The three first “commandments” of gospel teaching I offered were these:
- Thou Shalt Have Grace for Those Still Improving
- Thou Shalt Master the Material
- Thou Shalt Not Go Over
You can read about them in my earlier post on gospel teaching.
When I initially stared brainstorming this post, the “commandments” below are the ones I actually thought of first. Once I started writing, though, I was worried that people would yell at me if “thou shalt have grace” wasn’t number 1 (and they’d have a fair point, I guess).
Nevertheless, I’m ready to give you another three, each of which I consider to be hugely important.
As we launch into even more top gospel teaching tips (according to science, of course), make sure to remember the objective I discussed earlier.
“I’ve had a number of [cringe-worthy] 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.”
4. Thou Shalt Still Use Commitments Even Though You Were a Missionary, Like, Forever Ago
I’ve often heard that “perspiration precedes revelation.”
Or maybe it’s “preparation.”
The idea is basically the same. Either way, that certainly comes into play for any gospel teacher wanting to teach by the spirit. About halfway through my mission something clicked for me, and I stated to appreciate at least one kind of “perspiration.”
It has become something that has literally changed my life.
Let me tell you how I prepared lessons with my companion post-“click” –
- We’d think about a prominent need our investigator had
- We’d settle on a commitment aimed at serving that need
- We’d decide on two or three or five principles that, if a person knew and believed, would help them keep that commitment
We didn’t suddenly start converting the island, but our lessons improved tremendously. Take Vicki, for example. Vicki was a woman I met in Makiki. We met with her fairly often. Let’s say that it’s Tuesday, and we’re trying to decide what to talk about the next time we get together.
- Maybe Vicki needs friendly support as she struggles to live some of the new commandments she’s learned about.
- Maybe we plan to invite her to church. We can commit her to come to church on Sunday. We can also commit her to come to a chapel tour on Saturday (making church on Sunday a little less intimidating).
- Maybe our lesson plan includes Moroni 6:4-5, or talking about the symbolism of the sacrament. Maybe we teach about the different meetings of the standard 3-hour block and the blessings of each meeting. Maybe we talk about the way that even the Savior spent time in worship and communion with His Father.
At each of these planning steps, the Lord can inspire us. He can tell us the need that He is most concerned about, and the commitment He knows will be most helpful. He can then inspire us to plan a lesson that will bring the Spirit and allow us to offer a powerful commitment to change, to repent.
And perhaps Vicki will come to church.
She did, by the way. It was a fast and testimony meeting, and the moment she got the concept she turned to us and asked, “Can I testify?” Unprepared for such a request, we nodded blankly, and she hurried up to the stand. My companion and I slid low in our seats as she started singing a cappella, worship songs over the pulpit – “VICTORY is mine! VICTORY is mine! Vic-toh-ree is my-ine! I told Satan, “Get thee behind!” Vic-toh-ree is my-ine!”
But getting back to my point, tell me – why should any of this change once you’re teaching in a sacrament meeting, or a gospel doctrine class?
Perhaps the way you invite others to repent and come unto Christ changes a little bit – maybe you tone down the “will you”‘s ever so slightly – but the principles are still the same.
Let’s say that I’m preparing a lesson for gospel doctrine.
- At the start, maybe I prayerfully consider what needs my class might have.
- As I study the lesson, I ask myself, “What do I hope to accomplish?” My objective (or the lesson purpose from the manual I modify) will usually include the phrase “invite class members to think about what they can do to….” This part is important, because this is the invitation to come unto Christ and be more like Him.
- Once I have my objective, I start planning a lesson that best supports it. Maybe I also think of personal experiences to share (more on that next).
I looked up the notes for my 1 Kings lesson on Elijah. At the top I wrote, “Lesson Purpose – We’re blessed when we sacrifice to put God first. Invite class to think about things they can do to better put God first in their lives.” The commitment is to “think about” potential change, and, by implication, to put into practice those changes.
Suddenly, my lesson isn’t a race to hit all three sections in the manual before the clock hits 11:59. Rather, it’s a purposeful discussion on why we should put God first, and the blessings that flow from that choice. If you check out the gospel doctrine manual, that’s the lesson it sets you up for, but this approach to it completely changes the outcome.
And certainly, if during the lesson or talk you perceive concerns that suggest you should modify your purpose, you can shift your focus. That’s the power that comes when you teach by the Spirit.
It’s just like being a missionary, commitments and all.
5. Thou Shalt Tell Stories
The Savior did it. The General Authorities do it. We each do it when we bear testimony. It’s the secret sauce to gospel preaching – telling stories.
There are many different frameworks for preparing talks and lessons, and you’ll notice that story-telling is an integral part of each of them. For example, the day before I flew home from Hawaii, I gathered with a group of home-bound missionaries in the home of my mission president. We discussed a number of things, including how best to format our homecoming talk:
- Read a scripture, and teach how the principle applies today
- Tell a story from your mission that demonstrates the principle
- Bear testimony of the principle
- Rinse and repeat
After a few post-mission years, when hopefully you’ve gained a number of new experiences, you can tell those stories instead. Also, you can substitute the words of modern prophets and apostles for a scripture, or even for a personal story if you’re not sure you have one that fits.
I also ran across the acronym EASY (as in, “giving a talk is EASY.” Ay-oh!):
- Experience – share a personal story
- Application – apply that personal experience to the gospel
- Scriptures – use the scriptures to reinforce the principle
- Your Testimony – bear your testimony of the principle (using “Y” is totally a stretch, in my view)
Think about the “Need, Commitment, Principles” framework I talked about earlier. Either of these four-step processes are a great way to flesh out each “principle” you decide to teach (though I’m more partial to the first, skipping the awkward “Y” and giving priority to the scriptures).
What’s the lesson? Never give a platitude when a parable will do (and a parable will almost universally “do”).
People want to hear stories. We connect with stories. We learn better from stories. We remember stories. I use the phrase “according to science” from the title somewhat in jest, but this is the real deal.
Plus, personal stories are really extended testimonies. “I know that happiness comes when we put God first. I know this because there was this one time that….”
6. 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
Chapter 10 in Preach My Gospel is a fantastic “cliff-notes” to effective gospel teaching (I mean, your time would have been much better spent reading that than anything on this blog). Each section is priceless, but let’s talk today about “Use the Scriptures”
That section sets up a nice little process on how to use scriptures. It goes like this:
- Introduce the scripture
- Read the passage
- Apply the scripture
In the last section, we talked about possible ways to develop the “principles” you plan to teach when following the “Need, Commitment, Principles” framework. This process, from Preach My Gospel, is really just a possible way to develop the “read a scripture” step of those models.
I’m a visual person, so the confusing paragraph above really means that a talk should look like this:
In my experience, we do pretty good with reading (duh), and we’re even okay at applying, but we’re awful at introducing. We’ll shout out a reference – effectively our “introduction” – and then someone starts reading.
Preach My Gospel teaches,
“Describe briefly the background and context of the passage you will use. Invite the investigator to look for particular points in the passage. When teaching people with a limited knowledge of the scriptures, you may need to begin by describing the contents of a passage, using language that they will understand.”
When I teach or speak, I’ll throw out a chapter – “in Alma 17” – and then I’ll launch into the elements that Preach My Gospel suggests we cover – the background and context, the content we’ll learn (SPOILER ALERT), and anything else that seems relevant.
This does two things for me. First, people who are interested in turning with me can do so, and they can thumb to the right chapter while listening to me talk context with plenty of time to spare. Second, by omitting the verse I’m going to be reading, people are forced to stay with the rest of the class rather than going off on their own and leaving the rest of us behind.
That whole controversy about whether or not we should ask people to turn to a specific scripture in sacrament meeting? Preach My Gospel just smashed it. You’re able to use scriptures more effectively, and neither side of the argument can yell at you for anything.
A great side benefit to being comfortable with scriptures, and using them in this way, is that they can be your stories if you’re not sure that any of your own personal experiences fit!
Maybe you want to teach a principle about how we don’t always see the end from the beginning like God does. Thank goodness there are, like, 10 million stories in the scriptures about how God knew what He was doing, but then someone wasn’t sure, but then later on we realized that oh yeah God totally knew what He was doing.
Maybe you want to go all modern day and talk about Zion’s Camp, and how the whole “I didn’t want you to fight” thing initially went way over everyone’s head.
Maybe you want to keep it old school, and talk about how Nineveh repented even though the ancient Syrians were, like, really bad dudes and Jonah was ready to throw in the towel before he even started.
Maybe you want to mix it up and straddle the ancient and the modern, and you talk about the lost 116 pages that God planned for way back in the times of Nephi and Moroni.
Seriously. You could throw a copy of the scriptures into the air like a clay pigeon, have someone with ready with a shotgun blow it to smithereens, pick one of the floating pages out of the air as it drifted towards the ground, and I’m 93% certain that on that shred would be the story of someone who thought they knew better than God only to realize that, well-whaddaya-know, He knew what he was doing.
(Side note: please don’t literally shoot your scriptures).
If you don’t have a personal story for the principle you’re teaching, that’s okay. Do you have a testimony of the scriptures? Use a story from them, and then bear testimony that you know the scriptures are true.
More to Come(?)
Unlike last time, I don’t have any other potential “commandments” swimming around in my head. Perhaps that’s for the best. There are lots of great tips out there – you don’t need to just rely on mine. With the internet, help is only a browser away.
And heck, if any of you occasional readers have any tips of your own, please throw them below. I’d be interested in the tribal knowledge that’s out there.