Ryan Snarr grew up in Layton, UT. He is a life-long church meeting doodler and has stacks and books of evidence to prove it. He fulfilled his calling as a missionary in the Lima Perú South mission from 1997-1999, and later was called to serve as a musical missionary in the then Mormon Tabernacle Choir (now Tabernacle Choir on Temple Square) from 2008-2016. Other callings in Gospel Doctrine and in the Elder’s Quorum have given him valuable opportunities to lead gospel discussions over the last 20 years. He lives with his wife and four children in Syracuse, UT and works as a marketing director by day and a freelance illustrator and graphic designer by night.
Over the years I’ve learned that one of the reasons it’s important to ‘meet together oft’ as described in the Book of Mormon is to teach one another. Not to impress each other with our vast scripture knowledge, but to share what we see from our unique individual vantage point. In this conversation where all are invited, we can build up each other’s faith and understanding. Why is it though, that the conversations we have at church sometimes seem to be held by just a small number of members? We hear a lot from the outspoken, from the well-read and from the “Chatty Cathy”, but there are so many more people likewise experiencing life sitting in the same room. What about their gospel insights from their point of view?
As the Sunday School President in my ward, I was preparing a quarterly teacher training. I wanted to find a way not only to get all the instructors in our ward participating in the training, but to also help inspire similar class member participation in each of their classes. How could I get 100% class participation and balance it between those that famously had much to say and those that did not? I found the answer in my sketchbook and in a short ice breaker activity.
Ice Breaker Activity
All it took was a stack of blank paper and a handful of pencils from the church materials library. I told the class they were likely going to have a hard time performing the task I was about to request. I knew some wouldn’t like it. But I prayed for the spirit to be there, and I asked for their trust. I asked them each to draw a picture of a person. They had 3.5 minutes while we listened to some music from the Tabernacle Choir. Those were their only instructions.
As expected, nearly everyone in the class sort of groaned and looked at me like, you’re kidding, right? For some context, in nearly every adult setting I’ve ever been in, it seems that adults dislike drawing. They aren’t good at it so the feeling is, why even try? They avoid it. ‘I can’t even draw a stickman’ they say. Compare that to young children and you’d get a very different response. Young kids like to draw. That is until they have gathered enough input to justify quitting. By the age of ten, eleven, maybe twelve, most kids have decided to dislike drawing right along with the adults. They figure they’ll never be as good as the artsy fartsy kid in the class so they stop all together. I was the artsy fartsy kid and now I was the one asking them to do the thing they had subconsciously decided they would never do again.
So what does drawing a person have to do with class participation? Forgive the pun, but I just thought of this phrase so I’m going to use it. When we come to church, each of us has a wealth of thoughts to share drawing from personal experience. Every class member has the ability to draw from the well of successes, failures, hopes, fears, questions and observations and how these relate to gospel topics. Each of us, teachers included, are continually adding to our stores of experiences. There is no reason to rely solely on ‘stories from my mission’ or church folklore. We’re all having new experiences every day. Life is happening now.
After the 3.5 minutes ended and pencils were down. I did what some class members would have considered their worst nightmare. I called on a select number of teachers to show their work. ‘You have to trust me,’ I told them, ‘what you drew matters.’
Some of the drawings were just faces, some had bodies. Remember, the invitation was to draw ‘a person’ in a short period of time and the interpretation of that topic within the constraints brought different results just as I’d hoped. We saw smiling faces, almond-shaped eyes, big noses, small noses and asymmetrical ears. Some drawings included cheerful backgrounds and anthropomorphic suns, clouds and flowers. One sister included details like buttons on clothes and an analogue wristwatch. So many different drawings had me wanting answers to so many questions. ‘How many of you drew someone you know? How many of you drew a picture of yourself? Your same gender? What made you decide to draw what you drew? Why did you include certain details? How would your drawings have been different had you known beforehand of this invitation to draw in class today? Sometimes it’s hard to know the right questions to ask as a teacher, but these questions came easy. What’s more, the class wanted to respond and observe the response of others.
Everyone was engaged in the activity and the conversation. I knew the trust was there and the simple questions I asked could get meaningful answers. There were no Sunday School crickets, the sketchbook seagulls had long since gobbled them up. One sister raised her hand and shared how much she didn’t like drawing and didn’t look forward to accepting the invitation, much less showing her drawing to all those present. She continued to say that she’d decided to draw a man. That man soon became her grandfather as the pencil lead stroked the white printer paper. She drew his whole body and included details that were unique to his clothing, his smile and his missing right-hand index finger due to a childhood farming accident. Although her understanding and ability of drawing were demonstrably short of peers in the room, she loved the moment she had had with her personal memories during the exercise.
Bringing our Life Experiences to Church
Not all had the same experience as this sister, but all were able to draw (there’s that word again) some personal conclusions about what they had brought to the discussion with their drawing contribution. By the end of this short activity, our class conversation now included a special understanding; everyone’s offering is welcome at the table, and all we can bring to the table is the experience we’ve brought with us. This also helped us see through a new lens when it comes to participating in church.
The way we come to better understand gospel truths and strengthen our personal testimonies is to bring our life experience to church. Yes, even the messy, imperfect, novice, ‘I-can’t-draw-a-stickman’ parts! We can share how the gospel has helped us find hope in our trials and answers to our doubting minds. Hopefully, we can be vulnerable enough to admit we don’t have the answers to everything but share how we find rest in fundamental gospel truths. We can discover profound reasons why the ‘primary answers’ (read your scriptures, say your prayers and go to church) are key to unlocking doors that lead to more truth and light. Using church tools provided in the ‘Come, Follow Me’ program (manuals, study helps, videos, etc…), we can better prepare ourselves for class interaction on Sundays (maybe by ‘sketching in your figurative sketchbook during the week). We can draw on our individual experience as we look through our own gospel lens and attend Sunday School classes where we feel comfortable sharing the ‘drawings’ in our personal ‘sketchbooks’.
Many times class participation in church is lacking because we as teachers don’t condition the learning space well. Maybe we don’t know class members and their personal situations, we don’t gain trust, we don’t ask the right questions and only seek perfect answers. We don’t assure class members that their ideas and experiences are welcome. Instead, out of personal convenience, we pay our attention to those we know will provide answers that will predictably move us smoothly down the bullet points we’ve prepared for the lesson. Over time, the class picks up on this and so do we as teachers. This can result in pushing some members to the edges of the room, hesitant to share anything. The drawing from life’s experience icebreaker worked because all class members were brought to a common, simple activity. Comfort was available to the class in that all were sharing a degree of discomfort. Pressure to perform perfectly wasn’t a factor. Class members shared their imperfect creations with courage met with encouragement from others. Obviously, care and consideration must be taken so that class discussion is faith promoting and material from lessons is covered vs. chasing tangential rabbits down myriad rabbit holes; however, this is where the Holy Ghost can connect a lesson’s content with a class member’s life experience.
Help Build the Collective Faith in the Room
My sketchbook shows my questions, interests, personal experience, shortcomings, abilities, and my vantage points on every page. It shows daily practice. It shows improvement when I’m mindful, prayerful and focused. I can get more out of my church meetings when I bring the content on these pages and have the courage to share thoughts and ideas to help build the collective faith in the room.
Don’t we all benefit when we come vulnerable enough to share and willing to listen to others in our ward? This is key in ‘meeting together oft’. In doing so, we can strive to remain on that covenant path, reaching for those who need a hand and together enjoy sharing the light we gain from gospel living to the world.