I recently had a dear friend publicly announce that she was leaving the Church. I have known about her objections and her decision for a while, but seeing her announce it was still painful.
One of her criticisms that I have also heard others mention is that she felt that teaching in the Church was not focused enough on Jesus Christ and too focused on peripheral matters such as tithing or food storage. She felt that these matters distracted from the focus on Jesus Christ and harmed her relationship with him.
Of course, there is some merit to this critique. We should always strive to do better in tying our discipleship and everything that we do to the Savior and his Atonement. Without him all of the commandments that we keep, callings we hold, and sermons we preach would be in vain. Without his grace, everything would lack efficacy and meaning. If we lose sight of that, we lose sight of the true core of the Gospel.
As President Boyd K. Packer emphasized, “[t]his is the very root of Christian doctrine. You may know much about the gospel as it branches out from there, but if you only know the branches and those branches do not touch that root, if they have been cut free from that truth, there will be no life nor substance nor redemption in them.”
We can and should do much better at connecting our worship, sermons, and prayers to the savior. I am inspired by the example of one of my personal mentors, Judge Thomas B. Griffith, who as a Stake President directed that “every sacrament meeting talk and every lesson in Sunday School, Relief Society, and priesthood meetings must be related to the Atonement of Christ in a direct and express way.” I believe that such a course of action would be an immense blessing for the Church and for each of its members.
But waiting for change from above or for others to begin to preach better sermons or teach better lessons relegates us to the role of things to be acted upon rather than agents ready to act. Even if our Church services are not perfectly focused on Christ at times, our personal worship can be.
I have found that if I put in prayerful personal effort, I can transform even the most mundane lesson or talk into a spirit-filled one that helps me draw closer to the savior. President Eyring has shared a story where he talked to his father after a sacrament meeting that President Eyring found particularly boring. His father responded by telling him that he never experienced a boring sacrament meeting because “[h]e always tried to think along with the speaker, even developing ideas in his mind about what he would say to supplement the talk.” If a talk is missing the connection to Jesus Christ, then we can create that connection. We can ask ourselves how this principle or commandment helps us better understand Christ and draw closer to him. We can think of relevant scriptures that help to connect us to the savior. And I have found that when we put in that work it sticks with us far more than if the verses or teachings were spoon fed to us by the speaker. For the spirit will help speak to us and lead us to personal insight and revelation.
And there is so much we can do to help make our Sunday School and Priesthood/Relief Society classes more uplifting as well. As Elder Oaks expressed, the attitude that “I didn’t learn anything today” or “The Church is not filling my needs” is “self centered” and retards spiritual growth. We need to view our classes as an opportunity to uplift and inspire others. If we feel the discussion is lacking, we have a duty to do our part to be active participants and try to bring the spirit. And even if that fails, we can personally be blessed as we think of personal experiences or Christ-centered thoughts that are relevant.
I believe that every doctrine and teaching in the Church can help us draw closer to Christ. Learning about food storage can help us to strengthen our faith in Christ’s second coming. Paying our tithing helps us remember that God has given us all that we have in this life. Testifying of Joseph Smith can turn our thoughts to his visions of Christ and his testimony of the atonement. None of these teachings are islands or atolls in and of themselves. They all can help us to draw closer to the Savior whose Church this is. Whether and to what degree those connections are made are ultimately up to us.