Teacher Improvement Lesson 2: Christ-Centered Teaching

January 19, 2014    By: Matt W. @ 9:50 am   Category: Life

My Lesson has a few guiding principles. The first comes from this quote from Jeffrey R. Holland from the April 1998 General Conference:

We must revitalize and reenthrone superior teaching in the Church—at home, from the pulpit, in our administrative meetings, and surely in the classroom. Inspired teaching must never become a lost art in the Church, and we must make certain our quest for it does not become a lost tradition.

I use this quote as a reminder of the prior lesson that our objective is to be the best we can be and that great teachers want to be great teachers, are passionate about what they are learning and love those they teach.

My second guiding principle for today is:

Teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves…

This is a reminder to myself that on the topics we are covering, there isn’t one single pedagogy that is applied that makes a lesson great. We are talking about principles, not hard and fast rules, so, as they say, your mileage may vary on any and all of these.

So with those guiding principles in place, the 3rd an 4th lessons in “Teaching no Greater Calling” are “Teach by the Spirit” and “Teach the Doctrine”. We often imagine a tension between these two ideas, with the internet even breaking them out into two communities: Iron Rods and Liahonas.

(Because my student base may be unfamiliar with this idea, I here define them)

Iron Rods are caricatured as being a boring group of “Peter Priesthoods” and  “Molly Mormons” who are sticklers for rules, whether real or imagined, and who would never teach a lesson one bit different than the manual calls for.

Liahonas are caricatured as being a group of “Wolves in Sheep’s’ Clothing” who are in the church to sew doubt and uncertainty, all the while claiming a false spiritual authority by saying they were following the spirit.

I find the dichotomy false, and the further exaggeration of it on the internet frustrating at best. (While I think the idea of Iron Rods and Liahonas, as originally penned, started out innocently enough, it has become something much more divisive) The worst of it is that I feel like it creates an artificial line between teaching Doctrine and Spiritual Learning. Rather, I see the two not only as complimentary, but even interdependent. Consider the following from Henry B. Eyring (In General Conference in April 1999):

[Jesus Christ] teaches doctrine to open our hearts to His love. And He teaches doctrine to open our eyes to see spiritual realities, invisible to any mind not illuminated by the Spirit of Truth.

The need to open eyes and hearts tells us how we must teach doctrine. Doctrine gains its power as the Holy Ghost confirms that it is true. We prepare those we teach, as best we can, to receive the quiet promptings of the still, small voice. That takes at least some faith in Jesus Christ. It takes at least some humility, some willingness to surrender to the Savior’s will for us. The person you would help may have little of either, but you can urge that they desire to believe. More than that, you can take confidence from another of the powers of doctrine. Truth can prepare its own way. Simply hearing the words of doctrine can plant the seed of faith in the heart. And even a tiny seed of faith in Jesus Christ invites the Spirit.

So Teaching Doctrine creates a space for Faith. Faith invites the Spirit. The Spirit Confirms the Doctrine being taught. The Spirit informs the Doctrine to be taught. The Doctrine creates etc. etc.

Put another way, D&C 88:77-78 says:

And I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom. Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly…

The scripture goes on to note all the items which God’s help (grace) will aid in teaching if we teach the doctrine diligently. (I like the word diligently here. It makes me think back to Elder Holland talking of the desire to be a superior teach being a quest we should be on)

Question: What Doctrine are we to teach (diligently)?

From “Christ-Centered Teaching” – Ensign Oct. 1989:

Many years ago, a friend of mine had an interview with Elder Joseph Fielding Smith before being hired to teach in the Church seminary and institute program. When Elder Smith asked what my friend intended to teach, my friend mentioned several important gospel principles. Elder Smith looked at him lovingly but sternly and said, “You teach Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Elder Smith’s counsel applies to all of us. All that we teach or do, whether by formal calling or by the example we set, should reflect that Christ and his atonement are the focus of our lives.

The article goes further to say:

Christ-Centered teaching requires that we put teaching about Jesus ahead of merely teaching lessons. It requires more than having the right emphasis or using attention-grabbing techniques. It requires plugging ourselves into the power of the Spirit….I have learned that the best way to obtain the Spirit in my teaching is to teach Christ as the source of all truth and power, the center of every Gospel principle.

This re-emphasizes what Elder Eyring said: Teaching Doctrine (Christ as the center of the lesson) invites faith and faith calls down the spirit…

And because I like to beat dead horses, let not forget this old chestnut from Joseph Smith:

“The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith)

Discussion: How do we make Christ the Center of the lesson without making him the dead horse to be beaten? How do we make sure we are not trivializing the atonement in our attempt to attach all things to it? (I am reminded of when I first joined the church, it was a bit of a game in institute to turn anything into an “atonement analogy”. “A toilet is like the atonement because it’s pure and white and gets rid of all the crap in our lives…”)

My own personal response to this is that the members of the Church know where they are when they are receiving a lesson and why they are there. We often say when people claim we are not Christian that our church is named “The church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints”, emphasizing he is in the name of the church. I do not think it needs to be much of a stretch to make sure he is also in each of the classrooms.

President J. Reuben Clark said it well:

 “[The Members of the Church] are hungry for the things of the spirit,” he said; “they are eager to learn the Gospel, and they want it straight, undiluted. … You do not have to sneak up behind [them] and whisper religion in [their] ears; … you can bring these truths [out] openly.” (Source lost in the shuffle of preparing the lesson)

Often, we find the reverse in our class rooms. Spencer W. Kimball said:

“Stake presidents, bishops, and branch presidents, please take a particular interest in improving the quality of teaching in the Church. … I fear,” he said, “that all too often many of our members come to church, sit through a class or a meeting, and … then return home having been largely [uninspired].” (sourced from Elder Holland’s Apr 1998 Talk)

Elder Holland reiterated this statement and followed it with why it matters so much:

 When crises come in our lives—and they will—the philosophies of men interlaced with a few scriptures and poems just won’t do. Are we really nurturing our youth and our new members in a way that will sustain them when the stresses of life appear? Or are we giving them a kind of theological Twinkie—spiritually empty calories? President John Taylor once called such teaching “fried froth,” the kind of thing you could eat all day and yet finish feeling totally unsatisfied. 

Discussion: What are spiritual twinkies? How do we avoid them?

One Method was prescribed by Elder Eyring a year after Elder Holland spoke on the same:

Because we need the Holy Ghost, we must be cautious and careful not to go beyond teaching true doctrine. The Holy Ghost is the Spirit of Truth. His confirmation is invited by our avoiding speculation or personal interpretation. That can be hard to do. You love the person you are trying to influence. He or she may have ignored the doctrine they have been taught. It is tempting to try something new or sensational. But we invite the Holy Ghost as our companion when we are careful to teach only true doctrine.

One of the surest ways to avoid even getting near false doctrine is to choose to be simple in our teaching.

Discussion: How do we teach simply without being simplistic? We know milk before meat, but how do we insure we are giving enough nourishment to sustain “when the crises come…”?

So to be simple and avoid spiritual Twinkies is good, but just to reemphasize this doesn’t mean just following the manual (without just reusing the “hearts not books” quote from president Hinckley last week)

The Church Website says on preparing a lesson:

As you prepare a lesson, prayerfully review the material, remembering that Church-produced lesson manuals help to ensure that Church doctrines are kept pure and that there is a consistent approach to gospel teaching.

If you feel the need to adapt the lesson, you can use material from the scriptures and recent Church magazines or develop your own learning activities.

So it tells you why the manual is there, but it also invites you to develop your own learning activities as you feel the need. To emphasize this, I will use the following video clip from the Mormon Channel:  (from 1:04 to 1:40, I will probably show the first 2 minutes, unless I am running early, which then I will show the whole thing. There is another clip from the same discussion where this same group totally says the “bringing quote clippings” and having the class read them is overused at church. I thought that was great too. I know my lesson is effectively a “quote clipping” lesson, so I am hopeful the discussion points make up for it.)

So we need to make sure we can be an independent witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Discussion: Have you ever been in a lesson where someone’s personalization of the lesson is what brought the spirit? How is personalization of the gospel principle different than personal interpretation?

Recap of the principles we have covered so far:

  • Are taught by a loving teacher who cares about the topic and is prepared
  • Are centered on the Gospel of Jesus Christ regardless of the topic or principle being taught
  • Avoid Spiritual Twinkies
  • Are simple and avoid speculation and personal interpretation
  • Are not just a string of quotes and clips from others, but create an independent witness.

Adding one more principle if there is time:

  • Extend an Invitation to Action (this is a short video clip from Elder Bednar taking about using the lesson as a call to action. I should and will emphasize that in another clip he says “when appropriate” and “not to be overused”)

If still time, open discussion on other principles which bring about spiritual and doctrinal lessons.





  1. Matt, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed both lessons so far and look forward to new ones. In this one I especially appreciate the emphasis on why we teach what we teach, as well as on what that teaching should be.

    Thanks for adapting your lesson prep to be posted here — and keep it up, please.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 19, 2014 @ 5:10 pm

  2. Thanks Ardis, that means a lot coming from the master teacher!

    Comment by Matt W. — January 19, 2014 @ 8:21 pm

  3. I second Ardis’ appreciation, Matt.

    Side note, thanks to you and Jeff G for keeping my favorite Mormon Isle from sinking into the see. Jacob J and Geoff J are hiding there light under bushels (Blake gets a pass since he’s cranking out books). Keep it up.

    Comment by Riley — January 20, 2014 @ 11:08 pm

  4. Thanks for these posts. Gospel teaching has been an ongoing interest of mine probably due to the fact that my parents are excellent teachers and during my childhood years often emphasized the importance of good teaching, provided great examples, and even discussed the nitty-gritty techniques.

    And, I’ve been teaching Young Women for years and have unfortunately started to get “burned out” but this is helping renew my interest in making sure the girls have a good classroom experience.

    Comment by Amy T — January 22, 2014 @ 10:35 am