Why missionaries should own their gospel scholarship

PROVO, Utah — Calling the extensive time set aside daily for a missionary’s individual and companion study “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles urged new mission leaders to use gospel scholarship as a means to improve teaching.

“Missionaries will not be able to teach, or teach well, without becoming masters of the gospel message,” said Elder Christofferson in a Sunday, June 24, opening-day session in the 2018 Mission Leadership Seminar for the 112 couples of mission presidents and wives who begin their service next week.

Elder Christofferson said effective teaching draws from rich gospel knowledge combined with the guidance of the Spirit in both preparation and delivery.

“Frankly, we are concerned about the quality of missionary teaching. If missionaries don’t do the substantial work of gospel study each day, the quality of their teaching will suffer.”

He was joined by his wife, Sister Kathy Christofferson, in speaking about gospel study and scholarship — specifically for missionary leaders and missionaries, but with much applicable to members.

Elder Christofferson cited the Lord’s admonition to Hyrum Smith: “Seek not to declare my word, but first seek to obtain my word, and then shall your tongue be loosed; then, if you desire, you shall have my Spirit and my word, yea, the power of God unto the convincing of men” (D&C 11:21).

“This is the point of gospel scholarship for missionaries,” he said, adding that “obtain” suggests ownership, in that “to own” is to thoroughly comprehend.

He told of the time when the late President Boyd K. Packer, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, assigned the General Authority Seventies to prepare a one-page summary of the Plan of Salvation, requiring effort to create a concise, accurate summary.

“It was President Packer’s way of getting us to ‘own’ the Plan of Salvation, of getting us to study it so carefully that we would obtain a thorough understanding,” he said.

Advocating that missionaries should teach more clearly and simply and avoid the tendency to over-prepare and over-deliver lessons, Elder Christofferson said mission leaders can help those struggling from insufficient study skills and experience and short attention spans.

“Perhaps the most important thing for missionaries to understand with regard to obtaining the word is that this is a spiritual enterprise, not simply an academic endeavor,” he said, underscoring the Holy Ghost as the ultimate teacher.

Gospel knowledge comes from application, Sister Christofferson said. “Living what you learn will bring added understanding and the blessings of the Spirit in finding and teaching. Thus, missionaries’ lives will be blessed and their effectiveness will increase.”

She added: “Most of the time our witness of gospel truths comes from living them.”

Noting a difference between studying to learn and studying to teach, Elder Christofferson said he hoped the latter would be the large part of a missionary’s study. Effective teaching must be scripture-based and tailored to the needs of those being taught, with missionaries creating lessons with specific invitations in mind, using a gospel foundation in the lesson to support the commitment being made.

Quoting Preach My Gospel that a major purpose of companion study is to “build unity in your companionship in order to teach by the Spirit,” Elder Christofferson extolled the fruits of companionship study that he shares with his wife.

Sister Christofferson acknowledged that sometimes missionaries face questions coming from people who have gone to sources that don’t accurately reflect Church doctrines or history.

“We can turn to the experts when questions arise that we are not prepared to answer,” she said, highlighting the online Gospel Topics Essays, which include footnotes with scriptures and scholarly sources cited.

Elder Christofferson urged a special emphasis on the Book of Mormon in missionary gospel scholarship. “The Book of Mormon is the instrument of conversion that God has prepared for this dispensation,” he said, adding that its role “is as crucial for the conversion of missionaries as it is for conversion of the people they teach.”

He spoke of the importance of keeping a study journal — highlighting the teachings and example of such by his mission president, Elder Richard G. Scott — and gave several examples of general authorities marking their scriptures.

His own copy of the Book of Mormon has text on one side of the page and larger spaces for notes, while Elder Bednar is known for taking a new paperback copy of the Book of Mormon annually to mark passages. Other leaders use color-coded markings, he said.

“I realize, of course, that all of this is so last century,” Elder Christofferson quipped, acknowledging that many of the new mission presidents and companions are adept at using electronic apps.

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