In Praise of Boring Sunday School Lessons

 

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Shawn Tucker is an Associate Professor at Elon University and occasional voice of bloggernacle satire

Imagine a ship made with millions of popsicle sticks intricately bound together with dental floss. The many rows of wooden sticks make it waterproof and seaworthy. It is not a flashy boat, but it can move forward in the water toward a destination. That boat is how I imagine the church—each popsicle stick is a member, and the members are all tied together with bonds of testimony, commitment, and love.

I describe the church in this manner to do something perhaps unexpected—to praise boring Sunday School lessons.

I want to praise them because of some Facebook discussions about approaches to the scriptures, specifically the Book of Mormon. On one thread, a scholar described the value of the historical and critical approach to the Book of Mormon. Texts are written by people in a historical context; the best way to understand texts is therefore to understand all that you can about the context. For those who take this approach, it is at least difficult if not impossible to understand or establish what the Book of Mormon means if you don’t understand Joseph Smith’s historical and cultural location and time.  These sorts of historical and critical approaches dominate the academic field of Religious Studies right now.

I’m an academic who does not work in Religious Studies. Although I understand their methods, I wonder if they fall short for those who live, rather than study, religion. There are advantages to what I call a “communal approach” to texts. The communal approach is inspired by Matthew Lieberman’s insights into how humans are social beings. In his book Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, Lieberman draws on neuroscience research to describe how humans are built to live harmoniously with one another. As his book explains at the outset: “our brains are built to ensure that we will come to hold the beliefs and values of those around us.” “The self is more of a superhighway for social influence than it is the impenetrable private fortress we believe it to be.”

This idea that we are built to be connected with one another has powerful scriptural resonance. Alma’s famous invitation to baptism is about joining a community where one mourns with those who mourn and comforts those who stand in need of comfort (Mosiah 18:8-10). While a historical and critical approach to scripture is valuable and important, most often at church we engage in a communal approach. We read and study scriptures to learn about God, about our covenants with God, about how to strengthen our faith and commitment to God, and about how to mourn with and comfort those of our community. We read and study to grow in wisdom but also to grow in communal affection and love.

If I attend Sunday School wanting to learn like I do in an academic setting, I will almost always feel disappointed. I will grumble that I’ve heard this lesson many, many times before. I may conclude that the lesson seems small, rote, clichéd, and provincial. “Provincial” here means “of the provinces,” with the idea that this is stuff found outside of the capital (where the really smart people are). Provincial stuff disparages the hinterlands where the unsophisticated and narrow-minded dwell. I regret how many times I have expressed these complaints.

The approach I’m taking now is the communal approach. I go to Sunday School to strengthen my faith, but what is increasingly more important to me is strengthening my connection with those of my faith community. I go to remind myself that I am built to live in bonds of love and affection with my ward members. I also go because those bonds, sadly, are quite easily broken with neglect. If I avoid ward members, especially if those ward members see the world differently than I do, or worse, if I look down on them, then the narrow, floss-like bonds that keep us together become weaker and weaker. Breaking those bonds and losing even a few of the popsicle sticks that hold a ward and a church together can have devastating consequences. Sunday School seems boring if I want it to be something it is not. Sunday School feels richly satisfying if I take it as a communal experience for feeling at-one with God and at-one with the members of my ward family.

*Photo by Deleece Cook on Unsplash

 

Comments

  1. I agree that the primary purpose of Sunday School and Sunday worship, generally, is to build bonds and a community of faith. But, there has to be a balance with learning and bonding over an accurate presentation of the scriptures. The ubiquitous use of proof texting, the almost total lack of understanding of the Old Testament, the white washed history of Doctrine and Covenants, and the explicit “dumbing down” of the gospel in the manuals [1] all have swung the pendulum too far to the communal faith promoting while abandoning the intellect. Spirituality without Intellect is just as problematic as Intellect without Spirituality.

    [1] https://benspackman.com/2019/10/20/old-manuals-unintended-consequences-and-the-optimistic-turn-of-come-follow-me/

  2. waynefrank says:

    Communal, yes. Getting the manual read aloud, no. Questions with “yes” or “no” answers, no. I am always more interested in what the class (community) has to say as opposed to what is presented unless that presentation is truly scholarly, totally uplifting or entertaining which most of us usually can’t bring off. But surprisingly the communal approach can sometimes actually be scholarly, uplifting and on the best days entertaining.

  3. Wondering says:

    “I go to Sunday School to strengthen my faith, but what is increasingly more important to me is strengthening my connection with those of my faith community.” I understand this ideal. But for me it doesn’t work. There is no “communal experience for feeling at-one with God and at-one with the members of my ward family” when the SS discussion is so often a time of expressing ill-founded opinions/interpretations and rejection of other viewpoints. What helps some feel “at-one with God” [or with the Church] or with “members of the ward family” seems often to be the very thing that helps others feel isolated and put off and not “at-one” with either the Church as a whole or with the ward family. I wonder what practical suggestions could be made to change that.

  4. I agree that the goal should be communal, but I think we need a better understanding of what that means and what fosters it. Sometimes Sunday School is extremely communal in a very negative us-vs-them sort of way, when class discussion takes the form of “99 more ways the world/liberals/young people are bad.” Obviously that’s not what the author meant by communal, but I point it out just to note that taking an ideal communal approach to Sunday School isn’t as simple as having a different/better attitude about it.

    For me, the best communal lessons are ones where, rather than focusing on conveying information or using the text to justify different positions, class members discuss their own personal connections to the scriptures, including their related stories, their hopes, questions, concerns, etc. It’s people being like Joseph Smith when he describes the impact that James 1:5 had on his life.

  5. Meanwhile adios young educated Saints. I can barely deal w/ the (for lack of more charitable description) droning at my relatively advanced age. In the United States and Western Europe the old paradigm is dead. Where do we go from here? Building yet another temple in Idaho is not the answer.

  6. I feel more “at one” with fellow church members online, in discussions of faith and scripture and history in a setting of ideas and respectful exploration than I ever do in “boring Sunday School lessons.” I understand how some might feel comforted and “at one” with the call and response of familiar rote “discussions,” but that isn’t me. At all. I am alienated when I can’t respond with the same evident enthusiasm some class members have for giving the same expected answers to the same uninspiring questions, even if the “discussion” doesn’t sink so low as to deliberately exclude me with sneering references to “so-called intellectuals.” Much as I’d like to think that the “boring Sunday School lesson” defined here has real value, I can’t.

  7. “Sunday School feels richly satisfying if I take it as a communal experience for feeling at-one with God and at-one with the members of my ward family.” I whole-heartedly agree with this concept, but I disagree that this is the traditional “boring” lesson people are complaining about. Some of the best Sunday School experiences I’ve had have been more of a devotional (less intellectual) approach. Class members actively participate with introspective comments that talk about personal experiences and challenges. It really does feel like we grow closer as a community.

    The “boring” approach people complain about doesn’t foster connection. We sit in a room with other people, half of whom aren’t paying attention, while the same 4 people respond with rote responses to a surface-level treatment of the subject material. On a good day, no-one says anything that alienates other class members.

    I think it’s a question of engagement. If you have more people *positively* engaged in the class discussion, it’s an enriching experience for everyone (whether it’s more of a devotional conversation or an intellectual discussion). You can even disagree respectfully as long as an atmosphere of “belonging” is maintained, meaning that class members feel their individual viewpoints and experiences are valued in the group.

  8. Maybe this could be helpful:
    “Boredom and the Religious Imagination,” Michael L. Raposa, University Press of Virginia, 1999

  9. Unfortunately, often SS leaves me with unhelpful feelings of resentment and anger towards my fellow congregants rather than fostering community.

    I’m an academic and I appreciate not having something akin to an academic historical lecture in SS. I DO, however, appreciate a thoughtfully crafted lesson that poses new questions for discussion. Rote lessons straight out of the manual resulting in rote responses from the many times we’ve had this lesson (from Primary through seminary and institute possibly) are frustrating. Questions posed that only reinforce our own biases, preconceptions, and us/them thinking are even worse.

  10. As one of the crotchety old folk, I remember a different church. One where there was real community. I remember hundreds of people from the ward I grew up in. I can’t remember 10 from the one I moved out of a few years ago. With the three hour block, there isn’t the time to visit there used to be with meetings on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday as well as Sunday.

    But something else has changed too. The lessons have been dumbed down to lowest common denominator. There used to be interesting discussions (gentle arguments) over all kinds of issues in Sunday School. The lessons had meat and challenge and new stuff to learn. Now, rather than trying to teach, and being just slightly challenging intellectually, the lessons seems to be designed to lull us into unthinking conformity. When there was some attempt to have content that had not been covered 100 times already, there was more commenting, more sharing of feelings, more sharing of how a concept applied in personal life. People were more involved even if it was because they were interested in winning the argument, or seeing if Bro. Jones would go off on a political comment, or Bro Smith would get upset about evolution. But they were involved and interested, not half asleep, or reading, or playing angry birds on their iPhone. Look around at church meetings. People are not involved with each other or the lessons or talks. Most are tuned out. They might be there physically, but intellectually they are off somewhere else. This tuning out is because of boredom and it is not helping form community. It may be comforting to hear the same lessons over and over, but it is an “all is well in Zion” kind of comfort. If we are half asleep, how are we being spiritually challenged? If we are on our iPhone, how are we strengthening community? If we have our head in a book, how do we notice who in the community needs our comforting or who is mourning? No, I don’t think the same old same old helps form community.

  11. Focusing on bonds resonates with me. I attempt to develop/strengthen/maintain bonds in SS too, but I prefer to do it in other contexts. I’m there because my family is there, so I certainly want to build bonds however I can, but my experience of SS is that it is often not naturally conducive to bond-building. IMO, Utopian SS would be explicitly structured around how to build bonds, how to improve them, and how to repair them. I’m not interested anymore in any other kind of moral\religious\existential discussion–everything else seems superfluous.

  12. Sidebottom says:

    I like Anna’s “gentle arguments” approach to Sunday School – provocative without being divisive. I’ve sat on my hands through Sunday School lessons teaching plainly false principles, and also been in wards where individual members come with an axe to grind. Neither is good for the community.

  13. If the Church were only a “community,” then we would get together and have real conversations with each other, get to know each other, not sit and listen to a “lesson” dictated from a centralized curriculum. We would also have more parties. But no, we are expected to engage in some sort of exploration of standardized “theology” in our Sunday classes. It is superficial, often inaccurate, and the discussions don’t really build community. Conformity, yes, but not community. Community is where we celebrate not only our similarities but especially our differences, our uniqueness. So I’m not really buying this celebration of boring Sunday School lessons.

  14. I might agree with the notion that we should be striving to build our sense of “community” at Church meetings including Sunday school. But here’s the obvious trade off: The more communal we feel, the more “group think” sets in. I can think of very specific examples of comments I have made (or chose not to make) that have an apparently negative effect on the community feel.

    So should we promote more group think in order to further build on our sense of common purpose and community or should we say what’s really on our mind that might add to the discussion but erode the commonality we feel?

  15. GIVENS: Well, you know, we’re suffering waves of defection, and there are lots of reasons for that and lots of remedies that have been suggested, but I think it’s unavoidable to acknowledge that one of the main reasons we’re losing people is that we’re boring them to death. I think the job of a Sunday School teacher is to excite the people, it’s not just to reiterate the old formulas. It’s to excite people about the inexhaustible richness of our scriptural canon.

    That’s from MIPodcast #99 – Briefly Second Nephi with Teryl Givens. I was grateful to hear someone say out loud that the Church is boring people to death. That’s how I’ve felt for a long time. Our ward SS lessons are better with the Come Follow Me program. Many members read the assigned scriptures during the week and share their insights in class. This builds a sense of community to some degree, but I also like what Wally says. We need more parties and opportunities to have real conversations with each other. In some ways the new 2 hour Sunday church and home centered learning is isolating, particularly for singles and part-member families.

  16. I can’t possibly love this enough.

    Now, I’d like to institute a rule than anyone who has served as a bishop, stake presidency member, mission president, or above, or anyone that has studied history or literature, be suspended from gospel doctrine teaching for a season while we hear from those who have interesting things to say but not the chance to teach.

  17. Eric Facer says:

    Well said, Ardis.

  18. I agree that the highest purpose of all of our Sunday meetings of worship is to commune with God and with each other as fellow disciples. I think it follows, then, that the most valuable skill for a class teacher is to facilitate unifying communal experiences. Conveying the teacher’s knowledge to the others in class can be part of that process, but it is not always necessary and it is never the teacher’s most important responsibility.

    I like the way that Doctrine and Covenants Section 50 describes teaching the gospel as a process of reasoning together, with the Spirit as an active participant. We know we’ve been successful when “he that preacheth and he that receiveth understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together.” The goal in any Sunday school class ought to be this experience of mutual understanding and rejoicing together.

    To rejoice together, we don’t have to agree about everything. Unity does not erase differences. To build community in our church classes, what we need above all is the presence of the Spirit, which brings love and shared commitment. The beautiful opportunity of a class in Sunday school, Relief Society, or priesthood meetings is that we can come to the class being specifically oriented toward having shared spiritual experiences. That’s what makes church meetings different from parties and service projects and so forth–which are also essential to building a community. We ought to do better at consciously, deliberately creating opportunities for the Spirit to visit with us in church classes.

  19. Ryan Mullen says:

    I applaud your attitude and your willingness to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation.

  20. David N Heap says:

    Most people associate religious meetings with boredom. Dan Peterson acknowledges the boring nature of church services, admits to usually bringing a book to church or class, and quotes Hugh Nibley as saying that to remain active in our church one must have a virtually infinite capacity for boredom. https://www.mormonstories.org/podcast/271-274-lds-church-chief-apologist-dr-daniel-c-peterson/ (starting about 5:30 mark). Adam Miller makes the argument, along the lines of David Foster Wallace in a different context, that boredom is a good thing in religion, that it is a sign religion works. https://mi.byu.edu/ask-the-scholar-adam-s-miller-on-grace-faith-theology-boredom-and-other-matters/

    That being said, I agree with Givens that many many people find boredom a tremendous burden and disincentive to attend religious services (ours or most others). I think that is why large numbers of those who do attend churches choose to attend mega churches with preachers who give interesting sermons (or stay home and watch them on television).

    Mundane services are a nearly inevitable result of the church’s model of a non-professional clergy with tight centralized control on lesson content which discourages challenging questions and encourages correlated answers. I don’t see it changing in my lifetime. I am grateful, therefore, that the three hours of quotidian sermons and lessons has been reduced to two.

    I don’t agree with Adam Miller that religious boredom in a good thing, and I do agree with Nibley that being active in the church requires learning to deal handle inevitable large amounts of boredom On the other hand, perhaps learning to deal with boredom in church is helpful outside, because boredom is also part and parcel of life. I think there is truth in what David Foster Wallace somewhat playfully wrote: “If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

  21. Just an observation, a now distant memory: For some time, decades ago, I was the subsitute organist in Manavu Ward for a few months while my organ professor recovered from a wrist injury. Manavu ward also included Hugh Nibley. I watched Nibley closely during sacrament meetings. To my perception, he gave every speaker his full attention for one or two minutes after which he either (a) continued to do so, or (b) read a book. Perhaps he did not himself have a “virtually infinite capacity for boredom.”
    Incidentally, Nibley was not bored in Elders Quorum; he was the teacher.

  22. Eric Facer says:

    A few years ago, I came across a book called “Sundays in America,” by Suzanne Shea. The author attended a different church every Sunday (and sometimes Fridays and Saturdays) and then chronicled her experiences. Admittedly, this is not a particularly sound foundation on which to base an informed opinion about a particular religion, though she did travel widely and even visited Joseph Smith’s birthplace in Vermont while researching the church.

    What was Ms. Shea’s overall assessment of our faith? Forget the crazy things associated with Latter-day saints, such as polygamy, the shunning of tea and coffee, and their peculiar rituals; the only thing you have to fear from Mormons is that they will bore you to tears.

    Some may be content with boredom, but since I turn 67 this year and find myself confronting the reality of mortality, the one thing I can no longer abide is someone who wastes my time. If I were to content myself with boredom, I may as well be dead.

  23. Wondering says:

    So, I read what Adam Miller had to say about boredom being a “potentially productive” religious experience. I don’t think David Heap accurately portrayed the thought. It seems rather that Miller was saying that one’s response to boredom can “potentially” make a difference — not that it is always “a good thing in religion.” That is, whether one looks for personally interesting distraction, or, instead, looks outside and responds to boredome as “an invitation to step outside the limit of what interests me and to instead continue practicing interest and attention to people and things that aren’t about me.”

  24. nobody, really says:

    Stephen R Covey was fond of quoting Arthur Jones, “All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they get.” The Church is perfectly aligned to get low activity rates, low participation, declining tithepayers, and youth who can’t wait to leave. We are perfectly aligned to get mediocre lessons, two-minute testimonies, and 80% of the resources serving 20% of the people. We are perfectly aligned to never be challenged to grow or progress in our faith, but to have every resource of time demanded of us.

  25. Shawn Tucker says:

    Thanks to everyone who pointed out how awful bad teaching is. If Sunday School is boring because of deplorable pedagogy, then of course that is not to be praised. No one wants wild proof-texting, whitewashed history, diatribes, rote questions, equally rote answers, and the subsequent rote discussion. No one wants a class that encourages the enmity of the “us-versus-them” conflict. It seems like it actually takes substantial skills to get as much input as possible from the broadest range of class members and in such a way that the discussion lifts and edifies the “community” that is any particular Sunday School class. (It might make Mormons envy churches with professional clergy and teachers as well as congregations arranged by affinity instead of geography. But I’ll not open such a can of worms here.) A really skillful teacher might be able to make room for someone who wants to make a personal, life-experience comment, someone who might want to share a valuable “intellectual” insight, and someone who might have a question. All of the teacher development we try to do in the church might have that as one of its goals.

    I will also quickly add that I feel…unique… (which might be code for a weirdo) in my rather rural North Carolina ward. I’m sorry for so many comments expressing how people feel disrespected and ignored, marginalized, stereotyped, and dismissed. That is not boring Sunday School—it is toxic Sunday School. There is nothing praiseworthy about that. My experience here is not conformity. Many of the people in my ward see things very, very differently than I do. We don’t try to change one another (well, not much), and we do seem to appreciate differences. What we share in common in our community is our covenants and faith in Christ. Almost everything else is negotiable. It is very helpful for me to think of Sunday School as a chance to bond with ward members while we try to grow in knowledge and wisdom.

  26. I might also add that our meetings are appropriate venues for Zen meditation, and “Zen Mind, Beginners Mind” an ideal companion to the Standard Works. Syncretism is not just a survival strategy for members of the OTC. It is a pathway to enlightenment.

  27. I don’t know if I can praise boring Sunday School, but I do appreciate it over the alternative. From main stream media, in addition to comments made by those of other faiths that I’ve conversed with, I’m left with the impression that many other religions solve this problem by becoming entertainers. And while I would like to be entertained at church, I believe that if it becomes the priority, we’ve lost our way.
    I think that the right cure for boredom isn’t entertainment, but engagement. For all those complaining about lessons that stick to the manual, I don’t feel the same way. I have found by the book lessons to be sufficiently engaging. The mind grating boring lessons are the ones where the teacher starts with a lead from the lesson and then transitions to the safe, familiar Book of Mormon story that it reminds them of, and then the rest of the lesson is that. Those lessons can even have lots of comments from class members, but it doesn’t matter, because they seem more muscle memory than insightful. Those are the lessons I would like to wipe from existence.
    Some teachers are better at engaging class members than others, and some class members are better at making engaging comments than others. Sticking to the manual can be engaging. In my experience, all of the boring lessons are those that hardly intersect with the manual. Of course I’ve had great lessons that didn’t intersect with the manual much, but if I’m over bored to tears in class my mind is always begging the teacher to bring the lesson back to the manual.

  28. Joseph Stanford says:

    I agree that there are more options than boring/correlated/catechism vs. erudite/innovative/entertainment. It goes a long way if a SS “teacher” is fundamentally curious and appreciative about all the “students’” lives and perspectives and tries to draw them out. To think further about what can make SS great, I strongly recommend Dan Wotherspoon’s discussion with Kristine Haglund and Stephen Carter. https://www.mormonmatters.org/podcast-item/379-380-effective-teaching-in-the-church/

  29. Some of these comments represent the most sophisticated and sorriest excuses I’ve about ever heard. If community is the goal of Sunday school, why not burn the lesson manual, gag the teacher and have a linger longer every week?

    Brought to you by the Pastor of the Church of the Church Picnic.
    (Where 90% of the membership is inactive and at Starbucks on Sunday morning)

  30. east of the mississippi says:

    @ Mike… I’d be OK with your first paragraph.