It has been a month and I have yet to see the most controversial talk at General Conference discussed. I suppose it falls to me. Sure, Elder Packer’s talk and all those references to President Benson made it seem like the entire conference was in a time warp, but I want to talk about the talk that was both backward and forward looking. I speak, naturally, of the talk given by the first counselor in the Sunday School General Presidency, David M. McConkie. Ya’ll realize that it was an attack on correlated materials in Sunday School, right?
In the talk, Bro. McConkie offers 5 basic pieces of advice:
1. Have the right attitude as you teach
2. Read the scriptures
3. Apply the scriptures in your life
4. Pray to have the Spirit with you
5. Follow the promptings of the Spirit
Do you all see what is missing? There is no reference to the manuals there. Not once are you encouraged in this talk to open the manuals and follow the lesson there. The closest the talk comes is when Bro. McConkie, after suggesting that you might pray in order to have the Spirit with you as you prepare the lesson, also suggests that you should pray about the needs of individual students (“no class is so large that we cannot pray for inspiration for how to reach each student”). That is hardly a reference to correlated material, folks.
Further, all the examples that Bro. McConkie gives of good teachers come from an era before correlated material. William E. Berrett was the head of CES during the sixties, so the teacher of his teen-years would have taught well before correlation. We have some notion of when President Monson was in children’s Sunday School. They had some centrally provided materials, but, in both cases, the fact that the teacher focused on the scriptures is emphasized. If you are looking for an official repudiation of correlated material by the Sunday School Presidency, this is as close as we will ever get.
Now, you may think that I am reading too much between the lines here. Perhaps you would say, “John, the absence of a topic does not mean disapproval of that topic.” However, I have two arguments against that (of variable worth). The first of the arguments is this: when you look at the stuff that is present in this talk, it isn’t that inspiring. It all boils down to “It’s your fault; not ours” Mostly it seems to be addressed to the teacher (you have the wrong attitude, you haven’t prayed for the right things, you haven’t taken the time to nightly pray for the individual needs of each of the thirty people in your class, most of whom you only ever see in that class). To some degree, it could be seen as directed at students (he is teaching the “‘how’ of learning” in this lesson after all). What’s more, it is entirely true. Participants in Sunday School should have a good attitude about the experience, they should read the scriptures, they should pray and invite the Spirit, following its promptings. There is nothing that he says that isn’t painfully obvious, and that is part of the problem.
By laying the fault for bad lessons and bad meetings squarely on the individual students and teachers in the classroom, the Sunday School Presidency is abdicating its responsibility to provide materials conducive to that endeavor. Now, admittedly, it started down this path a while ago (again, note the lack of manuals in this talk). Nonetheless, laying all blame at the feet of teachers and students is, essentially, saying, “We’ve done our part; now you do yours.” Sadly, as I’ve said before, the part that they’ve done is pretty terrible. I do agree that it is the responsibility of individual teachers and students to invite the Spirit into the classroom (and that this is the most important aspect of Gospel teaching), but the lesson materials should facilitate this, not be an obstacle to it. While I often joke that drowsiness and Spiritual promptings are synonymous in Gospel Teaching, I’m not serious. I’m not sure that the General Sunday School presidency gets that. But you don’t have to provide meaningful teaching aids to your audience, if you’ve stopped mattering. And my second argument is that Sunday School has stopped mattering.
As far as I can tell, the Sunday School exists as a kind of relic of its old self. We don’t want to get rid of it, because it has historical value and it takes up a third or so of our meetings, but we don’t really know what it is for anymore. Since everything is correlated, it is just another iteration of the endless repetition of the same principles over and over again. It is not that the principles are bad or shouldn’t be repeated, it is that the endless repetition turns them into background noise and nobody pays attention to background noise after they’ve been listening to it for years. You get to where you don’t even hear it at all. Speaking as a Sunday School President in my ward, the Sunday School is a sort of vestigial auxiliary.
There have been some recent attempts to give the Sunday School more responsibility (did you hear that the Sunday School Presidency now trains teachers and is in charge of the library?). Of course, although these changes were made in the early ’00s (probably when they realized that the ward Sunday School presidencies had nothing to do), my bishop, when he called me, was unaware of them. I don’t say this to criticize my bishop (whom I love and think the world of); I say it to demonstrate just how little Sunday School matters.
In the very worst classes in the church, we are expected to listen to a teacher read from a manual, making appropriate noises and giving appropriate answers when called upon. In the very best classes in the church, we engage in a lively discussion of the gospel, gently guided by a capable instructor. However, is it possible that a universal in all LDS experience is the general feeling that none of it matters? People often say that the most important thing we do each Sunday is partake of the sacrament, which is true but it may lead us to wonder why we are there for an additional hour and a half. We spend the majority of our worship every Sunday on the admittedly secondary task of receiving instruction in one form or another, but is there anything in the way this instruction is given that indicates its importance or is it just time filler? My concern is that, in my experience, the classes I’ve attended (and taught) have often been more a way to spend an hour or so on a Sunday (pleasant or otherwise) rather than an opportunity to commit myself to the investigation of God and his work.
Sunday School is what adults have to do because Primary is two hours long and Priesthood and Relief Society lessons that are two hours long would be worse. Sunday School is there so that we can weekly proof-text our faith, demonstrating that we are, yet again, God’s chosen people with the affiliate knowledge and awesomeness. Sunday School offers an opportunity to engage in the community building ritual of reciting “prayer, scripture reading, and church attendance” over and over again in order to assert our Mormon affiliation. Sunday School is a waste of time, but we all do it out of a misbegotten sense of loyalty.
If you think I am being unfair, ask yourself: if I stopped attending Sunday School would my life and my feelings about God change? If I faithfully participated in the sacrament each week and participated in other meetings, but skipped Sunday School, would my spiritual life significantly change? Until we can confidently answer in the affirmative, it clearly doesn’t matter to us. If the answer isn’t (mostly) universal, then it clearly doesn’t matter to the church, either.
Bro. McConkie seems to get this. So, Bro. McConkie tells us to pray hard for the spirit and to set the manual aside (sorta). Focus on the scriptures. Focus on us as individuals and on the scriptures as a means of communication to God. Sure, he may imply that the scriptures are God’s CHI, but the message that we can turn to them for answers to our daily problems is true. The first step to making Sunday School matter again (assuming that is desirable) is to re-enshrine the unfiltered scriptures as our guiding text. Give the Spirit a reason to show up week after week and I am confident that He will.
Now, ya’ll know that I am kind of down on correlated teaching materials, but I do see their value. Some control over what is taught in classrooms is necessary, along with some distinction regarding what is essential to know and what is superfluous. I like that Sunday School is primarily about essentials; I just think that looking for essentials without guidance can be its own reward. To that end, I’ll end this jeremiad with a micromormon suggestion (because I love Scott B. as a brother). May I suggest that you do as Bro. McConkie alludes? Set aside the manual when you are preparing the lesson. Let it be you, the scriptures, and the words of the modern prophets. Then, once you’ve done that, take a look at the manual. Maybe you’ve missed something that the manual wants mentioned, but I doubt it. If you did, you should include it, but follow the Spirit. Trust yourself to listen to the Spirit and find what God wants said and, I’ll bet, 9 times out of 10 you will.