Seeing eye to eye in Sunday school

The following activity verse could be used to teach children to be thankful for God’s creations. It is taken from the Primary song “The World Is So Big”:

The world is so big and, oh, so round,
[form a large circle with arms]
And in it God’s creations are found;
Stars shining brightly through all the night,
[straighten and wiggle fingers]
Sun in the day so warm and so bright.
[form a large circle with arms]
The world is so big and, oh, so round.
God loves us all; our blessings abound.
[grasp arms and hug self]

(From Teaching, No Greater CallPart F: Methods of Teaching.)

I’ll get around to why I opened this post with an excerpt from the church’s teaching handbook, but first I should explain that I was going to open with a simple declaration:

Teaching Adult Sunday school is a very difficult church calling.

But then a little voice asked: “would you rather be bishop/ scoutmaster/ Relief Society president/ youth teacher/ fill-in-the-blank?” So I needed a new opening. Many callings have their own difficulties depending on who you are. It’s less useful to talk about which is harder than to think about what makes particular callings hard. Among other things I’ve been a Primary chorister, ward choir director, financial clerk, and Sunday school instructor—the latter being not only the most fulfilling for me, but also the most difficult. And strangely, it gave me greater fellow-feeling with the bishop than I ever expected.


I usually think of the church as a very homogeneous entity. This is due to my direct experience as a member (apart from online conversation; I’ve lived in Utah most of my life). At the same time, when I think of the particular people I worship with and who sits in my class on Sundays, I sense differences in temperament, perspective, life experience, education level, and age among other things. Teaching Sunday school has made me more aware of the delicate a balance we have to strike in our callings to meet the needs of people who are more diverse than appearances suggest. (Pray for our sister and brother church leaders!)

It’s been almost a decade since I read Ben Huff’s paper “Theology in the One Room Schoolhouse,” but it still regularly comes to mind. Not so much Huff’s particulars, but the image of a teacher in front of a bunch of different people on different levels trying to edify them all. This setting helps account for our simplistic church manuals. On the one hand, I think we could give our members more credit than we do, expecting each other to reach a little further. On the other, I see some wisdom in regulation. But in a church inundated with lovers of capitalism, I find it ironic that innovation is so often discouraged. Hold to the rod? Stick to the manual! (Which means less Cleon Skousen and Julie Rowe, but also less N.T. Wright and Amy-Jill Levine.) Above all, reach as many people as possible.

At the same time, the church’s teacher training manual repeatedly emphasizes the fact that different members have different needs. Here’s a great description from Elder Neal A. Maxwell:

“A Church group, quorum, or classroom may contain some who are bored; some who are making an unobserved, agonizing, and crucial re-appraisal of their relationship to the Church; some who are ‘single-shot’ visitors who may base their future attendance and attitudes toward the Church on their experiences on a ‘sample Sunday’; some whose idealism has soured; and a goodly number of … well-informed members who find joy and growth in a divine Church full of frail humans and who can cope with disappointments.

“To be impersonal or to use the indiscriminate … approach to leadership and teaching with such inevitable variety of individuals is clearly not to be ‘anxiously engaged’ in the leading or teaching process. Casual, insensitive leading and teaching means that the individual sees himself merely as a course or a toll-gate through which members must pass. Such leading is heedless of individual differences and devoid of meaningful, personal warmth.”

It’s one of the biggest mysteries of teaching: how to edify the group while realizing different people have different needs.


I confess I don’t find our manuals to be very helpful. I rely much more on the scriptures assigned for each lesson. The most important part of my lesson preparation involves writing questions that will spur good class discussion without encouraging things to go off the rails. (And I’ve had to develop strategies to use to reign things back in.) Over time I realized so much of my discomfort in church happened when someone said something I disagree with. I realized that was as much my problem as the church’s problem. In my academic life I’ve worked hard to become comfortable in settings where people disagree with each other. Ok, I could work on doing that at church. But I’m not sure how much my fellow congregants value that approach, and I don’t know how much experience they have with it. How could I encourage members to allow each other space?

I’ve come to recognize that I feel edified for different reasons and in different ways than many of my fellow ward members do. I believe such differences don’t mean any of us are “off” in our access to the spiritual. I would have more success if more people recognized that what resonates with one member might not resonate with another member, and that’s OK. At the beginning of the year I kicked things off with a metaphor that I plan to use whenever I sense discomfort or disagreement in class. 

THE METAPHOR: The Ophthalmologist’s Refractor 

Not everyone has had the pleasure of visiting the eye doctor and sitting in that dentist-like chair with the giant alien binocular device called the “refractor” (or phoropter)—I love the delicate metallic slipping sound it makes when the doctor switches between lenses and asks “What’s more clear, 1 or 2? 1 or 2? 1 or 2?”

I showed the class a picture of a refractor, briefly explained its use, and then asked what they thought this might have to do with how we read the scriptures.

This wasn’t an optimal question, I admit, since it was more leading than I usually like, but I wanted to actualize the point at the same time I was teaching it. The people who responded got it easily (another sign that it wasn’t an optimal question, but I digress.) When we read scriptures, each of us comes with our own limited vision. When you’re sitting in class and someone offers a perspective that makes you cringe, consider the possibility that their prescription is a bit different from yours. Be willing to sit with them, try on their glasses, and even if it looks blurry, be willing to recognize that you’re seeing things from your own particular vantage point and that your glasses might not fit them either. The fact that not everyone had personal experience with a refractor only reinforced the point:

We don’t always see things the same way, even when we’re looking at the same things.

I invited the class to realize their perspectives matter but that they should also consider that their perspectives may be limited, may even be incorrect, but that they could still share their view with confidence that people could either agree or disagree and still be faithful members of the church and sisters and brothers in the gospel.

Spending so much time with Paul last year as we studied the New Testament brought clarity to my vision on this point.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end…For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face [or eye to eye]. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (NRSV 1 Corinthians 13.8–13).

Like the children’s song says, “The world is so big and, oh, so round. God loves us all; our blessings abound.”

Even in our differences.

Or, for those manual sticklers who made it to the end, here’s how the church’s official teaching manual puts it without discriminating:

Love prompts us to prepare and teach differently. When we love those we teach, we pray for each of them. We do all we can to know their interests, achievements, needs, and concerns. We tailor our teaching to meet their needs, even if this takes more time and effort.

[This post is part of my ongoing series, “Tips for Teachers.”]


  1. Doug Clifford says:

    I loved the analogy of the Ophthalmologist’s Refractor. We all do see things quite differently. I certainly saw you quite differently 15 years ago in Wisconsin. Our minds are all wired differently and the same phrase will incite unique images in every person. The important thing is to try and reach as many as possible with something that triggers the Holy Spirit to testify to them that what they experiencing is the Word of God to them.

  2. Very helpful. I especially see this dynamic in the gospel principles class that I attend with new members and the odd investigator on occasion. Our teacher is more than willing to toss the whole lesson plan out the window when an important question comes up that may or may not be part of the lesson plan, but is important to the one who is asking it. We have had some great lessons, and powerful experiences in that class.

  3. As a GD teacher, I made a note many years ago which reflects the great post you have written above. I segmented the temperaments in my class as follows:

    1) Milk before Meat (perhaps these need to be in Gospel Essentials class?)
    2) Young Disciple Growth
    3) Shelter from the Storm
    4) Doubting Thomas
    5) Deepening Discipleship
    6) Gospel Scholarship

    You are so right that there is not one approach for everyone and the manuals are not very helpful in crafting a well-balanced lesson to provide nourishment to each. I usually have to ponder the lesson in the manual for a couple of weeks before I am able to settle on some ideas.

    One thing that is verboten in all the classes I teach is bringing politics or judgmental self-righteousness into the discussion. It is a time for inward reflection and crafting our discipleship and not for outward disparaging of others. We emphasize the universalism of God’s redemption instead of the exclusivity of our membership in the Kingdom. We also seek to provide context and understanding of time & place instead of proof-texting and feel-good twinkie moments.

  4. I try to set the standard for how I expect classmembers to behave. So if I know we are going to talk about something difficult, I start with pointing out different ways members could view the topic and then say specifically that for some it could be painful (and make sure the ‘why’ is clear). I try to make the boundaries of what is okay / not okay obvious in the first place. (I, err…, wouldn’t tend toward difficult topics or anything). I try to emphasize that we all see the topic differently and that this is something to be celebrated.

    Doing all this (and of course it all has to be integrated into the course material so it doesn’t stand out as being preachy on its own) then means that when someone says something that can be taken as offensive, I can easily fall back on: “It sounds like that works/makes sense for you. That’s great! What works for/ makes sense for me is… And that’s great too!”

    Honestly, I feel like there is a thirst in the church for real discussion of issues and faith and scripture. But the manuals get in the way of it; we’ve had so many of the ‘milk’ discussions they no longer excite people. If I take the lesson topic and teach it thru different colored glasses, most class members suddenly engage.

  5. Of course, the point of the refractor is to properly measure everyone’s ability to clearly see so that we all can be given the right correcting lenses and all have 20/20 vision when all is said and done. Which screws up the analogy completely, unless one wants to look at this as a way of coming to a unity of the faith so that we can all see the scriptures the exact same way, right? :-)

  6. Interesting that you use the phrase “coming to a unity of the faith,” Mark N. That’s a phrase that should be read in context, and is very applicable in this discussion.

    “Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ . . . But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.”

    What if the goal of Sunday teaching is speaking the truth in love and becoming Christlike together? That comes back around to the conclusion in the OP.

    How does a teacher make that happen? I’ve seen some bad examples recently, including an experience that was neither truth, nor spoken in love (as far as I could tell), so I’m happy to be in the family history center now, teaching people, not lessons. (Honestly, that’s what we do. No formal lessons; rather one-on-one training, incorporating gospel principles into personal instruction in how to use FamilySearch Family Tree and do family history research.)

  7. Thanks for this, Blair. I found that teaching Gospel Doctrine, given the diversity of perspectives in the room, has done more than almost anything else to get me thinking about the real challenges of building Zion.

  8. I love this metaphor, BHodges, and fully intend to steal it. I agree with RT that there is a thirst among members for real discussions. The bloggernacle fills a void for me, but I suspect most members of my gospel doctrine class don’t have a forum to talk about their opinions and doubts and questions. I try to allow for that in my lessons, with varying degrees of success.

  9. Often times I feel like S.S. teachers and presidencies are forgotten among all the other callings despite their importance. Seeing Eye to Eye may not be easy but it is worth the effort. Everyone truly attends class for many reasons, with diverse understandings and it is the teachers calling to support all of them. Thanks for spending the time to write this.

  10. Lew Scannon says:

    Interestingly, I just went to the ophthalmologist this week. My left contact has been a bit off, so I am trying a new prescription. That’s what the eye doctor is for (in part). He helps me see more clearly. I would hope a Gospel Doctrine teacher would do the same. If the teacher just slaps a standard pair of contacts on my eyes without doing the careful testing, you can guess how that might work out.

    I’m also doing what’s called monovision—one contact for reading up close and the other for seeing in the distance. It’s weird in theory, but the brain adjusts. I hardly notice. Sometimes, I think the gospel might be like this. Some of the doctrines we teach are pretty out of focus. But the brain fools us into thinking we’re seeing clearly, when really we’re not.

  11. Mark N., haha, any metaphor or analogy falls apart when you zoom too far in or out. I hinted at a solution to your puzzle by citing Paul’s discussion of everyone seeing through a dark glass, or in a dark glass, operating with imperfect knowledge and skewed perspective, but that the love we generate in spite of all that will be what carries through in the end. Kristine A picked up on it I see!

    Pres. Clifford, we need to get together and eat lunch!

    Sean: Like you I try to redirect lessons when they start down the “us versus the world” path because I feel like they so often caricature people who aren’t in the room, and they don’t demand much of us in terms of repenting because, by comparison, we think we’re already in a better spot.

    Thanks Travis H, and all others for commenting.

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