Teaching by the Spirit


Joseph B. Wirthlin

In Jan. 1989, the Church will see changes in how the gospel is taught in the Sunday School Gospel Doctrine class. The Ensign held the following interview with Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, who is the representative from the Priesthood Executive Council to the Curriculum Department of the Church, and with Elder Gene R. Cook, who serves as a Managing Director over the Curriculum Planning Division of the Curriculum Department.

Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin Elder Gene R. Cook

Ensign: Elder Wirthlin, we understand that there are changes in the Gospel Doctrine manual for 1989 and in the way the subject matter is to be taught. Could you discuss these changes with us?

Elder Wirthlin: Beginning in Jan. 1989, our Gospel Doctrine teachers are going to have a wonderful opportunity to teach their lessons from a little different point of view. For example, much has been written by Latter-day Saint scholars and writers about the scripture of focus for the year, the Doctrine and Covenants. But rather than use so much of the material supplementary to this unique book of scripture, our teachers are being encouraged to concentrate on teaching directly from the text of the Doctrine and Covenants itself.

Because of Elder Cook’s responsibilities in the development of curriculum, I have asked him to be with us today. Elder Cook, would you tell us about some of the specific changes we will see in the Gospel Doctrine class this year?

Elder Cook: As you indicated, we are giving teachers significantly fewer materials. In the last few years, the Church has provided Gospel Doctrine teachers with approximately two hundred pages of teaching material annually. During 1989, we will give them only about fifty pages of material, approximately one page per lesson. By reducing this material, we hope to help teachers rely more on the Spirit, center more on the scriptures, better relate that which they are teaching to their students’ needs, and use more real-life experiences from class members that will help students apply the gospel in their daily lives.

Elder Wirthlin: The questions in the lessons are designed to allow class participants to share what they have learned from their reading and to discuss how they have applied the principles discussed the previous week. These questions are also designed to be answered from the scriptural text instead of from resource materials in a manual. We feel this direction will turn the teacher and the students more to the Spirit, to the scriptures, and to prayer for understanding.

Ensign: That may alarm some teachers and students who are used to relying heavily on a manual. Will class participants be taught how to rely more fully on the Spirit?

Elder Cook: Yes. Key elements have been integrated into each lesson to assist both the teacher and the class participants to feel the influence of the Spirit while they study the scriptures together. Among these elements are reminders to pray, use the scriptures, testify, express love to God and to man, and share spiritual experiences.

In order to learn from the Lord, teachers and students should have a prayer in their hearts, not only while reading the scriptures before or after class, but also during the time that teaching occurs. Likewise, they need to use the scriptures with the right spirit, for that will invite the Holy Spirit into the classroom.

We hope teachers and students will also amply testify during the classroom period of the blessings and truths that the Lord has bestowed upon them. We hope, too, that they will express love for the Lord and for one another and share, when appropriate, their experiences in applying the gospel principles under study. Sharing expressions of appreciation as well as experiences in living the gospel are important ways we open our hearts to the Spirit.

Elder Wirthlin: Many of the principles concerning how we teach and how we learn by the Spirit are reviewed in a number of lessons throughout the year. This way, even those who enter the class later in the year will be taught the spiritual process by which they can feel the Spirit in their gospel study.

We hope that as teachers and class participants learn better how to invite the Spirit of the Lord into their reading, learning, and teaching, there will be an increase in the influence of the Spirit throughout the Church.

Ensign: Will any helps be given directly to class participants, as they were in past years?

Elder Cook: Teachers will give each class member a folded single-sheet guide that provides some suggestions on how to draw near to the Spirit while studying the scriptures. It also lists the specific reading assignments for the year. These sheets will be available at distribution centers for a minimal cost.

If resources are available to do so, teachers may want to duplicate for class members a copy of the foreword and the first lesson so that they can teach these principles in their homes.

Elder Wirthlin: We hope that these changes will help teachers focus better on the needs of the class participants so that class members will receive a witness from the Holy Ghost of the gospel principles they study and center their lives more fully on Christ. This emphasis on teaching by the Spirit should help class members better understand the principles of the gospel and then apply them in their lives.

Another advantage for teachers is that these changes allow the flexibility they need to teach a specific principle as prompted by the Spirit or to address class members’ unique needs.

Finally, we have observed that some teachers have fallen into a habit of using additional commentaries or other courses of study to supplement their lesson material. This year’s lesson guide has been simplified so that teachers and students can center their study on the scriptures.

Ensign: Are you concerned that in cutting down the volume of the teachers’ manual, you have removed many stories and examples that would have enlivened the lessons and assisted the teacher?

Elder Cook: That is a very good question. It’s true that the new lessons have fewer stories and resource materials than those in previous manuals. However, the questions for teachers in the new lessons are calculated to draw experiences from the people in the class. We feel that the Spirit will confirm more strongly the truthfulness and blessings of obeying the law of tithing, for example, if class members share their personal experiences with one another, rather than reading examples we here at headquarters have collected for them. The very fact that these experiences are from the lives of the very people in that class should bring a great spirit of testimony into the class.

The resource material in each lesson will center mostly on key quotes from General Authorities that expound and explain the scriptures.

Ensign: That kind of teaching sounds motivating.

Elder Wirthlin: As members will probably recognize, this kind of teaching requires more involvement between the teacher and the participants in the class. In some units with large numbers of Gospel Doctrine class members, it may be helpful to divide the class if sufficient classroom space is available.

Elder Cook: Let me be more helpful on what this renewed emphasis on teaching by the Spirit could mean in a class. I think any of us who has ever taught a class has realized that it may become convenient for a class to become teacher-centered because he or she is the one who has been called and set apart to teach and direct the class. But we also know that it is sometimes possible for everything to be directed to and by the teacher as if the teacher were supposed to have all the answers and to convey all knowledge to class participants. In truth, the scriptures tell us that the Holy Ghost will teach and that we, as teachers, are to prepare the way for the Spirit to guide us. This instructional direction emphasizes that class members as well as teachers are in a setting wherein they may be guided by the Spirit. The teacher takes the lead as they share what they have learned from their experiences in applying gospel principles which have given them testimony and knowledge relative to their understanding of the doctrines of the Church.

Sometimes there is a tendency for teachers to assume they must give all of the answers, that they must convey the total material in the manual to class members, that they must draw in additional resources beyond the scriptures in order to teach. Now we want teachers to more fully center on the Spirit and on the actual present needs of class members. It also helps teachers to search for the means to help class members apply gospel principles in their individual lives. Hopefully, these class experiences will turn us more toward the Lord, allow us to be touched more frequently by the Spirit, and thus make successful our individual efforts to repent and change our lives.

Elder Wirthlin: With this in mind, another way one can look at this renewed teaching emphasis might be to say that we are seeking to highlight a different kind of knowledge and information than what we might have emphasized before. Instead of some teachers spending most of the class period logically analyzing historical, cultural, or even doctrinal issues, we are now saying that although those areas of knowledge are still important, so also is the knowledge that each of us has from our experience in living the gospel. In other words, the teacher will take the lead in discussing the true principles from the scriptures that have been highlighted in the course manual. But after a principle has been explained and discussed, class members will then have ample opportunity to share their understanding of the principle and to share ideas among themselves as to how that particular principle can be applied in their own lives. The information that each of us has gained from repenting and seeking improvement in our lives is truly a pearl of great price, and it can be of immense value to others when shared in the right setting. This great reservoir of knowledge, conviction, experience, testimony, and love of our Father in Heaven and his gospel needs to be tapped for the benefit of the Saints, for the benefit of the Church. I hope you can see that we are excited about the possibilities of teaching in this manner.

Ensign: How can teachers and participants gauge the success of this renewed emphasis on teaching by the Spirit?

Elder Wirthlin: The fruits of the Spirit are self-evident. If people clearly understand a gospel principle and feel the Spirit witness of its truthfulness, they will begin to see, in their own lives, some of its fruits—more humility and less pride, more effective prayers, more faith in the Lord, more desire to repent and less desire to judge others, greater interest in searching the scriptures, and more desire to receive the ordinances of the gospel and renew their covenants. Those whose lives are touched by the Spirit will feel peace, joy, and comfort—and will testify of such.

Elder Cook: These lessons are designed to expose the Saints to the principles taught in the scriptures and to encourage them to look to the Lord for help in applying those principles in their lives. We hope that our teachers will not just teach principles, but also how to apply those principles. The major goals of these new lessons are repentance and a change of heart where that is needed, and a renewed appreciation for a gospel principle in the hearts of those who have experienced its fruits within their lives.

Elder Wirthlin: We are confident that if teachers and class members humbly seek our Father in Heaven’s direction in their gospel study, the influence of the Spirit will increase greatly not only in the classrooms but, more important, in our homes and in our lives.

We are convinced that these lessons have been formulated in such a way that the more class members read their scriptural reading assignments, the more they bring their scriptures to class, and the more they discuss what the gospel actually means in their lives, the more will be their inspiration, growth, and joy as they try to solve their personal concerns and challenges.

President Ezra Taft Benson has promised that if we will turn to the scriptures, assimilate their truths, and apply them in our daily lives, a great blessing will be poured out upon all the Church. Let us joyfully heed the counsel of our prophet so that we may receive the promised blessings.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Scott Snow