‘And whisper religion in their ears’ – Teaching Primary Children Deeper Gospel Understanding

good-samaritan-stained-glass1

I wrote most of this post a couple years ago when we were teaching the 9-year-old primary class in our ward in Saratoga Springs, UT. Now we live in the St. George area and after we both taught Sunbeams for a while my wife is in the Primary Presidency. I found this nearly-complete post and decided it’s time to complete it.

My wife and I teach the 9-year-olds in primary. I’ve received a new calling (several by the time I’m publishing this), but still attend class for now until they get her a new co-teacher. On Sat. night, just a few weeks ago, Jill told me the lesson the next day was on the parable of The Good Samaritan and asked if I had any ideas or insights about what to teach them.

I pulled up one of my favorite Ensign articles of all time entitled “The Good Samaritan: Forgotten Symbols” from Feb. 2007 (I’ve linked to the PDF version because it’s much better when you can see the stained-glass windows talked about). If you haven’t read this article. Please take time to read it. It very clearly uses one example to demonstrate the very concept this entire blog is about: looking into the symbols to discover the true meanings, the intended meanings, the pure doctrines that are in the scriptures, that we often miss because we read superficially rather than really studying and feasting. I’m frequently as guilty of this as the next person. But anyway, near the beginning of that article, we read:

The Savior spoke often in parables because each has a deeper meaning understood only by those who have “ears to hear” (Matthew 13:9). The Prophet Joseph Smith affirmed that unbelievers did not understand the Savior’s parables. “Yet unto His disciples [the Lord] expounded [the parables] plainly,” and we can understand the parables, taught the Prophet, “if we will but open our eyes, and read with candor.” Knowing this principle invites reflection on the symbolic message of the good Samaritan. In light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, this masterful story brilliantly encapsulates the plan of salvation in ways few modern readers may have noticed.1

In other words, the explanation of The Good Samaritan parable that follows isn’t going to be the same superficial one that we find in the primary lesson manual, or the one that’s usually taught from Nursery to Gospel Doctrine. And that’s why I love this article: it says to the entire Church, via the Ensign & Liahona, “here are the plain and beautiful truths of the gospel that you’ve all been missing, because you think ‘plain’ and ‘simple’ mean ‘easy’, but they don’t!” Now John W. Welch doesn’t actually say that in the article. He’s much more tactful. But that is the point: that we’re missing much of Christ’s gospel because we don’t dare dig deeper, or are to lazy to do so. Now, back to the story. So here I am recommending to my wife that she teach our 9-year-old primary students on a level that most adult members of the Church don’t usually go or understand. Why would I do that? The following quote is why:

You do not have to sneak up behind these spiritually experienced youth and whisper religion in their ears; you can come right out, face to face, and talk with them. You do not need to disguise religious truths with a cloak of worldly things; you can bring these truths to them openly, in their natural guise. Youth may prove to be not more fearful of them than you are. There is no need for gradual approaches, for “bedtime” stories, for coddling, for patronizing, or for any of the other childish devices used in efforts to reach those spiritually inexperienced and all but spiritually dead.2

J. Ruben Clark said that, as the 1st Councilor in the First Presidency. He said it in 1938! Now we always teach the youth that each new generation is more prepared for the last days and the trials it includes, than the last. They’re each more valiant and prepared to live in this increasingly wicked world. If that’s true, don’t you think that Elder Clark’s statement would be even more true today than it was in 1938?

Elder Clark vs the Manual

This is where we run into the dichotomy.  On the one hand is J. Ruben Clark, a 1st counselor to the Prophet, saying this over 70 years ago. The other side is represented by the teaching manuals of the church. All of them, any of them. They’re very basic in the things they encourage teachers to teach. They don’t delve into the symbolism in Christ’s parable of The Good Samaritan, though it’s obvious that being a parable, he meant much more than just a simple lesson about being a good neighbor. So which is it? Do we follow Elder Clark’s counsel on the matter? Or the manual? Other prophets have commented on this same thing much more recently such as Elder Packer’s statement that:

True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior.3

Reading the Parable of The Good Samaritan as a story about being a good neighbor, is a study in behavior. It’s about how we should act in a given situation. Reading it as a parable of the entire plan of salvation unfolded in a beautiful way, is a “study of the doctrines of the gospel.” This teaches us how to overcome the natural man, to be and become more Godlike.

Why the Dichotomy?

good-samaritan-stained-glass2As I’ve already asked, why the difference? Why do we seem to get 2 different messages from the Church? I’d love to hear your ideas, here’s mine:

First, the manuals are not meant to be the law of the Church. They’re a baseline, a bare-minimum. If you just barely joined the Church and know very little of it’s teachings, but got called to teach a class, you can teach a sound, principled lesson by just following exactly what any manual says to do. However, I don’t believe it was ever intended that we only teach what is there, or teach it in the way the manual outlines it. It’s meant to be a baseline, a starting point, something to get your creative juices flowing so we can draw on the knowledge we’ve gained from daily study of the scriptures.

Second, the reason we don’t do more of that, is that we’re scared or lazy. As Elder Clark stated: “Youth may prove to be not more fearful of [the doctrines and truths of the gospel] than you are” is the reason we don’t teach. In other words, we’re scared. I still find myself questioning whether I should say or teach things that are key principles & doctrines of the gospel, but I’m scared that people won’t accept them. Or perhaps more honestly, I’m scared of personal rejection, if people don’t like hearing the truth. The idea is that the messenger often gets rejected along with the message. The ironic thing is that in my experience, if there are those that reject the messages I’m hesitant to teach, I never hear from them. The overwhelming response is one of gratitude and a desire to do better and learn more. So my fears aren’t justified. But being weak and imperfect, I still doubt.

…as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else…. (Alma 31:5 – emphasis’ added)

As for the lazy part, maybe we aren’t doing a good job of daily study and so don’t have much to draw on to expand upon the baseline from the manuals. Or perhaps we don’t want to read the lesson Monday, so we can be thinking about it and preparing for it in our daily studies, throughout the week. In either case, it’s easy to just do what the manual says and take comfort in “I did what the manual said.” Unfortunately this approach (which I’ve been guilty of on occasion) short-changes both ourselves and the people in our class. As the saying goes, the teacher usually learns the most from teaching. If we don’t put in a little extra time and effort, this may not be the case, and people in the class will benefit less, as well.

Third, Follow the Spirit. One of the things that sets our religion apart from the others that seem closest to it doctrinally, is that we believe that God inspires modern-day Prophets, and each one of us. We should be seeking personal revelation about what we should teach, and how to be most effective in conveying that message to the people in our class. The Spirit is ultimately the teacher, if we let it be, and so we should be seeking to follow it’s guidance and invite it into our preparation and class. If we do this, the Spirit will resolve the dichotomy between these 2 seemingly opposed approaches. And it may sometimes mean we teach an entirely different lesson, topic, or block of scriptures than what’s in the manual or on the schedule for that day. On occasion it may even mean that the Spirit guides and helps us teach an entirely different lesson than the one we prepared.

What are your thoughts on this seeming opposites of approaches?

  1. The Good Samaritan: Forgotten Symbols, John W. Welch, Ensign Feb. 2007
  2. The Charted Course of the Church in Education, J. Ruben Clark, 1st Counselor in the 1st Presidency. August 8, 1938, at the BYU Summer School in Aspen Grove
  3. Little Children, Elder Boyd K. Packer, Quorum of the 12 Apostles, General Conference, April 1986

3 thoughts on “‘And whisper religion in their ears’ – Teaching Primary Children Deeper Gospel Understanding

  1. I agree with your third point, that we need to follow the Spirit. The manuals don’t contradict the statement to teach the doctrine. The manuals are meant to be the foundational material. What comes out in the course of the lesson should depend on the spiritual maturity of the class. I have been in classes where the Spirit brought out surprisingly deep points of doctrine, but those points are learned individually, and not by the class as a whole. The gospel cannot be taught to a whole class on the same level. Each person will receive what they are prepared to receive. We give the material as we understand it, praying for the Spirit’s inspiration to enlighten their minds with the truths each person needs to learn. What they learn may have nothing to do with what you just taught, but everything with the Spirit you just brought into the lesson with your preparation. That emphasizes the point that we do not do the converting, the Spirit does that. Our job as teachers is the come prepared with material and the Spirit then the Spirit does the rest.

  2. Great article! I really enjoyed the quotes you included.

    I think there is one important reason you left out. When a task seems difficult, like teaching more in depth doctrine, many assume people don’t do it because they are lazy–or lack motivation. Many times it is an ABILITY problem, or people simply don’t know HOW to study and teach on that level. This is a frustration I run into. I study daily from my scriptures but I never seem to get to the level of doctrine I would like to. I have the motivation to do it, I just don’t know how. I’ll keep learning and trying.

    • Kurt, may I toss a suggestion your way. You are probably already doing this, but here goes. I look at the truths of the gospel like a each one is a central point that is touched by infinite other points or truths. I firmly believe there are no independent truths in the gospel of Christ, all are connected. We just have to seek those connections.

      Example, I know the Spirit is required to really teach the truth, and I know he is required to really learn the truths, yet I got totally blindsided the other day when I went to teach the Gospel Principles class. I’ve been teaching it for years, yet this time I saw a relationship that floored me. The manual said that the Lord sent the Holy Ghost to teach Adam the gospel. I froze. Adam? Why would he need the holy Ghost, the man lived with God! If anyone knew the nature and character of God it was Adam and Eve, what could the Holy Ghost give them they didn’t already know about God? Then the light turned on – Once he was mortal Adam began to forget just like we do. He required the same spirit to spirit communication we do in order to receive the kind of surety of knowledge of spiritual things we do. It all seems so simple, yet so beautifully sublime at the same time.

      It is when we seek for the connections that the Lord can begin to show us angles and sides of the Gospel we didn’t know existed. The more we look, the broader our eternal scope becomes.

      Okay, that was entirely too long, and I just rewrote half the article I just put on my website, but I hope you get the gist. We need to learn to look at the gospel from the big picture. We are already good at seeing the little picture. We want to see the broader strokes of this beautiful picture. Okay, I’m shutting up now. :)

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