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The ultimate step-by-step guide to writing and teaching adult Sunday school lessons


Your Sunday school curriculum has you covered most of the year, but what about those special Sundays when your church needs to deviate from the scope and sequence?

It is becoming more and more normal for churches to write their own Sunday school lessons in these cases. You may serve at one of these churches—you may even be the one writing them. If so, you have probably noticed that while there is no shortage of excellent, helpful Sunday school lessons available, there is, by comparison, very little material made to help people experiment with writing lessons themselves.

Let’s change that. In this post, I am going to lay out a step-by-step guide to writing Sunday school lessons for adults. You could apply much of this process to writing lessons for youth and children too.

And just so you know where I’m coming from: I have been researching and writing Bible lesson commentary for the past 25 years for David C. Cook. This material follows the International Sunday School Lesson (ISSL) Scripture sequence and systematically delves into major biblical books and themes. It also provides illuminating Bible background information and expositional commentary.

Needless to say, I couldn’t have written adult Sunday school lessons for a quarter century without a process. And that’s what I would like to share with you.

This is my entire process.

I have mapped out the 6-step process that I use to write adult Sunday school lessons. This guide covers everything from getting a lesson idea to checking your finished work for errors. (You may want to bookmark this blog post so you can easily find your way back when you’re writing your next lesson!)

The 6 steps to writing adult Sunday school lessons for adults

Writing adult Sunday school lessons is far more involved than just compiling information, along with some Bible verses, in a hurried and careless fashion. The process is intentional and well-defined. It also involves considerable forethought and sustained effort. To use a sports analogy, the endeavor is more like a marathon race than a 100-yard dash.

The undertaking is also comparable to a journey, in which each point of the roadmap along the way is as follows:

  1. Ideate. You begin by getting ideas for Sunday school lesson themes. It includes a set of ways you can come up with aims, emphases, and takeaways for your lessons.
  2. Exegete. Next, you expound the meaning of a biblical text. This involves using a systematic approach in which you check your ideas against God’s Word and pull in cross-references. Doing so helps build a scriptural foundation for the lesson.
  3. Research. After that, you undertake further research, which especially entails finding appropriate supplementary information for inclusion in your lessons.
  4. Outline. Once you have a repository of useful material, it is important to organize it in a clear and sequential manner. Think of this as building a framework around which you build a Sunday school lesson and effectively teach it.
  5. Write. Fill in the outline with information you have gathered, including discussion questions and an illustration.
  6. Check. The final stage is checking your work. The objective is to avoid mistakes that you otherwise might find yourself making.

Now, let’s walk through how to execute each of these steps practically as you write your next Sunday school lesson.

Step 1: Ideate

Here are a few ways you can get ideas for adult Sunday school lesson themes, aims, and takeaways. Concerning themes, the ISSL Uniform Series is a good resource to consider. It provides a balanced, six-year plan for reading and studying the entire Bible. The ISSL is used by a number of denominations and publishers, including David C. Cook.

The threefold objective of the ISSL is as follows:

  • to know the content of the Bible
  • to understand the message of Scripture, especially in light of personal experiences and relationships
  • to respond in faith and love to the Father’s redeeming grace in His Son.

Each of these objectives could stand as a broad thematic category upon which to base a series of Sunday school lessons. Here are three of the major themes covered in the 2016–22 ISSL plan: God’s sovereignty, the universe and world God created, and God’s love for us.

A second source to consider would be the Revised Common Lectionary, which follows a three-year cycle of Scripture readings. These are organized around seven thematic categories spanning the entire year of the Church calendar, as follows: (1) Advent; (2) Christmas; (3) Epiphany; (4) Lent; (5) Holy Week; (6) Easter; and (7) the Season after Pentecost. For example, consider November 27, 2016, which is the first Sunday of Advent. Together, the four readings (Isa. 2:1-5; Ps. 122; Rom. 13:11-14; and Matt. 24:36-44) deal with the theme of God’s justice and peace.

A third noteworthy source are Bible reading plans, such as the one offered by the American Bible Society. Each Scripture reading is keyed to a devotional. For instance, Luke 21:25-28 is the reading for the above-mentioned first Sunday of Advent. In this case, the passage deals with the circumstances surrounding Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem. One could focus on the theme of prayer for those who are treated unfairly because of their faith.

Arriving at viable themes creates a pathway for conceptualizing pertinent aims and takeaways. For the sake of brevity, I will only mention the theme of God’s sovereignty (noted above). This could motivate the aim of believers being encouraged to trust their all-powerful Creator, even in the toughest life circumstances. Related takeaways include the truth that God is in control, that He loves each of us, and that He is ever-present to care for us.

Step 2: Exegete

This is a system you can use to check your ideas against a biblical text, along with pulling in cross-references. Doing so enables you to build a scriptural foundation for the lesson. To exegete a passage, it is important to follow the basic guidelines of hermeneutics:

  1. Use the grammatical-historical method;
  2. Understand the context;
  3. Determine the type of literature;
  4. Properly interpret figurative language; and
  5. Let Scripture interpret Scripture.

To understand the background of a passage, it is useful to consider the immediate context (i.e. the word or phrases in the verses closest to the term or statement one is trying to understand), the remote context (i.e. the biblical material in the surrounding chapters and beyond), and the historical context (i.e. the setting in history in which the author wrote the biblical passage). In turn, this procedure helps provide an awareness of how a passage fits within the larger context of God’s Word.

To illustrate the specifics of the exegetical process, let’s consider Philippians 2:5-11. If possible, start by progressively working your way through the Greek text. Otherwise, read the passage using a variety of literal and periphrastic English translations. The process also involves engaging the passage using an assortment of original language tools (such as those noted in the following section).

Next, as you read Philippians 2:5-11, look for connectives, figures of speech, key terms, the structure, the main idea, subpoints, and literary devices. You will also want to see how the passage fits into its broader context. You should consider what precedes and follows Philippians 2:5-11, what its relationship is with what comes before and after, and how this affects its meaning. Moreover, you should determine how the passage relates to the overall message of the letter.

When you have thoroughly immersed yourself in the study of the above text, take a few moments to pull in some cross-references. This is especially important when seeking to discern the meaning of a difficult passage of the Bible. After all, one of the basic tenets of the Protestant Reformation is that Scripture best interprets Scripture. If you own a study Bible, it most likely will have a cross-reference system containing tens of thousands of entries. An online resource such as Bible Gateway offers a comparable version of the same. Even more robust print options include the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible and the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge.

As noted above, the effort you invest in carefully exegeting a passage such as Philippians 2:5-11 enables you to build a scriptural foundation for the lesson. Along the way, be sure to consider how its principles can be applied to the lives of contemporary believers. Application includes learning what God has revealed about Himself. From God’s revelation His children discover implications for their view of themselves, others, and the world around them. In this way, the message of Scripture impacts their values, conduct, and worldview. God’s Word also affects their decisions and the attitudes they maintain.

Step 3: Research

Now it’s time to discuss the kinds of supplementary information you might include in your lessons, along with recommendations (toward the end) on where to find these. For instance, as noted in the preceding section, one or more parallel passages of Scripture can be examined to clarify the meaning of a biblical text, provide the insight needed to resolve interpretive issues, and augment the thematic emphasis you are developing in the main passage of your Sunday school lesson.

Along with the resources already mentioned, potentially beneficial are special indexes called concordances, whether electronic, on the web, or in print. These contain an alphabetical listing of words used in one or more passages of the Bible. For those who are familiar with the original languages, there are concordances that index the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words used in the Judeo-Christian canon. Some of these also include a transliteration of each term and its general meaning.

Furthermore, there are concordances designed for users working principally from an English language translation of Scripture. Some concordances are “concise” or “compact,” which means they contain only an abbreviated set of references to words frequently occurring in Scripture. Other concordances are “complete,” in the sense that they offer a comprehensive directory of terms. There are even “exhaustive” concordances, which provide every reference to all the words used in the Bible.

At times you may want to explore and expound on the etymology and range of meanings of key words found in the main passage of your Sunday school lesson. Lexicons are useful for this task. Some concordances provide a quick overview and rudimentary definition of the terms they list. There are also single-volume dictionaries that offer concise, basic definitions of Old and New Testament words. Multi-volume works contain detailed, erudite, and extensive background information on the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek terms used in the Bible.

Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias contain supplementary information on key doctrines, themes, and issues of scriptural interpretation connected with the main passage of your adult Sunday school lesson. As with lexicons, these resources are available in single-volume and multi-volume sets (both in-print and on the web). In either case, the entries are often arranged alphabetically and may include charts, graphs, and maps. The better works are written by a team of scholars, deal with theological, historical, and literary topics, and include up-to-date bibliographies and cross-references to encourage further research.

Bible commentaries enable you to investigate even further the meaning and significance of the text you are preparing to teach. Depending on the book of Scripture, some of these publications will be single-volume works, while others will contain two or more volumes. Worthwhile commentaries include introductions to each book of the Bible, provide essential background information (e.g. dealing with a passage’s history, culture, and archaeology), offer verse-by-verse explanations, deliberate pivotal interpretive issues, and explore the passage’s contemporary relevance.

The electronic study of the Bible can be facilitated by digital library applications. These enable users to access and aggregate information available from the sorts of tools described above. Commercially available products include Logos Bible Software, Accordance, and Olive Tree Bible Software (to name a few). Free Scripture study tools include e-Sword, theWord Bible Software, and the NET Bible Study (among others).

An extensive bibliography for Old Testament studies can be found at the Denver Seminary Old Testament website. Similarly, an extensive bibliography for New Testament studies can be found at the Denver Seminary New Testament website. Best Commentaries provides extensive reviews and ratings of biblical, theological, and practical Christian works (curated by John Dyer, a web developer in Dallas, Texas). Finally, for a wide-ranging list of web-based resources, download my free list of recommended resources at the end of this article.

Step 4: Outline

Let’s look at the anatomy the anatomy of a Sunday school lesson for adults. While this is only one possible framework, I have found it to be an optimal way to structure a lesson. The following are its various components:

Lesson Aim.
This piece provides three or four paragraphs of succinct information about the focus, content, and intent of the class session. A Sunday school teacher can discern at a glance the pertinent information the students will learn. This section may also offer insights they will discover and the specific way in which the material has relevance for their lives.

Lesson Outline.
This offers a quick rundown of how the teaching portion could be structured. Two or three main headings are given, along with the specific Bible verses being covered. The wording remains succinct, parallel in construction, and anchored to the actual content of texts being studied. Teachers should be able to see at a glance the overall direction the lesson will take.

Introducing the Lesson.
This section contains a short opening that teachers can use to orient their students to the material they plan to cover. The introduction contains two or three engaging paragraphs that are leveraged to grab the interest of the class members and draw them into the content being presented. A memorable quote, personalized anecdotes, and references to contemporary events are some of the best ways to pique the students’ curiosity.

Preparing for the Lesson.
In keeping with the anatomy metaphor, the Preparing for the Lesson section is the heart of the entire biblical teaching enterprise. It is here that you will spend the majority of your time prayerfully reading, researching, and formulating your thoughts about the meaning of the biblical text. This is also where all your efforts to ideate, exegete, and research come together in one cohesive place.

Discussion Questions.
Over decades of writing adult Sunday school lessons, I have found that about five queries is the optimal number for the Discussion Questions section. I recommend a balance between three content-oriented and two application-specific queries. The wording for each question should be clear, objective, and open-ended.

Teaching the Lesson.
The Teaching the Lesson section provides three or four recommended points of emphasis (or takeaways) to develop during the class session. On one level, these are based on the content of the biblical text. Yet, on another level, the objective is to encourage the students to think concretely how the truths of God’s Word apply specifically to their lives.

Illustrating the Lesson.
Toward the end of the class session, use the Illustrating the Lesson section to clarify and reinforce the central thrust of your teaching from the biblical text for that week. The students’ emotions are the primary concern, in which you seek to prompt a response from them. I have found that succinct illustrations work better than verbose, meandering ones. Also, I think there is a place for both classic and contemporary illustrations, including stories, analogies, word pictures, and the like.

Step 5: Write

In this section, I build on the observations made above by explaining the overall process of filling in the various sections of the outline I use to write adult Sunday school lessons. On the surface, it may seem that the endeavor follows an orderly and straightforward path. Yet, I have found that the writing process is rarely simple and always logical. So, while there is considerable skill involved, a creative, dynamic, and artistic process is often present.

For instance, on some occasions, you might decide to take a deductive, or top-down, approach. This involves beginning with a general idea of the aim or outline and using that as the starting point to dig deeper into the specifics of the text being exegeted and researched. In contrast, on other occasions, you may opt for an inductive, or bottom-up, method. Here, the process first dives into the specifics of the passage and from there tackles the broader categories just mentioned.

There are also personal and pragmatic factors that affect the writing process. For example, a Sunday school teacher constrained by the demands of job responsibilities will not be able to devote all of his or her time to develop the lesson. Also, personal interests and preferences influence whether the teacher adopts either a structured or unstructured approach. The main point to remember is that the process typically follows a crooked path, takes unexpected turns, and can even loop back on itself.

The preceding remarks imply that lesson writing requires much more than merely gathering information. It also goes beyond the rote transcription of facts. More importantly, the undertaking requires the objective interpretation and application of the biblical content in order to encourage your students to live for Christ. The anatomy of the lesson, then, becomes an established format to inform, guide, and motivate the class members.

After creating a draft of your lesson, be sure to reserve time to review your material with a critical eye. This involves evaluating and analyzing your assumptions, claims, and conclusions. The editing process sharpens a thought to a gemlike point and eliminates useless verbiage. Choosing one’s words precisely helps to clarify one’s writing. It eliminates foggy thought and jumbled statements.

I think it’s best to use less complex terms, more concrete nouns, and active, expressive verbs. Also, shorter, more succinct sentences tend to work better than long, contorted ones. Furthermore, be alert to modification, for misplaced phrases and clauses can create havoc with the thoughts you convey to your students. The writing process described here and earlier in the guide will help you deal with each portion of your lesson in a thoughtful and substantive manner.

Before ending this section, I want to add a few more thoughts about the process of manuscripting the information arising from your exegetical analysis of the text for the week. As described above, pursue a thorough study of the passage. Next, carefully interpret the text. This involves identifying and understanding important cultural elements within the passage. You will also want to locate and define key terms and determine how the author uses these within the overall book being considered. Think about using lexica, concordances, grammars, theological and exegetical dictionaries, and other interpretive aids (such as those noted above) to find answers.

Furthermore, be open to discuss key interpretive problems, cultural issues/elements, and so on. Admittedly, you will not be able to cover every issue or problem you find in the passage, so you should be selective in what you discuss. If possible, let the content of your lesson reflect your observations and interpretations. The principle is to express your thoughts in your own words as much as possible, rather than making the lesson a patchwork of quotes harvested from the Bible and other sources.

Remember to explain whatever insights you think your students would need to comprehend the main thrust and central teaching of text. Moreover, you should discuss the application of the passage for the individual and the church. For instance, consider what the author might have wanted the original readers to think, feel, or do, as well as what the Spirit might want twenty-first century believers to think, feel, and do.

Discussion questions are an effective way to encourage students to deliberate the content and wrestle with the implications of the text. Keep in mind what was recommended in the outlining step. Just as important, take stock of the places within the flow of the class session where you might be able to strategically use the five or so questions you have at your disposal. In turn, these may prompt additional queries from the students. Be sure to encourage them both to ask and answer the questions they raise.

As noted in the preceding section, illustrations are intended to touch your students’ hearts. Sources can include personal experiences, current events, and stories appearing in a variety of media outlets (including print, television, and the web). The repositories of illustrations available on the Internet (such as here, here, here, and here) can be accessed by using a variety of well-chosen search engine queries. Be aware that there is no one-size-fits-all illustration. Some lessons require a story to emphasize the main point. Other lessons may benefit from an analogy or quote to clarify the meaning of an otherwise obscure concept in the text.

Step 6: Check

Once you have written your Sunday school lesson, you will want to go through and check for errors. I’ve put together a list of common missteps to avoid in a lesson.

Let’s begin with the Lesson Aim being either too broad, elaborate, or disconnected from the content of the main biblical text. The solution is to ground the aim in what the passage actually teaches, ensure that the aim has a sufficiently narrow focus, and see to it that the applicational thrust remains true to life.

As for the Lesson Outline, typical blunders include having no sectional headings or too many of them. The absence of headings suggests the lesson lacks any clear organization. In contrast, an excessively detailed outline can lead to a lesson that is fragmented in its organization and choppy in its flow. The remedy is to arrive at two or three main points that are cogent in wording and lucid in their connection with one another. Also, the outline should enable the students to grasp the trajectory of the lesson almost immediately.

For Introducing the Lesson, characteristic shortcomings include discourse that is long-winded and haphazard. The unintended consequence is that eager, attentive students become quickly disengaged, and once that occurs, it can be difficult to regain their interest. To avoid this trap, strive for an introduction that remains no more than a few paragraphs in length. Moreover, rather than drone through a deadpan reading of the prepared material, consider launching the lesson in an extemporaneous manner.

With respect to Preparing for the Lesson, one drawback is to provide either too little or too much material to present. Insufficient information results in a class session with so much unfilled time that the energy level drops and the students get bored. Oppositely, the presentation of excessive amounts detail (e.g. facts, figures, and so on) can feel like a mind-numbing experience for them.

This is where striking the right balance between the above two extremes becomes vital to the class members experiencing a memorable Sunday school lesson. The length of the class session will vary from one congregation to the next. That said, try experimenting with how much information to prepare in advance. After a few weeks of trial and error, you should have an instinctive feel for what is an optimal amount of material to present.

Another mistake to avoid was mentioned earlier in connection with the Lesson Introduction. Specifically, reading a prepared script verbatim in a robotic manner (e.g. without intonation, cadence, and eye contact) trains students to check out mentally and emotionally. As before, this is where including some spontaneity in the presentation of the material has merit. In fact, cultivating an interactive, give-and-take classroom dynamic is one of the best ways to get and keep your students’ attention.

Such an approach can be achieved by the effective use of the last three elements of the framework I described earlier in this guide: Discussion Questions, Teaching the Lesson, and Illustrating the Lesson. Furthermore, instead of seeing yourself primarily as the “expert” casting pearls of wisdom at the feet of your students, consider operating more as a facilitator of the teaching-learning process. Concededly, this approach can feel much more involved and challenging. Nonetheless, the result can be a classroom experience that is dynamic, engaged, and personalized to the needs and interests of your students.

Conclusion

Now that I’ve described for you how I have written adult Sunday school lessons for David C. Cook, the next step is for you to produce your own great material. Begin by carefully reading through the content of this guide. Initially, you may do so by yourself. If so, follow up this effort by sharing the same information with your peers at your church and have them review it.

The above could start a spirited and fruitful conversation about what each of you have discovered and discerned about the adult teaching ministry in your congregation. This includes discussing what each of you thinks is being done well and where there is need for improvement. Remember to include the pastoral leadership of your church in the conversation. And don’t forget to bathe all of your endeavors in prayer, especially as you seek the Spirit’s counsel in how to best encourage your students to live for Christ.

Free PDF: List of online Bible study resources

Need a place to start when it comes to researching for Sunday school lessons? Dr. Lioy has put together a list of online Bible study helps that you can access. Put your email in the box below, and we’ll send you the list! (You will also get more cool news and tips from Disciplr.)

Dan Lioy

Author Dan Lioy

Dan Lioy, PhD, is an ordained minister who holds faculty status at several academic institutions, including South African Theological Seminary, George Fox Evangelical Seminary, and the Institute of Lutheran Theology. For over three decades, he has served the church as an author, pastor, and professor. Dan is available for service in policy institutes (or “think tanks”) and on advisory boards / committees. He is also available for conference speaking in areas involving biblical studies, theology, ethics, leadership, science / religion, and the intersection of Christianity and culture.

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