In this week’s Whiteboard Wednesday experiment, we remember that Jesus’ primary “teaching” method involves improvised responses amid intentional conversations. Then we’ll learn the basics of teaching in an “improv” way.
But even though I’ve never been in a band and can’t play a single musical instrument, I play improvised music in our home every Tuesday night. My wife and I lead a home-based youth ministry for a dozen or so junior and senior highers (including our daughters, Emma and Lucy). Every gathering is characterized by a constant flow of interaction—in pairs, trios, foursomes, and the whole group. I provide context, direction, and lots of feedback to these conversations, but the output is always a surprise; therefore, my responses are always improvised. I see myself as an improv artist, not a “speaker.” And I think Jesus saw himself the same way. So much of his actual “teaching” was improvised in the moment, after an experience or during a conversation. In fact, Jesus practiced improv so often that it’s incumbent on us to create environments that promote improv teaching. Simply, we integrate our distinct “voice” into the group’s collective “voice.”
The best ministry conversations have Jesus as their focus and an improvisational, risk-taking interplay among the “players.” Nothing’s more energizing and satisfying than a long garage-band-jam of a conversation. These kinds of conversations are the fields in which all good things grow. Here are a few ways to prepare this kind of rich-growth soil:
- Pay “ridiculous attention” to others—The corollary to Jesus’ “You don’t have because you don’t ask” is “You don’t understand because you don’t pay attention.” Paying attention—or paying attention so well that we could call it “ridiculous”—is maybe the key to teaching in a transformative way. When you pay ridiculous attention to what teenagers say, you can add insights and ask follow-up questions that set the stage for “magic” moments in your group.
- Ask curious questions in a persistent way—Ask questions that make others wrestle with the truth, explore what they believe, and see Jesus differently than they have before. Jesus asked questions all the time and often answered questions with more questions. When we’re paying close attention, we can ask clarifying questions, or questions that make kids think more deeply than they have. Great questions emphasize why and how, not so much what. I mean, what questions mostly look for facts and rote answers, but why and how questions look for motivation and heart.
- Guide the discussion by asking great follow-up questions—My rule of thumb in any conversation is simple: Always ask one more follow-up question than you normally would. When we pursue past our normal boundaries, we unlock treasure. And when an answer seems out of place or incongruous, we can redirect the flow of the conversation by asking a follow-up question like: “If __________ is true, then how can _________ also be true?” The key is to pay attention well and then always ask follow-up questions until you hit a brick wall. Most of us give up way too soon.
- Respond to oversimplified or poorly reasoned responses by asking people to “take another shot at it”—C.S. Lewis’ razor intellect was molded by the tutor he lived with for years—the man nicknamed “The Great Knock” (William T. Kirkpatrick). Nervous about meeting the man, Lewis attempted some awkward conversation after he got off the train and introduced himself to Kirkpatrick: “I said I was surprised at the ‘scenery’ of Surrey; it was much ‘wilder’ than I had expected. ‘Stop!’ shouted Kirk with a suddenness that made me jump. ‘What do you mean by wildness and what ground had you for not expecting it?’ ” The Great Knock had no patience for fuzzy answers or lazy observations. It’s obviously risky to respond to people the way the Great Knock would, but we can certainly encourage them, gently, to think past their pat answers to our questions and think more deeply.
- Celebrate great insights when you hear them—Nothing fuels vigorous conversation more than celebrating the things that come out of your students’ mouths. I respond to every single thing a teenager says in our group, in some way. Some common responses: “That’s interesting” or “I love that” or “Did everyone catch that?” or “Wow, it’s important for us to pause here and consider what you just said.”
The more we trust the Spirit of Jesus in the middle of our improv teaching—made possible by an environment that values questions and conversation—the more we get to experience the thrill of partnering with Jesus in the moment. Nothing beats that.
 C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1955), 133.