Let’s be honest. Not all Sunday School lessons are created equal. Some are thought-provoking and stay with us for weeks, and some leave us feeling unsatisfied.
In a church with a volunteer and everchanging “clergy,” we are simply going to connect with some teachers more than others. Some personalities click differently with others, so it’s quite normal to be sitting in a lesson that leaves us bored while our neighbor is practically glowing in rapt attention. It’s a great experience when the lesson grabs us, and the teacher expresses things in a way that really hits home, but how can we get the most value from any lesson or talk?
Actively molding our participation and expectations can help us get the most out of any Sunday School lesson. As we listen to a lesson, here are five questions we can ask ourselves that create a more positive and beneficial learning experience for each of us.
1. Who is this lesson intended for?
It is helpful to remember that even if what the teacher is saying or the way they are saying it doesn’t sit perfectly with us, it may be exactly what someone else needs to hear.
If a teacher says something that seems contrary to the way we think about things, chances are the underlying doctrine is the same, even if your perspectives are different. There are often different angles of looking at a specific topic, and it’s important to remember that though the teacher may be emphasizing one angle, they are not invalidating others. Often, it’s helpful to cut the teacher a little slack and give them the benefit of the doubt.
For example, let’s say the lesson of the week is about serving others. One person listening might be a mother, pregnant with her fifth child. A lesson about looking outside of ourselves and sacrificing every day for those around us may only be frazzling to the mother who is already struggling to keep up with cooking, cleaning, and other chores.
However the same lesson may be perfect for another audience member, like a recently widowed businessman.He might appreciate and learn from the reminder of how getting out and serving others can help us in our own struggles. It may help the mother listening to this lesson to keep in mind that the teacher is not invalidating the work she is already doing and that others in the room are greatly benefiting from the lesson.
2. Is there a related scripture?
The scriptures are a great tool for looking at a topic from different angles. Simply studying the lesson topic in the Topical Guide can provide lots of food for thought. This process is also a helpful reminder that any given lesson is only a small piece of a larger puzzle. Going through topical scriptures can help provide a broader perspective.
Let’s go back to our example lesson on service. The widower is perhaps already hearing the words he needs to hear to comfort and inspire him. The mother, on the other hand, may benefit by looking through scriptures for additional thoughts and perspectives on the subject. For example, she might be comforted by the words in the Doctrine and Covenants that say it is not requisite for us to run faster than we have strength. Hopefully this study will help her appreciate the words of the lesson and the encouragement to get out and sacrifice for others, while also taking into account the effort and sacrifices she is already making on a daily basis as a wife and mother.
3. Is there a character I can relate to the lesson?
One of my favorite attributes of being human is our tendency toward storytelling. We are taught as members of the Church that all good things come from God, which means good books, movies, and entertainment are opportunities for learning and pondering. When I can relate a lesson in church to a beloved character, an abstract idea can become something more concrete and relatable.
Imagine a lesson about sustaining our Church leaders. Perhaps a listener is struggling to fully understand what sustaining our leaders actually looks and feels like. That’s when a relatable character can help.
For example, one of my favorite moments in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy comes toward the end of the last movie. Frodo has used the last dregs of his abilities struggling to the foot of Mount Doom, where he must destroy the One Ring. He can go no further. He collapses at the base of the mountain, his destination almost within reach.
At this point, Frodo’s loyal companion, the steadfast Samwise Gamgee, comes to Frodo’s side. “I can’t carry it for you,” he says to his beloved friend. “But I can carry you!” He hoists Frodo over his shoulder and carries him the final steps up the mountain. This moment provides an emotional and visceral example of what sustaining and supporting our leaders might feel like. I wonder if there were moments like this when another “Sam” provided needed support to his leader and brother, the prophet Nephi.
4. What is my takeaway from this lesson?
After spending the day at a huge art museum, we often leave with sore feet and a mind so overstimulated we struggle to recall just one of the paintings we saw. Someone once suggested to me that to get the most out of an art gallery, it often works best to focus intently on one room or one painting in each room. Perhaps the same strategy can be used in Sunday School lessons.
A takeaway can come in several forms. Perhaps it is one thought from the teacher or one comment that particularly expresses the thoughts we needed to hear. This thought might be worth writing down, pondering, and using to search out related scriptures and characters. This is the thought we can ruminate over throughout the week. Whether or not the other thoughts and comments click with us, that one takeaway thought can be a real focal point.
A takeaway may be an action-oriented goal. It doesn’t have to be anything Herculean or life-altering but perhaps one small goal that incrementally changes our schedules. For example, if the lesson is on missionary work, we might decide that on the last week of the month, when we’re writing a letter to our sibling or cousin serving in the field, we could add another missionary to our list and write them as well.
These takeaways can be small and simple, but the small and simple things are what truly make a difference.
5. Who can I help?
Regardless of the lesson topic or teacher, the most important question to ask ourselves is, who can I help? Looking to help or brighten someone else’s day takes the focus and sting off of our own struggles. Any Sunday School lesson can be a more positive experience if we go in looking to focus on someone else.
Maybe the teacher is particularly shy and needs lots of participation. Maybe the sister missionaries need someone to sit with them and their new investigator. Maybe someone sitting on the back row needs someone to sit by them and laugh about how the lesson reminds them of a scene from Lord of the Rings. We can use our unique strengths, situation, and personality to help others.
Just Keep Trying
Sunday School lessons are different experiences each week. Some are on topics that were already on our minds and explore ideas we find fascinating. Some look at an old topic from an angle we hadn’t thought of before. Some seem to say nothing new at all but give us good reminders of what we need to keep doing on a daily basis, and some even examine topics that are raw and sensitive for us.
To make any Sunday School lesson a positive experience, these questions can help guide our thoughts and focus. We can remind ourselves that even when a lesson doesn’t seem to click, it may be just the thing for someone else in the room. We can use scriptures and characters from books and movies to broaden our perspective and make the topic more relatable. We can focus on the parts that are most useful to us, and we can focus even more on identifying those around us who might be struggling and need our help.