Any careful reader of the BYU’s course offerings would have heard something familiar in the announcement of four new classes to be taught at Church universities and Institutes of Religion starting in Fall Semester 2015.
Three of the four classes: Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel, Foundations of the Restoration and Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon (the fourth is The Eternal Family) have all been taught at BYU over the last year.
“In Religious Education, we’ve been talking for five years or more about how to better meet the needs of students,” said Religious Education Dean Brent L. Top. “Developing and teaching these experimental classes is one part of those efforts.”
Those efforts began with many conversations among the Religious Education faculty discussing ways to strengthen and improve the approach to teaching religion, with the ultimate goal to bless students.
“With the change in missionary age and increased expectations in the Seminary program, we realized that our students would come to BYU and religion classes with a stronger foundation in the scriptures,” said Top. “And we needed to be ready to build on that foundation.”
Higher Learning: Connecting Topics Across Scriptures
Another part of the inspiration for these changes came with a 2007 CES Fireside address from Elder David A. Bednar titled “A Reservoir of Living Water.”
In that address, Elder Bednar talked about the different ways to study the scriptures. The first is sequential; the second is to look at the doctrines and concepts taught in scriptures. Then the third, and perhaps deepest level, is to see the connections throughout all of the standard works.
“This was an intriguing concept to us at BYU,” said Top. “We are not abandoning scripture classes, but we need to cultivate this higher skill and make it available to students.”
Through surveys and focus groups, students were also given the opportunity to weigh in on what they wanted and needed from religious education at BYU.
“We asked students about the challenges and issues they face and how religion classes were meeting those needs,” said Top. “If we were going to make changes, we wanted to know what students felt would best meet their needs.”
BYU shared what they learned from teaching and students’ experience with Seminaries and Institutes and quickly discovered that similar conversations were happening at other Church universities and Institutes of Religion.
“There were lots of parallel paths of discussions,” said Top. “I believe the hand of the Lord was guiding us all independently to examine the same things.”
In those discussions, several reasons for making changes kept coming to the surface. The Church’s Administrator of Seminaries and Institutes of Religions Chad Webb listed four reasons to implement the new courses.
“First, it is a chance to build on the students’ previous experiences,” said Webb. “Secondly it provides an opportunity to focus on the Savior. Thirdly, it helps us make sure the course of study is relevant to young adults in their current circumstances. Lastly, it’s an opportunity to study the scriptures, the doctrine and principles across the standard works.”
Faculty-Developed Curriculum, Focused on Students
Now that the new courses have been named, it’s time for faculty to focus on developing the course curriculum.
“Our faculty members are in the process of course development for this new curriculum, which will be approved through established university processes,” said Top. “The faculty have in-depth training on these very topics and will use their experience in building and teaching these courses.”
One such faculty member is Church History Associate Professor Michael Goodman, who is anticipating being able to work on the curriculum for The Eternal Family course. He said he is most excited for the ways these courses will benefit the students.
“Students will get a detailed and contextualized study of the doctrine and events,” said Goodman. “They will gain more context and greater understanding than they currently have. Students need more of the scriptures and the living prophets, not less.”
Goodman said that the faculty has had many conversation about how students are leaving BYU with holes, or blind spots, in their religious education: they could graduate without studying the core doctrines and events of the gospel.
“For example, students can graduate without studying the First Vision, which is in the Pearl of Great Price and not a required class,” he said. “Or having never studied the Gospels, because they filled their New Testament requirement by studying the second half of that scripture. These new courses will help eliminate those blind spots.”
For Goodman, focusing on the needs of the students in this way leads him back to a foundation of the scriptures and the words of the living prophets.
“There is a strong sentiment among faculty that these new courses be scripture based,” said Goodman. “The courses have to be tied to text – to the Book of Mormon, the Bible, the Pearl of Great Price, the Doctrine and Covenants and the teachings of the living prophets.”
It won’t necessarily be an easy process, Goodman said, but the results will be worth it.
“There are risks; we don’t have all the answers,” he said. “This approach will allow us to be more purposeful in how we do what we do. Everyone’s desire is the same: to help our students draw nearer to Christ and to better prepare them for the future. Our task now is to figure out our role in that process.”
More Flexibility and In-Depth Scripture Study
Next fall the four new courses will be offered to all students. All current BYU students will be under the present requirements. Incoming freshmen beginning Fall Semester 2015 will need to choose the new courses to complete their cornerstone requirements. More details on requirements will be released when approved by the university.
“We aren’t taking anything away; we are adding flexibility,” said Top. “We will continue to offer traditional classes focusing on the sequential study of the scriptures. We trust that students can make the best class choices to meet their needs.”
That increased flexibility and more opportunities will only lead to more depth of study, said Top.
“We are pleased with the discussion that is taking place on this important initiative,” he said. “Our whole intent is to increase and improve gospel scholarship. We anticipate deep scripture study, in some ways more in-depth than in the past.