Sunday, January 10, 2010

Everything You Need is in the Manual

A Church News article published this weekend instructs Church teachers to stick to official sources in preparing their lessons. "Everything you need — and more — is in your manual," it proclaims. This type of emphasis concerns me greatly.

1. The manuals, Church correlation admits, are written for the lowest common denominator in the Church. One of their purposes is to "ensure simplicity of Church programs and materials." While this might be appropriate for the many new members of the Church, or areas where the Church is just beginning to gain a foothold, there are plenty of units where the members of the classes are gospel literate. To insist upon such an approach may not exactly stymie their progress as they are well able to research and learn more advanced principles on their own. But it renders Church attendance almost useless.

2. This type of approach limits the learning that takes place when a teacher prepares a lesson. By learning from many different sources, discerning between truth and chaff, and pulling it together into a coherent teaching block, the teacher is very much edified. Relying on the manual in the way described in the Church News article encourages the teacher to simply review the familiar material, and parrot it back to the class.

3. By presenting gospel principles in this manner, the Church gives the impression that we have a well-defined doctrine, when in reality we do not. Since this is a young church, we are still in the process of developing doctrine, and there continues to be a range of opinion (yes, even among Prophets and Apostles) on such things as the nature of premortal spirits, evolution, how to interpret scripture, and many other areas. There is much needed work to be done in our Church in the area of theology. Since we are a lay church, many of our best theologians come from outside the cadre of the General Authorities. Members should be encouraged to discuss and write about Mormon theology so that it can be further developed and understood.

There are a lot of good things to be learned in Kindergarten, as Robert Fulghum so aptly put it, but we shouldn't stay there for the rest of our lives.


Sanford said...

The Church News article is an eye opener. I've wondered how the correlators would view common members discussing and exchanging uncorrelated lesson ideas via the internet. I wonder where this is headed. I hope it's not the opening shot in a battle to undermine bloggers in the eyes of the faithful like when the powers that be took it to Sunstone and Dialogue.

m_and_m said...

I dunno, Cheryl. There is so much to be gleaned from reading and pondering the scriptures and words of prophets alone. I also have found that sometimes the best lessons are ones that I have kept more simple, w/ less turbo prep and more willingness to just keep it simple and let the class share more on important topics. When teachers get so bogged down in trying to pass on "information" they often miss the mark of what gospel teaching is all about. (That's not to say that extensive study will always mean missing the mark, but often it does.)

I also think that even as the manuals are accessible for those who are new, the basic principles, when pondered and studied more, can provide a great deal of insight, perspective, learning -- even the mysteries.

I was struck by how moved I was to ponder the simple first lesson about God. For all that I love to chew on lots of things, I realize that I still don't fully understand God's nature, character, plan, and love for me. And I don't need lots of books to understand that -- I need more of the Spirit.


(BTW, I don't think this is precluding personal study at many levels -- I just think that church lessons are really a different animal, and to me that is a good thing.)

I know others disagree, but there's my ten cents' worth.

(p.s. are you getting my voice mails? i hope to connect soon. :) )

melodrama said...

There is a HUGE difference between keeping it simple and sticking to the manual only. Are we to turn off our own experiences and revelation because they are not correlated? This is not the example we have been given by our leaders.

For instance, one week my lesson was on Christ as the shepherd and I happened to attend a Lutheran church that morning where my son was participating in a preschool sing-along. The minister grew up in Ireland and was talking about sheep and how they work, and even though his point was not my point, it gave me great insight for my lesson. Should I have just ignored it because the inspired correlation committee never thought of it?

I think there is a tendency for people to stress themselves out by not having all the knowledge, and in that case, it is nice for the church to tell them that sticking to what's in the manual is enough.
There shouldn't be a bunch of snobbery related to teaching.

But you cannot tie a teacher's hands and then expect her to still bring the spirit. This article is antithetical to all that Mormonism is, or should Joseph Smith have just stuck to the manual because everything he needed was already there. Maybe article of faith #9 needs updating.

jspector106 said...


I agree with you 100%. Having said that, I find that I don't need to "stray" too far from the lesson materials in order to have a reasonable discussion. I am also mindful that many folks in the room have as much or more experience in the Church and knowledge of the gospel as I do. So, it it important to have an intellectually stimulating discussion. Otherwise, people sit in the hall. Likewise, it is important to teach by the Spirit.

Since we are studying the Old Testament, I usually bring in materials that add context to the Old Testament portions that we are studying. In fact, I had a whole lesson at the end of last year that mirrored my blog posts at MM. Because most people are not familiar with that aspect of the Old Testament. Most adults in the church can probably do a 15 minute talk just from the lesson title alone. So, in my mind, it is a question of balance. Use the materials, trust the teacher and away we go.

BTW, that mother-daughter dialog was just plain dumb.

jeans said...

Very well put!

Bored in Vernal said...

More about this, as it relates to the YW manuals, over at Beginnings New.

J G-W said...


I remember Sunday School lessons back in the day where there was way too much speculation... Folks going way out on limbs that couldn't support the weight of a chickadee... People riding their favorite gospel hobby horse into some bizarro John-Birch-Society-inspired sunset...

Often riding a gospel hobby horse seems to me a distraction, a way to get away from discussing something far more important but uncomfortable.

I applauded the decision to use the Gospel Principles manual as the basis for lessons. I think that the basics, the essentials of faith are the most truly profound. Some of the most meaningful lessons I've participated in have been lessons where members of the class discussed their own efforts to understand, come to terms with, and apply very basic principles of the Gospel.

Love, faith, hope... Extremely simple concepts that most of us still wrestle with at some level...

Bored in Vernal said...

J G-W, I am old enough to remember those days, too. But the pendulum has DEFINITELY swung back to BORING!! I'd prefer to address the problem of speculation by teaching time and place, and training teachers how to present well -- suggesting skills on how to lead a discussion and keep it on topic. Now THAT would make a good Church News article.

claire said...

melodrama, you go girl


I believe it's all a matter of "control" the less you look outside "the manual" the better!

Natasha said...

Hmmm. I find my opinion smack dab in the middle. On the one hand I appreciate the teacher having an easy excuse to stay away from speculation. On the other hand, doesn't revelation start with speculation, then a confirmation of the spirit? Isn't speculation really just searching for truth? I thought we encouraged that? Or do we only encourage that on our own time? If so, then we run up against the problem of having church members feel a confirmation by the Spirit for answers to their questions that they will later doubt simply because it didn't come from the Brethren, or it somewhat disagreed with something one of them has said. Do we receive unique individual revelation or not? Can it only be for banal questions like which elementary school our kids should go to?

I know I feel frustrated in classes where I'm learning the same stuff repeatedly with the same quotes and reasoning, repeatedly, and feel like I can't ask an excellent question which answer I yearn for, simply because I'm at church and at church is not where we learn deep stuff... ironically. And if the church manuals insist on using the same quotes over and over, they miss out on the opportunity to give other, deeper reasons for why we should keep a commandment, for example. The more reasons we give, the more approaches we take to look at a concept, the more likely that one of them will resonate with a member where none really did before.

You know how the Primary manuals (all manuals?) have that part at the end where they offer additional activities in case you find yourself having to fill time? Why can't the adult Sunday School manuals have an enrichment part at the end in case the teacher feels like the class is hungry for it?

Thankfully, the membership of our ward's Sunday School class frequently goes outside the standard works when they give their comments and I'm able to sop up some liquid gold from the brains of men (in our ward it's just men in these instances) who've been in the church for eons and read all of Nibley and such. These men enable my laziness and I'll always raise my arm to the square in support of that.