One of the most discouraging things for a teacher or small group leader during a lesson is the perception that your students are not personally engaged with what is being taught. Here you are, teaching the most important truths in the universe with heartfelt passion, and some children seem completely disinterested, entirely inattentive, and utterly bored. Furthermore, your creative efforts to gain their attention and involve them in the lesson fail. At times like this, it’s tempting to ask: “Are they even listening? Is any of this truth reaching their minds and sinking into their hearts?” What’s a teacher or small group leader to do?
Here are some wise and encouraging words from John Angell James:
Every cause which is worth supporting, will have to encounter difficulties—and these are generally proportionate to the value of the object to be accomplished.
Now consider what we are trying to accomplish in our classrooms:
We are teaching children the glorious truths of Scripture so that they might know, honor, and treasure God, setting their hope in Christ alone, so that they will live as faithful disciples for the glory of God.
If this is our aim in our Sunday school classrooms, we should not be surprised when we encounter difficulties. Although written almost 200 years ago, John Angell James’ insights are as true and helpful today as they were in his day. He notes some discouragements that are commonly encountered when teaching children, and some suggestions for how to respond:
—From their DULLNESS. Instead of finding them quick in their conceptions, and steady in their application—you will often find them volatile in their habits, and slow of apprehension…
Never yield to such feelings…Plants of great excellence are often of slow growth, and pay with ample interests the gardener’s heavy toil, and delayed expectations.
—Their INGRATITUDE is oftentimes exceedingly discouraging…Perceiving that your kindness is wasted upon objects which it fails to impress—you feel sometimes disposed to withdraw your exertions, which are so little valued and improved.
But consider that this very state of the children’s minds, instead of inducing you to relax your exertions, should stimulate you to greater activity, since it is a part of that depravity of heart and that deformity of character, for the removal of which they are entrusted to your care. To abandon them on this account, would be like the physician’s giving up his patient because he is diseased. The more insensible and ungrateful you find them, the more should you labor for their improvement…
—Their MISIMPROVEMENT operates very unfavorably upon the mind of their instructors. Who has not sometimes experienced a chilling depression, when he has looked round upon the school at large, and compared the actual state of the children…How many appear just as depraved—as when they entered the school, and are leaving it without a single proof on which a teacher can rest his hope that they are really the better for his instructions.
…Children, in whose hearts devout impression may have been produced, are often removed from beneath your care—before you have an opportunity to witness the fruit of your toil! But the eye of God is upon his own work, and he will in eternity, make known to you all that he does by you.
I love his phrase, “But the eye of God is upon his own work.” This is so encouraging to keep in mind! It reinforces the desperate need for teachers and small group leaders to incorporate prayer in all our lesson preparations. By doing so, we humbly acknowledge that true regeneration and saving faith is by God’s sovereign grace, through the work of the Holy Spirit, who makes us alive to Christ and empowers us to walk in His ways. Therefore, we are encouraged to pray that, by God’s sovereign grace, the disinterested, inattentive, and utterly bored child in our classroom may one day become a faithful and passionate follower of Jesus!
Post for Parents: Equip your students’ parents with some helpful tips to better prepare them for the classroom with this recent post: Preparing Your Child for Sunday School.