The annual shift in Sunday School focus from one book of scripture to another is a wake-up call for me as a Gospel Doctrine teacher. Like most others, I suppose, I fall into habits of teaching during the year, standard ways of framing lessons. But the patterns of teaching one book don’t necessarily transfer to the next – a habit of opening a lesson with the historic or social context of, say, New Testament epistles doesn’t transfer to the Book of Mormon year, where, after Lehi leaves Jerusalem, the narrative is seldom influenced by world events outside of its pages.
That disruption of habits is good for teachers and classes, I think, and forces me to think through the role I have as a Gospel Doctrine teacher.
The purpose of Sunday School – and of every other activity during our formal Sunday meetings — is encapsulated in Doctrine and Covenants 43:8:
And now, behold, I give unto you a commandment, that when ye are assembled together ye shall instruct and edify each other, that ye may know how to act and direct my church, how to act upon the points of my law and commandments, which I have given.
In other words, during that 40-minute period “when [we] are assembled together” in Sunday School, presentations and discussions have two purposes: to instruct, and to edify. Those two purposes must lead to knowledge and action – specifically a knowledge of the law of the Lord, and action in keeping his commandments. Anything else, no matter how suitable it may be for other times and settings, is out of place in Sunday School.
In my view, and with the Book of Mormon as a specific example, my role is to help class members learn and understand the content of the Book of Mormon (the “instruction” part), and to create an opportunity for conversion to or testimony of the gospel principles associated with the content of the Book of Mormon (the “edification” part). If I neglect either half – if I provide only an intellectual understanding of the Book of Mormon, or if I provide only testimonials of gospel principles without grounding them on a scriptural foundation – I am failing in my stewardship.
Another key concept in the quoted scripture is “each other.” I guide discussions, I provide information, I set the tone of each class – but it is essential that I provide the opportunity for class members to instruct and edify each other, by allowing them (and teaching them how, if necessary) to testify to each other of the validity of the gospel principles under discussion. Some specific lessons may call for more instruction on my part than others, but any class period that does not include significant class participation in the way of explaining principles, sharing experiences, and testifying to truth is a failure, no matter how brilliant my own contribution might be.
If those conditions are met – mutual instruction and edification – the stewardship of the teacher ends and the class member is responsible for fulfilling the rest of D&C 43:8: The individual class member is the only one who can accept the instruction given, and who can “act upon the points of [God’s] law and commandments.”
This philosophy governs my planning and teaching in specific ways:
I feel bound to prepare, even over prepare, for every lesson. Almost all adult members of the Church with some experience as members are as informed as I am about the basic gospel principles that are at the heart of Sunday School lessons. We’re all just as generally familiar with the narrative of the Book of Mormon and most other scripture. But my responsibility is not to be “just” as informed or “just” as familiar as other class members – it is to teach. I can’t teach if I don’t have something to share that class members don’t already know, or don’t realize they know, or haven’t thought about recently. A class where the teacher is no more prepared than the class members is really no class – it’s a bull session.
I feel bound to “stick to the manual” to the extent of basing my instruction upon the particular scripture block assigned, or some part of it (there never is time to do all of it). I also feel bound to teach that scripture block with the manual’s lesson purpose in mind. That is, if the lesson’s purpose statement points toward obedience, or prayer, or unity, or tithing, then that is the theme of my teaching. I feel both of these obligations because that is the mandate given to me and to Church teachers in general. That is the job, and we don’t have a right to reinvent it. And in truth it is no great hardship to do this, regardless of how much kvetching we might do about the manuals: Most scripture blocks can validly illustrate multiple gospel principles without resorting to proof texting – the opening chapters of I Nephi were taught with the theme of obedience, but could just as well have focused on prayer, prophets, revelation, family relations, apostasy, pride, humility, the value of scripture, etc. I haven’t seen any overwhelming reason, ever, to refuse to use a designated theme; I respect both the concept of correlation (i.e., that Church curricula should regularly address a core set of principles) and the calling of the manual-writing committee who distributed those principles across the year’s lessons.
I do not, however, feel bound to “stick to the manual” with lesson structure, or questions, or attention activity, or emphasis on particular verses. This is where the art of teaching comes in:
Class circumstances vary. Some wards, heavy on young people or on converts who have not yet mastered the basic narrative of the Book of Mormon, might need to concentrate on that narrative – it would be hard to have a meaningful discussion of Nephi’s commitment to “going and doing” if class members didn’t know who Nephi was, or why he was out in the wilderness. But in a class like mine, of life-long or long-time Church members, including general authorities of the Church, and former mission and temple presidents, and women who have read and taught and loved the scriptures and served in the Church for decades, a lesson that was limited to reviewing in detail the various plot points of I Nephi 1-7 would be neither instructive nor edifying.
Better questions are essential. Very often, the questions suggested by the manual are mere reading comprehension questions (such as these in the case of the lesson on 1 Nephi 1-7: What circumstances led to [Lehi’s] departure? What did the Lord promise Nephi if he would obey the commandments? Why did Lehi send his sons back to Jerusalem? Why did Nephi and his brothers want Zoram to return to the wilderness with them? etc., etc., et-flipping-cetera), which cannot lead to productive discussion among the mature members of my class. Because the narrative is so very familiar to them all, I need to find questions that cause them to think rather than to recite rote answers. It is quite possible for “pray, read your scriptures, and go to church” to be an electrifying response to a question – but it has to be a question that causes class members to reflect and authentically arrive at that response, not one that calls for mere mindless chanting. Those thought-provoking questions don’t pop up – at least in my mind – on the spur of the moment, but must be thought out in advance.
Needs of a ward vary. There is no point, I am convinced, in discussing other people’s sins and determining how they can best repent. We need to talk about our own weaknesses. I simply do not allow class members to talk about drug dealers and prostitutes and “those people who want us to pay for their health care,” or about Catholics or Evangelicals and what they supposedly do or don’t believe. It is within my stewardship to identify problems in our ward or city, or temptations that affect those in our social circumstances. Those are what we discuss. A manual used world-wide can set themes and make suggestions, but it cannot address the specific needs of individual classes – that’s the teacher’s role and privilege.
However, my “tailoring” cannot go so far as to flatter my vanity or personal interests. That is, I cannot turn every lesson into one on Church history just because that’s my thing. Nor can I tailor a lesson to sweep in all the wonderful ideas I’m studying in preparation for my lessons: A lesson on how Lehi’s vision ties into the “heavenly council” visions of other prophets, or a lesson on the variants in the Book of Mormon text discovered by Royal Skousen, or a report on the latest theories of the route Lehi followed through the desert, are absolutely inappropriate for Gospel Doctrine classes, in my view. Such a focus would necessarily require that I do virtually all of the talking, allowing for none of the “teaching each other” aspect that I think is so crucial to Sunday School classes. Such a focus would also tend to flatter me as the one who knows all this interesting “stuff” that is new to many people – and the glorification of the teacher should never, ever, ever be the outcome of a Sunday lesson. A skilful teacher doesn’t have to resort to such tricks in order to keep the class’s attention or stimulate their enthusiasm. And finally, while intellectual stimulation often leads to increased testimony in my own personal study, I question whether intellectual stimulation in the absence of class members’ teaching and testifying can ever lead to the edification that must be a part of Sunday gatherings. No, anything I bring into my lessons from those sources must be limited and used to further the stated purpose of the lesson, nothing more.
This is not to say that I don’t appreciate and at least consider – sometimes fanatically study – the lesson-related posts on other blogs, or that I would never bring some detail learned from these farther-ranging studies into my lessons. I do. It’s just that I believe that such materials are meant for personal study, informal blog discussion, or non-Sunday-block study in other settings (Institute, study groups, family home evenings, home teaching chats, firesides, conferences, workshops, hallway conversations, among other potential venues). They just do not fulfill the primary requirements of Sunday School. (To repeat: I am not in the least knocking the materials posted by other bloggers. Bloggers nearly always specifically state that their materials are intended for personal study, or are preliminary to constructing an actual lesson. None of those I read regularly offer their more wide-ranging studies as replacements for the approved lessons. And for that matter, neither do I: I post my lessons to show how I have adapted the materials to my particular class, but I do not claim that they are suitable for any other teacher or any other class. They are tailored to my class.)
Okay, so that’s my basic philosophy of teaching Gospel Doctrine.