I had been wondering why all my favorite blogs (including this one) and my email have been dead the last couple of days when it dawned on me that yesterday was July 4. I’ve been out of the country for two weeks (and will continue to be so for another six) so I forgot about it entirely.

Anyway, being out of the U.S. is always interesting when it comes to church — I love to notice what’s the same and what’s not. Unfortunately, over the last ten years or so I’ve spent so much time in the country I am currently visiting that I’m not sure I’m capable of noticing differences anymore; it just all seems normal to me now. However, I was struck with two different thoughts as I fought my usual battle with King Lamoni’s disease (which causes me to fall unto the earth, as if I were dead) at church today. One was about returned missionary status symbols, which I will save for later, and the other concerns Sunday School / Priesthood / Relief Society lessons.

I have heard a lot lately about the importance of teachers sticking to the manual. I understand the reasoning behind such an attitude — after all, you never know what kind of priestcraft / apostasy Brother or Sister so-and-so is capable of disseminating. From an organizational perspective, I would probably institute the same policy myself if I were in charge… still, I just can’t bring myself to like it or follow it.

I sympathize with those that write church lesson materials, I really do. It’s a difficult, thankless job. Yet, despite the respect I have for the effort that goes into them, I have an incurable aversion to the lessons as the manuals intend them to be presented. I don’t want to get into the specifics of what I don’t like — my intent is not to tear them down (though I may end up doing so before I’m through here). Suffice it to say that, when I teach a lesson, my policy is to never, under any circumstances, read from the manual (or ask anyone else to do so).

I always read the lesson first, of course, and I always use the relevant scriptures and often the suggested questions for discussion. If there is a passage in the manual that I feel is especially important, I memorize it and quote it. Beyond that, I have no problem with bringing in appropriate outside materials (note the word appropriate, though I concede it’s all subjective), a sort of “comparative literature” approach to teaching, as long as they promote discussion, help illuminate the topic, and can be tied back to the official lesson and / or the scriptures in a meaningful way. Some have worked better than others over the years, but at least they are rarely boring and often memorable enough to hopefully make a difference to someone.

My wife gives me grief for this sometimes all the time, but I think I can twist pretty much anything I use into a “personal experience,” which makes it all kosher in my mind. For example, I would never bring in a non-church movie to show (that pushes the bounds of appropriate in most people’s minds), but I can always relate an experience I had while watching such-and-such film or reading a certain book that made me think about a particular aspect of the gospel, etc. Anyway, with that lengthy prologue, let me get to today’s lessons at church.

Both the EQ and SS lessons were impeccable. Very well prepared, a good degree of classroom participation, reasonably engaging teachers… but they were so uncompromisingly taught “by the book” that they were sucked completely dry of all light, knowledge, soul, and spirit. Sure, you can always use the excuse that not getting anything out of the lesson is my own personal problem (I’ll be the first to admit that), but it’s not like we’re making it any easier for ourselves here by getting too dogmatic about manuals as some kind of infallible path of wisdom from which one should never deviate.

At any rate, all I am really trying to say with this lengthy rant is that this experience really reinforced my hope that ongoing admonishments to “stick to the manual” continue to be semi-ignored. I’ll never forget that one EQ lesson (here in this same country) where the district president got up and explained to everyone the different classifications of evil spirits — I’d take that over a manual lesson anyday.