Critiquing Gospel Teaching

I have a curse. I’ve been doing graphic design on the side for a number of years now. I’ve studied principles of composition, and so I know better than I used to how to make things look good. For example, related information should be near each other—on a business card, the phone number shouldn’t be on the furthest corner from the email address. Their should be structure and order in the design. Fonts shouldn’t strain the eyes. Colors should be complimentary, and images should not distract from the text. It shouldn’t hurt to look at. The designer needs to pause and ask, “What do I want those who view the design to do? What information do they need the most?” He should make that information the first thing that people see. Etc. Etc.

Here’s why this is a curse. There is no single billboard, no magazine cover, no website page, no book cover, no product label that I don’t critique. It’s like my brain can’t help itself. (I know this isn’t true—but I sometimes experience it that way.) The other day, I critiqued a mac and cheese box because of clashing colors and a difficult to read font. It’s not just willy-nilly critique—I can often cite the exact design principles and norms that the design violates, and I can explain the consequences of violating that principle, and why it will eventually hurt the user experience.

There is great pleasure, however, in stumbling upon good design. I can look at it and admire it, and I can explain in great detail why I admire it. I can tell you exactly what the designers were thinking, and I can tell precisely how much thought they put into it (and if it’s a good design, they’ve usually put a lot of thought into it).

In recent years, I’ve had trouble in church for similar reasons. I’ve learned how to write better talks than I used to write. I’ve learned many principles on how to structure a talk or a Sunday School lesson for the greater benefit of participants. I’ve learned to ask the questions,

“What do I want my listeners to do? What information do they need to do it? Of all the many things I want to say, which one or two is the most important? Let me trim the rest, and focus on that. What is the foundational principle here? How long does it take me to get to the point? Is this story really necessary, or is it merely fluff? What is the ‘so what’ of this principle? What are some concrete examples of how to live this principle in our every day lives? What invitation do I share? Have I focused on Christ? Is HE the center of my message? Will this edify, or merely entertain? Am I giving this example to brag, or simply to illustrate the principle? What of the people I’m teaching? What are their needs? What are their worries? How can this principle bless their lives specifically? Etc., etc.”

These are all good questions to ask when writing a talk or preparing a lesson. The point is, I’ve learned many principles of teaching and public speaking that allow me to perform the same kinds of critiques on the talks and lessons of others that I do in design. And, quite frankly, it leaves me very dissatisfied. I’m often silently criticizing the lack of preparedness, forethought, structure, theme, classroom management, focus on Christ, sound and basic doctrine, testimony, etc.

For example, today, the priesthood teacher couldn’t keep control of the conversation, and we strayed onto many topics that distracted from the core principles of the lesson, and not in a good sort of way—and the teacher never brought Christ into the discussion. So I’m sitting there, silently criticizing the lack of structure and focus in the classroom, and the lack of Christ in the lesson, and even the false ideas that were bantered about in response to questions, and reading the lesson manual quietly to myself, when I stumble upon this passage from Lorenzo Snow:

“I have thought, and still think, that our being edified does not so much depend upon the speaker as upon ourselves. When we come together … , it becomes our privilege to receive instruction from those persons that address us, and if we do not, the fault, generally, is in ourselves. I have noticed on the part of the people what I have attributed to weakness. They come together, some of them, more for the purpose of being pleased with the oratory of their speaker, for the purpose of admiring the style in which he may address them.”

Bam. Ouch. That’s me. And I realized something: the great many heuristics and principles that I’ve been learning about good teaching can indeed make be a better teacher. That can make anyone a better teacher. But God blessed me with these understandings to make me a better teacher, not so that I could be a poorer student. He taught me (through books, study, etc.) these principles of teaching so that I could improve my teaching—and teach others to improve—not so that I could elevate my heart above others, and not so I could find superiority in my knowledge. And I realized that yes, crappy teaching happens all the time in the church, but that doesn’t warrant hubris, pride, or silent accusation towards others.

It can be disheartening with a gospel teacher mistreats an otherwise profound gospel principle in the classroom, or fails to make Christ the focus of the lesson, or simply reads from the manual instead of using the manual as a launching pad for a focused discussion on the principle at hand. But it doesn’t mean that I should go to war with the teacher in my heart for doing so. Nor is it even my stewardship to critique and evaluate their teaching.

Brigham Young taught that it was the testimony of a man without eloquence that began his journey into the church. If we expand the definition of “eloquence” to encompass all the principles of good teaching and public speaking, then I think it is perfectly possible to invite the Spirit without any of it. While gospel teachers have a solemn responsibility to prepare and seek the spirit, and to studiously study how to teach and to improve their teaching, the responsibility for being edified in a lesson rests squarely on the shoulders of the students. That’s my job. If I’m not edified, that’s my fault.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about how “boring” sacrament meeting can be. It’s true. We do a crappy job of engaging the congregation. We often do a crappy job of writing talks that edify others in meaningful ways, and that focus on the Savior. We do a crappy job of not speaking in monotone voices, of not adhering to old and weary conventions (“when the Bishop called, I didn’t want to answer” or “I know why I need to give this talk—it’s because I’m terrible at this”, etc.), etc. But what are we doing to prepare to be taught? What are we doing to be students who come with questions to be answered, having sought the spirit, expecting revelation, and having pleaded with God for edification?

I need to repent.

5 thoughts on “Critiquing Gospel Teaching

  1. Suffering bad teachers gladly is definitely my cross when it comes to the church. This post gives me something to think about (and do better about next week).

  2. Another thing that I tend to do is if a teacher seems like he’s struggling with the basics, I’ll step in and bring the conversation around. A rhetorical question here, a scripture there, a testimony somewhere else, and all of a sudden, we’re back on track. I’ve become the go-to guy in EQ for stuff like that, in Gospel Doctrine, we have several.
    As a member of the SS presidency, I’ve taught several courses on teaching. I’ll often go up and pull the teacher aside afterward. Tell him how much we love him, and offer suggestions (usually based on some of the things that I did that class – so we can illustrate anticipated results). Often, they’ll try them out next time and their teaching slowly gets better. The KEY (and this is absolutely crucial) is that the teacher MUST know you love them.

  3. Years ago, I was asked, during a summer, I was asked to teach a class of college students and returned Missionaries. I asked if they had a manual, and they simply said: “No, but teach them Gospel principles with an emphasis on Christ’s teachings.” It was a tough but inspiring summer for me and I never worked and prayed harder to find the way to reach the young people, all of whom were raised in the Church and knew their stuff. I used nothing more than the New Testament and each Sunday we analysed and commented upon the parables, Pauls’ letters etc. Everyone got into the discussions and it was wonderful, my best ever teaching assignment. Yesterday, we were told that the Church wants to teach this very way, by the Spirit and with inspiration from intense Scripture reading. I was very pleased to hear the news.

    As for Sacrament talks, most I have heard over the years have been poor to fair, and Priesthood lessons have been mainly soporific or worse. The worst are those when the teacher simply reads from the manual, or asks if anyone has the lesson that day. Mercy to the innocent!

  4. “… can indeed make be a better teacher.” Typo.

    “… and to studiously study how to teach…” Redundant.

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