Sometime after His resurrection, Jesus appeared unto Peter and asked him, "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep" (John 21:16).
Usually when we quote this verse of scripture we do so in reference to doing missionary work wherein we feed people the knowledge of God's plan for their salvation. But once people have accepted Christ their need for spiritual nourishment actually increases because our conversion is just the first step in a life long journey of spiritual growth. Therefore, the command to "feed my sheep" extends to members of Christ's church perhaps more than to anyone else. In fact, the ancient apostles commanded the saints of their day to "feed the church of God" (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:2).
However, unlike other churches who pay someone to perform this service for them, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints each member is given many opportunities to assist in feeding the Church of God. Of all the callings in the church, the most common is that of a teacher. The Lord has said to the members of His Church, "I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom… teach one another words of wisdom" (D&C 88:78, 118). He has also commanded parents to teach their children to understand "the doctrines of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands" (D&C 68:25).
Besides those who teach as instructors in Sunday School, priesthood, and Relief Society classes, the scriptures tell us that the duty of everyone who holds the priesthood is "to teach, expound, exhort, baptize, and watch over the church" (D&C 20:42). This is the role that Home Teachers and Visiting Teachers fulfill. President Hinckley has expanded on this by saying that, "effective teaching is the very essence of leadership in the Church." (General Authority Priesthood Board Meeting, 5 Feb. 1969, quoted by Elder Holland, Ensign, May 1998, p. 25). Thus, all leadership positions in the Church are, in effect, teaching positions as well. Therefore, the command to feed the church of God is more fully kept when each member fulfills their responsibility to teach one another the principles of the gospel in whatever calling they receive.
However, there is one area of teaching that many people tend to ignore or overlook as a teaching assignment and that is giving a talk in Sacrament meeting. Perhaps the main reason for this is that most people don't like speaking in front of a large group of people. To many, it's a terrifying experience. As such, many people dread getting an assignment to talk in Sacrament meeting. And, as with anything we fear, we tend to put off doing that which we must until the last minute, and when that happens people come before their brothers and sisters unprepared to properly teach those who have come to be taught.
Elder Jeffery R. Holland has stated, "Most people don't come to church looking merely for a few new gospel facts or to see old friends. They come seeking a spiritual experience. They want, in short, to be nourished by the good word of God. Those of us who are called upon to speak or teach or lead have an obligation to help provide that as best we possibly can." (Ensign, May 1998, 25). Unfortunately, most Sundays members of the Church find Sacrament meetings dull and boring because those who are teaching from the pulpit are not inspiring. And when that happens those in the congregation are not being spiritually fed.
President Kimball has expressed his concern about this saying, "I fear at times that all too often many of our members come to church, sit through a class or meeting, and then return home having been largely uninformed… We all need to be touched and nurtured by the Spirit and effective teaching is one of the most important ways this can happen" (Ensign, May 1981, p. 45).
If we are commanded by the Lord to teach one another then how can we improve the quality of our Sacrament meeting talks wherein we seek to teach one another the principles of the gospel in a way that provides spiritual nourishment to those who listen to us?
The prophet Moroni described the Church of Christ in his day when he wrote, "And after they had been received unto baptism, and were wrought upon and cleansed by the power of the Holy Ghost, they were numbered among the people of the church of Christ; and their names were taken, that they might be remembered and nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way, to keep them continually watchful unto prayer, relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who was the author and the finisher of their faith. And the church did meet together oft, to fast and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls" (Moroni 6:4-5).
There are four things that Moroni mentions in this verse that are helpful to remember when preparing and giving a talk. The first is to provide nourishment "by the good word of God." That means the purpose of a talk should be to teach about and expound upon the scriptures. A Sacrament talk should explain what the scriptures mean and how they apply to our life. Whereas reciting facts, telling stories, giving personal experiences, or travelogues can provide interest to a talk they should be used to illustrate some gospel principle as found in the scriptures. It is the scriptures that should be the centerpiece of our talks around which all other examples, illustrations, and stories revolve rather than quoting scriptures as an add-on or after-thought. And the purpose for quoting scripture is to inspire others to become more like Christ by teaching them how to live the principles of the gospel more fully.
The second thing a talk should seek to accomplish it to teach people to rely "upon the merits of Christ who is the author and finisher of our faith". The purpose of giving Sacrament talks is to discuss some aspect of the plan of salvation. Since salvation is not possible without Christ, then to adequately teach the doctrines of the kingdom we need to teach how those doctrines are dependant upon Christ. The very reason we come to Sacrament meeting is to remember Christ, to learn of Christ, to show our gratitude and appreciation to Christ and to worship Christ. But, unfortunately, far too many times an entire Sacrament meeting goes by without one speaker even mentioning the name of Christ.
As we speak with our brothers and sisters in Sacrament meeting we should have the same attitude that Nephi had when he said, "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 Nephi 25:26). If we truly have a love for the Lord, we should seek to share that love with others in our talks.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks has explained that a "superior teacher wants to assist in the Lord's work to bring eternal life to His children." (Ensign, Nov. 1999, 78) Since eternal life comes only through Christ's atonement and obedience to His word, the primary goal of a Sacrament talk should be to exhort, encourage, and motivate members to come unto to Christ and emulate Him. It should seek to instill in the listener a deeper faith in Christ, His Church, and His chosen representatives and help them gain a greater desire to follow in Christ's footsteps.
The third thing a talk should do is help people keep "in the right way." President Hinckley has said "Eternal life will come only as men and women are taught with such effectiveness that they change and discipline their lives. They cannot be coerced into righteousness or into heaven. They must be led and that means teaching" (General Authority Priesthood Board Meeting, 5 Feb. 1969, quoted by Elder Holland, Ensign, May 1998, p. 25).
Our duty as speakers in Sacrament meeting should be to help our brothers and sisters remain firmly on the path that leads to eternal life. Our goal is not so much to teach new doctrine as it is to remind each of us of what we already know and to encourage members to do better. In his closing remarks at the end of General Conference in April 2003 President Hinckley said, "I speak for myself when I say that I feel closer to the Lord. I hope this has been your experience. I have a strengthened desire to obey His commandments, to live His teachings, and to commune with Him in prayer, thereby preserving a relationship with Him who is my Father and my God."
President Kimball made a similar remark at the close of the October 1975 General Conference. He said, "We hope that the leaders and the members of the Church who have attended and listened to the conference have been inspired and uplifted. We hope you have made copious notes of the thoughts that have come to your mind as the Brethren have addressed you. Many suggestions have been given that will help you as leaders in the perfection of your work. Many helpful thoughts have been given for the perfection of our own lives, and that, of course, is the basic reason for our coming. While sitting here, I have made up my mind that when I go home from this conference this night there are many, many areas in my life that I can perfect. I have made a mental list of them, and I expect to go to work as soon as we get through with conference."
When preparing a talk for a Sacrament meeting we should do so with the idea of trying to instill a desire in those who hear us be more obedient to God's commandments, even if it is the President of the Church who should be listening to our talk.
The fourth thing that a Sacrament talk should do is "speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls." And the way we show our concern for the welfare of others is through love. Nearly all the prophets of the Book of Mormon have expressed in writing the great love they had for their people. Concerning his people, Nephi wrote, "For I pray continually for them by day, and mine eyes water my pillow by night, because of them; and I cry unto my God in faith, and I know that he will hear my cry" (2 Nephi 33:3). Moroni expressed his concern and love for the welfare of others when he "prayed unto the Lord that he would give unto the Gentiles grace that they might have charity" (Ether 12:36).
Moroni defined charity as the love which Christ has for the children of men and explained that "except men shall have charity they cannot inherit that place which thou hast prepared in the mansions of thy Father" (Ether 12:34). When giving a Sacrament talk we should do so with charity towards our brothers and sister to whom we are speaking. We need to show forth a spirit of kindness and love in the way we deliver our message. Unless we are the bishop or a stake leader, we don't have the authority to be judgmental or critical of others. Our responsibility is to "feed the church of God" with love.
The apostle Paul counseled the saints in Galatia, "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted" (Galatians 6:1). And the same advice applies to giving a talk. It should be done in the spirit of meekness, knowing that he who judges another condemns themselves. (Romans 2:1).
Sacrament talks should be positive in tone rather than being critical or demeaning of the behavior of others. Our talks should purposefully be uplifting and inspiring rather than lecturing or moralizing. When preparing our talks our goal should be to have it said of us as President Hinckley said of the speakers at the October 2004 General Conference, "We shall return to our homes, greatly enriched I hope. Our faith will have been strengthened, our resolve fortified. Where we have felt defeated and beaten, I hope that a new courage has come into our lives. Where we have been wayward and indifferent, I hope that a spirit of repentance has taken hold of us. Where we have been unkind or mean and selfish, I hope that we have determined that we will change. [That] All who walk in faith will have had that faith strengthened." (Ensign, Nov. 2004, 104 ).
But being concerned for the welfare of the souls of our brothers and sisters also means being aware of their needs. The question that should be in a person's mind when preparing their talk is, "What do those I am speaking to need to hear that will help them become more Christ-like?" President McKay has said, "No greater responsibility can rest upon man than to be a teacher of God's children" (CR Oct. 1916). As a speaker in a Sacrament meeting, we have been given the responsibility and obligation "to be a teacher of God's children." Just as any good parent seeks to provide the proper advice and counsel each of their children need, so also should a speaker contemplate while preparing their talk what proper advice and counsel they can provide their brothers and sisters who have come to be spiritually fed.
However, in giving that advice it should be noticed that what we do in Sacrament meetings is give talks. The reason why we do not call them sermons, speeches, orations, lectures or discourses is because we are literally talking to one another as one friend would do when conversing with another. Most often when giving a sermon or speech, the speaker is lecturing those to whom they are speaking, and, by definition, a lecturer is someone who is superior to those they are speaking to. As such, they unavoidable talk down to their listeners rather than talk with them.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we are all brothers and sisters and are equal in the eyes of God, our Father. Therefore, when we seek to show our concern for the welfare of others, it should be from a position of equality rather than one of superiority. In reality, the things we share with others pertain as much to us as they do to anyone else. As such, we should include ourselves in the admonition we are giving. Therefore, we should generally avoid using the word "you" when referring to others because such a word usually excludes our self from such advice and makes it sound as though what we are saying applies to everyone else except us.
President Hinckley has stated, "We must get our teachers to speak out of their hearts rather than out of their books, to communicate their love for the lord." (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, 619-20). Since a speaker in Sacrament meeting is a teacher then their "talk" should be something that comes from their heart rather than from off a piece of paper. When we have a conversation with our friends we don't do so by reading a prepared statement. Likewise, when we "talk" to our brothers and sisters in Sacrament meeting, it should be more like having a heartfelt conversation with one another. A "talk" should be a form of bearing our testimony on the subject we are discussing.
Even awkwardly worded talks can oftentimes have a powerful effect upon people if they are given with real conviction from the heart. But when someone seeks to teach others something they themselves don't believe, no matter how eloquent their words may be it will have little to no effect upon people. In order to effectively teach others the teacher must first genuinely believe in what they are saying. If they have that conviction there will be passion in their voice as they talk about it. But if that passion is not there it is often because there is no sincerity of belief in what they are saying.
If we have been assigned to teach on a subject that we are not convinced of or passionate about, we still have the responsibility to properly "teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom" in a way that inspires them. Just like it is nearly impossible to give someone something we don't have, it is just as impossible to inspire others about a subject we are not inspired about. Therefore, if we are given a subject to teach that we are not passionate about then it becomes our responsibility to gain a testimony of that subject first and then share that testimony for the good of those we are speaking to. That is why it is often seems that people are assigned subjects that they need to learn about more than those whom they are speaking to. That is also why it is often said that the teacher learns more than the student.
But, even when people are sincere in what they say, most people are not good at speaking extemporaneously or even memorizing their talk. And given the fact that most people are quite nervous and uncomfortable speaking before a large group of people, it's only natural that they would want to read their well thought-out prepared remarks. However, the problem with this is that most people are not talented readers. As a result, often times when they read their talk it comes across sounding stilted and artificial which, in turn, makes it sound boring and insincere. And when that happens people are generally not inspired nor spiritually motivated.
Then how can we give a talk without reading it?
As stated earlier, the most common calling in the Church is that of a classroom teacher. While a classroom lesson can be 20-40 minutes long, usually a Sacrament talk only takes about 10-15 minutes to deliver. Even so, it is rare that a teacher stands before their class and reads their lesson, yet many of those same people feel they cannot teach from the pulpit without reading their lesson. What makes this so surprising is that the way we prepare and give a Sacrament talk is not significantly different than the way we prepare and give a classroom lesson.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks has counseled us, "A gospel teacher will prepare diligently and strive to use the most effective means of presenting the prescribed lesson" (Ensign, Nov. 1999, 78). The reason why a teacher can present their lesson without reading it is because they come before their class well prepared on what they want to teach. And the same is true for those who talk in Sacrament meeting. The key to giving a meaningful talk is to prepare diligently and present effectively.
To prepare for a classroom lesson, a teacher will most generally seek the guidance of the Holy Ghost first, then, after gathering information on their assigned subject, they will contemplate what they have learned. The word "contemplate" means to meditate on, think about, reflect in your mind and ponder in your heart. Then, after getting their thoughts together in an organized manner a good teacher will practice their lesson, often many times before actually giving it. In fact, generally speaking, the more a teacher practices their lessons ahead of time the better their lesson usually is when given. Using these same steps can also ensure the giving an effective Sacrament talk.
While it is true that not everyone can be a dynamic, riveting speaker, all of us can seek to improve our skills as "a teacher of God's children." Elder Jeffery R. Holland has counseled us how to do this when he said, "Teach the revealed doctrine. Bear heartfelt testimony. Pray and practice and try to improve… The Church will be the better for it and so will you… exalt the teaching experience within our home and within the Church and improve our every effort to edify and instruct" (A Teacher Come From God, Ensign 1998, 25).
The Lord asked Peter if he loved Him and then commanded that he feed His sheep. Our love for the Lord can similarly be shown by how willingly we strive to effectively feed the church of God.
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