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3 Approaches to Teaching with an Elephant in the Room

When a big event captures people’s attention — emotionally and spiritually — what should you do?

Young people talking

You’ve studied. You’ve prayed. You’re prepared. But it’s obvious everyone in your class is thinking about something else. What should you do? You've got three choices.

All of us have been there. We’ve got a great lesson planned from a portion of Scripture. We’ve marked up our Leader Guide. We’ve studied. We’ve prayed. We’re prepared. But almost as soon as we begin teaching, it’s obvious folks are thinking about something else. We may have been able to tell that even as the group was gathering. We may have already known that would happen given the news the night before!

What kinds of things are we talking about?

  • A serious weather occurrence: tornado, hurricane, flood, etc.
  • A death in the church
  • A big community event
  • The closing of a factory

These are big events that capture people’s attention. They have your group members emotionally engaged, perhaps spiritually engaged as well. So, what do we do?  

We’ve got three choices.

1. Stick with the plan. 

I’ve got to admit, this is my default setting. Full disclosure: I’m an expository preacher. That means I ask God to lead me to a book of the Bible and I preach through it. And I trust that the Holy Spirit who led me to preach this portion of Scripture will help me apply it in the context of what’s going on in our world at the time. I’m also a planner, and I hate deviating from a good plan. That’s also why I tend to stick with the same Bible study for a while. My tendency is to press ahead with this week’s lesson so as not to get off track. But doing so can seem insensitive or out of touch if we’re ignoring the elephant in the room.

2. Ditch the plan. 

You’ve lost them already and it’s going to be tough to direct them to this week’s lesson. So, join in on the conversation that’s already happening and try to guide it as best you can. Follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. And apply biblical principles to make sure that God gets the glory from your unscripted discussion time. You can get back to your regular study next week. Know ahead of time, though, that those who like a plan may well be frustrated that they didn’t really “have Bible study” this week. 

"The same God who led us to this study and to this week’s Scripture knew what would be going on in the life of our church and community."

Brian Gass

3. Modify the plan. 

Let your group know from the outset that you’re going to address the issue or moment that’s on everyone’s mind in the context of this week’s lesson. That will likely discourage anyone who might have a tendency to hijack the Bible study from doing so. It will also build a sense of expectation for a discussion that most members already want to participate in. And people learn best when they are already interested in what you’re teaching. There are very few times when I’ve been preaching or teaching and had to stretch to make a solid biblical connection to what was going on around us. The same God who led us to this study and to this week’s Scripture knew what would be going on in the life of our church and community also. We may just have to adjust some of the questions we ask to the circumstances, or provide relevant follow-up questions.

As I said earlier, my default setting is the first approach. The second would personally drive me crazy. But the third approach is the one that will probably best maximize our learning opportunity. It’s just a fact that people learn best what they already want to learn, and what they already want to learn is probably what they’re already talking about. If you’re using a discussion-oriented Bible study like Bible Studies for Life, you’ll find this easier, since we use open-ended questions in our Personal Study Guides and provide optional questions in our Leader Guides. We also provide additional questions online as well as up-to-date news articles that tie to the topic we’re studying each week at Leader Extras for Adults on 

Brian Gass is an editor for Bible Studies for Life, a bivocational pastor, and the teacher of a men’s Sunday School group. He and his wife Lisa also served as missionaries in Central Asia. They claim Memphis as their hometown, but now live near Nashville, Tenn.