This is the third in a series of three posts. In the first 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 this post, I actually propose a possible solution.
Ok. So now I’ve blathered on for two long posts about how horrible everything is and why it is so horrible. “That’s great, Whiny McWhinikins!” you should be saying, “Where are these solutions you promised us?”
Um…pay no attention to the man behind the curtain…
Organic farming is a complex agricultural system and I will likely do it no justice in my description today. Much worse, I’m going to compare it to teaching Sunday School of which, frankly, I have an equally hazy understanding. So I’m going to stretch a metaphor beyond its intent, most likely, and I am going to possibly do damage to both sides of it. Excited yet?
Organic farming is built on the notion, basically, that modern industrial agriculture is very, very bad. Bad for the land, bad for people, and bad business. Modern industrial agriculture seeks to turn its product into revenue as efficiently as possible, which means that other processes, even if they produce a reasonably better product for all concerned or have a better environmental impact, are less desirable. To be clear, I consider most of modern industrial agriculture as close to evil as we’ve got on earth; I do not believe that of the Church Educational System. The CES is trying to teach a wide variety of people the basics of the gospel as effectively as possible. Unfortunately, in so doing, they rely on the efficiency model of big business (or, in the case of the CES, big teaching). But those models are poor fits for Sunday School. Big teaching is about communicating a few ideas as simply as possible in order for them to be maximally comprehensible. Therefore, each lesson in the manual is geared to getting across, at maximum, three basic ideas. This is because there are limits on how much new information a brain can take in during a given lesson and because simple ideas are the most easily testable. Comprehension is tested in class through a series of questions, so that the teacher can gauge how well the basic ideas have gone down and reinforce when necessary. However, when students know that they are going to hear similar sets of three ideas every week (drawn from a larger set of fifty or so), the impact of emphasizing these limits goes down. The comprehension tests lose accuracy once everyone has internalized the answers, because knowing the answers becomes more important than searching for them in a class setting. Have you ever noticed that, although your children do learn stuff in primary, if you ever ask them what was discussed in a particular primary class, they have a very difficult time coming up with specifics? Does this describe your typical Sunday School experience? If we already know what is coming, week in and week out, our knowledge of the how and why of it is extraneous.
The biggest reason that efficiency models are a poor fit for Gospel Teaching is the need for standardization. Standardization allows the church to present specific messages at specific times the world over. However, standardization alters the message. Like a tomato that has been grown for shipping rather than taste, standardized messages don’t convey what is important about the gospel. Instead of offering insight into human and divine interaction, they offer carefully crafted slogans and calibrated examples. Even worse, the lessons can ask us to that we manufacture meaning on the spot in order to support these superimposed narratives (Don’t you hate question “Has anyone ever had an experience that relates to our topic?”?). Now, these things will do in a pinch, if you have no other options, but they should not be your bread and butter. It asks too little of both the student and the teacher to be truly spiritually nourishing, I think.
Organic farming, more than anything else, rejects standardization, sorta. There are standards (no pesticides, no genetic manipulation (aside from breeding), less mechanization, and so forth), but the standards are there, primarily, to guarantee the quality of the food, not to make it more efficient to get the food to you. Big teaching is interested in quality, too (those three messages will contain no false doctrine), but it is much more concerned with distilling the question down to something easily digestible, like a vitamin pill. Organic teaching, as it were, doesn’t want to just supply you with the nutrients, but all the flesh and pulp surrounding it, too. I’m going to borrow a few easily digestible slogans (O, thou hypocrite!) from organic farming (Actually, from Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto) to explain changes that I think would help.
In Sunday School, we need more direct interaction with the scriptures and with the words of the prophets. That means that teachers should be more encouraged to teach directly out of whatever standard work is being studied. That means students should be encouraged to share their insights from their own study during the week. That means that both student and teacher can (and should) do the work of finding quotes or ideas from modern prophets and leaders that illuminate the text. That means that, when we approach Sunday School, we should prepare ourselves for a weekly feast.
Teaching from scriptures isn’t hard, requires no particular education (beyond literacy), and no particular familiarity with the gospel (although that doesn’t hurt). Instead it requires the following: reading the text closely. If you read each verse, pause and think about what it means, what information it is trying to convey, how its context affects the meaning of that information, and how it should influence our lives today, then you are reading closely. I would provide an example, but space is valuable and I’m going to go over as it is. Look to Jim F’s Sunday School notes or Julie Smith’s or anything by the people at Feast Upon the Word. Just remember that those are their questions. Yours may be similar, but they needn’t be. The questions aren’t what is important, the method is.
Not too much
The 4 year cycle is a blessing in that it gets us to read some of each standard work with some regularity. It is a curse because it emphasizes covering ground over feasting on the word. Have you ever had the experience of visiting another ward, only to discover that they are one or two weeks behind your own in Sunday School. For me, because I am a bad person, I have a profound sense of disappointment and wasted time (“I’ve already been through this”). Rather than encouraging the excitement of hearing another individual’s take, the four year cycle offers standardized portions of the scriptures that are easily digested, but that turn your stomach if you get a second helping too soon after the first. While I think that encouraging folks to go through all the standard works is a good idea, setting it to a timetable forces people through at a pace that is foreign to the class, determined by the needs of the organization, not the individual.
I’m going to take this part of the metaphor in two divergent directions. Plant agriculture is, generally, more sustainable than animal agriculture. Sunday School should be all about sustainability. We don’t want to just give people their pre-cut portions of Gospel every week. We want to teach them how to find the feast themselves. That is why I believe the emphasis in Gospel Teaching should shift from information sharing to method sharing. If we teach using close reading, students will be more likely to take those methods home and apply them, then their children will be more likely to use them, and then their children and so forth. If you want to test in Sunday School, test for method, not information. This isn’t to say that information is unimportant. Doctrine is vitally important, but it will be more meaningful and influential if the individual member discovers it for themselves. To argue that a manual is necessary for people to get the correct doctrine is to argue that our doctrine can only be found in the scriptures under carefully controlled conditions. I don’t believe that for a second.
But what doctrines should be taught? I like how the slogan is “Mostly plants,” not “only plants.” Meat is an important part of our curriculum. The revelations and insights of our modern prophets and apostles do much to clarify and expand the scriptures. However, I don’t believe novelty or esoterica for its own sake is useful (nor do I believe that some sort of upper-division Sunday School course would be). The nourishing vegetable matter of the Gospel is mostly what we get every six months at General Conference and I love that. But those sermons are almost always drawn from the scriptures, the lives of our leaders, or their experiences, not from manuals. The basic doctrines of our church are as profound as the deep stuff, because they act in our lives to make us better, more Christian people. We should embrace that in our Gospel Teaching. The veggies and the meat both have a necessary place at our table and the feast is best sustained if we don’t gorge ourselves too often on the fats. That said, the fatness, I believe, comes from the combination, in correct proportion, of the two. Glorying in that fatness each week will, I believe, bring us closer together as a people and bring us all closer to our God. There is no reason why every Sunday School lesson in the church can’t be a feast upon God’s word and until that happens I think we are failing in our commitment to LDS Gospel Teaching.
So, that’s my manifesto, only it isn’t really a manifesto because I don’t expect the Brethren (or the CES higher ups) to read it and they will do what they want to do anyway and that’s fine with me. I have 3 last things to say, but none of it is necessary and I wouldn’t blame you if you skipped it.
First, I really like the Teaching, No Greater Call manual. It was a great resource for me when I was struggling to know how to get through to 11 year olds. It encourages people to follow their heart, the Spirit, and teacher’s intuition away from the manual (within reason). It encourages teachers to find their own voice and approach to the Gospel. And it encourages more discussion oriented classes. However, I think it should be used as a resource, rather than the sole basis of a course of instruction on how to instruct. Too often, I think, it emphasizes classroom management or technological innovation over individual attention or close reading. Instead, I think that Sunday School presidencies should hold regular classes with their teachers wherein they model close reading for the teachers, ideally in the scriptures and topics that are being studied. However, that is just my opinion. Overall, I think the book is a great resource.
Second, I think the church is already headed in this general direction. My impression of the lessons in Preach My Gospel is that they really are loose outlines and the missionaries are encouraged to follow the Spirit in picking and choosing what to teach. As I understand it, the current Gospel Principles manual follows a similar tact. Anything that puts more emphasis on letting individual teachers and students determine the course a class takes, rather than manuals, I am all for. I, in particular, think that as missionaries raised on Preach My Gospel rather than the Missionary Discussions begin to take over teaching in the church, we will see a great leap forward in our teaching and in the quality of our feast.
Third, my computer crashed several times over the course of writing this. In its first draft it was brilliant. Now, likely not. But I’m sure the angels in Heaven have it recorded so you’ll likely be impressed by this sometime after the Judgment.