By Stephen Carter
A friend of mine who works in the Church History Department once said that for every person who leaves the Church because of its history, two leave because of boredom.
His estimate is probably conservative.
I’m sure the Church has put time and resources into figuring out how to unbore its members, and I did my small part by teaching my ward’s teacher enrichment Sunday school class. During that time, I realized that a great deal of this boredom can be relieved by using three easy tricks:
- Put the chairs in a circle.
- Don’t let a class get any larger than ten people.
- Tell untidy stories.
These may seem like merely cosmetic changes, but they can have a deep impact. Let me tell you why.
Put the chairs in a circle.
Here is a hi-tech graphic showing how sacrament meeting is set up:
The pulpit is at the front with the pews set up in rows facing it. The person at the pulpit speaks and the people in the audience listen.
This arrangement is well suited to broadcasting information from a single source. You can see why an organization like the lds Church, where authority and efficiency are emphasized, would dedicate its largest room to it.
However, at the end of sacrament meeting, we divide into smaller groups: various Sunday school classes, Primary, Relief Society, and Priesthood meetings. Why do we do this? I assume it is so we can discuss the gospel on a more individual level, to talk about where the gospel rubber meets our life’s road.
But a strange thing happens when we go into our classrooms: the chairs are usually set up like this:
This arrangement puts us in an odd situation. We know that we are supposed to be talking more personally now, that we are allowed to respond to the person at the front of the room, and that we should be sharing our thoughts. But the arrangement of the chairs is still in “broadcast” mode.
So we fall into a racquetball-type conversation. The teacher serves questions to the class, and various class members bat them back with an answer. If someone else in the room wants to respond to the previous response, that person usually addresses their idea to the teacher, bouncing it off the teacher to the person being responded to. The seating arrangement makes it difficult, both physically and socially, for class members to actually talk with one another. So we spend the hour talking with each other indirectly.
We soon understand that there is little possibility of real conversation, so we perform something that resembles conversation. Instead of saying what we actually think, instead of sharing a current difficulty, instead of investing ourselves, we lob prefabricated bundles of words back and forth with the teacher—a story we heard in conference, an idea we read in an Institute manual, a loose summary of a quote, a relevant scripture.
How well does this work as a spiritual exercise? To gauge, take a peek during the next Gospel Doctrine class you attend and see how many people have their cell phones out. It doesn’t matter what they’re looking at—fantasy football scores or the latest general conference talks—they’re not engaged. They have more faith in their phone than they do in the class.
Besides, what kinds of ideas are we willing to send into this conversational situation? Are we willing to send anything too personal, or too far off the beaten path, or too vulnerable? Usually not. Because we have no idea what anyone will think of it. If someone ridicules it, or calls it into question, gives us some advice, or (worst of all) ignores it, we have no graceful way to respond.
And then think of it from the other perspective. Doesn’t it annoy you when someone takes up a bunch of time with his or her own theories or partially relevant stories? “Come on!” you usually think. “Let’s get back to the lesson.” Part of the reason we think this is because the very setup of the room is implying that whatever someone in the audience has to say is of secondary importance.
This is why my first trick is simply to arrange the classroom chairs into a circle. The circular setup immediately breaks us out of the broadcast model. There is no longer an authoritative position in the room. We can see each other. If we want to respond to a class member, we can do so directly. In fact, this setup reminds me of a scripture: “Appoint among yourselves a teacher, and let not all be spokesmen at once; but let one speak at a time and let all listen unto his sayings, that when all have spoken that all may be edified of all, and that every man may have an equal privilege” (D&C 88:122).
It seems to me that the broadcast seating arrangement works against the ideals in the scripture. But a circle facilitates them.
Don’t let the class get any larger than ten people.
So let’s say that the classroom chairs have been arranged into a circle, but there are 30 people in the class. How likely is it that you are going to participate? The answer probably depends a lot on your personality. I’m a bit of an introvert, so even if I have thoughts during a class discussion, the last thing I want to do is fight for some speaking time. So, the extroverts—who actually like to fight for speaking time—do most of the talking.
Large class discussions tend to be dominated by extroverts, which means that the class is missing out on the insights of those who tend to let their thoughts simmer instead of immediately serving them up.
Thus, my first argument for keeping class sizes under ten people: introverts will be much more willing to share their thoughts in a more intimate context.
But even if you have class made up entirely of extroverts who are having the time of their lives jockeying for speaking space, keeping the class size down is still very important. Because, even if talk is flying thick and fast, what kind of talk is it? Is it the same kind of pseudo-discussion we were battling in the broadcast classroom, people tossing platitudes, quotes, and generalizations to each other without ever investing themselves?
In order to have a significant discussion, class members need to trust each other. They need to feel that if they share something personal, it won’t just enter the ward gossip circuit. They need to feel that their investment in the conversation will be reciprocated by each and every person in the class. If even one person withholds their investment, the class discussion will likely stay at surface level, never entering into nourishing depths.
In his book To Know as We Are Known, Parker Palmer describes this kind of relationship as “troth.” “With this word, one person enters a covenant with another, a pledge to engage in a mutually accountable and transforming relationship, a relationship forged of trust and faith in the face of unknowable risks. . . . To know in truth is to allow one’s self to be known as well, to be vulnerable to the challenges and changes any true relationship brings.”
This kind of relationship amongst class members can be a difficult one to achieve—and it’s almost impossible to achieve in a large group. Thus, my second argument that class sizes should not exceed ten people. It’s simply too many people to have a “troth” relationship with.
Tell untidy stories.
Even if we have the chairs circled up, even if we have a small class size, even if we trust our class members, the discussion can still easily devolve into pseudo-conversation, mainly because of the way we tell stories in church.
Church stories tend to be tidy, specifically structured to illustrate a particular value. You can see these stories being encouraged in most lesson manuals’ questions. “How has your life been blessed by the Word of Wisdom?” “How has the Atonement comforted you in times of need?” “Talk about a time you had to stand up for what was right.”
Church stories are like cookie cutters pressed into the lump of life’s dough: they give shape to our experience. And, admittedly, it feels good to see our lives take on a familiar shape. We feel like we’re doing things right, like there’s some rhyme and reason to the universe, and this can be comforting.
But I want to suggest that it is actually our lives that give the gospel shape—not the other way around. That’s what Jesus taught. He came into a culture (not unlike Mormonism) where the value of one’s life was often connected to how well religious rules shaped it.
People frequently tried to force tidy stories onto Jesus, but he always messed them up. “Here’s a woman who was caught in adultery. What should we do with her?” The answer according to the Law was obvious. But Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” In other words, the only manifestation of the Law is each person’s life. And each person’s life is a unique expression of the Law. How are you expressing it?
An untidy story is a story without a moral; a lump of peculiarly shaped dough—still malleable because it hasn’t hardened yet from cooking.
How might an untidy story sound? Here are a few examples. “I was surprised at how moved I was by Mad Max.” “I’ve been taking my daughter to the Unitarian church each Sunday before I come here.” “General conference is difficult for me right now.”
Each of these story stubs is showing the teller in the middle, instead of at the end, of a story. The teller is not sure what to make of the situation yet.
As you think about these stubs, you can probably feel the tidy story trying to assert itself. It wants to tack on a moral. “I was surprised at how moved I was by Mad Max. It makes me think the LDS cultural prohibition against R-rated movies is misguided.” Or, “I’ve been taking my daughter to the Unitarian church each Sunday before I come here. But I know the Spirit will guide her back to Mormonism.” Or, “General conference is difficult for me right now, but I know that if I prepare more diligently, I’ll get more out of it next time.”
The function of each of these endings is to erase the story itself. Though struggle was implied in each story stub, it was erased by the moral. It pushes the struggle into the past, saying that it’s not worth discussing.
And there is a huge problem with that. Erasing the struggle erases us. If we present a tidy version of ourselves to the world, we’re pretending that the moral is actually us. We think that the moral will protect us, but in reality, it keeps us from connecting with our brothers and sisters.
One day in my teacher training course, a class member said that she used to have a difficult time with general conference, but then she did a lot of preparation before a recent conference and found that she got a lot more out of it. It was a tidy story. Gathering a little courage, I spoke up and said, “I’m really glad to hear that story because I’m still struggling with conference.” Then another class member responded, “No judgment from me. I know exactly how you feel.”
Immediately, the whole atmosphere changed. We suddenly knew that we could talk with each other; that we didn’t have to be an example; that we could actually say some of the things that were in our heart. Instead of seeing the class members as people to judge ourselves against, we saw brothers and sisters who shared a small part of our heart. It was a glimpse of Zion. And all it took was one untidy story. One person peeking out from behind their veneer.
We didn’t start bashing on conference. We didn’t start talking about our least favorite speakers. In fact, the subject changed very quickly. But we started listening a little more closely to each other, making room for someone to offer a little of their heart so that we could offer a little of ours in return.
If you’re hoping to bring your class closer to this kind of dynamic, it’s very likely that you’ll need to tell the first few untidy stories yourself. It will be scary; you’ll be making yourself vulnerable to judgment; you may feel that you lose a little of your status; you may wonder if the story will come back to bite you. But my experience has been that when you’re sitting in a circle looking into each other’s eyes and the class is small enough, people will soon start responding with their hearts. After seeing you open up a few times without hiding behind a moral at the last minute, people will start to relax, they’ll start to trust, they’ll start to feel their own untidy stories rising to the surface. And soon they’ll be brave enough to tell them.
When I teach my teacher training course, my first priority is always to help the class members experience this bit of Zion. It’s amazing to see the change that comes over them the first time it happens: it’s like they have finally tasted food after subsisting on an IV drip for years. Their eyes light up. They sit straighter. They can’t help but be invested in the conversation. Their words come alive.
In other words, the Spirit arrives.
It arrives because we are fulfilling D&C 50:21–22 “he that receiveth the word by the Spirit of truth receiveth it as it is preached by the Spirit of truth . . . Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together.”
Note that it doesn’t say, “they come to the same understanding of a gospel principle together” it says they “understand one another.” The most important connections we make in the church classroom are not with text or commandments or principles, but with each other.
Though we use scripture verses, quotes, and principles to start our classroom discussions, they are only launching pads. The true curriculum is learning to open ourselves to each other and to God. To become one in heart—however broken we are. To become Zion, however briefly.
To become, not a group that thinks alike, but a group that loves alike.