Gospel Teaching That Motivates


In a village in South America a group of visitors observed descendants of the Incas using pieces of broken glass and tin can lids to shear their sheep. The visitors invited some of the local leaders to join with them in the center of the village for a demonstration of metal shears. The villagers discovered with interest that with the new tool they could shear ten times as many sheep in the same amount of time. They bartered for some of these shears and have used them since. Effective teaching brought significant changes.

Similarly, in the Church, effective teaching can bring worthwhile and positive changes in the lives of children, youth, and adults. What is the main goal of gospel teaching? What should it be?

The goal, according to the new teacher development program, is not to “pour information” into the minds of class members. It is not to show how much the teacher knows, nor is it just to increase knowledge about the Church or the gospel. The basic goal of teaching in the Church is to help bring about worthwhile changes in the lives of people. The aim is to inspire the individual to think about, feel about, and then do something about gospel truths and principles.

Too many teachers teach only about the gospel, ignoring steps needed to bring about the application of gospel principles in the lives of people. Teaching about a principle is not enough. Inviting application of the principle and opening the door to its use are essential to vital teaching.

Effective teaching involves knowing the student’s range of knowledge when he enters the classroom door—what understanding he brings with him. It also recognizes that unless the student has changed in some way when he goes out the door, the time may have been wasted. It is hoped that when the student leaves the classroom, he will have been influenced and as a result his behavior will somehow be different in a change for the better. It is hoped that he has increased his knowledge about some principle of the gospel and will put it into practice in his daily living.

Effective and genuine learning involves at least three steps.

1. Increased knowledge. Too much gospel teaching stops with increased knowledge. This knowledge is important, but it is not enough. Knowing about the history of the Church and its principles is essential to progression in the kingdom of God; it is the foundation for successful living, but it is only the beginning.

2. Deepened feelings or changed attitudes. It is important that students develop positive attitudes toward the gospel and its principles, and teachers who help class members to deepen their feelings for goodness and strengthen their testimonies are on the right track.

3. Doing. In many ways this third step is the most important. Each gospel lesson, whether in a priesthood, an auxiliary, or a seminary or institute class, should help each student to alter his way of living and should bring worthwhile changes.

For example, if the lesson is on prayer, the effective teacher will help the students to understand what prayer is, why we pray, and how to pray effectively. He will also help the class members to develop more positive attitudes toward prayer, to feel that it is important. He will encourage them to pray, today, tomorrow, and every day.

Recognizing that the goal of effective gospel teaching is to bring worthwhile changes in the lives of people, the question is asked, How can teachers bring this about?

First, the effective gospel teacher helps his students understand the lesson and principle or idea it stresses. If the lesson is on fasting, for example, he helps class members understand what the principle is, where it came from, and what it means in the lives of people. As they comprehend the what, the why, and the where of fasting, they are more likely to want to incorporate it into their own lives. If they do not understand the principle, they will undoubtedly have little or nothing to do with it personally.

People are hesitant about the unknown and are sometimes even fearful of it. Increased understanding opens the door to action and paves the way for moving ahead. Teaching about the gospel is, then, an important step toward action, but it is not an end in itself.

Second, the effective teacher helps the class members move toward action by deepening their feelings and convictions. Again, as he assists them in feeling that fasting can be a blessing, for the participant as well as for others, he is teaching effectively.

One way a teacher can help is to bear his testimony and share his convictions with class members. Personal testimonies do influence the lives of others. At the world’s fairs in New York City and Tokyo, many persons joined the Church after observing the Mormon exhibits. Many testified that what really influenced them most was a missionary who, after showing them around the beautiful pavilion, told them in sincerity and love, “I know the gospel is true. This is my personal witness to you. You will acquire a similar testimony if you study it and put it into practice.”

Teachers should not “overbear” their testimonies but should bear them only at appropriate times. Personal convictions can be most meaningful in the lives of others when shared in sincerity and at special moments.

Another way to influence the feelings of class members is to tell interesting stories and experiences that illustrate the principle or idea being taught. Many a student has been motivated to change his way of living because of a dramatic experience that has been shared in class. In addition to the teacher’s telling such experiences, class members, if given an opportunity, can and will share their own activities and testimonies.

One teenager quit smoking after a priesthood class on the Word of Wisdom in which the teacher described vividly the personal experience of his brother in quitting smoking. The account demonstrated realistically that a smoker could stop smoking, and it showed the merits of such action.

Effective teachers endeavor to enrich their lessons with experiences and stories that deepen feelings and convictions regarding the living of gospel principles.

Third, the effective teacher asks class members to do what the lesson stresses. This can be done by a specific invitation or assignment. Many times we reach this step and then stop, but what we really need to do is to open the door for class members to actually try out the principle being studied.

The importance of this step is illustrated by a family of five who became converts to the Church. They had lived in a neighborhood where there were many Latter-day Saints, and they had learned much about the gospel. Then they had moved to a mission area, and a Mormon missionary invited them to church. In a short time they were baptized. Someone asked, “Why didn’t you join sooner?” The father answered, “No one ever before invited us to join or even to go to church.”

Follow-through assignments can be effective. For example, twelve-year-olds may be asked to pray daily, to pay tithing, or to do a “good turn,” helping neighbors in need. These assignments should be realistic and attainable. When a person actually experiences something of value, he will not soon forget it. An invitation to try something worthwhile is very important in effective teaching. It is also important to provide for a reporting-back or follow-up, so the action is kept alive.

Effective teachers play significant roles in implementing these steps and thus bring worthwhile changes in the lives of people. Indeed, as Henry Brooks Adams said, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

Dr. Skidmore, dean of the Graduate School of Social Work and professor of sociology at the University of Utah, is a Regional Representative of the Twelve and chairman of the Church’s Teacher Development Committee. He lives in Monument Park Third Ward, Monument Park West Stake.