Any other GD teachers out there? I’ve been in this calling for just over two years now, and it’s the second-favorite calling I’ve had in the Church. (I love teaching, but nothing compares to working with the youth.) I’ve been reflecting lately on what works, and what doesn’t, in my Gospel Doctrine class.
First, some background: I am the only GD teacher in a ward that has seen some significant revitalization in the five years I’ve lived here. When I came, the ward seemed to be struggling in many ways through internal divisions. (Apparently, the contention was so severe that the ward was actually ceremonially rededicated around 1997, and placed in a new stake for a fresh start. Last year we returned to the stake that makes more sense geographically, since the problems have been resolved.)
We used to have an abysmal retention rate and very low attendance. In the last three years or so, we’ve grown numerically and spiritually, I think mostly due to outstanding leadership on the part of the bishop and the efforts of an amazing missionary couple who helped to reactivate some longtime members. Going to church has become the highlight of my week.
One of the things that I have learned in teaching GD in this setting is that liberal Mormons (myself included) can be far too critical of the lesson manual. What I mean by this is that yes, of course the manual tends to be superficial and simplistic. But now that I am teaching in a ward which has a high percentage of people who never went to college and a high majority of converts, I understand it. I still only use the manual as a jumping-off place, but I find it to be generally on target in terms of what works with this audience.
One failing of the manual, though, is that it only fills half the purpose of the class. That is, it does a decent job of conveying “gospel doctrine” and teaches members the basics about what the Church believes about the scriptures. What it doesn’t do, though, is enhance community, which is a very important part of what goes on when I teach class. I’ve found that GD class comes alive when I am not a teacher so much as a facilitator, soliciting comments and directing discussions that are rich with people’s personal experiences of the gospel.
Some of the best GD lessons I’ve done have taken the principles and sought to apply them directly to people’s lives. Last year when we studied the New Testament, I did a few special lessons. When we studied the “members of the body” in 1 Corinthians, for example, I handed out slips of paper at the beginning of the lesson, each listing a part of the body: hand, eye, foot, head, etc. We built a “body” on the chalkboard by having people put their body part in the right place on the chalkboard. Then they turned to face a class that bombarded them with specific comments about the many ways that they were indispensable to the ward and to the body of Christ. I learned things about people in my ward that I never knew, and got a glimpse of the deep ties that bind this community of salt-and-light folks — some of whom have known each other half a century.
When we did Romans (where I entirely deviated from the manual, which suggests covering the whole letter in one week . . .excuse me? We took three.), we did a special lesson on Romans 14. We highlighted “gray areas of the gospel” — things that in our day are similar to Paul”s discourse on whether it was kosher for Christians to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. This resulted in a good discussion of the finer points of tithing (gross or net?), bikinis, decaf coffee, and playing sports on Sundays. I wanted to create a judgment-free zone where we could just list these contested issues and allow people to agree to disagree. It seems a little thing, but one guy came up afterward to say that it was the most helpful GD lesson he’d ever had. Go figure.
We’ve done other cool things in class. Last year we followed the example of the “kingdom assignment” (see the book by the same name) and I gave five members of the class $20 each to go out and do some good in the world. The next week they were to return and report. Several had pooled their money to help a new convert whose husband was serving in Iraq. She has four young kids to support. The missionaries had taken their money to Wal-mart to buy a space heater for an investigator with no heat. We tied these acts of service to several passages in the NT, especially the parable of the talents.
I think that for our next class project we will take the Book of Mormon’s emphasis on service and spend a class period filling shoe boxes of toys and things for kids. (I’m no fan of Franklin Graham, but Operation Christmas Child is a great thing.) So now I finally get to my question: what are some of the most memorable and powerful things you’ve discussed or done in GD classes? What are the worst experiences? Whether you are a teacher or a class member, what is your vision for what GD class could be?