The Big Three

I don’t think that I like the notion of “Sunday School Answers.” Which isn’t to say that I don’t like prayer, scripture, and church attendance (the clear winner of last week’s poll), but rather I worry that the too frequent repetition of that triptych turns it into vain recitation, rather than a sincere attempt to seek and know the word of God.

Of course, some of this worry is unfounded. All three of these activities provide us with the opportunity to worship and to commune with God. Those are profound acts. No matter how we refer to them, the language can’t cheapen their divine intent or power. However, I wonder if the language causes us to forget those very characteristics. Since prayer, scripture, and church attendance is a kind of generic catch-all for spiritual, physical, and economic problems, I wonder if we tend to treat them the way we treat all generics: good if you have to, but to be avoided if possible.

Naturally, when I say we, I mean me. I am, generally, opposed to rote answers and questions in Sunday School and, therefore, I am inclined to see the Sunday School answers as a hindrance rather than a help. Such spiritual shorthand has a tendency, I think, to let us dismiss the immediacy of the problem at hand or the person in need. Instead of really thinking about the individual’s situation, we may decide that the prayer, scripture, and church attendance solution should solve any problem. If it doesn’t, the solution is more prayer, scripture, and church attendance.

In voicing this criticism, I feel a need to say that I believe that prayer, scripture, and church attendance are powerful forces for good. In particular, I believe that in doing them, we may actually come to know God, which really is the reason why we wandered down here to begin with. I believe that sincere, thoughtful prayer really is communion and communication with the divine. I believe that earnest, searching scripture study really can alter what we seek and why we seek it. I believe that the combination of worship and mutual service that makes a church meeting work can actually make us more like Christ. All of these things make us more charitable, faithful, and hopeful (nothing to shake a stick at). However, I worry that if we turn them into rote phrases, casually tossed off in order to keep a lesson moving along, then we exhibit a tendency to be dismissive of their power. I’m not sure that we should approach these three things as “that old thing.”

Perhaps I’m seeing things that aren’t there (as happens). Perhaps I am making a mountain out of a molehill. Certainly, I have trouble fully appreciating the importance of these three acts in my own life (especially church attendance). So maybe I am just assuming that everyone struggles as I do. So don’t read this post as criticism, read it as confession. Ya’ll have a good night, and may you have many edifying lessons in your future.

Comments

  1. I think I know what you mean — it’s like knowing that “diet and exercise” is the answer to all questions of physical health, yet that’s hardly enough to get most of us off the couch and eating our spinach.

    When I think of the Sunday School triad, the faces of two particular women come to mind who most often offer that response in my Sunday School class. But when I recall how they say it, I think for them it is no idle formula. I think they aren’t even aware that they have offered that same answer before. They say it thoughtfully, usually offering some short elaboration of one or two of those items, and maybe even a personal experience to go along with it.

    It may be that we (any of us who have been or will be snarky about the concept of Sunday School answers) have have been socialized by our discussions to over-intellectualize our reaction. People can be sincere with those answers, and be consciously practicing those behaviors, to the point that when they recite them they’re really bearing testimony to the efficacy of those behaviors. That’s what I sense Sister Sadie and Sister Louise are doing.

  2. I agree with you that these things can become trite in our minds if we aren’t careful. And yet, they are really so fundamental to keeping faith and drawing close to God, imo, that it’s important to keep remembering *why* they are important.

    Whenever I teach and these SS answers come up, I press and try to encourage the class to discuss some of those whys. I think sometimes it helps.

    And I don’t think you are alone in the struggle, and yet I think that very fact is one of the ironies and reasons why we should keep talking about them…because we bristle a bit at their simplicity and yet forget their power.

  3. I find the greatest difficulty in these rote answers is not the answers themselves. It is the quality of the question that brings them to the surface. The best questions are ones that are open-ended enough to bring about real discussions. For Sunday School teachers and class members alike, the single greatest (and easiest) question to ask, particularly when a monosyllabic response is given, is to ask why.

    Why should we pray? Why will scripture study help in this case? Why does going to church assist in overcoming problems?

    Rather than lament the rote answers, let us lament the teachers who accept them and move on without delving deeper.

  4. this post is serendipitous – just five hours ago my pre-teen daughter wistfully said, “Mom, I want to make Heavenly Father happy, but I just get so bored – you know – always saying my prayers, reading my scriptures and going to church all the time.”

  5. Rather than lament the rote answers, let us lament the teachers who accept them and move on without delving deeper.

    I’m glad you modified your first paragraph this way, Alex, because in my experience *any* question, no matter how open-ended or carefully worded, will bring some form of the rote answer. Recent examples that should have provoked better answers:

    Q. Elijah’s drought probably fell more heavily on common people like the widow of Zaraphath than on powerful people like Jezebel. How do you feel about a God who permits such disparities?
    A. When life seems unfair, we need to pray, read our scriptures, and go to church to understand what is happening and how to get through it.

    Q. Sometimes we might endure literal earthquakes, fires, and whirlwinds. Mostly, though, the things that distract us from listening to the still, small voice are metaphoric fires and storms. What events in our lives might overwhelm us to that point?
    A. If we pray, read our scriptures, and go to church, God will speak to us no matter what else is going on.

    Q. When less active members make the first efforts to come back to church, they may act and sound as awkward as the Israelites who celebrated Passover with Hezekiah after a generation of neglect. How can we help such people ease back into full fellowship?
    A. Hezekiah prayed for them, and we can, too. And I think we should read the scriptures and come to church so that we can get inspiration for other ways to help.

    As you say, the teacher needs to delve deeper to have any really meaningful discussion. It does seem that those answers *are* meaningful to some who offer them, but I think ears close and eyes glaze throughout the rest of the room until follow-up questions prod other answers.

  6. I so wish I could attend the Sunday School lessons taught by Ardis.

  7. #6, Chris: Me, too.

    Teaching is a tricky thing. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of “guess what the teacher is thinking”, and it’s too easy to accept the pat answer and move on, especially in a mid-afternoon sleepy class. I admire those teachers who can reach out and get more out of their students. And I admire students who are willing to give more, too.

  8. I think it’s human tendency to complicate matters. These are the basic, knee-jerk, seminary, sunday school answers for a simple reason – they typically do provide some measure of increased spirituality, relief, inner peace, joy, sense of belonging, social outlet, support, and on and on and on…

    I think a great way to phrase a question would be “aside from the beneficial actions of prayer, scripture study, and church attendance, how can blah blah blah…” ;)

  9. This made me think of the book “Switch” in witch it is discussed that we all intellectually know to “diet and exercise” but that so few do because either their situation makes it easy not to (or difficult to) or they lack the emotional motivation to keep at it.

    It’s a great book

  10. #6: Me too Chris!

  11. “Such spiritual shorthand has a tendency, I think, to let us dismiss the immediacy of the problem at hand or the person in need. Instead of really thinking about the individual’s situation, we may decide that the prayer, scripture, and church attendance solution should solve any problem.”

    John, this is my problem with it. It becomes the phrase to say when we don’t know what else to say. One of my mission presidents embodied this problem. There was a very serious problem amongst the leadership of one of my mission branches. My mission president’s advice was sought. All he offered were hokey cliches, some version of the big 3. I would have respected him more if he had just said, “folks, I don’t know what the heck to tell you. I don’t know what the heck to do.” Instead everyone was treated to his prudish monologue. It was maddening.

    Yes, there’s a way to invoke the big 3 thoughtfully. I just wish we’d see it more frequently.

  12. Mark Brown says:

    Good post, John. It reminds me of that episode of The Simpsons where Marge seeks spiritual guidance from the Rev. Lovejoy. Lovejoy tells her to read the bible and when she asks where in the bible she should read, Lovejoy says “Oh, anywhere. It’s all good.” Then there was that other episode where Ned Flanders is driving Lovejoy crazy and Lovejoy asks him if he has ever considered joining a different church because “they’re really pretty much all the same.”

  13. nasamomdele says:

    Something that changed the way I see these 3 things is the Cano model of performance. There are 3 curves on a quadrant graph. The X axis is need fulfillment, the Y axis is satisfaction.

    As Cano relates to spirituality:

    The “Big 3″ primary answers fulfill the basic needs of spirituality, but cannot provide anything above average satisfaction.

    Dedicating more time and effort in accepting callings, or whatever, increases fulfillment proportional to the effort put in to serve.

    And interpreting needs that aren’t necessarily expected of one’s calling or position is the path to spiritual “excitement” as it were.

    I don’t think these three paths are mutually exclusive, though. If we want more fulfillment spiritually, the big 3 basics must be met. And then we must be willing to serve. And then we must be willing to magnify.

    Not that I’m on track for any of these, but I really think the ideas apply.

  14. The reason we are praying, reading the scriptures, and attending church is partly so that we can learn what else we should be doing. If I go to church and the only thing the people there can encourage me to do is “go to church”, I haven’t gained much in terms of solving my problem. The opportunity in Sunday School is to bring together many people who have been praying and reading the scriptures. We can learn from those people about the solutions they’ve found to life’s tough challenges.

    At least, I want it to work that way.

  15. Bradley, I generally agree with the sentiment of what you said. However, it’s been my experience that not that many people actually read their scriptures and say their prayers (remarkably few even). Knowing that, it becomes obvious why simply telling people to read, pray, and attend church, isn’t effective; if these people have heard it this long and haven’t changed, then they need something else.

    This is why I like to pose my questions in ways that help the class discover mroe effective ways to approach the “big 3″. I try to ask questions like, “what makes [living x commandment] so difficult?” Or, “what are some things that could help us better keep X commandment?” Does that make any sense?

  16. Teaching is a tricky thing. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of “guess what the teacher is thinking”, and it’s too easy to accept the pat answer and move on, especially in a mid-afternoon sleepy class.

    No teacher should EVER play “Guess What I’m Thinking” with a class. The purpose of teaching is not to create clones of oneself. If, as a teacher, I want to know what I think, I simply need to look up in the air a la Dr. John Michael Dorian, and voila! I know. It drives me crazy when teachers go fishing for specific answers.

    Unfortunately, this happens much more than it should, especially when the church lesson manuals provide possible answers to the questions. Teachers need not consider these as the “right” answers, though. They should use them as a way of guiding the discussion. And when the pat answers are given, the teachers have got to encourage the class to explain why the pat answer has been given.

    However, I don’t think that John intended this to be yet another critique of the LDS Sunday School program. So instead of harping on teachers for being lazy and accepting less-than-well-thought-out answers, maybe the question we need to be asking what we, as class members, can do to make our answers more engaging and more thought-provoking.

  17. SingleintheCity says:

    At FHE on Monday, the speaker claimed that “nobody ever left the church that was reading their scriptures and praying regularly”. I turned to my friend and said, “yeah right”. Does church attendance, prayer and scripture reading ensure activity in the church?

  18. Does church attendance, prayer and scripture reading ensure activity in the church? -SingleintheCity

    I believe the point of a statement such as that is that doing those things brings the spirit into our lives and changes our desires. If we’re disciplined enough to do those things and have the spirit, then I see no reason why we’d go inactive.

  19. Razorfish says:

    I don’t think that I like the notion of “Sunday School Answers.”

    I agree. But what always precedes the “Sunday School Answers” are “Sunday School setup Questions.” An uninteresting question is usually followed by a trite worn-out answer (triptych as you put it).

    I think we are personally better served when we ask thought provoking questions (that sometimes don’t have quick and easy answers). Ask difficult questions, encourage a controlled but stimulating debate, and make sure you nourish all members spiritually and intellectually. Great (and talented) instructors can usually accomplish this feat more often than not on Sunday.

  20. “I don’t think that John intended this to be yet another critique of the LDS Sunday School program”

    Tru dat

    “what we, as class members, can do to make our answers more engaging and more thought-provoking.”

    I’d be happier if we all focused on what we can do to get closer to God (which should provide better answers in Sunday School, but that isn’t really the point).

    SingleintheCity
    “Does church attendance, prayer and scripture reading ensure activity in the church?”
    No. But, ideally, if you do them all sincerely, it should make you more like God and I hope that ensures activity in the church.

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