No teacher, whatever may be his talents or acquirements, even though long practice has made him familiar with the Bible, and given him facility in expressing his ideas, ought to neglect the study of his weekly lessons. The wisest -man has much to learn from the wisdom of the Bible; and the most skilful teacher will be the first to confess that he knows but little, as he ought to know, of the way of winning souls.
Extempore teaching is, we believe, far from being uncommon. Some excuse for it is to be found in the circumstances of the teachers. Their limited means of procuring books, and their still more limited time for perusing them, prevent them from making their preparation so thorough as the importance of their duties would require. But, after making sufficient allowances for these adverse circumstances, we fear there is a large amount of blame resting on teachers. Instead of solemnly setting apart a portion of their leisure hours for the examination of their lesson, and taking advantage of all the helps which they have at command, some trust to their fluency, others to the information they can collect at the teachers' meeting, and others to the notes on the lesson which they have bought, and which they retail as they find them in the book.
Now, extempore teaching is nearly as objectionable as extempore preaching. The word taught is the same, and the souls to whom the teacher speaks are as precious as those addressed by the minister. Were a minister to open his Bible at his text, without having mastered its meaning, and, without previous thought, to attempt to expound it to his people, how long would he be popular? how long would he be useful1? Vagueness, diffuseness, repetition, and a want of freshness, are the invariable results of extempore teaching. The Word of God is too precious to be handled so carelessly, and it is not fit that an immortal and perishing soul should merely have the first words that come to hand. We need not wonder that such teaching yields little fruit. Have we sown sparingly, and shall we not reap sparingly? When we mingled so much chaff with the wheat, shall we wonder that but little grows.
A teacher who habitually neglects to study his lesson, will soon degenerate. The cistern that is always letting out and taking little in, will very soon be dry. He is an ill mower who never whets his scythe; he spoils both his work and his weapon. The unstudious teacher making little progress himself, his scholars will make less. Ten years hence, you shall find him pursuing the same well-worn track of thought, quoting the same texts of Scripture, and telling the same stories. The habit of teaching remains, but he has lost interest in it. When persons so willingly devote the study of years to a business or an accomplishment, why will they grudge one or two hours a-week to prepare themselves more fully for the service of heaven?
The excuse of want of time is true only to a limited extent. We believe some of those who are most engrossed during the week, are most conscientious in their preparations. Let us improve the time we really have, and we shall not be called to account for what we did not possess. Let us give the lesson a first place, to which all lesser things must give way, and it will be studied. Let us only be misers of knowledge, and though we gather it in halfpence and farthings, we shall eventually be rich.
It is from neglecting to study that there is so much vague teaching. There is a sort of general indeterminate way of speaking, which has no apparent object. Every sentence in itself is simple and easily understood; but we cannot discover what the teacher would be at. What he says is all pious, and, in its own way, useful enough, but it is totally destitute of point. He makes no progress. His last remarks might have been as appropriate at the beginning of the lesson as at the close; they have no special reference to the subject in hand, and little application to the particular class to whom they are addressed. The law and the gospel, addresses to saints and sinners, are intermingled without order; and it is evident at every stage of the lesson, that the teacher has never grappled with the truth which his subject illustrates, or understood in what way it was calculated to benefit his hearers.
The cure for this error is to master the lesson, and have a distinct object to gain in teaching it. Though a person should understand his lesson, yet, if he does not concentrate his information about it upon a point, he merely lays his knowledge at the door of the mind, and is not likely to effect an entrance. The impression cannot he more distinct than the stamp. We cannot communicate views more distinct than we ourselves possess. A sailor never speaks vaguely about the different parts of a ship, nor a tradesman about his handicraft. If we knew the Bible as intimately as they know their professions, we should hear less of vague teaching. Persons are vague only in speaking of what they do not clearly understand.
Another error, the result of want of preparation or misdirected study, is superficiality. Superficiality sometimes passes current as good teaching under the name of simplicity. In this simple mode of instruction, mental effort on the part of teachers or scholars is not thought of. The plan of teaching is to take every sentence as it stands in the Bible, and treat it as if it stood alone, and the lesson had no general subject; and the matter of the teaching is an occasional explanatory remark, with a few passing reflections. Thus we have seen the second chapter of Luke's Gospel taught in this way:—What does the angels appearing to the shepherds teach us? That we should not despise the poor. What does the song of the angels teach us? To glorify God for our salvation. What does the conduct of the shepherds in coming with haste teach us? To obey the commandments of God. What do we learn from the shepherds making-known the saying? To make known the coming of our Lord. No attempt was made to give the children a true conception of the grace of our Lord in becoming man, or to awaken their hearts to the lofty strain of the angels' jubilee song.
This mode of teaching sometimes degenerates into a mere play of words, as in this passage, "God is just." What is God? He is just. Who is just? God; and so the sentence is ended. But the child has not made one step in religious knowledge by the questions, for he remains as ignorant as before of the nature of justice. Or let the sentence be, "Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." The questions asked are, What are we to do? To repent. Who are to repent? All. Why are we to repent? Lest we perish. It is obvious that our first business ought rather to be, to explain fully what repentance is, and that then we should press on our scholars the duty of repentance. The simple questions noted above suggest very little to their minds.
In the example from Luke, cited above, the lessons, from the way in which they are put, have not justice done to them. We shall never make a person know the value of the truth that comes before him, by merely pointing out that one thing is good, and another bad, or that certain doctrines are taught in certain passages of the Bible. Bare statements, that one man is holy, and another wicked; that Job was the most patient man, Moses the meekest, and Samson the strongest; or that one event teaches humility, another honesty, and another prayerful-ness—have no moral power. A lesson, or inference, should be the conclusion we draw from an attentive consideration of all the circumstances of a case. If such consideration has not been given, our lesson, whether true or false, is of no value, because it is not accompanied with conviction. For example, if you place these three sentences before a child—Cain killed Abel—Jael killed Sisera—David killed Goliath—he will draw the same inference from them all. Before a person can draw a lesson aright, he must understand the facts, and have a standard before him to which they are applied. An intelligent apprehension of the object of teaching, and the meaning of the passage of Scripture, is the best remedy for superficiality.
A third error, the result of the same neglect of study, is untextual teaching. When a person has not a firm hold of his subject, he is easily seduced from it by an accidental association. We have heard a person teach the doctrine of original sin, from the text, Thou shalt not steal. When his knowledge of the lesson is slight, he is compelled to wander in search of matter into other fields, which, however, soon become exhausted. We say to all teachers, keep to your text, study it at home, go richly laden to school with its treasures, and the brief hour will appear too short for all the fresh thought you have to communicate.
Let us now see in what manner a lesson ought to be studied. Here let us first give one preliminary direction, to inexperienced teachers.
An inexperienced teacher who feels at a loss how to proceed with the study of his lesson, should commence with the first word, and go carefully over the lesson word by word, and clause by clause, asking himself as he goes along, Do I know the meaning of this? Am I able to explain this? What illustration would be proper here? What lessons does this teach me? In this way he will accumulate a large amount of material, and will gradually learn a more direct way of arranging his thoughts.
For example—Rom. v. 1, "Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." Here the words justify, faith, justification by faith, peace, peace with God, peace through Christ, demand separate examination; and the teacher should satisfy himself that he can communicate his ideas of these things as clearly as he knows them himself.
Another example may be given from 1 Sam. iii. 1, "And the child Samuel ministered, unto the Lord before Eli. And the word of the Lord was precious in those days; there was no open vision." The teacher should ask himself, What must I tell about Samuel to my scholars? In what way did he minister to the Lord? Will the children know what ministering means? Who was Eli? How shall I explain what is meant by the word of the Lord being precious? Would it be a suitable reference to speak of the number of Bibles in our own country? Must I tell the children what the word of the Lord is? What is meant by open vision? Let him make himself his own scholar, as it were, till he gains experience. The teacher who commences ill this painstaking way, will soon find his path brightening before him. When the lesson is to be studied more thoroughly, there are three directions which may be attended to:—
I. The first thing to which the teacher must turn his attention in studying his lesson, is to discover its general bearing. Let him try to find out its drift, the grand lessons it teaches, the current of thought that runs through it. When this has been discovered, he has then the subject of his lesson before him. For example, in the fourth commandment, our subject is, "Remember the Sabbath-day to keep it holy." This is the turning point of the commandment, of which the remainder is merely reasons and illustrations.
So in the passage, "Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might become rich;" the principal thought is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and upon this should our illustrations of Christ's poverty and riches hinge.
And again, in the parable of the prodigal son, the love of the father is the great lesson of the first part, and must stand out as the terminating point of our instructions.
A person, when he has settled the subject of his lesson in this way, has before his eyes a definite purpose to serve. Instead of occupying himself with unconnected explanations, pious but pointless reflections, and haphazard questions, he tries, we shall say, on that day, and by that one lesson, to convince the children of the value of their souls, or the evils of hypocrisy, or the holiness of God, or the happiness of heaven; something at least important and tangible. Instead of wandering at random wherever the impulse of association or the answers of the children may lead him, his subject is a helm to his thoughts, and guides them steadily to a point. He tries to lodge one or two great truths in the minds of his scholars; and this distinctness of purpose gives method and clearness to every part of the lesson. Both teacher and scholars know what they are about, and where they are at.
II. Having ascertained the scope of the lesson, the next step is to draw out apian of teaching it. This plan ought to be nothing more than an outline of the natural divisions of the passage of Scripture.
First example. Matthew vi. 25-34. The chief lesson in this passage is manifestly the evil of anxiety about worldly things. This, then, we term the title of the passage; and the following are the arguments by which it is enforced, each of which is one of the heads of a lesson.
1. Because He who gave man life, and formed his body, has not neglected provision for his support, verse 25.
2. Because if God feeds the birds, shall he not feed us 1 verse 26.
3. Because anxiety will not prolong our lives, verse 27.
4. Because if God array the short-lived flower so beautifully, lie will far more clothe us who are rational and immortal, verses 28-30.
5. Because anxiety will degrade us to mere worldlings, verse 32.
6. Because our Father knows we need subsistence, verse 32.
7. Because if we seek religion first, we shall gain the world also, verse 33.
8. Because every day has enough to do with its own sorrows, and what we have to concern ourselves with is present duty, verse 34.
Second example. Rev. vii. 9,10. The general subject of these verses is the condition of the redeemed. We have—
1. Their numbers.—A great multitude.
2. Their variety.—Of all nations and kindreds.
3. Their attitude.—They stood before the throne.
4. Their dress.—They were clothed with white robes.
5. Their employment.—They cried with a loud voice, &c.
Third example. What is justification? (Shorter Catechism.)
1. The nature of justification.—1st, We are pardoned. 2d, We are treated as if we were righteous.
2. The ground of justification.—The righteousness of Christ is imputed to us.
3. The manner in which we obtain justification.—By faith alone.
4. The source of justification.—The free grace of Cod.
Fourth example. Luke xiii. 6-9. The barren fig-tree.
1. Our privileges.—We are planted in a garden. Here should be taught the superiority of this country to heathen lands, the care that has been taken of us, the Bibles, Sabbaths, teachers, and friends we have had to instruct us, and the like.
2. Our duty.—God expects us to bring forth fruit. Here enumerate the principal duties which are required of us, as faith, love, and obedience.
3. Our unfruitfulness.—Here describe the sins of which we are guilty, and the manner in which our time and talents, but especially our affections, are allowed to run waste.
4. God's displeasure.—Cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground ? Under this head we might warn the scholars by examples, such as that of Jonah's address to the Nine-vites, of Daniel to Belteshazzar, and of Christ to the church of Ephesus.
5. God's forbearance.—Let it alone this year also. Here we should enlarge on the many years during which God has spared us.
6. The reason of his forbearance.—If it bear fruit, well. Shew here that every hour and every year we live is to give us time for repentance.
7. The limits of his forbearance.—If not, then after that thou shalt cut it down. Here let us prove, that if we have not sought God on earth, we shall not be able to find him afterwards.
Fifth example. Hebrews xii. 1, 2.
1. The race the Christian is to run.—Under this head we should describe the life of a Christian.
2. The preparation for the race.—1st, He is to lay aside every weight—that is, to keep out of temptation. 2d, He is to put off his besetting sin.
3. The manner in which he is to run the race.—With patience, or perseverance.
4. The model after which he is to run.—Looking to Jesus.
5. The motives which should cheer him.—He is compassed about with a great cloud of witnesses.
It is to be observed, that these plans or outlines are not intended to be an artificial framework into which the different parts of the lesson are to be violently forced; they are the real framework, separated from the incidents appended to them. Until a person rightly unwinds what may be called the clue of thought, he cannot teach any passage of Scripture in its entireness.
When a plan like the above has been sketched, the teacher has a clear channel, in which his thoughts may run. He knows not only the main lesson, but the steps by which he is to reach it; and instead of teaching in the dark, he teaches intelligently.
III. The next step is to provide sufficient materials for illustrating the lesson. It must be a principal care of the teacher to make his instructions substantial. Good thought is the basis of good teaching. Knowledge is the food of the soul, and is equally necessary for children as for adults, though it may be differently prepared. Many teachers starve their scholars, from underrating their capacities. All our materials should be ranged under their respective heads, and carefully conned over until the teacher is familiar with them, so that his texts and illustrations shall spontaneously present themselves when required, as the parties in a procession silently assume their places when every one knows his turn. It is a great matter to have one's tools in good order. A story should be told with spirit, and a text quoted accurately, fluently, and at the right place.
We recommend teachers not to delay the examination of their lessons till the end of the week, lest they study them hurriedly and superficially. When we study the Bible, we should always ask what it says to ourselves.
The difficulty may be suggested, that though a plan of teaching be drawn out, yet, from the ignorance, stupidity, or wilfulness of the children, it cannot be followed. We find one child who refuses to answer our questions, and another who gives an entirely wrong answer, and we are obliged to step aside to accommodate ourselves to their circumstances. To a certain extent this difficulty must be admitted; but if there is so much temptation to stray from the passage, is there not the more need for a guide through it? Our outline need not be so inflexible as to refuse to bend to the necessities of the scholars but neither must the teacher be so facile, as to yield to every interruption to his thoughts. He must bear himself like a man passing along a crowded street, who is forced now to incline to the right, and now to the left, and may occasionally be brought to a momentary halt, but who resolutely pushes his way to his destination. A little practice will teach the scholars to follow his line of thought, which is preferable to the teacher following theirs.
A well thought, well arranged lesson, possesses very many advantages over an extempore lesson. It is much richer in material, and much deeper in sentiment. The orderly manner in which the particulars are ranged make them memorable, and, above all, the lesson possesses unity. Union is power, both in the world of matter and in the world of mind. When a number of soldiers march over a suspension bridge, lest the bridge should be brought down by their tread they are obliged to be put off step; yet how trifling the effect of the footsteps of a single soldier! This proves the force of united action. So, when all the divisions, texts, and illustrations, are marshalled in regular order, their moral power must be proportionably great.
The preparation over, let us now view the teacher with his class.