Being Mormon is a multi-dimensional affair, involving belief, practice, history, and community. Of the many aspects of Mormon-ness, one of the least-often discussed on LDS blogs is the simple experience of attending Sunday meetings. In this post, Steve Evans and I discuss our quite different personal experiences of the Mormon three-hour block.
Steve Evans: I Like Going to Church
In terms of simple pleasures and the joy of community, there are few things I look forward to more each week than attending Sunday meetings.
The talks are often clumsy and boring, the lessons tedious — and yet, I find myself attracted to attend Church and almost never regret the weekly choice to partake of the Sacrament and spend time with my fellow saints. Why is this so?
First, I believe I enjoy Church more since I do not take it as a granted, automatic decision to attend. Many people encourage the practice of attending Church meetings out of a force of habit; “that way,” they may say, “when you feel depressed or spiritually down, you’ll still manage to find the strength to make it.” I don’t reject this advice out of hand, but I do find the notion of unthinking habit to be counterproductive when it comes to worshipping, especially with regard to taking the sacrament or participating in any ordinance. When I think about attending, and make the choice to attend, I feel much more vested in my sabbath worship. What happens when I don’t feel like attending? Sometimes, I guess, I don’t attend, but more likely my social network (wife, kids, etc.) will ensure that I make it nonetheless. In other words, I would never abandon the weekly decision.
Second, I enjoy Church as a chance to take in the Saints in all their glory. I like Mormons, by and large, and I don’t get to see them too often. Each week I see a generational and socio-economic cross-section united by common belief. Sometimes these differences drive me nuts, but then that’s part of the whole point, I think — to remind me that Zion is made up of all kinds of people, not just super-conservative button-downed true believers like myself, but of rich and poor, black and white, and even smart and dumb. It’s a real challenge, and a fun one at that, to look around during Church meetings and realize that this is part of our concept of heaven.
Some may be put off by the artificial smiles, the occasional forced familiarity of the speakers, but again this is part of the challenge and reward; either we are brothers and sisters or we are not.
Third, I like the way my Church speaks to the substance of the world around me. Consider the portion of our weekly meetings used up in announcements on enrichment, ward activity night, cub car rallies, canning, delivery of meals and other nonreligious activities. To be honest, I don’t participate in many of those weekly activities, but even so I love hearing about them. Although I may never go, I love the fact that my ward has hosted a weekly rugby match each Saturday.
These activities and seemingly interminable announcements may cut into our time and may leave us only 10 minutes to discuss all of 2nd Corinthians, but they have a value nonetheless — they remind me of how concerned we are with community-building and how engaged we are in each other’s lives. Sure, sometimes the endless clipboards filled with sign-up sheets and announcements can drive me nuts. But I’d rather be overburdened with activities and opportunities to participate than to have none at all.
I guess I don’t have too many problems with our weekly meetings. There are a few things I’d change if I had my druthers, but not too many and nothing too substantive. I could get onboard with a 2-hour block, I suppose. Sometimes I get frustrated that so much of our time is devoted to repetition of concepts without breaking them down to see what’s inside. But when our church meetings hit their stride, each week feels like a baptism — a full-on immersion in the culture and lives of the Saints. I welcome it, and sometimes I feel the words of that clumsy hymn:
‘Tis good to meet each Sabbath day And, in his own appointed way,
Partake the emblems of his death, And thus renew our love and faith.
Oh, blessed hour! Communion sweet! When children, friends and teachers meet
And, in remembrance of his grace, Unite in sweetest songs of praise.
J. Nelson-Seawright: I Don’t Like Going to Church
It’s a hard truth that I must face. I dislike attending LDS church meetings.
The earliest point in my life when I can remember explicitly disliking church meetings was the summer I graduated from high school. Just after graduation, my family moved to another city and another ward. I didn’t know anyone in the ward, and I was leaving for college in just a few months — so nobody seemed interested at all in getting to know me. The meetings began to drag on. I started counting down the 180 minutes of the meeting block, anxious to leave.
Church meetings struck me in a similar way during my mission. As I wrote several times in my mission journal, Sunday church meetings often seemed like the least spiritual time of the week. Some version of that impression persists for me up to the present. I have no shortage of spiritual and devotional moments in a given week. But very few of them happen during Sunday worship services. There are moments during the church services that consistently work for me, in spiritual terms. The ordinance of the sacrament and the hymns during sacrament meeting generally feel sacred and spiritually nourishing to me. Yet, for the most part, the rest of the service does not.
In saying this, I do not mean to criticize our meetings, the efforts of the people who plan and participate in them, or our community. I have no obvious right to demand that our worship services be run in a way that works well for me, nor do I have a desire to do so. And I know that our services do meet the needs of many others. At the same time, I hesitantly suggest that it might be reasonable for me to express my own experience because it is a genuine part of our community and of the meaning of our worship services — just as is the experience of the many who find themselves nourished by our Sunday meetings.
Why do I find that I have so little connection with our church meetings? One issue for me is stylistic. I find that Mormon worship meetings are dominated by a kind of pseudo-familiarity that I find off-putting. In comparison with most meetings in my life, talks and lessons during our church meetings are highly unstructured — and delivered in a somewhat personal and informal way that presumes a connection of one-to-one friendship between the speaker and the audience. Yet such a connection never exists for the entire audience, and usually only actually exists for a rather small fraction of it. Because I am always aware of this mismatch between style and relationships, the informal mode of Mormon church discourse often feels distancing to me in a way that more formal speech would not.
A deeper issue is substance. The large majority of the lessons and talks in our church meetings don’t speak to the spiritual issues and weaknesses that I feel and live most strongly. I don’t imagine that it will ever hurt me to hear sermons or discussions addressing other peoples’ dilemmas, concerns, or issues. And I certainly can’t proclaim with any confidence that those same themes will not become central to my spiritual life in a year, or five years, or ten years. But today, and for much of my life to date, they have not been. The themes on which my heart seeks solace are the existence and benevolence of God, the reality and efficacy of Christ’s atonement, the implications of divinity for human sociality, and the power of hope in areas for which my faith alone is not sufficient. Simply put, in a week of Sundays I’m lucky to be blessed with ten minutes on these themes in our church services.
Perhaps our meetings are meant for those who are better than me, given the gift of stronger and more comprehensive faith. Perhaps my attitude toward these meetings — or, worse yet, my personality — is a poor fit for our worship services. Perhaps I need to repent and find a way to change my emotional and cognitive responses to Sunday church meetings. Or perhaps I simply need to endure this as a weekly sacrifice to the Most High. I don’t know. In my heart, I feel called to attend, and so I do. Each week, you will find me in the pews, unhappy but reverent, unwilling but present. After all, my presence I can give, even if it hurts.