I’m going to say what many Latter-day Saints are thinking, but some are afraid to say: Sunday School is often mediocre.
I really don’t wish to gripe. I definitely realize that each person — teachers and students — need to do their part. I also recognize that most teachers try hard and take their callings seriously. But certainly Sunday School doesn’t have to be the mind-numbing chore that it seems to be for many members. We can do much better!
In this post, I offer ten simple tips that could radically improve Sunday School lessons. (Yes, I will be that bold.) These tips are simply suggestions from myself, a Latter-day Saint who has done a fair amount of teaching and thinking about this issue. They can be applied by virtually anyone, in my opinion.
I should mention at the outset that what is most important, of course, is to teach and prepare with the Spirit. But any vague platitude I could offer about this is probably not going to be terribly useful. Rather, I discuss a few practical tips that, I believe, can help facilitate the Spirit to work powerfully and effectively through your teaching.
1. Consider why people come to church. What is the purpose of church attendance? Of Sunday School? Is it learn a bunch of facts? To get through a bunch of talks and lessons (just for kicks)? Most Latter-day Saints would probably say no. Rather, most people come to church, I believe, to commune with others in meaningful ways and to receive peace and healing. Thus, a Sunday School lesson should be tailored towards these ends.
2. Realize that your students are not blank slates. Many Sunday School teachers act as if they need to “cover the material” in a way that doesn’t even reflect what those in their class already know. At my student married ward at BYU, for example, nearly all (or almost all) of us have read from the scriptures repeatedly and have received years of formal instruction about them. And yet teachers feel the need to cover everything, often going to great lengths to summarize something that everyone already knows. What’s the point?
I recommend that teachers assume that the class has read the scriptural material. This will motivate students to read before class — but even if they haven’t, they likely have read it before.
3. Don’t ask obvious questions. Recalling information from text is a third-grade skill. Third grade! Don’t insult your class’s intelligence by asking them “what happened” in a verse you’ve just read together. There are much better ways to spend your time, aren’t there? If you do wish to point out something specific, it’s often best for you to just say it rather than making the class play an annoying round of “guess what the teacher is thinking.” Save class participation for insightful discussion, not mindless generation of facts.
4. Dive right in. Go immediately to what you think is the most interesting / inspiring/ thought-provoking part of the lesson. This will help start class on the right foot, and also will ensure that you discuss the best stuff before time runs out.
5. Plan specific questions for generating sustained, meaningful discussion. Whenever I sit in on a good Sunday School or Priesthood lesson, I ask myself: “Why was this a good lesson?” Almost always, one of the answers is, “Because there was lots of meaningful class discussion.”
Prayerfully consider a few questions (probably no more than two or three) for the class to discuss. These questions should not be for the purpose of generating lists (“What things should we avoid doing on the Sabbath Day?”) — sometimes these questions are useful but hardly sufficient — but rather should get the class thinking and discussing about living the gospel in a messy world (“Why is it sometimes difficult to pray?”). There doesn’t need to be a simple answer to these questions (and often won’t be); rather, this process is meant to be spiritually-uplifting, meaningful, and therapeutic for the class. From my experience, there are few better ways to “bring in the Spirit” than to have class members discuss living the gospel in a way that moves beyond “the Sunday School answers” (more on this below).
6. But don’t let discussions get out of hand. A good teacher is able to facilitate discussions well. Sometimes this means stepping back a little, but often discussions require a little steering (steering away from non-edifying controversies or trivia, for example). Don’t be afraid to move on even if there are some hands raised. But sometimes, when the Spirit is very strong, it is best to continue with the discussion. Who cares what else you have planned! In these cases, we should be like John the Baptist (speaking of the Savior): “He must increase and I must decrease.”
7. Ask follow-up questions. The “Sunday School answers” (“read your scriptures, go to church, say your prayers”) are not the right answers! Or at least not sufficient ones. Get students thinking more deeply. For example, if someone answers “pray” to a question about avoiding temptation,” ask a follow-up question. “Why do you think prayer would be helpful?” or “Can you think of an experience when this was helpful to you?”
8. Share specific testimonies throughout the lesson. Of course, it’s fine to share your testimony at the end of the lesson. But I have found myself teaching when the Spirit prompts me to testify of something specific in the middle, or even the beginning, of the lesson. Sometimes this is planned, sometimes not. But in every case, it is powerful. Try it — I think you’ll like it. But try to be specific, and don’t be afraid to move away from the “I know” template if necessary.
9. Call on class members by their names. If you don’t know someone’s name, ask them (and try to remember). This makes such a difference, from my experience.
10. Be excited to teach. If you’re not, try your best to be, and don’t make remarks (however humorous) about how it’s a bummer you have to teach (like you hear so often in sacrament meeting talks). Would you want to sit through a lesson from an apathetic teacher?
Stay tuned for Part Two …