One of my callings in my ward is that of ward missionary. Among other responsibilities, this calling requires me to teach the investigator/new member Sunday school class once or twice a month. For as long as I have been in the ward–coming up on four years now–this course has been going through the Gospel Principles manual, front to back, and starting it over upon completion. The idea, of course, is that new members, recently activated members, and investigators should be given “milk before meat” (or “MBM” hereafter) and learn the basics of the gospel before moving into the standard Gospel Doctrine courses with the rest of the adults. After a couple of months of this, a couple of issues occurred to me.
First, I am sick to death of the Gospel Principles manual. One of my other callings just happens to be as an instructor in the Elders Quorum, and guess what I teach there? Yep. The Gospel Principles manual. So since (as luck would have it!) we recently finished the GP manual the investigator class, we started the manual over again, I am hearing the same lessons in Sunday school and Priesthood meeting, only a couple of weeks apart from each other.
Second, the Gospel Principles manual is can be a horrible choice of material for investigators and new members. While I completely agree, in principle, with the basic idea behind having an MBM course, I question whether much critical thinking or planning has been done (at least in my current and past wards) to ensure that the target audience is actually getting what it needs on a weekly basis.
Although there are likely some wards where large numbers of investigators–and long term investigators, in particular–attend church meetings regularly, the ward I live in rarely has investigators among the attendees. Moreover, it is even rarer to see the same investigator in Sunday school more than once, and still further less common to see the same investigator on consecutive weeks. The new members and recently-activated members are similarly less-than-consistent with attendance.
This is where the use of the Gospel Principles manual becomes problematic in a MBM course: It only represents actual MBM if the investigator happens to catch the first lesson and continues to attend regularly from there on out. If an investigator shows up in January, they may be treated to a great, simple discussion of the Plan of Salvation. However, if an investigator shows up for the first time in April, they may get a lesson on “The Lord’s Covenant People” for their pre-meat meal. Show up in May, and you’ll receive a lesson the Gifts of the Spirit during your first worship experience with the Mormons. November investigators? The Gathering of the House of Israel, baby!
The point is, because investigators, less-active, and recently activated members vary considerably in their knowledge of LDS theology, history, and practice, a Sunday school course employing the Gospel Principles manual in chronological fashion is almost certain to be almost constantly out of sync with the continually shifting target audience.
Additionally, I have begun to doubt whether or not some of the chapters and topics in the Gospel Principles manual are actually, well, “Gospel Principles” at all, in the sense of being principles of the Restored Gospel. For example,
- Lesson 27: Work and Personal Responsibility
- Lesson 28: Service
- Lesson 31: Honesty
- Lesson 34: Developing Our Talents
Is there anything particularly “Mormon” about these principles? Anything that doesn’t follow directly from earlier concepts about following the Savior, loving our fellow man, and trying to keep our noses clean? Stated another way, is anyone likely to walk away from a standard lesson on these topics thinking that they have a significantly increased understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
I approached my Ward Mission Leader with these questions recently, and after some healthy debate, he concluded that there is some merit to my reasoning, but he’s not willing to scrap the manual altogether. For the time being, I have been given the additional task of preparing a set of “Lessons-Ready-to-Eat” (LREs) which I will use whenever we have actual living, breathing investigators in the classroom, or when other needs arise.
These LREs are to meet the following criteria:
- The lessons should be aimed primarily at investigators, with focus also on recent converts, less-active and recently activated members.
- The lessons should help the target audience “become a Mormon, or become a better Mormon”.
- The lessons should be digestible for any investigator, regardless of what lessons they’ve had from the missionaries or whether they were in meetings last week and the week before.
Your Suggestions, please! What material/kind of lessons do you think new members/investigators really need to help become integrated members of the Kingdom? Be creative!
 But that’s not all. Since this year the Gospel Doctrine courses are covering the Old Testament and Pearl of Great Price, and since I didn’t get my calling as a ward missionary until March or April, I got to hear the Plan of Salvation, Agency, Creation, & Fall lessons from the regular Gospel Doctrine class, too, since that material is heavily covered in the PoGP and Genesis. Three times, folks. Can’t you just see the folks from the Curriculum Department, sitting around a table talking about what to use for a manual three years ago?
“We need to get back to basics. What could be better than using the Gospel Principles manual?” “I’ll tell you what could better: Waiting until the Old Testatment year!” “Hooray! Back to Basics times two!” (High-fives all around).
Seriously, I know this happened, and nothing you say will convince me otherwise.
 To say nothing of the variance of knowledge of these topics among life-long members…
 It’s actually even worse in our ward, because we have split each class into 15 minutes of reading the BoM chronologically, and the rest for Gospel Principles. It doesn’t matter when investigators show up–the Book of Mormon is in no way whatsoever MBM. Keystone of our faith? Check. Super-awesome? Check. Word of God? Check. MBM? Notachance.