Teaching the Saints II

Last week I discussed a little bit about teaching and gave six points I thought caused problems and that we could improve upon. A few of my suggestions, such as limit the crying, generated a bit of controversy. A few thought that I was intimidating those called to be teachers who were feeling inadequate. Well, if you thought those were controversial I’m sure my next few points will be even more so. My last post was primarily about the style or form of our teaching. This one focuses in on content. That is, things you probably ought not mention in your lessons.

1. Be careful with General Authority quotes. That is, if you are going to quote a General Authority, be conservative. Stick to quotes from correlated materials (i.e. priesthood or relief society manuals), official statements of the 1st Presidency, or relatively recent conference talks. Why? Well as much as I love it when General Authorities speculate on the scriptures, such speculations really are no more appropriate in church than any other speculation. We’re there to teach the gospel. One big problem I think the church faced in the 1970’s and 1980’s was that a lot of speculation got taught as doctrine. It led to people being confused about what was or wasn’t doctrinal. And that’s not a good situation for people to be in. While I agree that so-called “Sunday School answers” are boring and superficial, the speculations of General Authorities – often in books not officially published by the church – aren’t better. That’s not in the least to say they aren’t valuable or worth discussing. Just not in church.

2. Stick to the basics of the gospel. This one will be controversial I’m sure. But I don’t think Church is the place to get into detailed discussions of history. Now I love Church history. Warts, controversies and all. Further I know a lot of people complain about church not teaching such matters. However I feel that the point of church is to teach the gospel, not history. If you’re interested in history there are tons of great books out there. Further don’t get into deep theological matters. This is related somewhat to (1) but can be found in the old joke about High Priest’s lessons. The basics of the gospel, faith, repentence, ordinances, the spirit, are amazingly deep and very important. A lot of stuff that might be appropriate for blogs or books really ought not be in church lessons. (Not the least of which because it’s hard to discuss such matters without being very speculative)

3. Limit scripture reading in class. Yes this is admittedly more of a style issue than content issue. However the way most teachers have scriptures read breaks up the flow of the class. 9/10 its better to have the teacher read the brief quotation. Never do the extended reading going down a row with one person reading each verse. Hardly anyone gets anything out of it. If you are going to read a scripture, keep them short so people don’t tune out. We have to study the scriptures, but in Sunday School typically people ought to have read them. However most times giving the reference and a brief excerpt or summary to make ones point is best. When you really want a scripture used, it is good to prepare someone in advance and have them comment on it as well. This may seem controversial since we are supposed to be studying the scriptures. However long reading really does lead people to tune out. Ideally if we had overhead projectors we could put them up there. But that’s pretty rare in church.

4. Be careful in attributing beliefs to other faiths. We all hate it when people tell Mormons what we believe. Often they are wrong. Yet far too often teachers seem willing to say what Catholics, Evangelicals, Islam or even Atheists believe. I’ve had many cringe inducing moments in church when a massive distortion of a belief is made. We don’t have to do that to talk about the apostasy for instance. We definitely don’t have to do that to show superiority. Remember that you may have an investigator in class who is from one of those views. Investigators seeing their beliefs put down and distorted doesn’t exactly open them up to the gospel. Sometimes this is understandable, especially with subtle theological matters. (i.e. the doctrine of the Trinity) But the Golden Rule really does go a long way here.

5. Be careful about making sweeping comments. Yes they can sometimes generate great discussions. (i.e. a broad overgeneralized comment so as to illicit comment on why it is wrong) But there also are inappropriate uses of it. i.e. all rich people are evil type comments. A little caution goes a long ways at times. However, as I said, this can also be an excellent teaching aid in getting people to think and comment.

So, what are your thoughts? Am I off in left field? I promise next time to focus on positive things I’ve seen in lessons. I don’t want to seem like I’m just harping on the bad.

13 thoughts on “Teaching the Saints II

  1. I have trouble believing anyone would have trouble with the basic 5 you mention Clark:

    Be careful with General Authority quotes. Stick to the basics of the gospel. Limit scripture reading in class. Be careful in attributing beliefs to other faiths. Be careful about making sweeping comments.

    My only complaint is you break your own rule number 5 when you make comments like “Never do the extended reading going down a row with one person reading each verse.” When I taught those 25 freshmen every morning in seminary we would occasionally go through the process of having one student read a few verses, discuss, have the next person read a few verses, discuss. It worked quite well (especially in the Book of Mormon year) in that setting and got those 14-year-olds actually reading and discussing the Book of Mormon. But I agree it wouldn’t work in Gospel Doctrine on Sunday.

    I think you make some great points though. I see more obsessions with Mormon historical trivia on the Web than on Sunday — but it is out there. As you say, sweeping comment can work to rile the crowd up but they must be used judiciously. And it is pretty common to get other Church bashing going, which won’t help our cause at all. (The Lord did plenty of that for us in the First Vision anyway.)

  2. Number 4 has been a real problem in some lessons I have suffered through. Statements about what others believe, whether correct or not, are too often coupled with criticisms of those beliefs, condescenscion for those who aren’t as “enlightened” as we are, and other Rameumptomesque musings. There is so much to learn about what the gospel and its basic doctrines mean for us (see your number two) that we need spend little time, if any, talking about what the gospel isn’t.

  3. I strongly agree with #4 — it’s something that I’ve seen in a lot of lessons; it rarely if ever moves the lesson forward or enlightens, and it mostly seems like just a chance to affirm our own superiority to those poor misguided fools in [insert religion].

  4. Of course I did add lots of caveats to (5). (grin) But that’s a good point Geoff. I should point out I’m only talking about teaching adults. Kids and teenagers are a whole other ball game. I’ll totally confess my ignorance there. (Beyond having my doubts about the utility of early morning seminary)

    Even with adults though I don’t mind people reading the scriptures. When I lived at Los Alamos the ward more or less ignored us BYU students since we were only going to be there for three months. So we largely formed our own activities and so forth. (Occasionally someone was called – but typically we were on our own)

    One thing we organized was a get together somewhere every Sunday night. We’d do the snack thing, announce activities for the week, and then do the Sunday School reading for the next week. I think we typically did 5 – 7 verses each. We’d then discuss them. (Which, considering everyone were physicists, engineers, chemists and so forth was a pretty good discussion)

    My point though is less the value of doing that than the value of doing it in Sunday School. I think in Sunday School or Priesthood no one is really listening. If you’ve already established a group who are going to discuss it and get at the meaning then that may be more fruitful. But I suspect that would rarely happen in the typical ward. Further you’d definitely have to build up to it. We also had the advantage that most of us read our scriptures so there wasn’t this huge disparity of understanding.

  5. (In response to #4) We had a few comments about “the non-Christian world” in our priesthood lesson this last Sunday and I felt obligated to raise a comment about the wonderful 101-year-old Jewish woman I visited recently and the Muslim Bangladeshi staff at a hotel where I stayed. I’m so fond of our non-Christian friends. They’re always teaching me so many important life lessons by the way they treat others (including myself).

  6. Discussions of false doctrines have their place; they come up in the Book of Mormon, for instance. Last Sunday, I taught the 13 year olds Joseph Smith’s first vision. I wanted the students to have a concrete sense of what the Son meant in saying the creeds were an abomination to him.

    That required first teaching what a creed is, and then I gave the example from a couple years back when the Methodists in their convention considered how Mormon doctrine is incompatible with their creed. They produced a clear, point-by-point document on how their creed differs from our understanding of the nature of God and salvation. Their creed is separating them from knowledge of God in an explicit fashion.

    My goal was to keep that concept fact-based and out of the realm of emotion and name-calling, almost outside the realm of right and wrong. Others’ doctrines have no reason to come up in most lessons, though.

  7. The problem John is that when most people do this they get it wrong. You probably didn’t of course. But I’d say 95% of all explanations of the Trinity get it completely wrong, confusing it with modalism, for instance.

  8. I think point 3 has the biggest negative impact on a lesson. Outside of the obvious reasons, I think it sets a tone that participation doesn’t really change the course of a lesson. While class readings can be a way to give the class a break from the teacher (important at times), I think it is important that the class know that their contributions are going to be used for something substantial. From my experience, showing people some consequences of their answers really helps class dynamics. Of course this is easier to do when you are comparing the pro’s and con’s of several different view points at once. Perhaps this relates to the comment Clark made some time ago about helping people through the progression of standards arguments (from both sides).

  9. Clark, you make some good points here. I will come out in favor of judicious use of in-class scripture reading, however. It’s difficult to have a good discussion if the class hasn’t read the material, and even when they have, it’s nice to get a fresh look at the actual text. Reading a few long passages doesn’t take too much time (if done properly — don’t read the lesson). I like to read a long passage by reading a few verses at a time with a very brief running commentary to point out parts that I want to focus on later.

    Another benefit of reading the scriptures out loud is that for members with poor literacy skills, such readings may be the only way they experience the scriptures each week.

  10. I’m frequently frustrated by Gospel instruction, of all types. I think Clark’s suggestions will generally help to elevate a class from a boring waste of time to an opportunity to be taught by the Spirit. I think the guidelines Clark has put together are subject to modification based on context or expediency – for adults classes as well as children – and I guess is he will agree.

    One problem is that in any given class (especially adult classes which tend to be much larger) a teacher has a broad range of individuals who are each at their own level of Gospel understanding and testimony. Thus, even though it pains people like me who must sit in these classes, it is important to “adapt [Gospel instruction] to the weakest of saints”. Thus, whatever technique that might help both the newest convert and the most seasoned veteran, and everyone in between, is probably the best advice. Reading the scriptures directly may therefore be most appropriate.

    This also suggests another well-advised tactic, implemented more by leadership than by teachers. Classes should be smaller, and perhaps, more homogenous with respect to Gospel knowledge and experience. This probably applies less to RS/EQ/HP than to SS, but could still be useful in these cases as well.

    Theoretically, adults have a selection of classes, the two most obvious being Gospel Doctrine and Gospel Essentials. Other classes occasionally available in the ward include Marriage/Family Relations, Family History, Temple Prep (as appropriate), etc. Unfortunately, many people are turned off by the “beginner” status of GE, and 90% of the adults end up packing into GD. This is not good, reasons not the least of which being that GE is often a better class to be in, anyway. I’ve been attended GE for a long time now, and find it a much more rewarding experience spiritually than GD.

  11. I’m certainly very much in favor of having a few small classes for adults. However I think many wards simply don’t have the classrooms for it. (Our ward doesn’t) Typically in most Utah chapels you have two wards meeting simultaneously. Contrast this to most single wards where you don’t have Primary using class space. Thus you could have 3 – 5 different Sunday School classes.

    Having said all that though, I think we often underestimate what we can discuss even with those not that well versed in the scriptures or doctrine. I think part of the reason people don’t learn is that we’re given a false dichotomy. The “speak down to everyone” school of superficial question answers that always reminds me of the class scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (“Anyone, anyone?”) The other is the stereotype of the high priest group meeting where people are going off on FARMS theories of transmission, bizarre 19th century doctrinal speculation, and trying to find whatever is most controversial in the text.

    I think one can be both simple and yet very deep and profound. The obvious example is Jesus who seemed quite able to speak to both the experienced and inexperienced simultaneously. Not that any of us are in Christ’s category. But I think there is something to be said in that. I think Joseph Smith was frequently able to do that also.

  12. #1 is actually embodied a directive from Church Headquarters. We are only to use General Authority quotes from official Church publications. We’re not even supposed to use our own personal notes of something we heard a GA say in a meeting we attended. Official publications only.

    I take some exception with #3. I have taught almost every age group in an official capacity. I have found that even many of our adults don’t connect well with the scriptures because they are unfamiliar with the language styles. Sometimes it takes a person reading something out loud and discussing it to start to get a clue and to start to love the scriptures. I have found that there is no amount of talking that can replace the actual word of God. However, the most important thing is to follow the Spirit when teaching. Do that, and you will know what method to use at the moment.

  13. Clark:
    We have the same situation in our ward – shortage of classes. However, that does not justify 50+ members in GD, and 10- in GE.

    I did not mean to suggest that we should “dumb-down” the Gospel for the sake of the new converts. I think you are absolutely correct that a person with limited exposure to Gospel scholarship can participate meaningfully and benefit from discussions that are more rigorous than we sometimes tend to make them. However, we also need to remember that some simple skills, like finding the book of Helaman, need to be taught and practiced.

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