Well if there is one thing I have learned about teaching the gospel it is that what you say is not nearly as important as how the material is presented.
The church has provided manuals with plenty of lesson material to insure that the content is unified across the globe and beneficial to the Saints. Our responsibility as teachers is not so much providing content, but providing presentation of material in a way that allows the class to become engaged in the content, and to grow spiritually from it.
Here are a few guide lines.
1. Start the lesson by giving the class something that everyone can do on their own and quietly. I have found this provides a spirit of unity, and allows the Spirit to begin to communicate with individuals of the class. One thing I do is have the entire class read quietly to themselves a portion of the scriptures being studied. In my opinion, don’t EVER do group activities, or split the class up and have them discuss as groups certain aspects of the lesson. I find this to be very distracting and adds a social pressure to the lesson, creating discomfort and apathy for many. But, if you approach the class and say something like, “I would like to give the Spirit the opportunity to inspire us as individuals to contribute to the discussion today. Please take a few minutes to read the following scriptures to yourself, and allow the Spirit to inspire your with any comments, experiences, or insight to these scriptures.” Then let the class read quietly for a few minutes and ponder quietly. There is a certain magic to having an entire class completely silent, studying the same passages of scripture in unity, with a purpose but without feeling a pressure to discuss those scriptures with a group or in front of the class if they don’t want to. If you want to give some sort of direction concerning the scriptures such as, “How can we see these scriptures play out in our lives today?” So they have a little bit of a spring board can also be of benefit depending on the type of scriptural passage you’re reading.
2. Let the class talk!!! Stand up there quietly and patiently, and wait for them to raise their hands. Don’t get nervous if things are quiet. A class will test their teacher; it is kind of a sub-conscious phenomenon. If you talk, the class will let you talk and talk. If you want to do all the work, they will let you, and if they choose to tune in every now and again, they will. If you want the class to be engaged and to actively participate, you need to show patience and restraint by standing quietly until they realize that you are not going to say anything, and the responsibility to contribute to the lesson belongs to all who are in attendance.
3. This goes along with number 2, ask questions, and NEVER answer your own question. Once you are in the lesson, find ways to ask open ended questions that don’t have 1 right answer as those questions do not prompt discussion, for example.
BAD QUESTION: What are the first four principles and ordinances of the gospel?
You can see how that question only has ONE correct answer, faith, repentance, baptism and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. A class will reluctantly answer that question, because it is boring, and does not cause them to think. Questions should be designed to challenge the class and prompt them to respond by asking a question that requires them to think, to feel, or to draw on their intelligence and experience. And most importantly a good question has NO wrong answer, for example.
GOOD QUESTION: Why do you feel that faith and repentance are the first principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Oh man, you ask a question like that, you’ll have a few second pause (again, stand patiently and do NOT say a THING, let the class know that they have to answer these questions, and that you are not going to bail them out. So many teachers do their classes a tremendous disservice by asking a question, and then before the class has time to think they already respond to their own question and commentate on it. A class will shut down very fast if you show them that you do not trust them to respond. Ask the question, and stand their patiently until someone responds. Sometimes I’ll even make a joke and say something like, “I have all day class,” just to make sure they understand that I am not going to bail them out) and I guarantee the class will raise their hands. You’ll probably have several. Make sure you address EVERY hand that has been raised. Just to help me remember if there are multiple hands I’ll point to all of them in order and say, “you first, then you, then you etc.” That way the class knows that EVERY comment and answer is going to be heard and validated. You will find that as people start making comments it will inspire other individuals who will want to respond and raise their hands. Everybody has a voice, this is not YOUR lesson, it is the Lord’s lesson, and everyone has an opportunity to contribute to the Spirit of the lesson by adding their inspired comments to the lesson.
Now here is the amazing part. If you have a good set up like I said, by allowing the entire class to read a scripture silently to themselves, you will get a good 5-15 minutes of discussion before you have even had to do ANYTHING. Once the comments stop from your opening scripture exercise then you can go to a more traditional approach of studying the lesson, using the technique of asking good questions. The important thing when you get to this phase is to make sure that you read scriptures with purpose and announce that purpose to the class. The purpose again should be open ended, for example
BAD PURPOSE: We are going to read Moroni 10:4 what does Moroni say we can do to gain a testimony of the Book of Mormon?? Can I get a volunteer to read.
If you approach reading the scriptures like that, you are again going to get a lot of hesitation, because the question has only ONE right answer, “read and ask God.” If you want to create an atmosphere of spiritual discussion I would suggest an approach like this.
GOOD PURPOSE: WE are going to read Moroni 10:4, while we are reading this I want you to pay attention to how you feel about these verses and why you feel they are so significant to us today?
Or something along those lines, I think you get the idea. That way when the class is hearing someone read the scripture out loud, they have an open ended purpose that they can respond to. When the scripture is done being read, simply thank the reader and then say, “What did you feel?” And again, stand quietly, and let the class respond. By now, they will be so involved in your lesson that everyone will want to raise their hand first so they can make sure to get their comments in.
Here is the beauty part, if you have a good set up, and 2 or 3 solid “good questions” and “good approaches” to reading the scriptures, the class will do almost ALL the talking for you. All you need to do is come prepared before hand with what scriptures you feel are most significant from the class from the lesson material, (it can be any portion of the manual, quotes from prophets, the scriptures associated with the lesson, or whatever material is in the lesson manual. Do not try and bring in outside sources to a lesson, stick with the materials and resources in the manual, and the scriptures and doctrinal principles associated with those scriptures)
Here is my standard timeline for a 45 minute lesson
Min. 0-15 opening prayer, introduction to lesson, and then give class an opportunity to read to themselves and then respond.
Min. 15-40 Prepare 3-5 questions that relate to a different portion of the subject matter provided by the manual. Each question should allow the class to comment on those scriptures while also allowing the Spirit to further solidify gospel topics and doctrines to them. Be sure to include your own feedback as well, but NOT at the expense of the classes comments. Remember, the classes comments come first. It will be necessary, however, to help steer the class back on track if the comments start to stray from the subject matter. Think of yourself as a moderator, more than a teacher.
Min. 40-45 Always conclude with your testimony of the gospel, as well as a call to action to the class. “I pray we can all exercise greater faith,” that is kind of general, if you’re more specific its better, like, “I challenge all of you to read your scriptures at least 15 minutes a day this week,” or something like that, as well as your testimony as to why that has helped you, or how the lesson has impacted your life. If you have a testimony and passion of what you are teaching, your class will feel that and the Spirit will convey that to them as well.
A few more effective tools you can use is to bare your testimony several times throughout the lesson, it really breaks up the lesson and provides a powerful spiritual surge to the lesson. We have trained ourselves to bear testimony only at the end of our lessons, try to discipline yourself to bear your testimony throughout the lesson it will really benefit the class, especially if you bear testimony of things that have just happened, such as, “I want you to know that I felt the Spirit when you shared that experience with us, and I know that what you felt was the Spirit, because I feel it here with us now.” When you feel the Spirit in the lesson, and call attention to it and bear testimony that He is present right then, it really has a powerful effect on the lesson.
Again, this is all framework that will provide an atmosphere for the Spirit to teach a powerful lesson. Teachers get too concerned about trying to have some new incredible angle to approach a subject, or to have the most profound quote, or really they just want to set themselves up as being spiritual or full of knowledge. Ask yourself this question, who is more knowledgeable about any gospel subject, me, or the Holy Spirit?? My goal as teacher has been to teach as LITTLE as possible, I want the Holy Spirit to teach the lesson, as only HE knows what it is the class needs to hear, what it is they are struggling with, what experience and testimony they have had that they can share to the benefit of the class. If your lesson is on obedience, or faith, of the atonement, or prayer, or temple work, well let the Spirit decide what parts of the lesson will be beneficial, let Him inspire the class members to respond to the questions He has inspired you to ask. Prepare yourself with questions, prayer and humility, and let the Spirit handle the content. If you do this people will come up to you after “your” lesson and say, “That was the best lesson I have ever had,” or even, “you are the best teacher I have ever had.” I have heard those compliments so many times after my lessons, and when I hear them all I can say is, “It wasn’t me who taught that lesson it was the Spirit.” And you better believe He is a fantastic teacher, it was the Holy Spirit whom Christ said, “Will teach you all things and bring all things to your remembrance.” (John 14:26)