"Mr. Bradley, I heard on the news that aspartame causes cancer in lab rats. Is that true?”
That’s all it took to completely derail Biology II at my rural high school. Every day a different student would ask a predetermined question about Mr. Bradley’s No. 1 interest: carcinogens. And every day, his inevitable rabbit trail meant no lesson and no homework. Unsurprisingly, none of us learned much about biology in that class.
Managing classroom discussions can be challenging for teachers, even if their students aren’t actively plotting against them. But runaway conversations in the Sunday School classroom do more than waste time; they can destroy unity and harm people in our families, churches, and communities.
As we come to the Lord’s house and gather in our classrooms each week to study, talk, and pray together, we would be wise to remember David’s words in Psalm 15: “Who may worship in your sanctuary, Lord? Who may enter your presence on your holy hill? Those who lead blameless lives and do what is right, speaking the truth from sincere hearts. Those who refuse to gossip or harm their neighbors or speak evil of their friends” (verses 1–3, NLT).
David says when we pursue holiness, speak the truth sincerely, and refuse to weaponize words, we gain access to the very presence of God.
Listen well. Good teachers are good listeners. Not only do they listen to God’s Word and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but they listen carefully to students and encourage them to listen to one another.
Mutual respect demonstrated through careful listening has always been an important ingredient in church unity. Near the beginning of his letter to believers, James (brother of Jesus and leader in the Jerusalem church) wrote, “Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry” (1:19, NLT). Taking these steps in the order James prescribes will set the stage for God-honoring conversations.
Do what God’s Word says. James continues, “Don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says” (verse 22, NLT). Aligning our lives with Scripture is the essence of holiness. As Bible teachers, we should allow each lesson to change us first—long before we ever enter the classroom (see 1:23–25; 3:1). Only then can we exhort students and lead God-honoring discussions with integrity and legitimacy.
Speak the Truth Sincerely
Facilitate in-depth discussion. Few tools encourage students to think harder and interact more meaningfully with Scripture than group discussion. Allow plenty of time for the questions included in your Adult Teacher Guide and other questions you add to fit the context and personality of your class. Resist the urge to fill every lull in the conversation. Growth happens in those quiet moments when students are processing new thoughts and ideas.
Carefully interpret Scripture. It’s our job to point students back to the Bible with every question or discussion item. Rather than relying on our opinions or limited perspectives, we should constantly ask ourselves and our students: But what does the Bible say? When we follow Paul’s instruction to “be a good worker . . . who correctly explains the word of truth,” we don’t “need to be ashamed” and will “receive [God’s] approval” (2 Timothy 2:15, NLT).
It’s all too easy to respond to impromptu questions or comments by quoting familiar Scriptures out of context. Let’s resist that temptation. A teacher’s words carry weight and can greatly affect how students understand Scripture and God’s character. As you prepare to teach each lesson, imagine what questions might come up. Then ask yourself, How can I respond in a way that reflects the whole truth of the Bible? When questions come up that you aren’t prepared or equipped to answer, simply say, “I don’t know that answer.” Then assure the class you’ll research the subject or ask a student to do so. Remember to follow up the next week!
Share your struggles. If the lesson topic is something you struggle with or don’t fully understand, humbly admit that to your students. Every time I teach about God testing Abraham’s faith in Genesis 22, I admit how uncomfortable the story makes me as a parent. When I teach about patience, I confess I am still growing in that virtue. Talking about our struggles causes students to let their guard down. They open up when they realize the classroom is a safe place to have honest, even difficult, discussions about Scripture intersecting with real life.
Refuse to Weaponize Words
Shut down gossip. Gossip is condemned throughout Scripture, and Paul even lists it alongside other sins like murder, sexual depravity, and hating God (see Romans 1:24–32). David himself had been the subject of people’s praise—“Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands!” (1 Samuel 18:7, NLT)—as well as people’s scorn—“Malicious witnesses testify against me” (Psalm 35:11, NLT). It is no wonder his qualifications for pleasing God in Psalm 15 include “those who refuse to gossip” (verse 3, NLT).
When gossip creeps into your class, take a cue from Barney Fife and “nip it in the bud.” Start by gently redirecting the conversation. If someone makes a negative comment, immediately respond with a true statement filled with positivity or compassion.
To “I don’t like that song we sang in church last week,” you could respond, “I appreciate how hard the worship team works every week. God is really using them.”
To “Linda needs to lose some weight,” you could respond, “She is such a kind person. I really enjoy spending time with her.”
To “I can’t believe John is drinking again,” you could respond, “I understand what it’s like to fight hard against sin. What do you struggle with?”
Sometimes a more forceful rebuke is needed, and that is your prerogative and responsibility as teacher. Not only are you protecting people’s reputations and upholding their value as image-bearers, but you are sending the message that unwholesome talk has no place in the body of Christ—or your class.
Guard your class prayer time. It is dangerously easy to cross the line from prayer request time to full-fledged gossip session. Sadly, the church crosses that line so often that we have become notorious for it.
Establishing a few parameters for your prayer time will help keep the conversation on track. Pastor Matt Mitchell1 suggests these:
Check your role. Is it your place to share this request? Set the clear expectation that people must give permission for their names and prayer requests to be shared in your class. Without that permission, needs must be shared without using names (or other identification clues) or not shared at all.
Check your audience. Some people can be trusted to keep requests confidential. Some cannot. Explain that every prayer need mentioned in your class will not be shared beyond it without permission. As time passes and people honor this commitment, trust will grow.
Check your facts. Once you have a person’s permission to share a request, make sure you have the information straight. Don’t share hearsay or rumors. And don’t say more than you have to. God knows all the details.
Check your heart. Like every other sin, gossip starts in the heart (see Matthew 12:35–37). Be honest with yourself: Are you sharing out of genuine love and a desire for God’s glory? Or are you trying to impress people with your knowledge? Do you get a thrill from sharing a secret? Would you say anything differently if the person was in the room?
Holy conversation—strategically filled with grace and truth—brings honor to God and builds up other people. As we lead in this area, let’s pray along with David: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14, NLT).
1. Matt Mitchell, “Keeping Gossip Out of Prayer Requests,” CareLeader, accessed April 14, 2022, https://www.careleader.org/keeping-gossip-prayer-requests/.