Saturday, November 27, 2010

Five Ideas for Teachers

In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints there is no professional paid clergy.  Sermonizing and teaching one another is in the hands of rank amateurs.  It's one of the evidences the Church must be true. 

Elder Gene R. Cook
To aid us in our efforts, Elder Gene R. Cook offered a priceless resource years ago entitled Teaching by the Spirit.  It's a classic.

We send volunteers, nineteen-year-old missionaries, on missions they or their families pay for to the far flung countries of the world to teach and to testify of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ in these last days.  It has been that way from the beginning so the prophecy can be fulfilled:

Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments;
And also gave commandments to others, that they should proclaim these things unto the world; and all this that it might be fulfilled, which was written by the prophets —
The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones, that man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of flesh —
But that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world;
That faith also might increase in the earth;
That mine everlasting covenant might be established;
That the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world, and before kings and rulers.
Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.  (D&C 1:17-24).

I have no idea what the "pure Adamic language" must have been like.  Imagine a universal language everyone spoke without the need for translation.  Every nuanced word was intelligible and understandable to all.  As an amateur writer and teacher most of my life, I have loved and cherished the power of the written and spoken word.  I have sought to be clearly understood and to speak and write clearly, to pick words with meaning that cannot be misunderstood.  I have come to know it isn't about the need to teach to be understood, but to teach so that we cannot possibly be misunderstood.  I succeed some times better than others.  But because of the following verses of scripture, I am bound to seek the one pure language left on earth -- the "tongue of angels:"

Do ye not remember that I said unto you that after ye had received the Holy Ghost ye could speak with the tongue of angels? And now, how could ye speak with the tongue of angels save it were by the Holy Ghost?
Angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ. Wherefore, I said unto you, feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do.
Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye ask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark.
For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do.  (2 Nephi 32:2-5).

If the gospel were designed in such a way that it could only be taught by the learned and the best-educated among us, then only PhDs would be invited to teach classes in the Church.  However, so the purity of the gospel message might be preserved in its simplicity, we are informed by our own faith that even the least saint may know and understand the doctrines of the restored gospel. 

Joseph Smith
Joseph Smith said in 1839:  "God hath not revealed anything to Joseph [calling himself by name], but what He will make known unto the Twelve, and even the least Saint may know all things as fast as he is able to bear them."  Even the least saint, I repeat.  The Prophet continued:  "For the day must come when no man need say to his neighbor, Know ye the Lord; for all shall know Him (who remain) from the least to the greatest." (TPJS, 149).  Note that "all shall know him" is different from everyone knowing about him.

Here are my five ideas for better teaching in the Church.  Remember, these ideas have merit only because I am a rank amateur and they are offered after many years of observation and participation in a volunteer Church:

1.  Never apologize when you begin.

Too many of us are intimidated by the calling to teach.  What we all fail to acknowledge is we are all inadequate in some way.  The Church is designed that way.  There is no need to apologize for your lack of gospel scholarship.  When someone in the class is obviously better equipped than you because they know the scriptures and have paid the price for their knowledge, don't apologize in advance.  As a young man, I once taught a class in a ward filled with men of vast experience and years of priesthood service.  I apologized that I didn't think there was anything I could teach them they didn't already know.  One of them, a General Authority at the time, approached me after my lesson and said, "David, don't ever apologize for what you don't know.  Instead, teach what you do know with power and conviction."  We can all learn from each other and be edified together that way.

2.  Teach from the scriptures.

This summer we were visiting in a ward and sat in on a Gospel Doctrine class.  The topic was some chapters in Isaiah.  Rather than apologize that she wasn't an Isaiah scholar, she began by stating we would be reading a number of scriptures from Isaiah, and she invoked the Spirit of the Holy Ghost to attend our reading so we could be taught what each needed to know in our individual lives.  She proceeded through the words of Isaiah, often pausing to allow comments and insights, shared testimonies and affirmations to underscore what we had read.  One son was seated next to me with his i-phone.  I noticed he was following along in the teacher's manual he had downloaded as a free application from the Church, and I observed the teacher did not deviate one iota from the order in which the scriptural passages were presented in the outline.  We were exceptionally well-taught that day because this inexperienced teacher who was not wise in men's wisdom about Isaiah was obviously acquainted with the Holy Ghost.  I heard soon afterward from another son about the same lesson, different city, in a university singles ward.  The teacher was a young woman, a freshman, who was teaching the Gospel Doctrine class.  He told me he was writing notes so fast about what the Spirit was teaching him from one verse that he was oblivious to her constant apologies for not knowing more.  In both cases, one an older woman with grandchildren, and the other a freshman college student, let the Holy Ghost do the teaching from the words of the scriptures.  They were inspired messengers, and may not have even been aware how profound and powerful the teaching was that day.
3.  Seek the Spirit.

Before you teach, once you have the material before you, pray over it.  Ask Heavenly Father to bless you with His Spirit to do two things -- so you may understand the underlying doctrine He would have you teach, and so your students will hear and understand what they are seeking.  Some people in the Church think dispensing the facts is teaching.  It is not.  Stories from the scriptures are wonderful as stories, but not all stories from the scriptures are "doctrinally drenched," as Elder Maxwell used to say.  Teach to make a spiritual connection with those being taught.  People come to Church looking for spiritual experiences.  Don't disappoint them by spilling leaked tears in a flood of nothing but emotion.  Do not mistake emotion for the Spirit.  Often the Spirit manifests itself through the emotions, but just because someone is emotional does not mean the Spirit of the Holy Ghost is affirming what they are teaching.  I've heard a lot of false doctrine taught over the years by emotional people without the accompanying witness of the Holy Ghost because what they were saying simply wasn't true.  The Spirit testifies of the truth.  Let him speak through you.  He will comfort, instruct, reprove, chasten and edify if you will let him.

4.  Don't ever say, "I think. . ."

Don't ever ask the question, "What do you think?" especially when you are teaching a group of high priests.  Better to ask, "Has anyone had an experience with this principle you would like to share?"  I wish I had a nickel for every time I've been in a lesson where the collective wisdom of the group takes over with individual statements prefaced with "I think."  The Spirit leaves.  The best answers to gospel doctrine questions always come from the scriptures – the four “standard works” – the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.  The next best source is from the writings and sermons of the Presidents of the Church.  I have always included Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (compiled by Joseph Fielding Smith) as the "fifth standard work" in my arsenal of valid sources.  All other sources, while they might be enlightening and interesting, should only serve to confirm the answers you have obtained from these primary sources.  Brigham Young once taught, “Study the word of God, and preach it and not your opinions, for no man’s opinion is worth a straw.  Advance no principle but what you can prove, for one scriptural proof is worth ten thousand opinions.”  (History of the Church, vol. 3, 395-96).  The next time you are tempted to say, "I think. . ." in answer to some gospel question, stop and think twice about it.  If you don't know the answer, it's okay to say, "I don't know the answer to that question, and you can quote me on that."

5.  Testify.

President Ezra Taft Benson once gave a conference talk entitled, "I Testify."  I encourage you to read the things of which the Prophet testified.  I suggest you all know the very same things and can testify they are true.  Just because the Prophet of God uses the word "testify," it is not reserved to prophets alone.  When we know a truth, when the Spirit of the Holy Ghost has borne witness to us it is true, we may also say, "I testify."  Be aware of what you know to be true.  Programs, subject to change and constant revision, are not in the same category as doctrines with eternal implications.  The scouting program, or the Young Women's program, or the Young Men's Duty to God program never saved anyone.  Don't anchor your testimony in programs.  While nice, they are not as important as the saving doctrines of the kingdom.  By familiarizing ourselves with things that matter most, we will avoid dwelling on things mattering least.  Elder Marion D. Hanks used to say, "Don't get caught up in the thick of thin things."  Stephen R. Covey said, "The most important thing is to keep the main thing the main thing."  There is a marvelous passage of scripture affirming this principle: 

"And I, Jesus Christ, your Lord and your God, have spoken it.  These words are not of men nor of man, but of me; wherefore, you shall testify they are of me and not of man; for it is my voice which speaketh them unto you; for they are given by my Spirit unto you, and by my power you can read them one to another; and save it were by my power you could not have them; wherefore, you can testify that you have heard my voice, and know my words."  (D&C 18:33-36).

If we were to do nothing but read the words of the scriptures to one another and bear witness of their truthfulness, the quality of teaching in the Church would improve dramatically.

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