn from what coaches do with their athletes in practice sessions and in their competitions. Four major aspects stand out that can help make for a deeper teaching and learning experience.
Team-Building. First of all, for group sports, coaches devote a lot of effort to team-building. They know that teammates have a great impact on each other, increasing motivation, offering encouragement, and uniting effort toward a common goal. Too often our Bible teaching is focused on helping individuals learn and grow, instead of recognizing the powerful potential of the group to stimulate spiritual growth. Learning to live faithfully is not an individual sport. We are part of the community of faith and we have a ministry to and with one another that can encourage learning and increasing faithfulness. In passage after passage, Paul and others writing in the New Testament affirm the important ministry we have with each other that helps us live more faithfully as we follow God.
You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. (Galatians 5:13)
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. (Ephesians 4:2)
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16)
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. (I Thessalonians 5:11)
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. (Hebrews 10:24)
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. (I Peter 4:8)
Taking time to develop a close fellowship as a community of learners can multiply the impact of study time together, as members encourage each other, share struggles and successes, and remind each other of the importance of what they are learning.
Instruction and Modeling. In practice sessions, coaches instruct their athletes in the skills of the game and give them opportunities to practice those developing skills over and over again in a safe environment. Instruction is done through a combination of conversation and demonstration, showing the typical problems encountered in carrying out the skill and how to do it right. The modeling of the coach, and of other experienced teammates, offers hope that the skills can be learned, and shows how valuable they are. Those who teach like coaches are willing to model what they are teaching, demonstrating through their own lives what these skills of the game look like and giving opportunities for their students to practice what they are learning. They also draw on the progress of others in the group who can be models to those who are struggling to live out what they are learning.
Feedback and Reinforcement. Along with instructing and demonstrating new skills, coaches observe and offer feedback and reinforcement as athletes try out what they are learning. Immediate application of the lessons taught helps reinforce its importance and allows coaches to see where athletes are struggling to put it into practice. This also allows coaches to affirm the effort while correcting and re-teaching where needed, or urge the athlete to hustle and give more effort to the game. The ability to correct or rebuke bad practice is possible in the context of a caring relationship, knowing that the coach is committed to helping the athlete play the game to the best of his or her ability. Teaching like a coach requires opportunities to observe or hear about the efforts learners are making to put into practice what they are learning. There has to be an open enough environment for people to share their successes and struggles, allowing opportunities for the teacher to encourage, affirm, review, or correct as needed. Group service projects, retreats, and other experiences together outside the group study can give opportunities to try out what they are learning and receive feedback.
Over-learning. Practice and feedback on new skills continues until athletes reach a point of “over-learning,” where they no longer have to think consciously about carrying out the new skill, but it has become part of their automatic response to the demands of the game. This requires time to develop, with frequent review and refined practice as they receive feedback on how well they are doing. This kind of deeper learning does not happen overnight, but requires a teaching environment where reflection on past lessons and how group members are or are not applying what they have learned is a part of the norm. We may never get to the point where obedience is automatic, but we can grow to where it is a more natural reaction because of the change God has worked within us as we “test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:2b, NIV).
Teaching like a Coach: Phase IV – Post-game.
Coaching does not end when an athletic competition is over. If the game has gone well, there is time for celebration and affirmation. If it has gone poorly, time is taken to share the disappointment, review what went wrong and to see what can be learned from it that can help inform future practice. Too much of our teaching has no “post-game” opportunity. We too often move on to new topics without seeing how group members are doing at applying what they have learned in the “game” of life. We are missing the periodic reflection to see where we are winning and where we are struggling. This can lead to an uneasy sense of failure, feeling that we should have past lessons learned well, but knowing that our implementation of them still leaves much to be desired. Over time this can lower our motivation for further study. Time must be allowed in our group sessions to revisit topics previously learned, affirming effort and progress, and looking for ways to continue to grow so that our lives are characterized more and more by obedience to God’s instruction. We need to revisit and reaffirm that the game really is worth playing, even if it feels like a struggle at times. Only through this kind of reflection can we determine what we need to work on together for greater success in obedience. This also helps remind us that following after God is a process, one that lasts throughout our lives.
I hope this discussion is giving you a new vision for your teaching ministry, and how you might teach in ways that move you into more of a coaching approach. Too much of what we do in teaching in the church does not support this kind of deeper learning process and transformation over time. I believe this coaching approach can help us more effectively achieve the kinds of learning goals we have for those we teach. But how do we begin to change what we do as teachers to begin to teach more like a coach? My blog over the next two months will provide about a dozen ideas for what this means in concrete terms as we prepare to teach and as we teach.
Questions for Reflection:
- When you look at Paul’s teaching ministry reflected in his epistles, what other evidence, if any, do you see of him “coaching” those he writes to? Does this coaching model do justice to his teaching efforts, or does it seem to miss what you see Paul doing in his writings. You might enjoy reading a portion of Richard Osmer’s book, The Teaching Ministry of Congregations (2007, Westminster/John Knox) where he takes a close look at Paul’s teaching ministry and sees three main approaches to his teaching.
- When you think about the “coaching” approach to teaching described above, what challenges do you see in teaching that way? What in your setting makes it hard to do all that is described?
- Does this “coaching” approach miss anything you think is important? Where might it not be the best approach to take?
- What do you think might need to change in your own teaching if you were to begin approaching it more like a coach? We’ll look more at this in the next two blogs.