Question received: I haven’t been to seminary or received any formal theological training. I’m grateful for all God has taught me over the years through the ministry of the Word on Sunday mornings and in Bible studies in my church, but I often feel inadequate to teach the Bible to others, even though I want to (and others have encouraged me to). What resources are there for theological training I’d be able to use as a non-seminarian—and one who cannot go to seminary at this stage in my life?
I once heard a theologian-friend describe someone as an “autodidact.” I had to ask him what it meant. “A self-taught person,” he told me. This is how I’d describe myself when it comes to how and what I’ve learned about the Bible and teaching the Bible. We can be autodidacts together!
Of course, this doesn’t mean we’re completely on our own in terms of theological and biblical training; it just means we haven’t had a great deal of formal training in an educational institution. Instead, we’ve sought out ways to learn on our own. And there are so many great resources for us to grow in our understanding of Scripture and theological truth without attending seminary (though I hope you won’t rule it out!).
Here are seven ways to grow and equip yourself:
1. Keep your passionate heart and inquiring mind engaged with your Bible.
This is your most important resource. Leave behind a casual or purely devotional approach to the Bible and start studying it in a way that prepares you to give it back out. Pray earnestly for God’s help, by his Spirit, in understanding the words he breathed out. Work your way through a book of the Bible as if you were going to have to teach it. Figure out how you would break up the book, how you would outline and organize your teaching. Work diligently through the text, searching out answers from sound sources to the questions it raises.
As you invest yourself in grasping Scripture and figuring out how to communicate it, you’ll be bursting at the seams to find opportunities to share what you’ve learned with someone else rather than feeling inadequate.
2. Read some books about interpreting and communicating the Scriptures.
Sometimes these will be books about preaching. We want to use many of the same skills as an excellent preacher in terms of how we aim to handle the text. Ask your pastor what he recommends. Here are just a few you might look at:
- Dig Deeper: Tools for Understanding God’s Word by Nigel Beynon and Andrew Sach (Crossway, 2010)
- Getting the Message: A Plan for Interpreting and Applying the Bible by Dan Doriani (P&R, 1996)
- Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today by David Helm (Crossway, 2014) [review]
Read some books that help you grow in understanding the Bible as one story centering on Christ, such as:
- Far as the Curse Is Found by Michael Williams (P&R, 2005)
- The Goldsworthy Trilogy (Paternoster, 2002) or Christ-Centered Biblical Theology by Graeme Goldsworthy (InterVarsity, 2012) [review]
- Jesus on Every Page by David Murray (Thomas Nelson, 2013) [review]
And have a good book on hand that deals concisely with theological issues, such as:
3. Spend some time studying the geography of the Bible.
I did start taking some seminary classes a while back via distance education, usually one class a semester and over the summer. One of the best things I did was go on the seminary trip to Israel. Before the trip I had to do a lot of work on maps of the area, which I found tedious but proved enormously helpful to me. I can now better visualize and grasp the implications of geographical references in the Bible. A good study Bible will have an assortment of helpful maps, and you might consult a resource like the ESV Bible Atlas (Crossway, 2010).
4. Study sound teachers.
If you don’t already take notes when sitting under teaching or preaching, start doing that, and start a file for them. Notice how preachers or teachers put together their points and then illustrate and apply the text. In addition to our own pastors and teachers in our local church, there’s a vast treasure of recordings of sound teachers we can download and listen to. But choose wisely! The TGC sermon resources are a good place to start. Listen to a variety of teachers and preachers, and not just one.
You’re not necessarily looking for those who have big names, but those whose teaching centers on and flows from the text. Because of that, the effectiveness of their teaching is not about their personality or stories or platform, but rather about the care they take in studying and presenting the text. Listen for things like: how they introduce and close their message; how they use storytelling, questions, illustrations, humor; and how they deal with debated issues. How much do they skip around to other parts of the Bible and for what purpose? How do they set the historical setting? How do they use repetition and alliteration?
5. Seek out mentors as well as companions for the journey.
It took me a long time to find a theologically trained person who would actually read or listen to a message of mine and give specific constructive feedback, theological correction, as well as encouragement. I hope you can find one or two. But also seek out companions who, like you, want to grow in their ability to teach the Scriptures well. One of the best places to find companions is at a Simeon Trust Women’s Workshop on Biblical Exposition. In such a setting you have the opportunity to do some work with the text of Scripture and get helpful feedback so that you can improve. Often several women from a church come to a workshop together; this enables them to encourage each other as they make progress in improving as teachers. Often such outside training encourages excitement about developing training within congregations, under the leadership of pastors; in chapter 3 of Word-Filled Women’s Ministry, Carrie Sandom discusses this whole subject of training in great depth.
6. Seek feedback on your teaching or leading.
If you’re already teaching, force yourself to watch video or listen to audio recordings of yourself teaching. Oh this is painful. I can’t stand it! I hear words I used incorrectly or repeated too much and realize there were things I didn’t make clear. It’s really humbling. But it’s also really helpful. It’s a key way we get better as teachers. And if you can stand it, ask for feedback from a trusted friend or mentor on your teaching or group leading. Ask questions like:
- How did I do with eye contact and clarity?
- Where did I make jumps in my argument that were hard to follow?
- How was my tone and demeanor?
As women, we’re so anxious to affirm each other. And that’s a good thing! But if we want to grow in our ability and effectiveness as teachers and leaders, we have to discover areas where we need that growth. And the critical feedback of a trusted ally can be tremendously valuable.
7. Consider taking online courses from a trusted source.
Most seminaries, as well as organizations like Simeon Trust, offer courses online that you can take for credit or audit. What rich treasures are being made available for our benefit and ultimately for the benefit of the church! My experience has been that the assigned reading for various classes is just as, or in some cases even more significant to my learning, so I encourage you to read the assigned texts as well as listen. Again, sharing such study with cohorts or mentors in the local church helps to ground our growth among the body of believers where we live and minister week by week, by God’s grace, for the good of his people and the glory of Christ.
I love the benediction to the book of Hebrews. It’s something I hold onto as I prepare to teach well aware of all that I have yet to learn about God’s Word. I hope you will too. The writer of Hebrews prays for those he is writing to, asking God to equip them with everything good that they may do his will. Ask him to do that for you, and you can be sure that he will.