The Top Gospel Teaching Tips, According to Science

A number of years ago, I found myself sitting in an Elder’s Quorum meeting. For as long as I can remember, Elder’s Quorum lessons had focused on the teachings of different presidents of the Church (this year, for example, we’re studying the teachings of Joseph Fielding Smith). That year, though, church leaders had insisted that, instead, we would spend the year studying the newly revised Gospel Principles manual.

A (thankfully) small part of me thought that such an exercise was a little… basic. I’ve since come to appreciate how inspired that direction was.

One such feeling of appreciation came to me on that Sunday I sat in that Elder’s Quorum class. The lesson was on the Spirit World, and the teacher began by drawing a version of the Plan of Salvation diagram that most Latter-day Saints are familiar with.

After finishing he said, referencing the diagram. “When I, uh, when I was a missionary teaching the Plan of Salvation, it’d only take me, like, 15 minutes to do this whole thing…”

He then started drawing circles around the Spirit World part, continuing, “…and the lesson wants me to spend the whole time on THIS part right here….”

He stepped back from the white board, his eyes locked on the circles he’d just completed as if he were pausing to consider just how to continue. When he did, I didn’t know what to think.

“…so I went on the internet and looked up a whole bunch of stuff on near-death experiences…”

Don’t go towards the light!

And, oh, boy, had he! He had a whole stack of papers he’d printed out, and we spent the rest of our time together discussing the material as if it had been included in the lesson manual. He’d hand out quotes to read, and then we’d analyze them together –

“What themes do you see from this experience?”

Hesitantly, from the back, “Uh… feelings of love?”

“Yes, very good, love!” And he wrote “LOVE” on the whiteboard. “What else?”

Again, hesitantly, “There was light?”

“Right! Absolutely, Light!” And he wrote “LIGHT” on the whiteboard.

And we continued in this fashion for the rest of class.

I’ve had a number of those kinds of experiences, and you probably have, too. In a lifetime, adult Mormons may spend something like 10,000 hours in church classes or sacrament meetings listening to untrained, unpaid speakers with little or no experience (and likely a rabid fear of public speaking). Sometimes it’s great…

…sometimes it’s not great.

Certainly, the most unskilled among us can still bring the Spirit (who is the real teacher). Also, there are many important principles to remember when it comes to gospel teaching (which is why the Church can release fantastic manuals like Teaching: No Greater Call and Preach My Gospel). Additionally, learners have a responsibility just as teachers do.

Don’t make this post out to be more than it is. I simply thought I’d share some principles that I feel have made me successful when I’ve been asked to teach a lesson, or give a talk. There are likely many other lists out there about being a teacher or a learner (like this, including a vast comment thread). You can find many other helpful tips just a browser-search away.

1.Thou Shalt Have Grace for Those Still Improving

When I was still a missionary, I attended a missionary leadership meeting called Zone Leader Conference (ZLC) every six weeks once I became a zone leader. At ZLC, we’d spend the better part of the day training each other and studying the gospel. I enjoyed these meetings very much, and relished the opportunity to learn from my fantastic mission president.

Late in the morning, after a number of other zone leaders had presented on different topics, we broke for Q&A. One question went something like this:

“How can we help the missionaries in our zone get better at <some skill>?”

President Hawkins answered, “Well, you need to give them opportunities to try it.”

We were generally quiet, when one missionary, Elder Woods, followed up. “But what if they suck at it?”

Everyone laughed, and President Hawkins smiled. Then he asked, “You know the talks that some of you gave this morning?”

We nodded.

“I could have done those just as easily, and perhaps even done them better. Why did I have you talk instead?”

We then had a discussion about it. I realized that President Hawkins wasn’t asking us to give talks or trainings because we were awesome. Rather, he was giving us these opportunities so that we could develop.

It’s true that sometimes talks can be painful – oh, can they be painful – but think of the benefits to those who assist in church teaching at local levels. Those who are untrained, unpaid, inexperienced, and rabidly afraid to speak benefit from those development opportunities. Learning how to study and preach the gospel is a tremendous skill that will bless them and their families for generations.

It doesn’t mean we can’t learn what not to do from those painful experiences (see the story I led with…). But we can have grace for those who are still developing (read: all of us), and that inherently changes the way we interact with them. We can thank them for specific things they said, or for working hard to prepare. We can ask them to tell us more about what they learned. We can assure them that their testimony was a strength to us.

And all those things will positively impact the way we teach.

2. Thou Shalt Master the Material

When I was a missionary, I heard a fun story about James E. Talmage. He was on the stand, presiding in some fashion at a leadership or missionary meeting, sitting behind a speaker who was relying laboriously on a collection of notes. With one swift swipe, Elder Talmage reached over and stole the papers out from under the speaker, leaving him to preach only those things he knew by heart.

I don’t know if it’s a true story or not, but I appreciate the lesson behind the anecdote. Elder Talmage later clarified to the poor speaker,

“If you’ve not mastered the material, you’re not entitled to its use.”

Do I think that Elder Talmage was teaching us to memorize our lesson outlines so that we can talk without the aid of notes? My guess is no.

But if you’ve become familiar with the lesson material, with the scriptures and the words of modern prophets, and you know what you’d like to accomplish during your lesson, you’re so much more flexible! I find myself much more aware of the whispering of the Spirit, nudging me in one direction or another, when I’m not slave to my lesson notes. I find myself able to better respond to audience questions and concerns. I find myself more effectively guiding the class discussion with thoughtful questions or scripture passages.

Everything works better when I’m familiar with the material. I think that’s what Elder Talmage was teaching.

3. Thou Shalt Not Go Over

And speaking of things that work better when you’re familiar with the material…

I have another story for you.

While I was in Hawaii, we got a visit from a general authority who told us about a time he was asked to speak at the funeral of another general authority. He asked how much time he was being given, and was pleasantly surprised when the reply came, “You can speak as long as you want.”

“Really?”

“Well, sure! Just remember, anything over 7 minutes and you’ll be cutting into President Hinckley’s time.”

Ba-dum TSS

“Ah ha, ah ha… Gimmie that.”

I didn’t used to care about this as much, and from time to time I’d run long. I wasn’t maliciously trying to take other people’s time. Perhaps I had just learned so much and wanted to share it! Or perhaps I just got into the flow of things – I was onna role!

I’m better now, mostly because I’ve started to consider a number of things.

I’m not the only one who has prepared. The other speakers have prepared, as have the teachers later in the meeting block. Who am I to rob them of their time? Who am I to say that I’m more inspired than they? We’re all given  a specific amount of time to teach.  Of course, I can talk longer if I want, but anything else cuts into the time given to someone else.

I also don’t want to rush through a hurried testimony at the end. Being able to share the blessings I’ve seen from the personal application of whatever I’m teaching is a great opportunity, and I’ve unfortunately rushed a testimony or two because I just had to get in that last section of the gospel doctrine manual.

More to Come(?)

Maybe that’s good enough for now. Perhaps I’ll update this later with other lessons that have helped me teach and speak.

To come later(?):

Thou Shalt Still Use Commitments Even Though You Were a Missionary, Like, Forever Ago; Thou Shalt Tell Stories; Thou Shalt Use Scriptures Like Preach My Gospel Teaches And Ignore the Whole Controversy About Whether or Not We Should Ask People to Turn to Scriptures During Sacrament Meeting

[Update] Turns out there was more to come! See even more top gospel teaching tips (according to science) here.

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