Let me begin by expressing my gratitude for all you do to lift the youth and young adults across the Church. You have the literal future of the Church in your classes, and I am inspired by the way you serve and care for your students. Brothers and sisters, the gospel of Jesus Christ is astonishing.
Today I would like to talk about how we can more effectively teach about faith, testimony, and the astonishing nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
To introduce my theme, I will describe a piece of art that I have long admired but sometimes taken for granted. Years ago, I received counsel from a friend who was a docent in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. She suggested that when you portray art in your home, it is important to rotate it periodically to avoid effectively becoming “blind” to its presence. My wife and I have long admired the painting by Caravaggio entitled The Calling of St. Matthew. Because this painting hung in the same spot in our home for several years, I rarely paused to admire its majesty. This fall, I moved the painting to my office at Church headquarters. Somehow, seeing it in a new location has given me pause to reflect again on its astonishing design and spiritual significance. In Luke we read of Matthew where it says, “And after these things he went forth, and saw a publican, named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he said unto him, Follow me. And he left all, rose up, and followed him.” 1 Interestingly, Caravaggio portrays the moment as Christ extends the call but before Matthew has looked up to the gaze of the Savior. You can see Christ’s outstretched hand and the light extending across the room, descending toward Matthew at the end of the table with his hands still on his money. Caravaggio has captured Matthew in the very moment of his decision to leave all and follow Jesus Christ. Every time I pause to observe this painting I am astonished at its message.
Brothers and sisters, the gospel of Jesus Christ is astonishing! The birth, life, ministry, Atonement, and Resurrection of the Savior Jesus Christ is the most remarkable story ever told. And yet, in these perilous times, 2 we can walk right past this astonishing message even as we seek to help others who are struggling. As President Nelson recently taught: “My dear brothers and sisters, these are the latter days. If you and I are to withstand the forthcoming perils and pressures, it is imperative that we each have a firm spiritual foundation built upon the rock of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ.” 3
Today, many of our students are facing faith challenges which cause them to question the restored gospel, the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, and even the presence of God in their lives. Digital narratives hostile to the gospel abound. These sources are not the cause of all faith struggles, but they can amplify existing questions and introduce new ones. Let me share the stories of three individuals that you might see echoed in the lives of your own students:
Stephanie: Stephanie grew up in the Church but always felt excluded from her ward and friend community because of her parents’ marriage struggles. Over time, this led to bitterness, which she somehow connected to the Church itself. Stephanie began to actively look for sources antagonistic to the Church, focusing on criticisms of Joseph Smith but ignoring any evidence of his prophetic role. Stephanie now engages with social media primarily to attack what she sees as the misguided and anachronistic beliefs of her friends. This has only elevated her anger, and she is now more prone to embrace any cause or group that feels antagonistic to the Church.
David: David’s questions are similarly oriented toward Church history, but his situation is quite different. He started out very faithful, but after his mission he began asking questions about topics he was not fully aware of before his mission. These questions took him to sources that were antagonistic to the Church, and he became confused about his own testimony and what he really believed. Despite multiple prior experiences where he had received a witness of the truthfulness of the gospel, Dave stopped studying the words of the living prophets and stopped reading the Book of Mormon. Other voices began to co-opt David’s spiritual inquiry. He wasn’t hostile to the Church, but he was confused and even paralyzed, which led to decreased participation in institute and decreased participation in Sunday worship.
Connie: Connie had neither Stephanie’s hostility nor Dave’s paralysis. She simply was struggling with a series of life challenges associated with her parents’ recent separation and a pattern of verbal and emotional abuse in her home. This trauma left her scarred and searching for relief. But rather than seeking healing through the gospel of Jesus Christ, Connie turned to secular affiliation for the empathy and understanding she so desperately needed. She aligned herself with others who were struggling with mental health challenges, LGBTQ issues, and anyone dealing with disappointment and doubt in their lives. Connie found solace in these associations, but she also found new questions. She and her friends often blamed the Church for their own struggles, hoping that if they simply ignored God’s laws, their pain would somehow go away. 4 Not only did she stop participating in Church and institute, but she also started to pursue a set of behaviors that she hoped would numb her pain and caused her to avoid the hard path of changing and forgiving others.
Each of these students is facing a faith crisis, but the nature of that crisis is fundamentally different for each of them. One is bitter and in open rebellion, the other is simply confused and being co-opted by outside voices, and the third is trapped in pain and is trying to hide from what she sees as a difficult path in the Church. They also reflect a category of Generation Z (or Gen Z) students in their distrust of formal institutions, decreased church attendance, and, above all, a sense of moral relativism that argues there is no formal standard for right and wrong. A recent study by the Barna Group described, “Moral relativism hasn’t just crept into the worldview of Gen Z; it is now the majority opinion.” 5
As gospel teachers, we must find ways of reaching students like Stephanie, David, and Connie. Their questions and concerns are real and shouldn’t be ignored. We should approach their concerns with empathy and charity, allowing them to ask questions in a safe and nurturing environment. We also need to develop our ability to understand and respond to their concerns. The Seminaries and Institutes of Religion [S&I] resource “Acquiring Spiritual Knowledge” states: “Sometimes we may discover new information or have questions regarding the doctrine, practices, or history of the Church that seem difficult to understand. Asking questions and seeking answers is a vital part of our effort to learn truth.” 6 This S&I resource provides ideas on how to address our students’ faith questions by teaching them to (1) act in faith, (2) examine concepts with an eternal perspective, and (3) draw on trusted resources. Similarly, BYU Studies recently published an additional resource entitled “A Teacher’s Plea,” where the author encourages religious educators to teach the nuance and importance of our sources, avoid oversimplification in our stories, and be willing to validate concerns that are heartfelt by so many. 7 Similarly, Eric and Sarah d’Evegnée’s recent research on “reconversion” encourages us to help people navigate religious concerns in ways that don’t take them away from their relationship with God. 8 And of course the Church itself has created a set of Gospel Topics that can be used as a resource to better understand and resolve historical and doctrinal questions that surface with many of our students. Acknowledge, address, but don’t chase these secondary questions.
I want it to be clear to all of our religious educators that there is much to commend in these and other resources that have been created to help our students overcome faith crises and resolve their gospel questions. In fact, I am not sure that we can be effective gospel teachers in today’s environment unless we are aware of the faith challenges many students face. We will need to increasingly draw on these resources to help students navigate their questions.
But in helping students resolve their concerns, we must also be careful not to become so focused on their specific faith questions that we miss the opportunity to teach them just how astonishing the gospel of Jesus Christ really is. As Brother Chad H Webb explained to me, “It is like trying to help people get out of the mists of darkness by focusing on the darkness.” We should neither ignore the presence of the darkness nor make it our sole focus. Elder Lawrence E. Corbridge referred to this as letting secondary questions supersede primary questions. In a BYU devotional address, Elder Corbridge stated:
“The secondary questions are unending. They include questions about Church history, polygamy, people of African descent and the priesthood, women and the priesthood, how the Book of Mormon was translated, the Pearl of Great Price, DNA and the Book of Mormon, gay marriage, the different accounts of the First Vision, and on and on.
“If you answer the primary questions, the secondary questions get answered too, or they pale in significance and you can deal with things you understand and things you don’t and things you agree with and things you don’t without jumping ship altogether.” 9
So yes, listen to your students’ concerns, create a safe environment for them to ask questions, and draw on trusted resources. But in the process, don’t miss the astonishing nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As with my story of Caravaggio’s masterpiece, don’t miss the astonishing nature of what is right in front of you. Another way to think of this is by considering a visual disorder called macular degeneration, which effectively blocks out all sight other than peripheral vision. Individuals who have this disease end up “filling in” what they can’t see right in front of them with interpretations of what they see in their periphery. Don’t let your students’ peripheral vision distort their view of the astonishing nature of the gospel, which can and should be right in front of them. As President Oaks has taught, “Unless we are anchored to these truths as our [central] premises and assumptions, we cannot be sure that our conclusions are true.” 10 For example, even our inspired efforts to “innovate institute” will fail if we miss this central focus. We have encouraged you to increase the relevance, access, and belonging in your teaching. But these noble efforts risk becoming secondary questions if they fail to include the anchor principle of conversion to Jesus Christ. A spiritual foundation built upon the Savior is the only way our students will ultimately overcome the perils and pressures of these latter days. 11
I have declared today multiple times that the gospel of Jesus Christ is astonishing. I first heard reference to this idea from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland when he was speaking to a group of religious educators on their sacred responsibility to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ. The astonishing nature of the gospel was made in reference to the Savior Himself as He taught in the synagogue to those who did not believe: “And when the sabbath day was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, From whence hath this man these things?” 12 At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, we learn that “when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine.” 13 Lamoni in the Book of Mormon was “astonished exceedingly” at the faithfulness of Ammon. 14 In these examples and many others, the word astonish is used in reference to people who struggle with belief but eventually realize the power and the miracle of the gospel. We see this in the book of Helaman, when the people “were astonished exceedingly, insomuch that they fell to the earth; for they had not believed the words which Nephi had spoken.” 15 It seems that this astonishment comes when unbelief is confronted with the miraculous nature and teaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is true for all those who struggle with doubt, and it will be true for Stephanie, David, and Connie, whom I mentioned earlier. They will only overcome the bitterness, confusion, and pain they feel when they are brought to the astonishing nature of Christ Himself.
Brothers and sisters, please listen and love and empathize with those who struggle with faith questions. Do so in a loving way that creates a safe environment for all learners, pointing them to trusted resources and helping resolve their concerns. But let us not lose sight of the astonishing answers to the primary questions of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
May we “rotate the paintings” in our lives in ways that help our students pause and reflect on the truly astonishing nature of the Savior that is right in front of them. Of course there are challenges—that is part of our mortal journey. But let’s help our young people awake to the countless ways that Jesus Christ fundamentally changes the trajectory in the lives of God’s children.
For example, I am astonished at the way my inner-city youth from Boston grabbed onto the gospel of Jesus Christ and how it took them on missions, led them to college, to temple marriages, and now to roles as parents and leaders in the Church. It is almost impossible to comprehend what has happened in their lives when considering where they started. I sit in astonishment when I consider a young father in San Antonio who Sister Gilbert and I met recently. He feared he could never measure up to the expectations of the gospel. And to finally realizing, eventually, that none of us are perfect and that it is only in and through Jesus Christ that we can become more as individuals. This is Brother Luis Vargas with his wife, Andrea, and their daughter, Sofia, the night he committed to be baptized after five years of meeting with the missionaries. I was astonished at watching his change and his belief in Christ. Similarly, I was astonished when I met my friend John Raass, who stayed outside of the Church for 30 years despite the faithful examples of his wife and children. In a moment of humility tied to a family crisis, Brother Raass asked for a blessing and committed to meet with the sister missionaries. That decision led to his baptism, along with one of his sons and one of his daughters, placing them on the covenant path. In my own life, I sit in astonishment as I hear the Lord speaking to me, affirming my testimony, answering my prayers for those I serve in my assignments and those I minister to, including the needs of my own children.
Brothers and sisters, the gospel of Jesus Christ is astonishing! The Savior changes the lives of God’s children in lasting and powerful ways. He invites us to change and become better, to serve others, and become something more than we could be on our own. Let us teach in ways that show our students just how astonishing the gospel of Jesus Christ really is! I so testify in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.