At some point in my church life, I concluded that the phrase “Sunday school” was an oxymoron. I think I was about 12 and sullenly trapped in some church class on what was otherwise a lovely day.
“School” implied some form of education or learning. “Sunday” meant — at least to me — the methodical restriction of behavior, knowledge and study.
Today, at the ripe old age of 60-plus, I’ve heard or at least sat through lessons on every aspect of the Mormon gospel at least 200 times (each). And this doesn’t count the times I taught them.
If I’m going to something called “school,” I want to be taught things I don’t already know, or at least explore in greater depth things I already think I do. I also want the freedom to disagree, even if it’s just in my own head.
Don’t tell me that I should actively participate in the lessons as a way of making them of greater interest to me and perhaps even to the people around me. I’ve already done that. Most people wish I’d stayed quiet instead.
Once, when a good and decent brother was discussing all of the church callings he’d held in his life (and there were a lot), I offered: “Hey, God will take advantage of you if you let him.”
Judging from the silence, this wasn’t an avenue of the gospel previously explored in that class.
After decades of listening to every manner of lesson possible, I’ve concluded that church classroom instruction methods fall into distinct categories.
Note: I’ve been to other churches. Whether you call them sermons, small groups or Bible study, the basics still apply — unless, of course, you’re sacrificing a baby. I haven’t been to every church.
Now, those categories:
• The manual: This particular method of Sunday instruction involves following — sometimes verbatim — the church-produced manual for that particular class. In its worst form, the instructor simply reads directly from that book.
Teacher • “OK, it says here, ‘Ask members of the class for comments on this matter.’ So, you guys, does Jesus really love us?”
I forced myself to sit through these classes until arriving at the point at which, had I been properly prepared, I would have pulled a gun. Now, I just leave.
• The chalkboard: Here the instructor writes a series of scriptures (usually listed in the manual) on the board and then proceeds to ask various class members to read them in turn, ultimately arriving at the predetermined point of the lesson.
Any questions posed for pondering are in fact rhetorical. “Did Lehi want his family to follow the will of Heavenly Father?”
From personal experience, I can tell you that bringing up the possibility that Book of Mormon prophet Lehi might have led his loved ones into the wilderness so they would all die seems to me at least as intellectually honest as the question.
• The minefield: In this instruction method, the teacher openly invites discussion on various points, but then struggles (occasionally to the point of emotional outburst) to get the lesson back on track so as to arrive at the correlated conclusion.
For example, the lesson could be on visiting teaching but somehow ends up on the subject of the Lost Ten Tribes hiding under the polar ice cap.
• The Hail Mary: OK, I borrowed this term from the Catholics (and sports), but it’s appropriate in the context of LDS instruction. In this scenario, the instructor tosses a question into the air and lets the discussion go where it may.
Yes, things can go horribly wrong, but for me it at least stands a greater chance of being interesting or even entertaining.
• The unknown: This is my particular favorite lesson. It’s the one in which I’m actually forced to think rather than regurgitate. Believe it or not, I’ve been to some of these. They’re rare, but they’re worth the roll of the dice.