“Christ-Centered Teaching,” Ensign, Oct. 1989, 7
Many years ago, a friend of mine had an interview with Elder Joseph Fielding Smith before being hired to teach in the Church seminary and institute program. When Elder Smith asked what my friend intended to teach, my friend mentioned several important gospel principles. Elder Smith looked at him lovingly but sternly and said, “You teach Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Elder Smith’s counsel applies to all of us. All that we teach or do, whether by formal calling or by the example we set, should reflect that Christ and his atonement are the focus of our lives.
The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976, p. 121.)
The Lord Jesus Christ is the light and life of the world, and faith in him is the unifying principle of the gospel. All we teach should be connected to him as the branch is to the vine. “Abide in me, and I in you,” said the Savior. “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.
“I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.” (John 15:4–5.)
In this metaphor, the Lord is set forth as the sole source of spiritual life. He is the one fountain supplying all life and power to his disciples. As the vine sends sap into every branch, giving it life and causing the grapes to grow and ripen, so Christ gives spiritual life to all who put their faith in him, causing them to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit.
Christ is the Mediator between us and the Father. He said that he is “the way, the truth, and the life” and that “no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6.)
Christ is also the father of our salvation because he gives us spiritual or eternal life through the Atonement. The heart of the gospel is the atonement and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. He emphasized this fact when he appeared to the Nephites: “This is the gospel which I have given unto you—that I came into the world to do the will of my Father, because my Father sent me.
“And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil.” (3 Ne. 27:13–14.)
From these verses we see why Elder Smith said to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. Everything in the gospel derives from the fact that Jesus carried out the infinite Atonement. The Church is the channel through which the principles and ordinances of the gospel are energized. Our lives of righteousness and the ordinances of the priesthood enable us to tap into the power of the Atonement. Once we recognize this fact, it becomes obvious how important it is to put Christ at the center of all we teach. Only by doing so can we help others turn to him and his redeeming power, rather than relying on the traditions and teachings of men or on their own egos for salvation and strength.
It also becomes apparent that we must avoid teaching the principles of the gospel as though they were somehow independent of Christ. By so doing, they become lifeless segments severed from their blood supply, or source of life. By showing the relationship of all gospel principles to the Lord and his atonement, life and the Spirit pulsate through those principles just as blood flows through arteries and sustains life. As we teach in this manner, we are doing what Jacob delighted in doing: “proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ; … all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of him.” (2 Ne. 11:4; italics added.)
Often it is up to us to make these connections to Jesus in our lessons. For example, in teaching the principle of obedience, we might explain that we obey because we know that the Lord loves us and asks only that which is for our good. Therefore, we should obey because we love and trust that all he requires of us is for our good. We obey not merely because Christ made obedience a commandment, but because obedience brings us closer to him—and to being like him.
When teaching the law of the fast, we might teach that fasting and prayer, like obedience, are designed to draw us closer to the Lord. Our hunger pangs remind us that we should hunger and thirst after the Lord and his righteousness as much as we hunger and thirst after food and drink. Fasting is a heartfelt hungering and thirsting for the Lord’s Spirit and influence to be with us. It is a deep yearning for comfort and for spiritual sustenance that will nourish us until he comes again to reign personally upon the earth. As we partake of his Spirit through fasting, praying, taking the sacrament, and bearing testimony, our fasting changes from mourning to rejoicing.
When teaching, we might emphasize that being baptized “grafts” us to Christ—the true vine—so that we can bear proper fruit and receive eternal life. It is the Lord we covenant with to serve to the end, and it is Christ’s name we take upon ourselves at baptism. It is his image we seek to have engraven upon our countenance as we seek to be born again.
Family history work can be severed from the body of Christ if its only emphasis is being with our families in the next life. Seeking after our dead is the same as doing missionary work for the living. The purpose of both is to bring people into the family of Christ and help them be part of his family forever.
The Word of Wisdom and the law of chastity can be cut from the vine if taught only in terms of their advantages to our physical well-being. But if we teach that our bodies are temples of the Lord and are the dwelling places of his Spirit, the principles of chastity and the Word of Wisdom take on deeper meaning. Since Christ purchased us with his blood, we owe it to him and ourselves to treat our bodies as he has prescribed in order to make us fit receptacles of his Spirit.
Tithing can be broken off the vine if we pay it because it’s a rule or in order to obtain blessings. Tithing teaches us that everything we have and are belongs to the Lord—our life, our time, our wealth. Besides helping his Church, we are asked to exercise faith and give back part of what we receive from him. When we consider tithing as an expression of our faith, gratitude, and love for him, its spiritual meaning is clear.
Love can lose its meaning if taught as something we acquire as we perform in certain ways or as we force our willpower to respond in certain ways. Such secular approaches negate the fact that charity is a gift of the Spirit that Christ bestows on his true followers. (See Moro. 7:48.) Pure love comes only as we humble ourselves as little children, surrender our wills to our Savior, and seek for the guidance and gifts of the Spirit through obedience, fasting, and prayer. The Book of Mormon emphasizes repeatedly the importance of being filled with the love of God. It is the greatest gift of God, and possessing a fulness of it is what distinguishes the sons and daughters of God from all others. Oh, how hungry we ought to be for the gift of charity! And how reassuring it is to know that the Spirit can fill us with love if we remain connected to him who is the embodiment of love.
Scouting provides a good opportunity to apply this principle of being connected to the Lord. As a Scoutmaster, I realized I had a golden opportunity to teach about the Lord because the Scouting program is built on ethics. I also realized that conversion to the gospel comes not by teaching ethics but by teaching the doctrine of Christ by the Spirit. As I met with my youth leaders and assistants, we began to look for ways to put the Savior at the center of our activities together.
We discussed the need to refer to Christ as the Lord, as the Savior, as the Redeemer, in order to avoid the repetition of his sacred name.
We also put a picture of Christ at the front of the Scout room to remind us that Jesus said we are to become the kind of person he is. (See 3 Ne. 27:27.) He is the model we should hold up and try to emulate, through help from the Spirit. We chose a picture that personifies the mortal Christ as a rugged individual who was both kind and physically strong—the Christ who walked long, dusty roads and washed in cold water as Scouts do.
We talk of teaching the Scouts to confidently survive in the wilderness while totally relying on the Lord.
We give each Scout a small edition of the New Testament that he can easily take backpacking. We use those scriptures as the basis of campfire and morning devotionals that center on how a Christlike person acts. We discuss the Fall and the Atonement, and how we must not allow the negative attitudes and behaviors of the natural man to affect our interactions with each other.
We teach that if someone mistreats us, Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek and absorb the evil rather than give it back, that God’s work is to put others first and to replace evil with good. By insisting on such behavior, we have eliminated almost all contention and maintained positive relationships with each other. We have our bad moments, but they tend to be fleeting and are quickly healed through immediate apology and forgiveness.
As leaders, we seek ways to show more Christlike love toward our troop members. We give praise and many pats of reassurance when appropriate or needed.
We compare our trips into the wilderness to the Savior’s practice of removing himself from the world by going into the mountains to find solitude and commune with Heavenly Father. (See JST, Matt. 4:1–2.) Therefore, we have what we call solos on our overnight hikes during which the Scouts go off by themselves for twenty minutes to read the scriptures and to pray. It gives them a chance to learn the power of solitude, to “be still, and know … God.” (Ps. 46:10.)
Many years ago, Elder S. Dilworth Young of the First Quorum of the Seventy said that he wished he had told fewer ghost stories around the campfire when he was a Scoutmaster and instead talked of Nephi and other great models from the scriptures. We took that thought to heart. In addition to the usual stories, we tell stories that teach doctrines from the scriptures and bear testimony to each other around the campfire.
Because Jesus taught that the Holy Ghost is the power against temptation and the key to sanctification, we have made it a guide to pray for the Spirit in all of our troop prayers.
Scouting provides an opportunity to experience principles together with the youth rather than just to talk about them in a classroom setting. It is a laboratory experience in applying the teachings of the Lord as we learn of him.
Christ-centered teaching requires that we put teaching about Jesus ahead of merely teaching lessons. It requires more than having the right emphasis or using attention-grabbing techniques. It requires plugging ourselves into the power of the Spirit. Indeed, the Lord has told us that we are to teach by the Spirit or we shall not teach. (See D&C 42:14.)
I have learned that the best way to obtain the Spirit in my teaching is to teach Christ as the source of all truth and power, the center of every gospel principle. It means doing exactly as our baptismal covenant directs: standing “as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places.” (Mosiah 18:9.)
Of course, before we can infuse the Lord into our teaching, we must be infused ourselves by his Spirit. King Benjamin described how we might view our relationship to Christ:
“I say … you should render all thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, and has kept and preserved you, and has caused that ye should rejoice, and has granted that ye should live in peace one with another.” (Mosiah 2:20.)
When we as gospel teachers have Jesus as our central frame of reference, we will spontaneously do what Nephi says that he and his fellow gospel teachers did:
“We talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.” (2 Ne. 25:26.)