Come Follow Me, A Thank You

I miss three-hour church. I really do. I would switch back in a heartbeat. But I am absolutely grateful for the new Sunday School curriculum. The manuals themselves are essentially forgettable. It is instead the framework of study that has been the blessing. As I see it, there are two overwhelming goods in the curriculum. First is that the lessons are based on large chunks of scriptural text, and not random verses from all over the place. This allows for careful reading (as a side note, read Ben’s recent post on the previous generation of curriculum development). The second is that church leaders encouraged supplemental study groups. Consequently, this is a love letter to my ward.

A group of friends (or people that were willing be friends) in the ward decided to get together every two to three weeks for a serious discussion of our bible reading. We haven’t slaved away at following the precise reading schedule of Come Follow Me (we did not harmonize the Gospels), but have roughly been on a similar trajectory. Most everyone has used an alternate translation. I’ve used Hart’s, but most people have used an NSRV study bible, with maybe one or two NIVs or KJVs. We have also had a supplemental reading, typically from Brown’s An Introduction to the New Testament.

Someone informally leads the discussion, depending on whose home we are meeting at, but it is really that: a discussion. The dynamic has been extraordinary, with people sharing observations and questions, and responding. People are vulnerable. It hasn’t been the right fit for everyone who has come, but I can genuinely say that that I have felt the power of God in these conversations more than at any other place this year. We meet on Sunday evenings and talk for a couple of hours. Sometimes only a few people can make it, other times we have more than a dozen.

In my opinion and experience, it is impossible to read the New Testament seriously and not be utterly cut apart. It is challenging in the best ways. And to be frank, because I know that I need to show up and participate in a real discussion, I read and take notes. I think about it. And because I often do the reading over a day or two, I am able to think about the text in ways that reading a chapter a day just doesn’t allow. I’ve learned more and felt more connected to the text than before. And I have felt more connected to people at church.

Despite starting out as an opportunity chaser, for various reasons, I have ended out living in the same place for the last fifteen years. I have said before that you can take a couple of hundred of faithful Mormons, throw them together, and the cogs of the church will turn. There will be talks and lessons and activities. There will be refreshments. Calling will be filled and service will be performed. But this is not Zion. Zion requires love, and I am convinced that it takes time—years—to love each other. Sometimes that love will be instantaneous, and sometimes it will take a decade. But as we work together, going on campouts, and washing dishes after ward parties, we get to know each other. We learn to love.

I have seen and felt Zion this year, even if it is fleeting and for a stolen hour on Sunday nights. So thank you. Thank you to the church leaders that encouraged us to make the effort. Thank you for reading with me. Thank you for your vulnerable moments of reflection. And thank you, as well for going on campouts, and for washing dishes. Thank you for refreshments, and for activities, lessons, and talks. Thank you for loving me, in spite of me, and for loving my children. I love you too.

Comments

  1. J., thank you. There’s so much here that resonates (but not fondness for 3-hour schedules–I’m working on the 12 minute variety).
    We have (also) had a wonderful experience with an in home study group. You’re right that one can’t take the gospels and the epistles seriously without feeling cut and challenged and vulnerable. And in home is better for me when I am vulnerable.
    Then there’s the community. I still remember the warm feeling when a ward member showed up very late for a Stake service project and when challenged for his bona fides looked around quickly, saw me, and said “I’m with him.” There’s a whole gospel in that line.

  2. I actually miss the 3-hour block too, but mostly because I feel less connected without PH opening exercises. I know, I know, I can’t believe it either, but somehow it made me feel like we were all coordinating as part of a greater whole.

    I think I would really like to be part of a study group as described here, but (and I do like my ward), I can’t really see it happening in my ward.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks Christian, I think I probably would love your group as well. I always appreciate your thoughtful perspective.

    Martin, I think that there are multiple groups in our ward, and I’m sure they all aren’t a good fit for everyone. I’m mindful as well, that our experience probably doesn’t feel accessible to everyone, in spite of trying to reach out. But yeah, I could easily be in a place where there wasn’t a critical mass for such a group, and yet loved the same.

  4. Kristin Brown says:

    I felt your gratitude, and it filled my heart with joy. Thank you for your uplifting words.

  5. Beautiful, J. I agree, and I hope that the kind of dynamic you describe grows in coming years. We’re doing our best in our little corner. The Sunday lessons have still been pretty dreadful, unfortunately, in large part because the curriculum material still relies on the KJV and outdated readings–and study groups like yours and ours make the contrast more visible.

  6. I too have had a really great experience forming a study group out of Come Follow Me.

    At the start of the year, I and five other women formed a study group that meets every other Thursday night at 8:30 PM, after our kids have gone to bed. We alternate whose home we meet in. We discuss the past 2 weeks of CFM readings, generally going chapter by chapter and just talking about things that stuck out to us and that we found interesting. There’s also plenty of talk just about our lives in general, which is wonderful in and of itself. The session runs 2+ hours and is full of intimacy and laughter. At the end we talk about issues/problems going on in our lives, and then we pray for each other about those concerns. It’s brought us closer to Christ, and closer as friends, and been incredibly edifying and nourishing.

    Seeing the success we had with our group, our husbands formed their own study group, which meets at the same time on the alternate Thursdays. They’re having a great time with it too.

  7. Thanks, J. Lovely. This has been experience as well. We are running a monthly NT study in our home. It’s really caused me to engage much more deeply and has been a lot of fun. Keep up the good work!

  8. A positive, uplifting experience concerning CFM here at BCC! It feels like a breath of fresh air. Thanks.

  9. J. Stapley says:

    LisaT, I think the challenge for Sunday teachers will only get more difficult. There is the dynamics you outline, and also the reality that there are some months with only one lesson, and teachers feel like they have to cover everything, which is entirely impossible. I’m sure I would love your group (and smb’s – thanks for comments).

    Katie, I can see how that sort of group would work well. One thing that I have enjoyed this year is that our little group has been relatively diverse by Mormon standards, with different ages, sexes, and marital statuses. My sense is that the resulting perspectives have enriched the conversations in constructive ways.

  10. I’ve been able to take part in a group … twice only, with a couple who has made the effort to drive many miles either to meet at my place or to take me to their place (with a second trip to take me home). It has been a wonderful experience, partly, I suppose, due to the nature of this particular couple, but also without doubt due to the format of discussing whatever part of the chapters struck us as particularly interesting or relevant. We, too, draw on translations beyond KJV, and on scholarship far beyond what would come into ANY LDS Sunday School class. The use of that scholarship does not in any way hamper the spiritual goals of LDS scripture study — it recognizes that when our minds are opened and moved, our hearts can be, too.

    In case anybody is keeping tabs on the types of study groups available, there is one, and apparently only one, officially sponsored in my ward; I have heard no rumors of private groups. It meets once a month, always in the same home. I have not attended because the initial description and the monthly bulletin announcements do not appeal to me. I would love to have my own local group to meet with often, but have no idea how to go about finding participants who would be compatible — meaning they have to be open to the kind of scripture study I do on my own, which has nothing to do with CFM beyond keeping pace with the reading assigned there.

  11. The old style gospel doctrine class in the 3 hour block allowed me as a teacher to foster much broader preparation and comment in Sunday school than does the current format. Unfortunately for my thinking of a monthly home study group, most of those once in my ward who were known to me to be able and willing to accept a variety of viewpoints and read and consider a variety of Bible translations and information on historical context, without being inclined to assume apostasy on the part of others, have left the Church or gone wholly inactive. Luckily there are still two I know can do that. I will consider asking them if they would like such a monthly study group and if they know of others in the stake who would. I’m not interested in taking the current Sunday school approach to CFM in any such study group, but very interested in something like what I see described above. I’m glad to hear that these groups exist someplace.

  12. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks for that perspective, Ardis. I don’t know that there are any pro-tips for getting a group together, but I’m glad that you have had a couple of positive experiences.

  13. Not “pro” tips since I’m not, but I have answered the how-we-started question twice before for friends and I can share some cuts from those explanations. For the record, we do have friends and family nearby (1 hour radius), but no established group to start with.

    1. Talked with the bishop first so we could position ourselves not as Church sponsored but as consistent with the CFM program.
    2. Invited a cross-section of ward members, family, and neighbors. With low expectations. We regularly remind ourselves and others that two people in conversation is enough.
    3. Put ourselves out. I find that preparing some prompts in advance and doing a slightly uncomfortable reveal (sometimes as simple as “this doesn’t make sense to me”) greases the wheels.
    4. Set some reasonable time and place and confidentiality expectations. On confidentiality I find people get comfortable with a no attribution rule. That is, nothing is confidential or secret except names–repeat anything you like, just don’t attach names.

    As for finding people who are compatible, maybe we’ve just been lucky. We’ve certainly been surprised. In reality I think the self-reveal and prompts leads to a self-selection that works. That plus low expectations. One other person in conversation is a group. Matthew 18:20 (“where two or three are gathered”).

    It’s worth mentioning that preparing a prompt has become a valued scripture study exercise in itself. Equivalent to preparing one or two Sunday School lessons, including by reading all the BCC material for the month (thanks for that). In real life the fact that a few people are getting together next Sunday motivates me to do the work I’ve been intending all month.

    For this month my prompt is almost 500 words. Here’s a ~150-word excerpt as an example:

    Worthiness
    Ephesians 4:1 (NRSV throughout) “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”
    I confess to being almost allergic to the word “worthy” but that’s a good reason to talk about it. So what does “worthy” mean? What are the characteristics or virtues of a worthy of the calling life? For a start, see Ephesians 4:2-3 and Colossians 3:12-14.

    Christology of Colossians
    Colossians 2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.”
    On the one hand, this verse may be the original source of the “philosophies of men” temple-goers will recognize. On the other hand, the discussion in Colossians is cited by traditional Christians to say Mormons are at fault for exactly what is criticized.
    Discuss

  14. Thank you for sharing your experience and thoughts, J.

    I am liking the Come Follow Me curriculum better than I expected I would. It has been an adjustment teaching Primary. Class time is more like the old sharing time. You really only have time to discuss one concept (and not in much depth). But I also like having the chunk of scripture to work with, rather than proof-texted lessons. I think I might enjoy participating in an adult study group such as yours, since I rarely have opportunity to attend Sunday school, but I would probably have to start it myself, and knowing me, I’m not holding my breath.

  15. @ Ardis 9:18 AM
    “When our minds are opened and moved, our hearts can be, too.”
    I love this, thank you.

  16. Can we just eliminate Sunday School? This week our teacher asked a question about philosophies and traditions which led to at least three hurtful and political responses.

  17. “Can we just eliminate Sunday School?” I think the harm would far *far* outweigh any good in eliminating Sunday School.

    Although introverted by nature (and thus any decrease in compulsory group time is good), I also think we’ve lost something substantial in moving to 2-hr Sunday meetings.

  18. Other than during the few weeks immediately following the announcement of come follow me and two hour church, I don’t think that I have heard any mention of study groups. I’m not aware of any other than those mentioned above. I honestly thought the idea had been forgotten.

  19. felixfabulous says:

    Great ideas, I would love to get a similar group going. Studying the New Testament seriously kind of led to my total faith deconstruction and reconstruction into what I would say is an active practicing Mormon, but with a belief that is probably more aligned with mainline protestant churches. I’ve noticed that as we’ve moved away from prooftexting and become more open to other bible translations, some glaring questions have come up in Sunday School, like Jesus did not seem to set up a church, Jesus seemed very critical of the obedience/reward model of religion, Jesus emphasized loving God and loving neighbor over obedience, the Pharisees were big on checking boxes and outward signs of obedience, like dietary codes and religious clothing, which Jesus criticized. I think those discussions are good and lead us in the right direction. As Richard Rohr has said: “We’ve never been ready for Jesus.”

  20. J. Stapley says:

    felixfabulous, I think this is the tricky part of serious readings. What you describe seems similar to a lot Protestant flavored readings, but I probably wouldn’t agree that they are universal. A lot of the work contextualizing Jesus as a Jewish person antagonizes this a bit. He did appear to have strong impulses against certain of the hygiene proscriptions that implicated meals, but everything else you note is not really compelling, I don’t think. Hypocrisy for sure, and emphasizing love, absolutely. But this sort of conversation over hours in person is, I think, very constructive and useful.

  21. felixfabulous says:

    So your reading of the New Testament leads you to believe that Jesus set up a new church, stressed obedience and priesthood authority and the importance of saving ordinances? That is so different from my experience, I think when you start looking at the actual text and how the gospels came together and when they were written so much of that falls apart. But, I guess reasonable people can see things differently.

  22. I don’t miss three hour church at all but I understand those who do. Our ward has a study group but it’s turned into a group of empty nesters only. I don’t think we as a collective church have it figured out quite yet.

    The community of the church is the best part of actively participating in my view. I love having ready made friends wherever I go.

  23. Felixfabulous, I am seeing the same things. In studying the NT this year, I am especially seeing Paul telling people not to worry about what you eat and wear, that loving other people is the gospel. And he speaks often of the temple, but saying that the body of believers is now the temple. I also am feeling that the church emphasizes so many outward rules of obedience, when Christ and the epistles are saying that is missing the mark, it is about the condition of our hearts. I am an active member but having a hard time right now holding on. The covenant path seems so full of boxes to check.

  24. I think it’s important to recognize that Paul’s context is not our own. His concerns about food tend to be due to kosher issues (which are really Christ vs. Torah issues) or idolatry issues (i.e. 1Co 8 and whether you can/should eat meat sacrificed to an idol and under what conditions), for example. We need to check our assumptions and expectations of what we *should* find in the NT, and what it means if we don’t see it obviously there.

    I’ve also discovered that American LDS have a whole lot of Protestant impulses when reading the NT; we tend to think it means what Luther’s intellectual descendants have told us it means, as circular as that is.

  25. iterum nata says:

    Sarah,
    I applaud you for your reading the New Testament and allowing the text to speak for itself. Reading the NT without preconceptions lead to my personal relationship with Jesus and the new creation (2 Cor 5:17). May we all allow His word to be a lamp for our feet and a light on our path (Psalm 119:105).

  26. Joseph Stanford says:

    As LDS, we often pretend we’ve taken nothing of perspective and practice from the Protestants, but that just blinds us to how much we actually have.

  27. Thanks for a wonderful post, J. Stapely.
    Your mentioning of washing dishes and going on camp-outs etc as a ward really warmed my heart and brought back good memories. I too miss 3 hour church. We need each other and we need to be together. I love the way you have created that togetherness with your study group.

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