Teaching Religion to Youth and Young Adults—Panel Discussion
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Teaching Religion to Youth and Young Adults—Panel Discussion

An Evening with President Dallin H. Oaks

President Dallin H. Oaks: Brother Webb, good to be with you. Brother Smith. Let’s go forward.

Brother Chad Webb: Well, thank you. We’re excited to be with you today. And thank you for that wonderful message. In fact, listening to your counsel has created a number of questions that we’d love to talk about. And we start with this one, as you talked about love for our students, and part of loving our students is teaching them the gospel and helping them to understand those things that would be of most worth. How can we make sure that, in all of the different things that we could teach, that we prioritize the things that will be of greatest value to our students?

President Oaks: What makes our Church Education System unique is our scriptural responsibility to seek learning not only by study but also by faith.

Brother Adam Smith: When I think of those things that we could teach our students that would be of the greatest value, I’ve been guided by a teaching from President Eyring that I’d like to share. President Eyring said, “Of all the truths that could be emphasized in this block of scripture, which will help my students to draw closer to Heavenly Father and the Savior and lead to salvation?” President Eyring then said, “As you prepare a lesson, look in it for converting principles. … A converting principle is one that leads to obedience to the will of God.”1 What I draw from this great teaching from President Eyring is that those things that are of the greatest value for our students will connect them in personal ways and in profound ways to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. We need to teach those things that will help a student feel and understand gospel truths, but especially truths regarding the reality of Jesus Christ and His Atonement and Resurrection—and help them feel that in practical ways, Jesus Christ has the power to heal and help and comfort and cleanse them. I think those are the most important things we could focus on.

President Oaks: Powerful and true.

Brother Webb: Thank you. And it connects so well to the idea of making sure that they learn by faith—that they act in faith and then have that confirmation from the Holy Ghost that the things that they’re learning and living really do come from our Father in Heaven. So thank you. President, you also mentioned the role of the Holy Ghost in our teaching. So I’d love to ask what additional truths regarding the Holy Ghost and His influence and role in our classrooms that you would share with us.

President Oaks: I think the key to the impressions of the Holy Ghost is the partaking of the sacrament, because there’s a promise in the covenants we make when we partake of the sacrament that we will “always have his Spirit to be with [us].”2 That’s fundamental.

Brother Webb: You know, I love that you say that. It reminds me that when I was a young teacher, I spent months studying the principles that govern the invitation of the Holy Ghost. And I think that’s a really good opportunity that we all have to continue to study that. But the single most important thing I found is what you just said: that the sacramental prayer says that if we’ll always remember Him, we’ll have His Spirit to be with us. And that’s not just during the sacrament or on Sunday but always—including in our classrooms. If we focus on the Savior—as we remember Him as the example of how to live the gospel and draw upon His power and His teachings—as we remember Him, we invite the Holy Ghost to be in the learning experience. I think the primary responsibility or role of the Holy Ghost is to testify of our loving Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ as the central figure in Heavenly Father’s plan. So if we want to invite the Holy Ghost into our classrooms, we focus on those things of which He would bear testimony. So I love that. Thank you.

President Oaks: And President Nelson affirmed the current significance of that in these words. He said, “In coming days, it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost.”3

Brother Webb: Thank you. Well, I really appreciate what’s been said, and it leads me to ask this question: We’ve talked a little bit about what teachers prioritize in ways that will invite the Holy Ghost. How do we help our students prioritize what matters most in their lives?

President Oaks: As I think about that in these days when there are so many worldly influences that surround us and our students, I think we need to remember that the things of the world—the things the world values, whatever they are—are of temporary value. In time, they are less important than the principles necessary to learn the purpose of this life and our destiny in eternity. What would you add to that, Brother Smith?

Brother Smith: President Oaks, as you were teaching that, a verse of scripture came to my mind—when the Savior, before He entered Gethsemane, offered a sacred prayer, and He said, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou has sent.”4 I think if we help our students understand that they need to determine if where they spend their time and where they give their attention—is this going to help them come to know and love Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ? And another thought I combine with that is something you taught us in a recent general conference, President Oaks, and that’s to ask the question “Where will this lead?” and to think of that question in the context of “Is this leading me closer to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ? Is this leading me to fulfill my divine identity or purpose?” And I think that provides a powerful filter for any of us. And we can help our students also understand this filter in their choices of where they spend their time and what they watch or listen to or look at. They’ve got to make their own choices. But if we could help them ask, “Where will this lead, and will it lead me closer to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ?”

President Oaks: Oh, how important that is, and how significant it would be if all of our students understood that principle.

Brother Webb: And for teachers to emphasize that and bear testimony of those things to invite the Holy Ghost to confirm the importance—not just the truthfulness of but the importance of those principles in their lives. I might also add, if I could, just the idea of relevance. I think all that we can do is to help invite students to discover the relevance of those principles in their lives. Sometimes I think we talk about these things in terms of competing for their time or attention. And sometimes we do have to prioritize the things that are most valuable. But I think we can also help them see how the gospel plays into their everyday life. So for example, I learned, as I was a student, that if I kept the Sabbath day holy, and if I studied the scriptures before I studied, I actually was a better student than to try to separate those things and say, “I’m going to spend time on the spiritual, and I’m going to spend time on the secular.” But in every aspect of my life, when I include Heavenly Father—when I invite His Spirit to help me—then even the things that may seem to our students to be more temporal in nature, they see the relevance of the gospel in the things they’re trying to accomplish in their lives. Instead of competing for their time, they come together.

President Oaks: And we remember that the Lord taught us that He has never given any temporal commandments. All of His commandments and guidance is spiritual.

Brother Smith: One more thought that came to my mind as you were mentioning that—at least for our seminary students—is the Church’s Children and Youth program. That’s a powerful way to make the gospel relevant and make practical goals to apply the gospel to help us in any aspect of our lives to try to become more like the Savior.

President Oaks: Indeed. Now, I’d like to ask a question of two men who are professional religion teachers: What have you brethren and your associates learned about teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ during the pandemic we’ve all been experiencing?

Brother Smith: I would say first of all we’ve learned—I would say we’ve been reminded of, and it’s been highlighted—what wonderful teachers we have, that they really love God and love students and they’ve gone above and beyond, and we are so deeply thankful. I also think that the pandemic has accentuated the ministering element that’s inherent in gospel teaching. I think we’re getting better at listening to students, at determining their needs and abilities and meeting them, and loving them where they are and finding creative ways to help them come closer to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. I think also in the time of the pandemic where there have been many difficulties, we’ve seen that divine help attends the teacher who really tries to love God and love their students and do their best.

Brother Webb: I think that’s really well said. I think I would just want to say thank you and add my appreciation. You know, we have teachers who are trying to teach face to face and learning to teach online. They’ve worn masks that are sometimes uncomfortable. They’ve put themselves at risk at times and just done it with such great love for their students and for Heavenly Father with such great commitment. I just want to say thank you for all of the sacrifices and efforts to do it during a very difficult time.

President Oaks: I join, in behalf of the First Presidency, my thanks to what you have just expressed. We love you brothers and sisters who teach in our seminaries and institutes in the religion teachings in the universities and college.

Brother Webb: Thank you; that means a lot. Another question that I’ve been excited to ask you because of some things you’ve taught in other settings: Why is it important that we teach principles and not rules?

President Oaks: I’m glad you asked that question. It’s a favorite of mine. In a notable column in the Church News, Tad R. Callister, our former president of the Sunday School, said this about that subject: “First, rules are often limited to one or perhaps a few specific situations, while principles generally have much broader application. Second, principles create an environment that maximizes agency while rules tend to minimize agency by restricting [and] sometimes even dictating our choices.” I would add to that that the Savior replaced the law of Moses, which was rule driven, with the higher law of Christ, which was difference driven. Brother Callister elaborated on that difference as follows. He said: “Principles are compatible with the higher law, rules with the lesser. Our constant focus should be to teach doctrinal principles. Why? Because principles have the greatest capacity to lift us to celestial heights, and in the end, principles—not rules—will govern in the celestial kingdom.”5 That’s the end of the quote.

Brother Webb: I really appreciate that too. There’s another benefit to that. I was with a group of teachers very recently who were telling me that in their classrooms there seems to be more—the word they used was “contention” as students are asking more questions and have different views and perceptions of things. And I love what you just taught us because it took me back to that conversation and helped me to realize that one of the ways you approach that is not by teaching application, where they debate their application in their circumstance, as much as teaching the gospel principle. Going to the premise—teaching the plan of salvation, teaching the doctrine of Christ, teaching the principles of the gospel, and allowing for personal application with the help of the Holy Ghost.

President Oaks: Well said.

Brother Webb: I just think that’s really practical and helpful to what we’re trying to do, President. Thank you. Brother Smith, would you add anything to that?

Brother Smith: Well, I think that it’s similar to what you highlighted, Brother Webb. Also, by teaching a principle instead of an application, we invite a student to act as an agent in the learning process, in their own growth process—that they then, taking a principle, can seek personal revelation, can go study it out more for themselves and determine the best step for them to take as they apply that principle to personal circumstance.

Brother Webb: Thank you. A natural follow-up question, then, would be, With all the influences—with all the voices in the world—how do we help our students navigate so many influences in society?

President Oaks: We need to understand that the devil is the father of lies—“a liar from the beginning,”6 the scriptures say. His cleverest delivery of his lies is to mix them with truth. This attracts and infects the searchings of good people by his mixture of truth and lies. Consequently, among the most precious things we can try to learn in mortality are the teachings of the Holy Ghost that allow us to be alert to what is—and is not—true.

Brother Smith: In a similar way, in this mixture of truth and lies, the adversary also removes the truth from its eternal context and from its place in God’s plan. That increases the likelihood of a truth being misapplied or misunderstood. For example, just a few minutes ago, President Oaks, you taught us beautifully about the principle of love and its place in God’s plan—the importance to love God and love our neighbor—that love is really the motivating force behind Heavenly Father’s desire to prepare us for eternal life, which we know is the greatest of all the gifts of God. And it’s our love for God that motivates us to selflessly love and serve others. Well, when the adversary successfully divorces the principle of love from its context, it can easily be distorted. And someone with a misunderstanding of love may rally around the wrong cause. They might even find themselves in opposition to God’s laws and His prophets, because that separation of the truth from its eternal context can lead to a counterfeit or decontextualized understanding. And the adversary does that with many principles.

President Oaks: We see much evidence of that in the world around us, don’t we? Brother Webb, as teachers, how do you best address questions about current concerns in the minds of your students such as troubling Church history subjects, LGBT issues, questions about how to live with government controls in connection with the pandemic, and so on? The questions are endless. How do you best address those questions in the context of our religion classrooms?

Brother Webb: That’s a really good question and something teachers deal with constantly. I would start by saying I love that the Apostle Paul instructed us to teach or to speak truth in love. So of course we need to teach the gospel. We need to teach the scriptures and the teachings of modern prophets. We need to teach truth. It doesn’t do anyone any favors to teach things that are not true; that won’t lead to happiness. But the other part of that—I think that’s really significant: when He says to do that in love, as you’ve mentioned again tonight. I think it would be important to start with relationships. There’s been a lot of research that’s been done that clearly shows us that for students to learn, it is so dependent on relationships. And for me, those relationships begin with teachers who are willing to listen—to really understand students and their circumstances and to have empathy to try to understand their needs. I think it’s also important to recognize that everyone has something to contribute, that we value the—that we need each other and each other’s experiences to draw from and to learn from. So there’s so much to say about this question, and I love the question. But for me, it’s to speak truth with love, and that means relationships that help people to trust and learn together and invite the Holy Ghost together into the experience.

President Oaks: What you said about relationships reminds me of my recent reading of a wonderful talk by our Young Men General President, Steven J. Lund, at the recent BYU Women’s Conference. He described relationships as the motivating influence that we can be in the lives of those who are groping for role models and mentors. He said that our researchers have found that the spiritual development of LDS youth depends largely on the quality of their relationships, including with parents, peers, and teachers. And those relationships with leaders are best developed in seminary and Sunday School and quorum classes where they will come to respect and love their leaders and fellow saints.7 All of this, I conclude, amounts to an impressive endorsement of the importance of teachers loving and working with their students. The trust developed in this way will be a mentoring influence that will strengthen students to answer troubling questions for themselves.

Brother Webb: Thank you. Yeah, I think that’s really central to what we’re trying to accomplish: the building of relationship. And from what you just shared with us, we can do some things in seminary to help them strengthen other relationships. You mentioned the youth development program. We can point them to their youth leaders, to their bishops, to their Young Women leaders. We can help strengthen their relationships with their parents by the way we talk about families and turn them to their parents. I think all of that is really critical—not just in building our relationships with them but strengthening their relationships with people who will lead them in the right direction. So thank you for saying that. So, with that, I wondered if we could talk a little bit more about how we teach these fundamental things in a way that does not offend or turn young people off or away from the gospel. In fact, if I could share a quick example to frame the question that’s in my mind. Again, just this last week, I had a teacher call me who said a parent came to withdraw her daughter from seminary because he had taught some principles about the family and the importance of family. And this parent was hurt because of their dynamics in their family and didn’t want the child to be taught the central role of the family—even in the context of the plan of salvation. This teacher was extremely sad to lose this student and asked the question: “How do I teach truth? How do I deal with this in a world where we don’t want to push people away, but we have to teach the gospel purely to our students?”

President Oaks: What a wonderful example. Brother Smith, what do you have to say about that subject?

Brother Smith: Well, I thought again—I know we just recently talked about relationships. But I think a student who trusts a teacher—and feels loved by their teacher—they’ll open their heart. Walls of defense can come up sometimes if we teach an ideal that’s not a student’s reality. And something that melts walls of defense is if a student loves and trusts their teachers. So, again, it’s really important. I want to underscore the comment to the previous question—to build those relationships with students.

President Oaks: Indeed. And I think it is very important for us to understand that we are not obliged to agree with everything that is put before us—whether by a student or by the parents of a student or by others in society. We are not in the business of affirming all beliefs in the marketplace of ideas. We are charged with teaching the truth. But in doing that, we must be very careful that we never recede from our responsibility, given to us by the Savior, to love our neighbors. Whatever we do must be in the context of love so that we are not confrontive with a person, but we issue our teachings so that it’s the teachings that confront beliefs that are erroneous. Brigham Young, who was pretty confrontive as an individual, made a very good distinction that I read recently in the teachings of Brigham Young. In one of his talks, he said this—and I quote: “It has never altered my feelings towards individuals, as men or as women, whether they believe as I do or not. Can you live as neighbors with me? I can with you; and it is [of] no particular concern of mine whether you believe with me or not.”8 That’s the end of the quote from Brigham Young. I thought that was an unexpected source to have such a revealing declaration of the fact that we can live lovingly with those we don’t agree with.

Brother Webb: Yeah, that’s really timely for our teachers now. It’s one of the most important attributes, I think, of a disciple of the Savior today: is to be able to disagree and continue to love people and be genuine in that relationship with people despite a disagreement in belief.

President Oaks: Another part of that is our need to work so that our being loving and accepting—even condoning those we associate with—is not understood as approval. That’s a fine line to draw. And we see in the world of politics and public communications, from many different sources, a failure to acknowledge that. Often people seem to assume that we have approved something because we’ve been loving toward the people involved in it.

Brother Webb: This all really ties together, right? It goes back to relationships; it goes back to listening and empathy. But it also goes back to teaching the principle. It goes back to the premise for why we believe what we do, based on the plan of salvation and the doctrine of Christ, and tying those things together and walking that fine line that you described.

President Oaks: And I think it also ties back to the first and great commandment to love God and to the Savior’s teaching “If ye love me, keep my commandments.”9 And then the second commandment is to love our neighbors. The fact that we love our neighbors doesn’t mean that we don’t love God first and keep His commandments first.

Brother Webb: Thank you.

Brother Smith: I have in my mind a scenario of a teacher who speaks the truth in love and defends the doctrine of Christ with courage—but also loves his or her students, so their students feel safe, and the student trusts and loves the teacher. So perhaps there is a student who disagrees with an element of the doctrine of Christ—or a principle of the gospel is probably a better way to say it—but they still come to class. And they still come to institute or seminary because they feel safe, and they feel that they can build faith in Jesus Christ in that environment. So I think this balance we’re talking about is so important to strike: to defend boldly the truth and love those who may not agree with the truth so that a classroom or a seminary or institute can be a safe place for a student.

President Oaks: And I feel to say that those in our audience who are involved in institute and teaching religion in universities and college have a greater challenge with this particular subject. More-mature students are more inclined to think for themselves and to be confrontive than are the students in seminary, for example. But the principles are the same. The application differs somewhat according to the setting and the maturity of the individual, but the principles are those we’ve been discussing.

Brother Webb: Thank you.

President Oaks: Here is a question that changes the subject just a little bit, but it’s pretty relevant in our day: How can we persuade our students to put aside their cell phones during the time we’re trying to teach them?

Brother Webb: That’s actually a great question that actually connects with confrontation in classes or disagreements in class, because sometimes that’s what it creates, right? So—Brother Smith?

Brother Smith: Yeah, I think there are certainly times in the learning environment when students need to disconnect and put away their cell phones. I think the best thing that will help them do that is engaging and sparkling teaching. Elder Ballard—or President Ballard, rather—once told us to make sure our teaching sparkles. But I also think there are times where we can invite a learner to use their cell phone in the learning experience. With resources on ChurchofJesusChrist.org and on the Gospel Library app, we could certainly at times invite a student to engage in the learning experience by using faith-building content on their phone. And I think that may have a blessing—a positive impact for them outside of class—that they might begin to see this device as something more than just a gaming device or a social media device—or, for some, a source of temptation. And they can learn that at times, that same device can be used to build faith in Jesus Christ. I think it would take inspiration on the part of a teacher—and balance. But I think the Lord would help us find opportunities to build faith through the use of the device and then also obviously understand times when it needs to be turned off and set aside.

President Oaks: Your suggestion that we not be hostile to cell phones reminds me of an earlier experience—10 or 15 years ago—when I dropped in on a Sunday School class of seminary-age young men and women. I went with an attitude of hostility to cell phones. But as I looked around the class of about a dozen students, I realized that there was only one bound scripture in the whole classroom. Everybody was reading from the scriptures and following the lesson on cell phones. That’s when I began to see that the question is not one of forbidding but one of balancing.

Brother Webb: That’s well said, thank you. Well, President, we’ve loved being with you. Thank you for your counsel today, and we wondered if we could take just a minute, Brother Smith, if you would first, to share whatever expression of testimony you would like to, and then I’d be happy to do that and leave whatever time to you.

Brother Smith: Thank you. As I think about our sacred opportunity to teach the youth and young adults of the Church and those in our CES institutions, I think of a teaching by our dear prophet, President Russell M. Nelson. He said: “Many of [God’s] most noble spirits—perhaps … His finest team … were sent to earth at this precise time. … [They] are among the best the Lord has ever sent to this world.”10 And I would just like to share my conviction that the young people that we have the opportunity to interact with are exactly who God’s prophets teach us that they are. And what a sacred privilege we have to testify to them of the reality of Jesus Christ and His Atonement and His Resurrection. And I testify today of the reality of the Atonement and Resurrection of Jesus Christ; that this is His Church; that we are led by His living prophets, seers, and revelators; and that we are engaged in His cause as we teach the youth in the latter days. And I share that testimony with you in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Brother Webb: Amen. I would just like to add my testimony as well of the reality of our loving Heavenly Father and of Jesus Christ as the Savior and Redeemer of the world—that this is His Church and kingdom on the earth. And I am so grateful to get to spend each day of my life testifying of Him and teaching others of His gospel. I’m grateful for those who taught me and have blessed me by their faith and testimony in the Savior, and I’m so grateful to be a part of this work with you in teaching the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. And then to just also say quickly that as I think about the love of our Father in Heaven, we often talk about how much Heavenly Father loves our students. But I just want to add that I know that our Father in Heaven loves you, that He is so grateful that you want to spend your life teaching His children, and that He loves your families, and that as you continue to serve faithfully in teaching His children, He will bless you and your family as you bless His children by your teachings and testimony and examples. So thank you for who you are and what you do, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

President Oaks: Amen. I add my testimony to that borne by these wonderful servants of the Lord. I testify of the Father and the Son, by the power of the Holy Ghost, that this is His work, and that you are His servants, fellow teachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And I invoke the blessings of heaven upon you as you serve the Lord and as you go forward with your families toward the destiny that God has prescribed for His worthy children: eternal life. And I do so in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

All: Amen.