Yesterday the adult Sunday School at Grand Rapids Free Reformed Church started Derek Thomas’s new Ligonier video teaching series on Pilgrim’s Progress. Since I started pastoring there in July, we’ve worked our way through The Peacemaker by Ken Sande and Resisting Gossip by Matthew Mitchell – both great books for laying a foundation of biblical conduct in areas that often cause so many problems in churches. However, we fancied a change from a book study and also wanted to move on to something a bit more positive and encouraging than trouble-shooting and  problem-solving.

When I saw the Pilgrim’s Progress series, I knew immediately it would fit the bill. The video lessons are 20-25 minutes long and come with an excellent lecture outline and study guide, which makes for a perfect 40-minute Sunday school class format. That it was taught by Derek Thomas was the icing on the cake. As we watched yesterday morning, I was reminded again of why I’ve increasingly thought that Derek is one of the master teachers of our generation. Here are ten “teaching tips” that I picked up from watching Derek teach:

1. Relax: A tense teacher makes for a tense classroom. But uptight and stressed is not Derek’s style. He’s so laid-back and relaxed you feel he’s chatting to you round the fire more than lecturing in a classroom. He is so easy, enjoyable, and, yes, even entertaining to listen to.

2. Warm up: Unlike many American speakers who spring off the starting blocks like Usain Bolt, British speakers often take a while to get going. Derek takes even longer than most. Of course he could go faster, but he chooses to go more slowly at first in order to warm up his hearers and bring them along with him. He doesn’t want to give his hearers brain cramp.

3. Slow down: Derek doesn’t just start slow, he stays slow. Yes, his pace picks up as he goes on, but he never gets into motormouth territory. He makes the deliberate choice to cut down the number of words he will say in order to make the words he does say linger and stick. In a day that values quantity over quality, that takes great faith! Sinclair Ferguson and R.C. Sproul are also good examples of this.

4. Connect: Derek communicates affection and even love for his students. You get the clear impression that he actually likes the people he is teaching. They are not just automatons or statistics to him, but real people. You see this in his expressions and you hear it in his voice, but he also makes a couple of remarks to indicate that he’s observed who’s in front of him and that he’s tailoring his teaching to them.

5. Mix it up: He reads the book, expounds the book, critiques the book, explains the historical context, tells Bunyan’s life-story, asks questions, teaches theological principles, applies lessons to current times, and so on, seamlessly moving from one teaching tactic to another.

6. Tease: In a couple of places he hints at what lies in store down the road. By whetting the tastebuds and heightening anticipation he’s persuading people that their sacrifice of time will be worth it and that their perseverance in the course will pay off.

7. Lighten up: The lectern is not the same as the pulpit, and teaching from Pilgrim’s Progress is not the same as preaching God’s Word. Therefore the little sides and dashes of subtle humor are appropriate and even enhancing. Vitally, the humor never veers into the amateur stand-up comedy routine that has become so common and so tiresome.

8. Motivate: Derek raises the stakes right at the beginning of the lecture by explaining the historical importance of the Pilgrim’s Progress and by highlighting the danger of this present generation losing the book altogether. He is essentially calling his students to be “keepers of the flame,” to keep this important book alive in their homes and churches for years to come. Quite a calling!

9. Enthusiasm: I remember one teacher I had who clearly hated his job. One day he came into class, threw his jacket off, pulled his tie down, exhaled a sigh and groaned, “As I was driving in this morning, I was thinking, ‘Only 28 years of this to go!’” Inspiring! Not. Derek is such a contrast to this. His evident love for Bunyan and Pilgrim’s Progress is contagious and compelling.

10. Eye-contact: Few things bug me more than teachers who just stand at the front of a class, eyes down, reading notes word for word. Just give me the notes if you’re going to do that. I can read them better and faster than you. But though Derek is following notes, he’s not bound to them, maximizing eye-contact as much as possible throughout. It’s lively, “human,” and engaging.

I could go on, but you can watch the first lesson below and learn not just from what Derek teaches but also from how he teaches.

  • Guest

    I’ve always liked the way Dr Thomas reads Scripture. Slowly……………..deliberately and with………………………….. poised emphasis.

  • Tom

    Agree with many of your points. Thomas is a bit slow for me, though. Teaching such as this strikes me as lacking earnestness, a quality Spurgeon for example spoke much of. Thomas’ style seems sleepy, as though he has little burden. The slow takeoff comes across as lack of directness.

    Of course this is how this particular speaker strikes me, and only me. I am an American, as you say. :^) I also struggle with recurrent health issues, which may affect how I listen.

    I’m sure Thomas is earnest, and so I recognize that the impressions his style gives me are inaccurate. However, those impressions are there, and as I listen I must constantly deal with them, making the listening experience less enjoyable. I must fight to keep my own interest, earnestness, zeal, and burden from flagging in the face of his (seeming) lack of these qualities. Perhaps I’m too easily influenced. I do know I prefer something with a bit more energy. My opinion alone, and certainly not a major issue. Interesting though.

  • Matt Mitchell

    I’m glad to hear about your class going through “Resisting Gossip” and that you found it helpful! That’s very encouraging!

    Thanks for the tip on this Pilgrim’s Progress series. Sounds good.

  • Ryan Higginbottom

    As a college professor, this list is very helpful. I benefit not just from Derek Thomas but also you, Dr. Murray as you compile this list. Thanks!

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