This is the first in a series of three posts. It was going to be one long post, but then I hit 1,000 words and realized I was only about a third of the way through it. I’ll put the other two parts up tomorrow and Thursday. In this post, I mostly whine about Sunday School and Gospel Teaching. In the second post, I’ll get more specific about what I think the problem is. In the final post, I will actually propose a possible solution.
Two caveats: First, I realize that I’m just some schmoe and I’m really in no position to lecture anybody on teaching. Please recognize that is a rant, not a list of demands. Second, I also realize that this isn’t my church; it is God’s church and he is gonna do what he wants to do. But a guy can dream, right? (that God wants to do what I want to do; not that it could someday be my church)
In order to participate in Sunday School, do you need to read your scriptures in preparation?
I ask this question sincerely because I believe it is the reason so much of our Gospel Teaching is lackluster. I submit that after you have been a member of the church for a certain amount of time (I’ll say five years, but that’s based on nothing) you have heard almost everything that you will ever hear in a block meeting and in Sunday School in particular. By the time that you have memorized the “Sunday School” answers, you will have come to the conclusion that scripture study in preparation for Sabbath worship is optional. Whether or not you prepare yourself spiritually for 3 hours of worship, your experience in church is going to be fundamentally the same.
This sameness is deliberately sought by the church. The church’s brand is built on familiarity with its product. I’ve heard (and I bet you’ve heard) testimonies about how the experience of going to the church is the same the world over. Right now, every active member in the church who has been active for five years or more knows what is going to be discussed in the majority of wards worldwide this coming Sunday (those that aren’t having Stake or District Conference, that is (although many of those will be receiving their talks piped in via satellite)). Homogeneity is the name of our game and it is for a good reason: a lot of us like that sense of familiarity. It makes church seem churchy. The problem being that churchy, in our institutional sense, is dead boring.
When was the last time that a lesson you attended at church has actually been educational? Certainly, some teachers are more entertaining than others and some topics are (slightly) more controversial. But, after 5 years, I’m willing to bet that you are already familiar with all that (or as much of it as comes up in Sunday School). But have you had a teacher or a course in the Gospel that demanded or pushed you to new knowledge or insight? In your schooling, if you had a class for which you could show up without doing the homework and for which you felt you already knew all the appropriate answers, was that a good class? Sure, you may have gotten an A, but do you really retain much from that course? Can you think of another course of instruction on earth that seeks to provide education without demanding anything from its students? If you can, is it focused on something as important as the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
My mission president, Richard Chapple, was a great man and he was fond of saying that there is no reason why our meetings shouldn’t knock our socks off. Think about what we offer the world: the power to do the work of God on earth; the option of weekly experiencing the power of Godliness in the administration of the ordinances of the Priesthood; the opportunity to invite the Holy Ghost, a direct catalyst for revelation, into all of our meetings and lessons. Now think about what we provide most Sundays: three hours of time-kill. At present, my assumption is that the primary purpose of all our lessons (in Sacrament Meeting, Sunday School, and in Priesthood/RS) is to fill out the block. I wonder if the purpose of our meetings is best described by Hugh Nibley, who suggested that they might demonstrate our desire to reward “sitting in endless meetings,…dedicated conformity, and unlimited capacity for suffering boredom.” Of course, that is hyperbole; but ask yourself this question, “Are my socks getting knocked off with regularity at church functions? If not, why not?”
Certainly, we all have much repenting to do individually (I, in particular, have loads). And, certainly, it is up to me to drag myself out of bed and get to reading the scriptures. Every conference (every week, every Sunday School), I’m told that I need to have a personal relationship with God and I need to commune daily with him in scripture study. But aside from those frequent, not-insubstantial exhortations, is that idea given support in the structure of the lessons that we teach? Do our lessons require that daily scripture study in order to participate? In this, I don’t mean that we need regular quizzes and grading in Sunday School, but is sincere, regular scripture study rewarded in our current format? Ritually, I think we are supported every Sunday in our personal and communal interaction with God, but in lessons? It seems to happen an awful lot less.