There have been several posts in the Bloggernacle over the years about what comprises successful and interesting Gospel Doctrine class teachers. Since I have been serving as my ward’s Gospel Doctrine instructor for nearly the last year, I would like to add my voice to the gospel teaching chorus.
I love teaching. In my prior career (before becoming a blood-sucking lawyer), I dreamed of teaching. And, indeed, I did teach undergraduate classes for five years at the University of Michigan. So I was ueber-thrilled when the Bishop called and asked me to serve as the Gospel Doctrine teacher. Here is the philosophy I have formed about what works best for me, and for my ward.
In my opinion, Gospel Doctrine class is a place to learn gospel doctrine. Sound simple? It is. Thus, I focus on the Doctrines of the Restoration as presented in the manual, always trying to dig deeply into the experiences presented in the scriptures assigned for the week and concentrating on powerful ways to help the class members apply those teachings and principles to their own lives. I use the manual as the framework, the outline, as it were, for the principles we discuss. I do not delve too deeply into history (though it can be fascinating) or other such things. Not everyone is interested in those things the way I am, and so I give enough history to lend context and then get on with the substantive gospel discussion.
I view Sunday School as a chance each week for the members to either gain or renew their testimonies of various gospel principles taught or otherwise exemplified in each week’s reading. I want it to be a transformative spiritual experience for each member of the class, and for myself, one which causes us to measure the way we live the gospel against the standard in the scriptures. I want it to be as a soothing balm to those in need of divine comfort, a gentle prick to those who need reminding, a worthwhile spiritual feast that enlightens the mind, heart and soul. I incorporate music into every lesson that I think drives home the spirit of each message to the hearts of inidivuals more than I ever could. These include pre-arranged musical numbers themed around the gospel topics covered in the lesson, as well as group hymn singing at appropriate times.
I come to class thoroughly prepared, usually having read the entire assignment and what most church publications have to say about them (on gospelink.com) as well as having read commentary at feast upon the word and elsewhere. I ask people in advance to share personal experiences with certain topics, to share how certain passages have touched them or have meant to them personally. I usually pick one or two scriptures from the Book of Mormon that deal with each gospel topic as well just to share them and then testify each week that such scriptures further exemplify how the Book of Mormon truly is another testament of Jesus Christ.
My typical lesson goes as follows:
(1) A prayer and a topic-appropriate opening song to get them thinking about the wonderful themes of the lesson. I usually introduce the hymn and ask them to think about something specific dealing with the lesson as those musical prayers escape their lips and are driven to their hearts by the music.
(2) A brief (emphasis on brief) review of the historical situation and context for day’s scripture study. Sometimes, depending on the lesson content, this review may be intertwined in and out of the entire lesson. For example, as we have read Acts it has been necessary to talk a little more about context since the context is quite important to understand the principle and apply it to our lives.
(3) Review, either by reading the scriptures or narrating what has happened, of relevant scriptures to introduce gospel topics. This will be a coninuous process throughout the lesson.
(4) Personal experiences by me and/or class members with the various gospel principles, testimonies about those principles, discussion about how they apply and/or become real to us invidiually and collectively as Latter-day Saints.
(5) Perhaps an interspersed musical number or pre-arranged sharing of a personal experience with the theme of the lesson by a class member.
(6) A challenge to more fully live each gospel principle and suggestions for how to do so this week.
(7) A closing prayer. Sometimes, a closing song depending on what is being emphasized. I always want them to leave feeling uplifted.
This method may not work for every person or for every ward. The most important thing I have learned by trial and error is to teach by the Spirit and to be duly flexible to the perceived needs of the class when I enter the room to teach. I also do not do it perfectly, but I have discovered that people feel truly uplifted when I pay attention to these details, as do I.
Again, I try not to bog down the lesson too much with historical facts or references to various sundry translation issues, etc. I skim the surface on those enough (hopefully) to whet the appetites of those prepared to learn more of those sorts of things, and encourage them to study on their own or via institute those things in more detail.
In my opinion, we have to be careful to remember that the general Gospel Doctrine class includes members of the Church ranging from life-long members to relatively new converts, and those who harbor private or open doubts sit alongside those with a burning commitment to the Church. In each class are individuals with private sorrows, struggles, worries, hopes, etc. There are many who are praying for answers to various questions. That is why I strive to create a peaceful, spiritual atmosphere not bogged down with too many academic minutia, all of which would certainly be interesting to discuss in other venues.
I love teaching Gospel Doctrine class, and while I am far, far from being the perfect Gospel Doctrine teacher, I am thankful that the Lord allows me to teach and (hopefully) to be an instrument in his hands in reaching people who need to hear and remember the good news of the Gospel before once again embarking on their way in this often lone and dreary world.