Focusing on Atonement when Teaching
Excerpt from the talk titled: The Very Root of Christian Doctrine by Thomas B. Griffith
Years ago Elder Boyd K. Packer gave a general conference address titled “The Mediator.” In that address Elder Packer said:
[The Atonement of Christ] is the very root of Christian doctrine. You may know much about the gospel as it branches out from there, but if you only know the branches and those branches do not touch that root, if they have been cut free from that truth, there will be no life nor substance nor redemption in them. [Boyd K. Packer, “The Mediator,” Ensign, May 1977, 56]
I will confess to you that I have participated in—indeed, I have taught—many lessons that, although interesting and motivational, according to Elder Packer’s guide had “no life nor substance nor redemption in them” because they weren’t directly linked to the Atonement of Christ. That’s a serious criticism of much of what we do, and I believe it’s on the mark. I believe that one way—the best way, and possibly the only way—to meet President Hinckley’s challenge to do better at getting the gospel down into our hearts and the hearts of those we love and serve is to focus all we do on the Atonement of Christ. And so, as a newly called stake presidency, we tried to do just that.
We laid down a rule that every sacrament meeting talk and every lesson in Sunday School, Relief Society, and priesthood meetings must be related to the Atonement of Christ in a direct and express way. Our goal was to have all of our meetings filled with “life [and] substance [and] redemption” by having them connected to “the very root of Christian doctrine”: the Atonement of Christ. We told the bishops that if they wanted a sacrament meeting about the principles of emergency preparedness—important principles, to be sure—that meeting would be about “Emergency Preparedness and the Atonement of Christ.” If you cannot figure out the link between the topic you are to teach and the Atonement of Christ, you have either not thought about it enough or you shouldn’t be talking about it at church. Your topic may be fine for the city council, your neighborhood organization, or the commercial break during SportsCenter, but in our limited time in church, we must be talking about the Atonement of Christ.
This is what they did in the church in Alma’s day, the first church described in detail in the scriptures. They were given a mission similar to ours: prepare a people for the coming of the Risen Lord. Their experiences have special meaning to us as we try to fulfill our latter-day responsibilities. Note how the Book of Mormon describes their teaching:
And he commanded them that they should teach nothing save it were the things which he had taught, and which had been spoken by the mouth of the holy prophets.
Yea, even he commanded them that they should preach nothing save it were repentance and faith on the Lord, who had redeemed his people. [Mosiah 18:19–20]
They taught only from the scriptures and the words of the prophets, and they taught only two principles that are inextricably intertwined: “repentance,” that we have the constant need to improve; and “faith on the Lord, who had redeemed his people.” This was not faith in general—and not even faith in Christ as Friend, Good Shepherd, Prince of Peace, or any one of a number of important roles He plays—but faith in a very particular aspect of Christ’s mission: faith in His ability to redeem us, to improve us. He did that through His atoning sacrifice.
We thought we’d try what Alma’s church did. We tried to link every principle taught in our meetings to the Atonement in a direct and express way. Now that isn’t hard to do in sacrament meeting, because the bishopric can pick the topics. And it isn’t hard to do when the study guide lesson is on the Atonement or repentance. But what do you do when the study guide lesson is on tithing or visiting teaching or the value of education? That’s a little tougher.
We made it clear that we expected the teachers to teach the approved curriculum. There is strength that comes from teaching materials approved by priesthood leaders. But it isn’t always obvious how the assigned material relates to the Atonement. To address that challenge, we had two suggestions.
First, we urged teachers to find examples of the principles being taught from the life of Christ. When we are talking about His life and using the words He said, we are remembering Him, and a power comes into our teaching that is otherwise not present.
Second, we encouraged teachers to see how the principle taught was either part of Heavenly Father’s effort to draw us closer to Him through Christ (the vertical pull of the Atonement) or a principle that could draw us closer to our fellow humans through Christ (the horizontal pull of the Atonement).
So, how did it work? Pretty well. People got excited about this approach. We didn’t think there was any way that we could—or even should—try to measure its value, but it seemed right, so we pressed forward.
Why did it feel right? Why did it taste so good to—using the words of Nephi—“talk of Christ, . . . rejoice in Christ, [and] preach of Christ” (2 Nephi 25:26) in all of our meetings? Because when we are speaking of what the Savior has done for us, we are at the core of the meaning of life, we are connected to “the very root of Christian doctrine,” and we are doing what Christ and His prophets have asked us to do.