Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Should I Feel Dismay?

Posted by BrianJ on December 26, 2009

Five days ago, I wrote a post on How to Teach the New MP/RS using the revised Gospel Principles manual.

Today, The Ensign arrived in the mail. I immediately noticed—and just finished reading—the article by Elder Nelson announcing the revised manual.

I wonder now, should I feel dismay?

This is not a complaining post, or a criticizing post, or any such post. I really mean my question above. Help me sort this out if you can.

In my post about teaching MP/RS, I characterized teaching modeled after “Gospel Essentials for Everyone” or “Back to Basics” as being:

“unhelpful. The first disregards one’s audience entirely, and I can’t imagine a good lesson as a result. New members…already get an [introductory course] during Sunday School, so delivering essentially the same lessons on essentially the same level serves neither them nor the long-time members.”


“a wasted opportunity to teach and learn.”

To which Elder Nelson’s article “responds”:

Many [new members] have tender testimonies and will benefit greatly by a focus on the fundamentals of the gospel. In addition, all Church members will benefit by a return to the basics.


Because of this, some of you may wonder if there won’t be some redundancy. Of course there will! Isn’t it wonderful that we can gain the added benefit of repetition.

Okay, it’s not like he called me out on heresy, but my first thought is that if* I were asked to teach my previous post in a training session, that someone who is entrenched in utilizing the teaching methods I…disparaged…might use Elder Nelson’s article as justification to not reconsider their methods and/or reason to tell me I’m obviously wrong about Gospel teaching.

Moreover, I confess that I don’t understand what a “return to basics” means; the Teachings of Joseph Smith manual, for example, included such fundamental topics as: “Jesus Christ,” “Repentance,” “Baptism and the Gift of the Holy Ghost,” “Priesthood,” “Gifts of the Spirit,” “Prayer,” “Obedience,” “Revelation,” “Plan of Salvation,” “Missionary Service,” “Forgiving,” “Redemption for the Dead,” and “Charity”—including several other lesson topics that are identical to those in the new Gospel Principles manual.

In fairness, Elder Nelson also wrote:

A careful study of core doctrines as presented in the new and improved Gospel Principles manual will help members strengthen their understanding of the fundamental teachings of the gospel. (you betcha I added that emphasis!)

So I might have some room to argue my point. But that’s just what has me worried: I don’t want to have to argue my point—at least not in terms of arguing over who “really understands” Elder Nelson. {sigh}

Am I reading too much into this? Am I over-worried? Am I on the “high road to apostasy”? ;)


* Not really an “if”: my ward Sunday School President (who is awesome) saw my previous post and asked me to teach just such a training class on Jan 10.

17 Responses to “Should I Feel Dismay?”

  1. sjames said


    I think there is much to be said for discussing/teaching/engaging fundamentals – its here where much definitional work goes on. The risk is that in striving for ‘basics’ it may generate oversimplifications as could be the case in some lessons eg ‘The Nature of God’ – I do think there is scope for enlargement, so dont despair.

  2. Robert C. said

    Brian, I took the thrust of your post to be that mindless repetition of basic ideas is not the best approach, and Elder Nelson’s article does not disagree with this, on my reading. Elder Nelson uses the word “repetition” only in reference to the overlap between Gospel Essentials and MP/RS lessons. Moreover, he twice mentions the new (“thought-provoking”) discussion questions.

    Nevertheless, to be “safe,” perhaps some discussion here of the teaching ideas in the new manual and the principles discussed in the Teaching, No Greater Calling manual are in order, as Elder Nelson explicitly mentioned.

    In the introduction to the Gospel Principles manual we are admonished to “[n]ever speculate about Church doctrine. Teach only what is supported by the scriptures.” On the one hand, this could be interpreted to mean that we should only repeat verbatim what Church leaders have taught. But elsewhere we are explicitly admonished to “help others see how gospel principles apply to daily living. Encourage discussions on how these principles can affect our feelings about God, ourselves, our families, and our neighbors.” Surely these kinds of discussions will be unscripted, although they need to be “true to the scriptures and the words in the book.”

    It seems to me, then, that the danger of speculation that is mentioned is primarily about getting distracted from the words of the scriptures (and prophets, apostles and manuals). Asking what these teachings mean (as Jim F. advocated here) seems like exactly the kinds of questions we should be focusing on. I don’t know a more careful reader of scripture than Jim F. in the church, and I’m quite confident that if we review the Teaching, No Greater Call manual, we will find principles that corroborate the ideas that Jim is advocating (I’m thinking particularly of the proof-texting discussion and questions Jim posted at the above link—proof-texting is, I think, a form of speculation because you take one of your own ideas and then search the scriptures for proof, rather than carefully studying the scriptures and doctrines as they are actually recorded…).

  3. joespencer said

    Brian, if Elder Nelson had written an article saying “I hereby command you all in the name of Jesus Christ to stop simply parroting what you’ve heard before and explore the doctrines rigorously and carefully,” we would still find ourselves having to argue. My experience is that words concerning praxis from the Brethren unfortunately have little sway. (If they say something about doctrine, interestingly, it’s another story…. I think there’s a post in there….)

    Something—a revelatory event, if I might be so bold—has to shatter one’s unrecognized inconsistency in reading the scriptures and/or words of the Brethren. In the meanwhile, I’m afraid we will always have to “argue” for our point.

    Of course, I think the strongest and most effective way to argue this point is simply to teach the right way and let others be convinced by its effectiveness and power….

  4. Robert C. said

    I should add, on a more personal note, Elder Nelson’s explicit mention of using “church magazines” has inspired me to redouble my efforts on that front and to (re)read Conference talks. I missed a lot of last conference, and was distracted by kids during several sessions. As I have gone back to study many of these talks, I’ve been amazed at how rich they are. Although the talks are basically covering the same fundamental doctrines that I have been taught and studying all my life, I typically do not feel that the talks are mere (“vain”) repetition. Rather, I’m continually surprised by how fresh they make these fundamental principles of the gospel seem and how they continually cast these principles in new light.

    I recently reread Elder Holland’s talk/testimony regarding the Book of Mormon from last conference—what a great talk! That could likely be characterized as a back-to-basics kind of talk, but it definitely came across as fresh, a view I’d never heard before (even on second hearing/reading). This, it seems to me, is a great example and model of how to implement Elder Nelson’s suggestions, of sticking to the core doctrines, principles and texts of the Gospel, while simultaneously being conscientious of one’s audience and exhibiting love for those you teach, as admonished in the teaching manual (by not just repeating the same old thoughts in the same old way, but bringing a fresh perspective, new applications and insights, etc., etc.).

  5. aquinas said

    BrianJ, as a general principle, I think any discourse where people are seeking to find the most effective means of gospel instruction is a good thing. In fact, I’m glad to find so many interested and pondering how to approach these next two years. I think this is very positive.

    While it is true that the manual is newly published, query whether this significantly changes the dynamics of gospel instruction. My view is that the challenges of gospel instruction remain rather constant. In many respects, the challenges that we face in the classroom are the same whether it’s 1915, 1954 or 2010. My observation of discourse on teaching in the church is that people great desire that “teaching” take place. Regardless of the subject matter, teaching isn’t easy and teaching “basics” is not easy either. In fact, I think that teaching basics or fundamentals is quite challenging. So, as others have stated, I think we will continue to discuss effective teaching regardless of what manual is to be used for the course of study, and I think that is valuable.

  6. sanford said

    Warning — this is a complaint.

    “should I feel dismay?”

    How could you not? Your ideas for making the new manual engaging are substantive and honest. It’s funny. While the brethren acknowledge the problem of boring lessons, they seem unable to take real steps to fix the problem. Elder Nelson’s assertion to the contrary, repetition is not wonderful, it’s numbing. I know so many people who check out during lessons. They don’t rock the boat, they don’t engage, they kill time. And teachers must fight a culture and leadership that makes effective teaching difficult. I appreciate your efforts to improve teaching but you are fighting strong currents in both congregants and leaders.

  7. NItsav said

    Brian, if it’s any consolation or support, I often feel somewhat conflicted- that my lessons although well-attended and liked and faith-promoting, would nevertheless displease one of the higher-ups if they actually attended. I have some friends who have experienced that kind of thing while teaching at BYU, actually. I have not, but I expect it could happen any time. Others that I talk to, including my Dad (who’s in his second stint as a stake President), feel that I am, in fact, “over-worried” about it.

    • Jim F. said

      NItsav, I’m with your dad on this. I suspect that “higher-ups” in general would be less displeased than you think. (Of course, there are always exceptions.)

      As Aquinas said, we are all, including higher-ups, interested in good effective teaching. If you are accomplishing that, I doubt that you will get many complaints. The problem is that good teaching is often difficult. It is something you have to keep working at, no matter how long you’ve been doing it. And, in my experience, it is something you can fail at even when you think you’ve been doing it reasonably well for a while.

      So, I would take your father’s advice and not worry about what higher-ups are going to say or not say. Just keep worrying about how to teach a good lesson.

  8. Jacob B. said

    I think that a move to studying the “fundamentals” for 2 years has the *potential* for producing the most fruitful and thought-provoking lessons MP/RS has seen in years, perhaps ever, considering the number of church members, their varied life experience, education, etc. But it’s a double-edged sword; I can think of a number of members in my ward that, were they teaching this curriculum, I would almost dread to attend the class for fear of the nauseating boredom that would inevitably occur. Other members (both men and women) would truly do amazing and spiritually-reinforcing things with this material. So I think it depends on the teacher and the way he/she teaches.

    I think the point of emphasizing praxis and real-life application is well-taken. Rarely do the more “speculative” doctrines have real-life purchase; the so-called fundamentals have much more bearing on the difficulties of trials and discipleship. If taught in the right way, as a servant-teacher, sensitive to the actual lives of the people in the class, this has the potential to be quite productive and useful.

  9. KirkC said

    Brian, thanks for posting this. I think this is the message (in your OT) that my Bishopric was trying to get get across to the teachers in our ward (discussed in another thread). I am not one to go against church leaders, but I will admit I am somewhat puzzled by many of the council thus far on this new teaching method.

    There is nothing I hate more than being bored to death while sitting in a class.

  10. Jacob B. said

    I forgot to mention that I also think that one advantage of GP over Teachings of the Presidents is a much greater focus on the Scriptures. I know that Sunday School is meant to cover scripture study throughout the year, but there can never be too much focus on the scriptures as the primary theological source of Mormon doctrine.

  11. RuthS said

    I remember hearing an older woman say that she hadn’t heard anything new at church for the last twenty years. I am certain she did not consider what she had heard to mindless repetition. One way or another we are going to be talking about basics. It is easy to be entices away onto tangential subjects.

    The challenge for teachers is to learn how to use the materials available to the greatest advantage. I team teach in Sunday School. Once when my partner wasn’t there for two weeks I gave two lessons and when he returned he gave one of the lessons I had just given. Most of the regulars recognized that it was the same lesson, interestingly enough it was not a vein repetition. Yes, it was the same material, but out teaching styles are different enough that it didn’t sound the same at all. There is no one formula for teaching.

    Most of us already know the answers. We just don’t know what the questions are. So, they have decided to gives a little help not put words in our mouths.

    • Jim F. said

      I agree with you, but I also agree with my stake president who has instructed the members of the high council that they are not to think they have given a good talk unless they have taught the congregation something that they didn’t already know. He is himself an excellent example of doing that, of never going far beyond the basics and yet almost always having something to say about them that is new and interesting.
      If we give our talks and lessons enough time and preparation and seek genuine inspiration from scriptures, prophets, and the Holy Ghost, I think we can teach lessons that are about “the same old thing” and that contain new insights.

  12. joespencer said

    Great discussion. Building a bit on Jim’s response to RuthS, I think that the Church’s best-kept secret and so its unending source of surprises is the scriptures. Indeed, I’ve found that it is usually in the most commonly cited and well-known scriptures that the most work can be done in a classroom: our familiarity with it both blinds us to what it’s actually doing and prepares us to receive more from it than we would from a random verse from Ezekiel. Moreover, I’ve found that getting seriously to work on passages that everyone thinks they’ve exhausted gets people genuinely excited about studying the scriptures.

    I suppose it’s for all these reasons that I’m not too broken up about the “difficulties” anticipated with this manual. Just the presence of a list of “additional scriptures” at the end of each lesson means that there is ample material for serious work to be done.

    • Jim F. said

      “I’ve found that getting seriously to work on passages that everyone thinks they’ve exhausted gets people genuinely excited about studying the scriptures.”

      Ditto and amen!

  13. BrianJ said

    Thank you all for the comments. I really mean that, so I’m sorry I can’t respond to each individually. Also, thank you for not taking my post the wrong way!

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