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Occasional Letters - Tips for Teachers

D Newell, Glasgow

There used to be a programme on Radio Four called "The Tingle Factor". Well-known people were invited to explain why a favourite piece of music sent shivers up their spine. Music certainly can have that effect. Long-suffering friends have grown accustomed to my odd tendency to swoon over a Handel operatic aria, conduct an oratorio chorus in my sitting room, or mime my way through a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song. But, apart from that kind of eccentricity, how does one verbally communicate one’s personal pleasure to others in a way they can all understand? It’s not easy. I am, for example, highly susceptible to the distinctive vocal timbre of the Roberta Martin Singers, a Negro gospel group from the late 1940s whose recordings are exquisitely supported by the haunting rhythmic opulence of electronic organ and piano. But unless you hear them as I do, you will never comprehend my ecstasy.

A similar difficulty confronts the teacher of the Word. He must convey effectively, memorably, compellingly what he personally has found and enjoyed in Scripture so that his hearers can share his delight. Let’s face it; the Bible is the most important and exciting book in the world! But if on the platform my body language and vocal register give the impression that Scripture is dull, incomprehensible and irrelevant, I may as well go home. No one is likely to have his heart warmed by such ministry. By contrast, there can be no doubt that the Lord Jesus was a gripping speaker, "For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Mt 7.29). He expounded the Old Testament with a vigour, a vitality and power, which enthralled the souls of those weary disciples on the Emmaus road. Listen to their response: "And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?" (Lk 24.32). The first occurrence of this verb "to open" is in relation to a healing miracle: "And looking up to heaven, [Jesus] sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. And straightway his ears were opened" (Mk 7.34-35). But it is, I think, a far greater miracle for sinners to have their ears opened up to the truth of the Word and hear in it the very voice of God Himself. This is a divine work. A diligent teacher will therefore pray that the Lord will graciously use his ministry to the benefit of the saints; nevertheless, he will also make sure that he overlooks no legitimate means of getting his message across with real impact.

How then can we communicate with effectiveness? Here are five suggested As for the would-be teacher. First, he must be Accurate. We cannot be too diligent about transmitting God’s undiluted truth in all its pristine clarity. There is no point in attempting to instruct others if we do not adequately know our subject. Doctrinal correctness is non-negotiable, as the story of Apollos makes clear:

And a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man, and mighty in the scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man was instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in the spirit, he spake and taught diligently the things of the Lord, knowing only the baptism of John. And he began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfect (Acts 18.24-26).

Apollos had communication skills in abundance. He was "eloquent [logios, ‘He had stores of learning and could use it convincingly’ (W E Vine)]", "mighty in the [Old Testament] scriptures", "instructed in the way of the Lord" and "fervent [zeo, ‘to be hot, to boil’ (W E Vine)] in the spirit". It is easy to understand how he took the Ephesian synagogue by storm, attracting the interest of Aquila and Priscilla who still attended its meetings. Alexandria was the site of a vast library and university, and Apollos seems to have been one of its graduates. But note this. Recognising his deficient grasp of full New Testament Christianity, Aquila and Priscilla kindly took him home to give him the inestimable benefit of what they had recently learned from Paul. The teacher will always be ready to find out more.

Second, he must be Audible. Without any artificial aids, Peter made sure the Pentecostal crowd could hear him: "Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and said unto them, Ye men of Judea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and hearken to my words" (Acts 2.14). If I aim to teach the people of God I cannot afford to mumble. However doctrinally accurate a teacher may be he is wasting his and others’ time if he does not speak at a level that all can hear. This means aiming to cater especially for the elderly and infirm. If they can hear, you can be pretty sure that everyone can! One of the blessings of my childhood was to be taken regularly by my parents to a local Old Folks Home where a weekly evangelistic meeting was held prior to the normal meeting in the Gospel Hall. When I was encouraged to read Scripture aloud and later to give a little word about the gospel, it was firmly drummed into me that I must speak up and speak slowly if I wanted to be understood. This was a good training ground. To young men I would say, always pitch your voice a little louder than you think you need.

Third, he must be Articulate. By this I refer not only to fluency and ease of speech, but to the added dimension of grammatical exactness. If we muddle our sentences we are likely to muddle our listeners. I sometimes listen to recordings of meetings, just to pick up my latest mistakes. I was recently embarrassed to hear myself say: "Thank you very much for the privilege of permitting me to come back to —". That messy mouthful was intended to convey the idea that I counted it an honour to teach the saints; but it came over as though they were the privileged ones! I had succeeded in saying the opposite of what I meant. A man who finds himself doing this too often had probably better retire from platform ministry. If I constantly mangle the English language in public it is likely that some of my hearers will be so distracted by my blunders, or confused by my ineptness, that they miss the kernel of the message.

Fourth, he must be Accessible. It is of no avail if the teacher’s eloquence goes over the heads of the congregation. Accessibility simply means ease of understanding. There is no point speaking as if one were delivering an academic lecture to a company of university graduates. Some pitch their rhetoric too high, some use an obscure vocabulary, while others think that everything, including illustrations, has to be couched in the archaic language of the King James Bible, as though normal speech was somehow spiritually improper. Years ago people believed that the Greek of the New Testament was a special Greek devised by the Holy Spirit to convey divine truth – but further research revealed that it was in fact the ordinary, day to day language of the first century AD. Plain speech has its own power. We can do no better than model ourselves on Ezra and his Levitical assistants who "read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading" (Neh 8.8). This takes time and effort, but it is worth it for, as Paul says, "Except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken?" (1 Cor 14.9).

Finally (and here we come full circle), the teacher must be Arresting. The doctrine may be faultless, the volume perfect, the grammar beyond reproach, and the eloquence pitched just right for the congregation – but what is the use if the teacher sounds as though his subject matter wearies him? If we are not excited by God’s Word we should not be speaking about it. A tedious, sluggish delivery only causes the eyelids to droop. Let us rather catch the enthusiasm of the psalmist: "I rejoice at thy word, as one that findeth great spoil" (Ps 119.162). If we can only communicate such infectious joy from the platform we shall be stimulating others to go home and feast on the Scriptures for themselves.

To be continued.


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