I have mentioned before in this blog that the style and quality of teaching is not really important if no learning is taking place. The whole purpose of teaching is so that people can learn. If that is not happening then we need to readjust our teaching so that the outcome is achieved.
Yesterday I went on a teaching appointment with 2 of our elders. We went to the home of a woman who is committed to being baptized in a week and a half. She was a delight and is so full of faith and hope that I was more edified when I left her home than when I entered. During the course of the lesson, which was on commandments, she asked a question about tithing. One of the elders opened to Malachi 3 and read to her verses 8-10, which as you know is the classic biblical reference on the subject. She listened as he read and when he finished she said “I don’t understand a word of it.” It wasn’t said in a mean way, just a factual way.
He then handed her the book and invited her to read the passage, thinking that her own voice might help in understanding. She did read and when she finished one of the elders immediately said “So what do you think it means?” She hesitated, then stumbled a bit in her explanation. Eventually, with the help of these excellent missionaries she came to understand the passage.
As we drove away the Elders asked me how I thought the lesson went. I told them that I would give them a tip about scripture reading. “You could go to any strong, well-established ward and read that same passage and there would be many adults and youth who would tell you that they don’t understand it. Scripture language is in some sense a foreign language until we pay the price in time and effort to understand the language. Not everyone has yet paid the price, even people with strong testimonies. So my tip is this: don’t assume that people automatically understand the scriptures, just because they were read aloud." I shared with them the reference in D&C 68:25, the one that says that parents in Zion need to teach their children the basics of the gospel. But the sweet spot in that verse for me is the line that says “...and teach them not to understand…” It is not just the teaching that is key – it is teaching to understand. That takes more time and more effort.
When I teach, my first question after reading a passage of scripture would not be “So what do you think that means?” because my steady assumption is that they didn’t fully understand what was read. That is not a comment on a person's intelligence. It is rather a feeling I have about what it takes to learn to understand things of the Spirit. And if they truly didn’t understand then we put them on the spot and they mumble something and hang their head and learning stops. We don't want to embarrass people.
My first response after reading is to comment on it myself and pose a few simple questions to aid them in understanding. After reading “Will a man rob God…” I might say, “Did you catch how God talks about us robbing Him? Can you see in that third (or fourth) line what He says is robbery in His eyes?” I want to summarize and point them back into the passage so that they grasp the meaning of it for themselves. They will begin to understand. They want to understand, they just need help and we, as teachers of the gospel, are in a prime position to help.
It takes listening and sensitivity and a great desire to see people learn in order to help them get the most they can from a lesson. Think of every student as the Ethiopian described in Acts chapter 8. He was reading the scriptures and wanted to understand. When Phillip approached him, he asked "Understandest thou what thou readest?" The response is a classic: "How can I, except some man should guide me (verses 30-31)." Here was a student who wanted to learn and just needed a little help. We can be that help.