“We Are Responsible for Our Own Learning” #BCCSundaySchool2019

It’s a new year, and with the new year comes a whole new approach to Sunday School in the LDS Church. I’ve given the manuals–excuse me, the “resources” or “materials”–which the church has provided a part of the “Come, Follow Me” program some thought, and as I approach this first week, which fundamentally is all about “encourag[ing] class members to learn from the scriptures on their own and with their families,” as our ward’s Sunday School president, I have a couple of thoughts.

1) The sow’s ear

To begin, let’s be frank: the actual scriptural material included in the new approved Sunday School resources is thin to the point of non-existence, and pretty terrible overall. I don’t consider myself a true scriptorian (though I was fortunate enough to have been taught by a few), but I’m hardly alone–especially here, among the readership of By Common Consent–to have felt great frustration over the years at the overly simplistic and much-too-short scriptural guides produced by the church for its Sunday School classes.

This latest change, organized around the guiding principle of making scripture study “home centered” and “church supported,” provides an even further shortening and simplifying to a dramatic degree. Once this program is fully up and running, the twice-a-month Sunday School meetings may not even function like what we normally call “school” at all. Of course, some may assert that the LDS Sunday School classes haven’t been a “school” for decades, and will point back to the sorts of scriptural resources the church produced for its classes in the pre-correllation era as proof. They may be right. But I really do think this latest shift may represent a genuine endpoint of sorts. Consider this (almost certainly scripted) observation made early in the church’s introductory video about the program:

One could, of course, understand those lines charitably…but, strictly speaking, when one talks about studying the scriptures not in terms of the actual, hard work of “reading” the “words” of the text, but rather in terms of “looking” at the words of the text in order to find “something,” you are engaging in what pretty much the whole world understands as “proof-texting”–that is, reading not to develop an understanding of what the words actually say, but reading to fit the words into an already-developed understanding. Broadly speaking, this is not looked upon as a good way of studying a text. But then, since the stated goal of teachers under this program is solely to help people “become converted” to the “doctrine of the restored gospel,” perhaps we should salute the church for making a responsible choice: why ask members to go to a “school” about the scriptures, when the primary point is simply to make sure everyone knows (and can find in the scriptures, when necessary) correct doctrine? Better to simply tell them to study the scriptures on their own, if that is their inclination, and have a teacher follow up with them every couple of weeks to remind them of the doctrines they are supposed to know.

2) The silk purse

Which, of course, can be understood–and if you take seriously the aim of making through our church meetings a consecrated of community of Christians who love one another and who are open to the revelations which can guide them in doing so, than probably should be understood–as a grand opportunity, a silk purse which the believing member can make out of sow’s ear. Just consider: what if it really is the case–even if church leaders do not see or say this directly–that Sunday School has been cut back and simplified to such a point that there can no longer be much plausible reason to view scripture instruction in the church as remotely adequate because the leaders of the church want us to stop assuming Sunday School is, or ever was, adequate? In other words, this could be understood as an unavoidably slow and clumsy but nonetheless vital attempt by the church to broadly insist upon a real change in expectations. Of course, we’ve always been counseled to study the scriptures on our own and in our families, but now, perhaps, there will be more support for viewing such independent study as primary, and Sunday School as merely supplemental, at most.

After all, the official instructions sent out by the church to local leaders emphasize that “Come, Follow Me” includes “a variety of study options for individual and family adaptation,” and that members need to “seek inspiration as they choose to study what will best meet their needs,” all without any “expectation that members will study all, or even most, of these resources at any one time.” In the resource “Using Come, Follow Me,” members are explicitly told “don’t feel bound” by the schedule or the material arranged therein when it comes to studying the scriptures. Elder Cook, in announcing these changes, specifically approved “gather[ing] in groups outside the normal Sunday worship services to…be strengthened by studying together…informally.” Finally, the very title of the first lesson the 2019 “Come, Follow Me” curriculum is “We Are Responsible for Our Own Learning”–meaning that the learning of members is not the responsibility of the Sunday School teacher. Of course, it never has been, not really…but if we take this as a dramatic move away from the presumptive structures of Sunday School itself, as I think we legitimately can, then maybe we can see this as the doors being thrown open in a way that they haven’t been in decades (or, perhaps more accurately, the door being formally all but entirely abandoned, as it were, with believing members are free choose to open it, and free to choose how to open it, if and when they will).

So as the Sunday School year, and this new Sunday School program, begins, let me, in light of the possible implications of these new changes, offer a couple of suggestions for Sunday School teachers and parents wondering what their next step should be:

2a) Take the counsel in the provided materials literally.

Immediately, in this week’s assigned materials, we are told to “ask the questions that come to your mind as you study, and then seek diligently for answers.” This is excellent advice–so do this about what you are reading, and not solely about what you think what you are reading might “mean.” That is, when Elder Bednar is quoted in these same assigned materials as saying that “the instructors who have had the greatest influence in my life….did not give me any answers at all,” take that literally: do not assume that there are answers just laying around the New Testament waiting for you to be reminded of them. Rather, work out whatever is the best way for you to be confronted by the questions in the scriptures. This is not a denial of the importance of doctrine; it is, rather, an invitation for all of us to do the hard work, the “reading” of the “words” of the scriptures on our own, so as to develop the sensitivity to help us contextualize and righteously apply doctrine when we are reminded of it in our occasional classes. Keep in mind James Faulconer’s counsel: making the scriptures harder is essential for making them our own, because reading them solely to find answers to questions that were already authoritatively and easily given to us (as opposed to reading them in light of questions that “come to [our] mind” as we read, and thus organically reflect our own struggles and hopes) would mean we’re not the ones actually doing the studying. We will have, in essence, outsourced the doing of that work. As a teacher, the best thing any of us can do, I think, is to take any one of the questions offered in this week’s materials–like, for example, “What did the people in each account [making reference to Mark 5:25–34, Luke 5:17–26,and John 9:1–7] do to show their faith in the Savior?”–and ask questions about each of those accounts. Who wrote them? Why? Who are the characters in those accounts? Why do you think those characters acted the way they did? As so forth.

2b) Please, please, please, for the love of God please, don’t just rely on the KJV.

Again, it is unlikely that the By Common Consent-reading audience needs to be reminded of all the many, many ways in which the King James Version of the Bible, monumental work of Jacobean literature it may be, just does not serve well 21st-century English-speaking individuals trying to understand the life of Jesus Christ and the works of His apostles. Especially given that now we might well legitimately understand the church as separating the study of scriptural truth (something to be done by individuals, families, and small groups) from the promulgating of doctrine (something to be done on regular occasions through church meetings), encouraging every church member to discover on their own ways to read, ponder, ask questions about, and re-read the scriptures is imperative–and there is, for all except the occasional scholar of 17th-century English–no more obvious way of accomplishing that than by putting in front of our and others’ eyes a more readable translation of the New Testament. My preference for years has been the Revised Standard Version, but there are obviously a great many very good–meaning both responsible and readable–versions available.

If the ghost of J. Reuben Clark still haunts your thoughts about the Bible, or those who study around you or those you are called to teach, then allow me to very strongly recommend the study edition of the New Testament translated by BYU professor Thomas Wayment and published BYU’s Religious Studies Center. The achievement represented by this publication cannot be overestimated; while, as any serious student of church teachings is fully aware, LDS general authorities and other LDS scholars have made use of non-KJV Bible translations throughout the whole church’s modern history, this is first non-KJV Bible to receive any kind of official church recognition. Kevin Barney’s excellent post on the book spells out its textual and social value; let me just add to his enthusiastic review by noting that this book will very likely be the first time my in-laws, who ordered a copy for themselves once I told them about it, will have ever read the words of the Savior in something other than Jacobean English. If we are all, at this moment, being presented with the opportunity (intentionally or otherwise) to start thinking about, and asking questions about, the scriptures in accordance with inspiration that we receive in light of our own structures and schedules, rather than those provided through Sunday School classes, then being able to really read the words of these scriptural records is of greatest importance. So get a different Bible, and use that. And if you’re a Sunday School teacher or giving church talk, do the same. Responsibility has to begin somewhere; let it begin with us.

Comments

  1. Great talk!

  2. john t nielsen says:

    Thank you Russell. As a Gospel Doctrine teacher, I have been at a loss as to what I am supposed to do now. Much of what you have written is so relevant to my thoughts and concerns. Your article has really helped me focus my thinking and I believe will assist me in my responsibilities as a teacher, (as rarely as I will have an opportunity to “teach”) Frankly, I just hope this works. The programs continuing vitality is a worry if the membership looses its initial enthusiasm. Perhaps, we as teachers, can play a role in making this new paradigm a continuing reality in the life of the membership of the Church. Thank you again

  3. Sidebottom says:

    So much of the new curriculum is focused on reinforcing behavioral norms and giving deference to ecclesiastical authority. I was hopeful for for scripture-focused study given the direction that the seminary curriculum had taken but this seems like many, many, many steps back.

  4. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Thanks for this, Russell. I’ll confess that I have not been an enthusiastic student of the scriptures for many years. I appreciate your admonition to take seriously the counsel to study on our own. However, as I commit to reengage with scripture study, I don’t think this Come Follow Me program is appealing to me. If I’m going to take this seriously, I’m going to turn to serious sources.

  5. Mr. Schmidt says:

    I can’t help but wonder if the Come Follow Me program was prepared “for the weakest of these” – and as an entry point. I would have assumed that the regular participants of this blog would be a bit more aware that their vantage point into these things is possibly not the same as so many others who are not in as favorable educational and/or economic circumstances. The commentary I’ve seen (not just in this post) certainly evinces a very post-graduate, “first world” perspective (being someone who fits into this demographic myself). I can appreciate that those such people may be hoping “for more” from the official source, but certainly presumes a lot for those in much more humble educational and/or economic circumstances.

    With that said, I hope we all take your encouragement in (2a) and dive in so we may be confronted with new questions, and grapple with those questions, in ways that soften us to the Spirit and guide us in becoming more soft and charitable in our interactions with all around us (including ourselves).

  6. I liked your point about proof-texting, though I don’t think this curriculum shift really changes the tendency. With the sparser church-provided curriculum maybe members will feel more freedom to look for commentary/understanding elsewhere.

    For the downsides, I appreciate the uniformity of the new system (important that it goes by date instead of by lesson number). The outcome will vary widely by individual/family because more responsibility is placed there. I understand for many people this shift makes things more difficult.

    I’m also a fan of there being an explicit curriculum for home use with our primary-age children. It used to be all of them had a separate church lesson that was mostly disconnected from our home discussions, but now we have an outline to study and discuss together with our kids at home which will be reinforced at church. It will now be easier to notice any gaps in the church-provided curriculum and fill them in at home.

  7. As a ward SS prez always somewhat concerned about content of SS manuals and classes, I appreciate the post. I did, however, give “instead of reading words…” the more charitable reading you indicated would be possible. I have heard too many read the words of the NT without any apparent understanding of the sentences they read. It could be that the “something” they should be looking for is the meaning of the words — maybe not proof-texting for a preconceived notion at all — though proof-texting cannot be expected to go away.

    Though very basic, the manuals are not as limiting as some have chosen to read the instructions to SS teachers. Some have skipped lightly over words like “part of” and and over direct instructions to teachers to discuss the scriptures and to consider sharing additional resources.

    “In this resource, you will find the following pattern repeated in each outline: invite sharing, teach the doctrine, and encourage learning at home. …
    As part of every class, invite class members to share insights and experiences they had over the past week as they studied the scriptures as individuals and families and applied what they learned. …. As you discuss doctrine from the scriptures, what verses, quotations, experiences, questions, and additional resources might you share?”
    https://www.lds.org/study/manual/come-follow-me-for-sunday-school-new-testament-2019/pattern?lang=eng

    In accordance with this instruction, I am encouraging our SS teachers to discuss the scriptures and not only to facilitate the class members’ discussion (many of whom will probably not be prepared to share insights and experiences from their current NT home study) and to share additional resources in the context of such discussion.

  8. PassTheChips says:

    I’m a big fan of the new curriculum. It gives me the official permission I’ve always lacked to go off and create my own lessons using the referenced chapters as the foundation. Prior to this, I was always a bit hesitant to jump into material that was covered by the referenced scriptures, but veered off of the call/response path that was used in the old manuals. On top of that, the Church has provided an extensive list of resources, including official, affiliated, and unaffiliated that can be used to enhance the learning and teaching experience.

    What this really means is that we need good teachers who know how to create lessons, as well as how to provide good instruction to teachers to give them the tools to improve their lessons.

    One additional point. In my ward, we will be having two adult Sunday School classes. The stated reason is that one class would be too large, but the unstated reason is that although Gospel Essentials is no more, the Bishop and myself felt that we needed a foundational class and an intermediate/more advanced class. Although we are not announcing it as such, we are signaling it by having the old Gospel Essentials teacher teach the foundational class (using the same source material).

  9. This is going to sound like a stupid question as I am not nearly as educated as most people who discuss on this blog. However, is there a difference between the Revised Standard Version and the New Revised Standard Version? I am going to purchase one but am unsure which one to get. Thanks in advance for any guidance on this subject.

  10. Yes, the NRSV is a revision of the RSV, the same way the KJV was a revision of Tyndale.

    Nice work Russell.

  11. Eric Facer says:

    “[P]erhaps we should salute the church for making a responsible choice: why ask members to go to a “school” about the scriptures, when the primary point is simply to make sure everyone knows (and can find in the scriptures, when necessary) correct doctrine?” No, we should not.

    By your own admission, the church frequently de-contextualizes the scriptures in order to support the doctrine it propounds. But if the meaning of the scripture is different from the superficial reading attributed to it by the church, what does that say about the validity of the corresponding doctrine? And what about doctrines that have been repudiated by the church (e.g., the priesthood ban) that ostensibly had their basis in scripture?

    I’m sorry, but I can’t salute the church for the choice it has made. Sadly, the new manual simply continues a long pattern of ignoring the complexity and ambiguity inherent in scripture in favor of a homiletic approach that infantilizes the membership. This same approach was taken with respect to church history and it produced disastrous results once the internet revealed the messiness of our past. I fear that the church is making the same mistake in its approach to the scriptures, one that could produce another faith crisis for many members. And I’m not alone. Julie Smith and Ben Spackman have written eloquently on this subject. https://www.timesandseasons.org/harchive/2014/10/the-next-generations-faith-crisis/
    https://www.patheos.com/blogs/benjaminthescribe/2018/09/the-future-faith-of-our-seminary-students/

  12. “long pattern of ignoring the complexity and ambiguity”

    I really don’t have high hopes for the BOM and D&C curriculum materials in 2020 and 2021.

  13. To your point Eric, one would hope that at least the seminary manuals would take a somewhat scholarly approach. I took Ben Spackman’s advice at the end of his article you cite and sent an email to the manual writers at CES because they did in fact ask for feedback. They responded and said “Thank you for your feedback regarding this manual. We will use your feedback, as well as the feedback from others, to help us when we update our manuals.” I took this as a hopeful sign. And Russel’s OP points to the leadership’s leeway for us to take a scholarly approach if we feel that’s best, albeit it on our own.

  14. Sidebottom says:

    @Mr. Schmidt

    I understand (and agree) that the Church needs to create a one-size-fits-all curriculum and that wide swaths of the membership won’t enjoy or benefit from a ‘post-graduate’ approach.

    That said, a curriculum prepared for the “least of these” would ideally focus on teaching scripture stories and the faith/repentance/baptism. Instead we get a mix of “life lessons” and weird doctrinal asides – in January we are treated to a discussion both of Jesus’ DNA and the conflation of “Elias” as a name and a title plus some truly bizarre artwork. I don’t know what to do with this.

  15. Some excellent comments here; thanks, everyone.

    John T. Nielsen,

    The programs continuing vitality is a worry if the membership looses its initial enthusiasm. Perhaps, we as teachers, can play a role in making this new paradigm a continuing reality in the life of the membership of the Church.

    Yes, I fully agree. If one, as a Sunday School instructor or a local unit leader or just as a concerned ward member, chooses to read these changes in the way I have hear, as an implicit and perhaps even unknowing invitation for church members to reconstruct and re-commit themselves to studying the scriptures in their own way, in accordance to their own schedule, than one of the very most important things we can do, on the first and third Sundays, is focus on just one or two small ideas, emphasize how much more there is that isn’t being discussed, and then structure things (or encourage the structure of things) such that people can, through sharing ideas, participate in encouraging class members to take up their own responsibility in these matters.

    Mr. Schmidt,

    I can’t help but wonder if the Come Follow Me program was prepared “for the weakest of these” – and as an entry point.

    Obviously you could be correct–but then, as I mentioned in the original post and as others have noted in these comments, the dumbing-down has been going on for quite a while; to see available Sunday School time chopped in half, and the response being not a grand rethinking of how to organize and approach the material (why not spend two years on each volume of scripture, for example?), but rather, to speak uncharitably, an off-loading of it on to the members themselves doesn’t strike me as an act of compassion towards the “weakest” members of the church. On the contrary, I choose to read it as the church saying–again, probably mostly implicitly and perhaps even unknowingly–“this really isn’t something we can take seriously anymore, given our other priorities, and so we’re only going to gesture in this direction in the future; if that direction is important to you, you need to find a way to follow up on it yourself.” The most positive interpretation, to my mind, is that church leaders are now saying that scriptural knowledge is on us, not anyone else. It doesn’t have to be understood as a softening, though the ridiculously slight information in the approved materials certainly is very softball; rather, it could be understood as making Sunday School, which mostly isn’t any longer going to be something that happens at church, more demanding.

    Eric,

    By your own admission, the church frequently de-contextualizes the scriptures in order to support the doctrine it propounds. But if the meaning of the scripture is different from the superficial reading attributed to it by the church, what does that say about the validity of the corresponding doctrine?…I’m sorry, but I can’t salute the church for the choice it has made.

    Keep in mind, Eric, that what I’m saluting isn’t how I perceive, with the “Come, Follow Me” program, the church choosing (once again, wittingly or unwittingly) to approach scripture student. As I said in the original post, the actual content of these approved materials is “thin to the point of non-existence, and pretty terrible overall.” No, what I’m saluting, maybe, is an institutional choice–the decision, as I am choosing to interpret this new program, as a relative disengagement with scripture, and consequently an acknowledgment that doctrine is a promulgated, authoritative thing that really shouldn’t be understood as closely tied to scripture. What effect will that have in how people understand “the validity of the corresponding doctrine,” as you ask? Good question! With any luck (and faith and hope and time and effort), we may see that what has been the emergent reality of the church over the past 30+ years or more–namely, that there is a divide between those who assume the absolute uniformity and authenticity of all church statements and revelations, ancient and modern, and those who understand, on a textual and historical level, that such as assumption is groundless–becomes more general, less divisive, and more widely shared. One of the keys to that happening, I suspect, is for members to become more used to the idea that Sunday School classes are 1) a source of occasional reminders about that which has been announced by the institution, and 2) a widely ranging and variable playground by which people, who are interested in these sorts of things, can get together every couple of weeks and talk about whatever everyone has been thinking about.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Excellent kickoff to the year, Russell.

    I’m always kind of amazed that we expect people to just dive into the NT without any attempt at contextualizing what it is. I guess we assume that people have been reading it all their lives, so of course they know the basics of what the NT is, but in my experience that’s not a secure assumption at all. In case it’s useful to anyone, here are some of my notes as to how I have tried to explain what the NT is in those first classes during NT curriculum years:

    https://bycommonconsent.com/2011/01/01/nt-intro/

  17. Eric Facer says:

    “No, what I’m saluting, maybe, is an institutional choice–the decision, as I am choosing to interpret this new program, as a relative disengagement with scripture, and consequently an acknowledgment that doctrine is a promulgated, authoritative thing that really shouldn’t be understood as closely tied to scripture.”

    Russ, I don’t disagree with this assessment. Indeed, it is borne out by other trends within the church, such as the current RS and PH curriculum and sacrament meeting talk assignments, all of which exalt GA sermons over the Standard Works. Rather, I find this shift profoundly depressing.

    Boyd K. Packer, in a 1994 Ensign article wrote that “The scriptures provide the pattern and basis for correct doctrine.” Similar statements by other church leaders have been made over the years and I believe they are true. But now we are hearing a different message, one that I cannot reconcile with past pronouncements or the centrality of the scriptures in my own life. Thus, I am struggling find value in our Sunday meetings apart from partaking of the sacrament.

  18. Mr. Schmidt says:

    Russell, your interpretation that it is on us certainly jives with me. Sidebottom, certainly understand the concern about what the content would/should be. Makes me wonder what the thinking was, and what goals were sought to be achieved, in selecting what went into the end product.

  19. Mr. Schmidt says:

    @sidebottom – you piqued my interested about the artwork. Are you referring specifically to the one at the end of the month that suggests there is wind that can billow my clothing in space?

  20. I see the endless messages about learning now being homebased as a reaction to the ‘But nobody ever told me’ rhetoric of the last ten years. Passes the blame onto the shoulders of parents rather than the church.

    I love your approach to teaching and it is exactly what I’m planning on doing in my Primary class. With only 20 minutes for a lesson, I’m going to stick to a single scripture a week. The starting place for each week will be four questions: Who said it? Who was it said to? What is the purpose of the speaker? What questions does this bring up/make us think about?

  21. Ryan Mullen says:

    ReTx, I love those questions. I’m hopeful that approach, if you stick to it every week, will be remembered by your students down the line.

  22. Thanks Ryan. That is actually my goal!

  23. ReTx,

    With only 20 minutes for a lesson, I’m going to stick to a single scripture a week. The starting place for each week will be four questions: Who said it? Who was it said to? What is the purpose of the speaker? What questions does this bring up/make us think about?

    I’m with Ryan, ReTx; I think that is an excellent approach. And I’d urge every Sunday School teacher, even though they’ll have 50 minutes, to do the same!

  24. One small voice says:

    On a tangential note, as a septuagenarian, I have watched the Church change through the decades, and members struggle to adapt to these changes. The new changes will be hard for members who have a psychological dependency on the Church and its activities. Some protest these new changes as being detrimental to keeping community alive in the wards. In the Fifties and Sixties, we lived and breathed church on a daily basis. Perhaps the church is telling us that it is not responsible for our learning,or our thinking, our self esteem, our entertainment, or friendships by assignment,; we are . Although it may not outwardly appear that this is what they are doing, but, to me, this is the silk purse side of the changes. Members give up their co-dependency in order to be adults responsible for their own happiness. And yes, the new lessons are terrible.

  25. I see where some of you are going with the idea that we should be less reliant on the Church for stuff. However, at some point, we are supposed to need the Church for something, aren’t we? If we are not careful, then we check off the ordinance boxes, send tithing check in once/month (or do we eventually decide to spread the tithing check out to other charities?), and then cease looking to the Church for anything else. I can see the point that maybe in the past the Church was too central to our lifestyle and we need to move away from that, but are we possibly swinging the pendulum too far towards a point where the Church is not a significant player in our lives?

  26. Sidebottom says:

    @Mr. Schmidt. The very last page of the manual looks like we lifted it from a mid-80s Watchtower. There’s probably a great story on how this painting came to be.

  27. I like how now when someone is having a “why didn’t someone tell me earlier” faith crisis, we can point to the first lesson in the first Come Follow Me, and say “You were responsible for that.”

  28. I like your expansive take on things, Russell. However, I am inclined to think that the leadership view of “study groups” is that there is no study whatsoever, just eight or ten people reading along in the new Come Follow Me manual, then reading a scripture or two together, then sharing feelings on how those scriptures confirm LDS doctrines or folklore, and how wonderful the Church and its leaders are.

    i expect we’ll start hearing stories in two or three months about how such informal study groups that actually *study* the New Testament (and realize the NT doesn’t line up directly with LDS doctrine and practice) get shut down by local leaders. I also expect a lecture on exactly this point (you may hold a study group, but you can’t actually study anything together) by some GA in April General Conference.

  29. MrShorty,

    I can see the point that maybe in the past the Church was too central to our lifestyle and we need to move away from that, but are we possibly swinging the pendulum too far towards a point where the Church is not a significant player in our lives?

    I actually am rather ambivalent on whether or not the church was “too central” to our lives at some point in the past. At this risk of pretension, let me put my perspective this way: I see tremendous importance in what seems to me the plain call of the Bible (and much restoration scripture as well) for Christians to form close communities of faith and mutual support–“Zion,” in other words. The church for decades pursued the instantiation of its version of that call, and then, once the United Order was gone, continued to aspire to it, in one way or another. But at the same time, the church made at least a certain degree of peace with modern individualism and diversity and capitalism–it did not expect us to live in united, isolated, egalitarian, homogeneous farming communities, for one–and its choice to do so opened up all sorts of Christian possibilities for women and minorities that the 19th-century and early 20th-century church never had any room for. This (still very much ongoing) modernization and (relative) liberalization of the church is, I think, something all of us ought to be profoundly grateful for. Still, in slowly acquiescing to these changes, the church simultaneous attempts at preserving the structures that belonged to the church of the past–the extensive meeting schedule throughout the week, the demands on time and resources, etc.–came to be propped, in my view, by increasingly dumbed-down, correlated, and routinized ecclesiastical practices. The “Sunday School” of 2018 was nothing like the Sunday School of 1958, to say nothing of 1898. So, while I agree we should want the church to be a “significant player in our lives,” I think we have to accept that, for better or worse, Mormon lives have already changed so much that insisting upon maintaining the old ways in which the church was present for us (and especially insisting upon it in the midst of social contexts which result in, far too often, poorly prepared teachers quickly preparing lessons that revolve around some cheap proof-texts once a week to a tired audience) is doing more harm than good. So maybe it really was a responsible decision to just dramatically slash back on Sunday School, and leave the study of scriptures up to the individual, quite possibly with a degree of freedom that most units of the church haven’t seen in many, many years. That may leave us without the church as a “player” in our scriptural education…but honestly, how much was it currently, anyway?

  30. Dave B.,

    I expect we’ll start hearing stories in two or three months about how such informal study groups that actually *study* the New Testament (and realize the NT doesn’t line up directly with LDS doctrine and practice) get shut down by local leaders. I also expect a lecture on exactly this point (you may hold a study group, but you can’t actually study anything together) by some GA in April General Conference.

    I hope you’re wrong, but I suppose we shall see. In the meantime, let’s encourage members in our Sunday School classes to ask questions about whatever little bit of the scriptures the classes choose to focus on, and then to take those questions into their homes and groups, with their own copies of the NT, and discover what they can.

  31. In our teacher training program (not sure of the official title) I was strongly encouraged to reach the insight that the 1st and 3d lessons during the two-hour block come _after_ the home study. As we were taught, the at Church discussions are supposed to be about “hows it working?” and “who learned something?” Not about the reading ahead. It turned my thinking upside down. I know my ward well enough to know somebody will have done something interesting with the materials, and if we can repeatedly skim from the most thoughtful we may be able to improve everyone’s experience with the New Testament.

    It will be a grand experiment preparing for this different approach.

    (Probably doesnt apply to January 6, the starter lesson.)

  32. Eric Facer says:

    As to the study groups, I suspect that very few will be formed and of those that are constituted, many will simply fade away within a year—not because of institutional coercion (though there is always that possibility); rather, as a result of other demands and family obligations. And I doubt the church will express any dismay if what I am predicting turns out to be true. After all, the scriptures are simply not given the importance they once were, as evinced by the abysmal quality of the manuals and the preeminence given to conference talks.

    When it comes to the Standard Works, I ceased relying upon the church decades ago and happily assumed responsibility for my own learning. But I fear for the youth who believe that Seminary and Institute is providing them with the scriptural foundation on which to build a testimony of the gospel of our Savior, one that can withstand attacks by those who dismiss the Bible and Book of Mormon as simple collections of myths. They are being misled. And that will not change until we embrace the counsel of Elder Neal A. Maxwell: “For a disciple of Jesus Christ, academic scholarship is a form of worship. It is actually another dimension of consecration.” I, for one, think his words would make an excellent starting point for the first lesson on January 6.

  33. I’m not sure if you have yet had the chance to listen to/read the talks from the Women’s Session if conference, but I felt like it was made pretty clear that indeed, Sunday instruction is intended to be supplemental to instruction at home, and that instruction at home is to be largely on the shoulders of the sisters. This is complicated in several ways, one of which being the traditional exclusion of women from serious scriptural study (by not being required/encouraged to serve missions, by the institutional bias and barriers for women wanting to pursue formal education in theology or related study, by excluding women from paid teaching positions in CES or even having access to the same training, etc.). Yes, the curriculum is simple, but even so, many women I know are totally overwhelmed at the prospect of teaching this material in their homes. In some ways, I am hopeful that this new, simpler curriculum will empower women to become students of the scriptures in their own right, to speak up in Sunday School (take note how in nearly every Sunday School, the comments are dominated by men), and to eventually become the kinds of scriptorians that our brothers have long had the opportunities to become.

  34. In EQ on Sunday we had a lesson on scripture study but all we discussed was GA quotes.

    One of our new Sunday School teachers (here in Utah) is a paid CES employee so it will be interesting to see her approach.

    I don’t have grand expectations for Come, Follow Me for my own gospel scholarship but plan to supplement it with works by John Turner and other authors mentioned often at BCC.

  35. In my ward we (the teacher’s council) experiment with teaching from approved supplemental materials. A good motto is “Cover the core and then explore.” For the most part it is enthusiastically received. For example, given a choice by the teacher whether to discuss seer stones or a traditional theme during 2017’s 4th SS lesson, the class voted for the former. After class feedback that 2nd guesses the teacher’s (or educational commenter’s) selections have been rare and respectful. When the bishopric sees new content on the Church’s gospel library app they make a 5th Sunday of it.

    Our ward also has an unofficial Facebook group of 100-150 members so far. I am experimenting by adding an online study group element to it by posting links that will be fair game to bring up in church. For example, this week I posted:

    This week’s Come Follow Me lesson poses a couple questions that are addressed in more detail on other parts of the Church website.

    1. What should I do when I have questions?
    https://www.lds.org/si/seminary/july-admin-message?lang=eng
    https://www.lds.org/si/objective/doctrinal-mastery/gospel-sources?lang=eng

    2. What is doctrine?

    https://www.lds.org/si/questions/what-is-doctrine?lang=eng
    I attended a lecture at Sperry Symposium back in 2016 that explores this question from an academic point of view.
    https://rsc.byu.edu/…/files/EvaluatingDoctrine2016.pdf

  36. 9am mtg start time here (Sacrament Mtg first), we usually have Sunday School in the Relief Society room and now we have another ward starting at 10:30. I tried to attend SS today but most of the seats were already taken. I’m hoping today was an exception and that it does not become a logistical nightmare.

  37. Did anyone else notice that this first lesson made the fatal error of taking John 5:39 totally out of context? The lesson implies that this verse means something totally different than what Jesus was actually saying. Seems that the rookie misuse of this verse is symptomatic of the kind of “proof-texting” mentioned in the post. Hopefully future materials will at least be prepared with the help of scriptural experts to avoid such scriptural abuse.

  38. Carsten, it’s a pretty traditional misreading.
    On proof-texting, useful LDS podcast episode here.