One of my callings in my ward is that of ward missionary. Among other responsibilities, this calling requires me to teach the investigator/new member Sunday school class once or twice a month. For as long as I have been in the ward–coming up on four years now–this course has been going through the Gospel Principles manual, front to back, and starting it over upon completion. The idea, of course, is that new members, recently activated members, and investigators should be given “milk before meat” (or “MBM” hereafter) and learn the basics of the gospel before moving into the standard Gospel Doctrine courses with the rest of the adults. After a couple of months of this, a couple of issues occurred to me.
First, I am sick to death of the Gospel Principles manual. One of my other callings just happens to be as an instructor in the Elders Quorum, and guess what I teach there? Yep. The Gospel Principles manual. So since (as luck would have it!) we recently finished the GP manual the investigator class, we started the manual over again, I am hearing the same lessons in Sunday school and Priesthood meeting, only a couple of weeks apart from each other.
Second, the Gospel Principles manual iscan be a horrible choice of material for investigators and new members. While I completely agree, in principle, with the basic idea behind having an MBM course, I question whether much critical thinking or planning has been done (at least in my current and past wards) to ensure that the target audience is actually getting what it needs on a weekly basis.
Although there are likely some wards where large numbers of investigators–and long term investigators, in particular–attend church meetings regularly, the ward I live in rarely has investigators among the attendees. Moreover, it is even rarer to see the same investigator in Sunday school more than once, and still further less common to see the same investigator on consecutive weeks. The new members and recently-activated members are similarly less-than-consistent with attendance.
This is where the use of the Gospel Principles manual becomes problematic in a MBM course: It only represents actual MBM if the investigator happens to catch the first lesson and continues to attend regularly from there on out. If an investigator shows up in January, they may be treated to a great, simple discussion of the Plan of Salvation. However, if an investigator shows up for the first time in April, they may get a lesson on “The Lord’s Covenant People” for their pre-meat meal. Show up in May, and you’ll receive a lesson the Gifts of the Spirit during your first worship experience with the Mormons. November investigators? The Gathering of the House of Israel, baby!
The point is, because investigators, less-active, and recently activated members vary considerably in their knowledge of LDS theology, history, and practice, a Sunday school course employing the Gospel Principles manual in chronological fashion is almost certain to be almost constantly out of sync with the continually shifting target audience.
Additionally, I have begun to doubt whether or not some of the chapters and topics in the Gospel Principles manual are actually, well, “Gospel Principles” at all, in the sense of being principles of the Restored Gospel. For example,
- Lesson 27: Work and Personal Responsibility
- Lesson 28: Service
- Lesson 31: Honesty
- Lesson 34: Developing Our Talents
Is there anything particularly “Mormon” about these principles? Anything that doesn’t follow directly from earlier concepts about following the Savior, loving our fellow man, and trying to keep our noses clean? Stated another way, is anyone likely to walk away from a standard lesson on these topics thinking that they have a significantly increased understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
I approached my Ward Mission Leader with these questions recently, and after some healthy debate, he concluded that there is some merit to my reasoning, but he’s not willing to scrap the manual altogether. For the time being, I have been given the additional task of preparing a set of “Lessons-Ready-to-Eat” (LREs) which I will use whenever we have actual living, breathing investigators in the classroom, or when other needs arise.
These LREs are to meet the following criteria:
- The lessons should be aimed primarily at investigators, with focus also on recent converts, less-active and recently activated members.
- The lessons should help the target audience “become a Mormon, or become a better Mormon”.
- The lessons should be digestible for any investigator, regardless of what lessons they’ve had from the missionaries or whether they were in meetings last week and the week before.
Your Suggestions, please! What material/kind of lessons do you think new members/investigators really need to help become integrated members of the Kingdom? Be creative!
 But that’s not all. Since this year the Gospel Doctrine courses are covering the Old Testament and Pearl of Great Price, and since I didn’t get my calling as a ward missionary until March or April, I got to hear the Plan of Salvation, Agency, Creation, & Fall lessons from the regular Gospel Doctrine class, too, since that material is heavily covered in the PoGP and Genesis. Three times, folks. Can’t you just see the folks from the Curriculum Department, sitting around a table talking about what to use for a manual three years ago?
“We need to get back to basics. What could be better than using the Gospel Principles manual?” “I’ll tell you what could better: Waiting until the Old Testatment year!” “Hooray! Back to Basics times two!” (High-fives all around).
Seriously, I know this happened, and nothing you say will convince me otherwise.
 To say nothing of the variance of knowledge of these topics among life-long members…
 It’s actually even worse in our ward, because we have split each class into 15 minutes of reading the BoM chronologically, and the rest for Gospel Principles. It doesn’t matter when investigators show up–the Book of Mormon is in no way whatsoever MBM. Keystone of our faith? Check. Super-awesome? Check. Word of God? Check. MBM? Notachance.
The Atonement Makes It Possible for Those Who Have Faith in Christ to Be Saved from Their Sins
Think about how the parable in this section helps us understand the Atonement. Whom do the people in the parable represent in our lives?
The Savior’s Atonement makes it possible for us to overcome spiritual death. Although all people will be resurrected, only those who accept the Atonement will be saved from spiritual death (see Articles of Faith 1:3).
We accept Christ’s Atonement by placing our faith in Him. Through this faith, we repent of our sins, are baptized, receive the Holy Ghost, and obey His commandments. We become faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. We are forgiven and cleansed from sin and prepared to return and live forever with our Heavenly Father.
The Savior tells us, “For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer … even as I” (D&C 19:16–17). Christ did His part to atone for our sins. To make His Atonement fully effective in our lives, we must strive to obey Him and repent of our sins.
President Boyd K. Packer of the Council of the Twelve gave the following illustration to show how Christ’s Atonement makes it possible to be saved from sin if we do our part.
“Let me tell you a story—a parable.
“There once was a man who wanted something very much. It seemed more important than anything else in his life. In order for him to have his desire, he incurred a great debt.
“He had been warned about going into that much debt, and particularly about his creditor. But it seemed so important for him to do what he wanted to do and to have what he wanted right now. He was sure he could pay for it later.
“So he signed a contract. He would pay it off some time along the way. He didn’t worry too much about it, for the due date seemed such a long time away. He had what he wanted now, and that was what seemed important.
“The creditor was always somewhere in the back of his mind, and he made token payments now and again, thinking somehow that the day of reckoning really would never come.
“But as it always does, the day came, and the contract fell due. The debt had not been fully paid. His creditor appeared and demanded payment in full.
“Only then did he realize that his creditor not only had the power to repossess all that he owned, but the power to cast him into prison as well.
“‘I cannot pay you, for I have not the power to do so,’ he confessed.
“‘Then,’ said the creditor, ‘we will exercise the contract, take your possessions, and you shall go to prison. You agreed to that. It was your choice. You signed the contract, and now it must be enforced.’
“‘Can you not extend the time or forgive the debt?’ the debtor begged. ‘Arrange some way for me to keep what I have and not go to prison. Surely you believe in mercy? Will you not show mercy?’
“The creditor replied, ‘Mercy is always so one-sided. It would serve only you. If I show mercy to you, it will leave me unpaid. It is justice I demand. Do you believe in justice?’
“‘I believed in justice when I signed the contract,’ the debtor said. ‘It was on my side then, for I thought it would protect me. I did not need mercy then, nor think I should need it ever. Justice, I thought, would serve both of us equally as well.’
“‘It is justice that demands that you pay the contract or suffer the penalty,’ the creditor replied. ‘That is the law. You have agreed to it and that is the way it must be. Mercy cannot rob justice.’
“There they were: One meting out justice, the other pleading for mercy. Neither could prevail except at the expense of the other.
“‘If you do not forgive the debt there will be no mercy,’ the debtor pleaded.
“‘If I do, there will be no justice,’ was the reply.
“Both laws, it seemed, could not be served. They are two eternal ideals that appear to contradict one another. Is there no way for justice to be fully served, and mercy also?
“There is a way! The law of justice can be fully satisfied and mercy can be fully extended—but it takes someone else. And so it happened this time.
“The debtor had a friend. He came to help. He knew the debtor well. He knew him to be shortsighted. He thought him foolish to have gotten himself into such a predicament. Nevertheless, he wanted to help because he loved him. He stepped between them, faced the creditor, and made this offer.
“‘I will pay the debt if you will free the debtor from his contract so that he may keep his possessions and not go to prison.’
“As the creditor was pondering the offer, the mediator added, ‘You demanded justice. Though he cannot pay you, I will do so. You will have been justly dealt with and can ask no more. It would not be just.’
“And so the creditor agreed.
“The mediator turned then to the debtor. ‘If I pay your debt, will you accept me as your creditor?’
“‘Oh yes, yes,’ cried the debtor. ‘You save me from prison and show mercy to me.’
“‘Then,’ said the benefactor, ‘you will pay the debt to me and I will set the terms. It will not be easy, but it will be possible. I will provide a way. You need not go to prison.’
“And so it was that the creditor was paid in full. He had been justly dealt with. No contract had been broken.
“The debtor, in turn, had been extended mercy. Both laws stood fulfilled. Because there was a mediator, justice had claimed its full share, and mercy was fully satisfied” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1977, 79–80; or Ensign, May 1977, 54–55).
Our sins are our spiritual debts. Without Jesus Christ, who is our Savior and Mediator, we would all pay for our sins by suffering spiritual death. But because of Him, if we will keep His terms, which are to repent and keep His commandments, we may return to live with our Heavenly Father.
It is wonderful that Christ has provided us a way to be healed from our sins. He said:
“Behold, I have come unto the world … to save the world from sin.
“Therefore, whoso repenteth and cometh unto me as a little child, him will I receive, for of such is the kingdom of God. Behold, for such I have laid down my life, and have taken it up again; therefore repent, and come unto me ye ends of the earth, and be saved” (3 Nephi 9:21–22).
Ponder how you can show gratitude for the gift of the Atonement.