The Rise of LDS dot Org and the Decline of Everything Else

The title of this post is a blatant rip-off of Hugh Nibley’s The Rise of Rhetoric and the Decline of Everything Else. Nibley was working with a rather narrow definition of rhetoric and saw it simply as an insincere form of speech, what we today might call spin. It is my belief that the search function of the official Church website, combined with our native laziness, has brought about a decline in the quality of speaking and teaching in our meetings.

Let’s say that brother Smith and sister Young are asked to speak next Sunday and are both given the topic of personal revelation. As they prepare, it is very likely that they will both go to the official website and type ‘personal revelation’ into the search field. The server will give them both identical results, with talks by general authorities ranked in order of relevance. Next Sunday, both Smith and Young will be seen on the stand with their scriptures and a sheaf of papers an inch thick. Both stacks of papers will contain long passages of cut and paste material from general authorities’ conference talks, right down to a word for word recounting of the personal anecdotes of the GA in question. Their talks will cover the same ground, quote the same scripture passages, and relate the same third person experiences. And it wouldn’t be surprising to hear the speakers express amazement at the workings of the spirit, which contrived to put the same words in their mouths. That is especially ironic under the circumstances, given that the topic is personal revelation.

An over-reliance on conference talks as source material can bring about a sacrament meeting where the sermons are nothing more than recycled quotes from our leaders, delivered in the dreaded and deadly “quote……closed quote” style. It is not uncommon to hear a talk conclude not with the speaker’s testimony, but with the speaker reading a testimony lifted, verbatim and with attribution, from general conference. I often get the impression that the speaker thinks her own testimony isn’t quite good enough, and consequently she relies on the authority of the apostle she is quoting. I think that is tragic.

If my talk consists mostly of a recitation of GA quotes, where the only contribution I make is the verbiage that connects elder X’s personal experience with apostle Y’s testimony, am I not in violation of the instruction given in section 9, where Oliver Cowdery is told to “study it out” for himself? Am I not engaging in a form of insincere speech? It is alarming to me to realize that this style of speaking is becoming more and more common. Most people would agree that, month in and month out, the best meetings are testimony meetings. I contend that the reason we like them is because they are sincere and authentic, in a way our other meetings are not. The spontaneous, unscripted nature of a testimony meeting has certain drawbacks, but I will gladly choose to overlook them in order to hear a heartfelt expression of belief.

We may be losing the ability to talk about our faith in an authentic manner. I am a poor missionary indeed if, when a friend asks me about my beliefs, the first thing that comes to mind is an impersonal statement from an unknown third party. Every ward and branch in this church contains amazing people. Their stories and testimonies needn’t take a back seat to anyone. When they tell their stories and declare their convictions from the pulpit, they enrich us all.

In conclusion, I would like to share a quote from president James E. Faust. He said, quote: “I ask the Lord to bless us all, that we will “not [be] ashamed of the gospel of Christ” and that we will humbly bear our testimonies about it and about the joys and blessings and strength we receive as we live its teachings and follow its precepts.”

Comments

  1. Mark,
    Have you seen this happen? Because I agree, in theory—it seems like what would happen, and it would definitely be bad. But I don’t recall, over the last several years, hearing too many cut-and-paste talks or having too many talks that overlap more than a scripture or two. (Of course, I’ve listened at church over the last couple years through that haze of trying to keep a toddler from disturbing the whole congregation.)

    But I agree that the search function makes such talks paintfully possible, and I would hate to be in a ward where that was the norm.

  2. Left Field says:

    I’ve heard far too many talks that take the form:

    I’d like to base my remarks on a conference talk by Elder X.

    “[reads Elder X’s talk in boring monotone, including reciting Elder X’s personal experiences and testimony in first person.]
    Inthenameofjesuschristamen.

  3. I have witnessed the phenomenon of two talks in one meeting drawing heavily from the same conference talk (usually this happens with a husband/wife tandem). That said, they usually draw out different aspects of the same principle.

    I have also witnessed cut-and-paste talks, including one from my bishop this past week. That said, he talked moved me and made me want to be a better person (in fairness, he did add more than just conjunctions).

  4. Nick Literski says:

    You mention individuals using general authority testimonies to close their talks, because they may not think their own testimonies are good enough. I suspect there’s more to it than that. Isn’t this really an extension of the whole “follow the brethren” mantra? On more than one occasion, I was asked to give talks specifically based on particular general conference speeches—in other words, it was the bishop who felt that the words of general authorities should be the content of the talk, rather than an ordinary member of the LDS church. Even fourth-Sunday lessons for priesthood and relief society have been directed to be based on the most recent general conference talks.

    It’s odd, actually, to see how in many ways the LDS church is decentralizing authority by giving stake presidents more responsibility, yet at the same time, discourse and teaching is becoming more centralized than ever before.

  5. Costanza says:

    In some wards, bishoprics “suggest” to speakers that they base their talks on certain general conference addresses–the speakers aren’t coming up with those on their own in many cases.

  6. Last Lemming says:

    If it makes you feel any better, our Gospel Doctrine teacher yesterday informed us (correctly, of course) that it can be documented from multiple sources in the Church that there was a marital relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

    Bet he didn’t get that off of LDS.org.

  7. In an old ward, speakers were given a General Conference talk and that was what they were to give their talk on (like #2). My husband would say, “It was a great talk when I heard it in conference, it was still pretty good when I read it in the Ensign, but when I heard Sister X quote the entire talk, it just lost something.” I mean honestly.

    There was once I was asked to give a talk like this, but instead of the entire talk, just the first paragraph! Well, the first paragraph was about needs of humans, but they were rather fluffy concepts like self-esteem, etc. I had just read a book about the current state of affairs in North Korea, with scores starving, and had read a book about the genocide in Rwanda. So after I had read this one paragraph I was to give a talk on, I went to the bishop’s counselor and said, “You know, I can’t give a talk on what you asked me to, because I don’t believe self-esteem is the greatest need of humans, not when there are millions starving in North Korea. They need food, not self-esteem. I’m not saying I know more than this GA, just I don’t have a testimony of what he said so I can’t give that talk. But if you’d like me to give a talk dealing with what he talked about in his entire talk, I’d do that.”

    I so appreciate now just being given a one-word topic: FAITH – GENEALOGY – TEMPLES – LOVE. It’s nice to be trusted.

  8. Maybe that’s one reason why I know several bishops (in different states, in different decades) who have publicly recommended against overreliance on GC talks (“they can be background material, but not your material). I know one such bishop who has banned the youth from his ward from citing any GA story. They can cite the GA’s *analysis*, but not the experience.

    Draconian? Maybe. But sac talks were always a bit more interesting, especially coming from the youth.

  9. Ugly Mahana says:

    It seems that the Topical Guide presents the same sort of challenge. Everyone has access to the same easily referenced scriptures on a given subject. Horrors.

  10. I think this will become more and more prevalent as the upcoming generation that is so used to relying on search engines to do their work get older. I personal love the web site for OCCASIONAL research. But mostly I have my own dossier of scriptures, stories and most importantly… PERSONAL EXPERIENCES from which I pull for talks in sacrament meeting.

    Thanks for the great read! Here’s to hoping that all people don’t use only the search engine as their source of information!

  11. Thanks for the notes on what NOT to do next week in my first Sacrament talk!

  12. Last Speaker says:

    This happened in our ward yesterday. Two speakers read long, verbatim passages from conference talks rehashing the threadbare Martin handcart story. That, and the fact that each of them took several minutes to laugh about how scared they were, and how they hoped their turn wouldn’t come around for another year or two, and how they weren’t sure they were going to be able to fill up the time — in fact, each took well over TWICE the assigned time, with no nudge from the bishopric — and, by the way, why do people “fill up time” instead of preparing something to say? — that when my turn came it was time to close the meeting. The talk I was prepared to give, but had to cut on the fly to a four-minute version, drew on lds.org for exactly one half of a sentence — I had gone there to verify the wording of a delightful phrase I half-remembered.

  13. Mike Parker says:

    I don’t think this has so much to do with a sinister centralizing of sacrament meeting talk assignments as it does the typical human tendency to go to the easiest sources at one’s disposal. Most people aren’t trained speakers and don’t have many opportunities to prepare talks, so they fall back on familiar themes and sources.

    Twenty-five years ago the primary source for talks was the multi-volume Especially for Mormons. The Ensign was a key source for people who kept all their back issues. People are now just using technology to do what they’ve always done.

    Cut the Little Guy some slack.

  14. Mondo Cool says:

    Bishops, specifically, and Bishoprics are responsible for the Spirit in Sacrament meetings.

    I’ve said this elsewhere, but we get what we pay for. Are we, as members, coming to the meeting to be “entertained?” (I know, a harsh word.) Or, are we paying the price to approach Sacrament meeting in the manner we should? Are we paying the price, when we are asked to give a talk, to prayerfully prepare what we deliver in hopes of edifying others? If we are members of a church that requests its members to “take a turn” in instructing our fellow saints, then don’t we have a duty to do our best – including learning and practicing on giving “good” talks?

    Are Bishoprics paying the price to plan topics, music, and speakers in light of the needs of the ward? And, giving enough assistance, encouragement, and lead time for the requested speaker to do their best?

    I’ve heard “mostly quoted” talks that were particularly spiritual because 1) I was in the right frame of Spirit and 2) there was sincere spirituality and best effort by the speaker.

    But, I agree with the general idea of this post: just pulling a bunch of quotes – even scriptures – that relate to the assigned topic may be a rushing mighty wind, but with little of the Spirit in the utterance.

  15. Nick Literski says:

    I didn’t say it was sinister, Mike. That’s your own judgment.

  16. Left Field says:

    I have sometimes let my mind wander during sacrament meeting, and when I started paying attention again, heard some good sister telling of a wonderful spiritual experience she had on some occasion such as when she was presiding at a conference and calling a new stake president.

  17. I cant wait to give my next talk, I am going to quote this blog post verbatim and then bear a testimony as though Mark Brown was saying it.

    Actually, I would have greatly preferred just such a talk this past Sunday instead of the weepy, choked up sister RM who’s barely audible/intelligeable talk ran over mightily with first discussion talking points and left me hoping for the Dry Council speaker to liven things up a bit. Sadly, that didnt happen. Fortunately, we sat with two other families with small kids all the way in the back and there was enough entertainment between the multitude of snacks present that I didnt fall asleep.

    Count your blessings, Mark. Sometimes a GA-filled quote fest is better than what would otherwise be presented. And if they are capable of producing something that isnt a quote fest, then chances are they will.

  18. I, like Mike, disagree that this is a recent development. Automating a process, including searching, just speeeds up a process. If it’s a good process, it’s faster. If it’s a bad process it’s faster. Either way, it’s the same process. People now can spend less time finding sources. They can choose to spend that extra time crafting their talks, or take the easy (and embarasing) way out and read someone elses talk. I don’t notice any more or less of these talks in recent years.

  19. I also love that I usually don’t have to go buy a book or two to have more sources.

  20. Costanza says:

    I think that Extreme Dorito’s last paragraph in #17 is spot on.

  21. I am not sure how big of an issue this really is.

    Having a main source for help with talks is pretty convenient if you ask me.

    Most speakers are untrained lay people and can use any help that they can get.

    Rare is the mtg like mine yesterday where the speakers actually engaged the audience and I found myself paying close attention even as kids bounced all over me and were headbutting me as I tried to listen.

  22. I remember a few weeks ago, one of the young men got up to give a talk on I have NO idea what, and he stood at the podium, reading from a book of some kind in a monotonous, unintelligable mumble. As I prayed for him, I remember asking the Lord to please bless him with experiences that will increase his confidence, because this Young Man is supposed to be a missionary some day!

    Talks are nothing more than writing, which will always be a reflection of the author. If we don’t like what our talks are turning into, we start with ourselves and our attitudes. The results may be a little unorthodox, but who said that had to be a bad thing? I got a lot of leniency as a YW and a convert when I first started giving talks that didn’t follow the quote by quote pattern. Now people look forward to my talks because I come up with some really off-the-wall analogies for the gospel messages many of them have been hearing since birth. And just by being the first one to stand up and be a little bit different, I’ve seen more and more members take that direction as well. It may sound cliche, but we have to be the change we want to see in our Church, because the Church has always been a reflection of its memebers.

    I got an anonymous note from someone yesterday that said, “Every time you give your testimony, it increases mine.” To me, that’s all the permission I need to be myself, which is really the best thing you can be up at that podium, and the best thing about the entire concept of talks.

  23. Ben There says:

    One bishop I served with made a pronouncement that all sacrament meeting talks were pretty much SUPPOSED to be nothing more than quotes from GAs, with some scriptures, and a concluding testimony. He stressed to the ward membership that we had prophets and revelators for a reason, and that their words were to be not only the foundation of all sacrament talks, but pretty much the bulk of the talk.

    As far as this bishop was concerned, the workings of the Spirit had occurred when the GA delivered the talk, and there was no need to ask the Holy Spirit to overwork himself by inspiring members, when the Spirit already inspired a perfectly good talk for the GA.

  24. a random John says:

    I’ve complained in bishopric meeting more than once that giving people a conference talk as a topic for a sacrament meeting talk makes for bad talks. For some reason I’m the only person in the meeting that thinks that there is anything wrong with this. The mentality seems to be, “It’s a conference talk! How could it be bad?”

    While I think that ED ahs a point in #17, I think that we’ve developed a culture of mediocre talks such that people that would otherwise prepare and deliver something original have little incentive to do so. How many people do you know who take pride in the talks they deliver?

  25. Ben,

    If a bishop told me that, the next time I was asked to give a talk I would just play a recording of the GA talk. Why even bother to add any of my own words at all?

    KyleM and Mike Parker,

    Sure, the technology speeds up the process, but I think it also makes it worse in at least one significant way. Back when we had to paw through a collection of Ensigns, there was a pretty good chance that all three speakers would at least quote from a different talk. Now, the chances are pretty good that they will all just pick the talk from the top of the list in the search results, so we hear the same talk three times. Ugh.

    Brother Dorito,

    Please don’t quote me in your ward. I already have enough on my conscience.

  26. I have two small kids so I’d be hard pressed to discuss the content of any sacrament talk the past two and a half years…

    However I find the “doctrinal” talks to be poor generally. Of course I used to do them too. Probably why it’s been so long since I last gave a sacrament talk. (big grin) They just end up boring regardless of whether you’re being original in your prose or quoting. The best thing to do is pick a few points and then illustrate them with personal entertaining experiences. Otherwise everything you say goes in one ear and out the other of 98% of the audience.

    All in my opinion of course…

  27. Just to add, I think we ought have a little humility and charity in how we react to talks. Maybe it’s my experiences from growing up in the mission field where 85% of the talks were by new members – most of whom had absolutely no public speaking experience. I think some forget just how hard this is for people.

    As I said I look back at my own talks and cringe. Maybe they’d have been great for a college symposium but sure not for sacrament meeting.

    I think it’d be nice if there were classes on public speaking in Church to help people in this regard.

  28. When I still had children in Primary, I didn’t feel guilty at all, when one of them was assigned to speak on topic X, to lift an article pretty much verbatim out of an old “Children’s Friend” and give that to my son or daughter to read. It’s pretty tough for a pre-twelve-year-old to have the life experience necessary to giving any kind of an interesting talk on just about any topic at all, and I figured the odds were pretty good that a majority of the kids (and teachers) in the room had never read the article when it was first published in 1990-something anyways.

  29. Latter-day Guy says:

    I hatehatehateHATE (!) talks on conference talks. It reminds me of a method old time farmers would use to save on feed (coming from a farming community, I can testify to some aspects of this, and it is horrifying): Farmer Dude plants a field of feeder corn. When it is ripe, he lets cows into the field, who happily eat the corn and leave some presents behind them. Then, the cows are moved and pigs are introduced into the same area. They enjoy the cows’ leavings, and replace them with some of their own. After the pigs are finished, they are moved out and chickens are moved in. They pick through the pig manure and fertilize the field in their own special way. Then Fermer Dude plows and plants the plot again.

    Thus, I feel safe in characterizing these talks as “crappy” in public, and something else in private.

  30. Kevin Barney says:

    I loathe the practice of assigning GA speeches as talks or lessons. I realize that some people don’t know how to speak and this is a help to them, but the few times it has happened to me I have just spoken on that subject and ignored the GA speech.

    #22, the best youth talk in the history of the Restored Gospel in this, the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times, was, as it so happens, given by none other than my very own son. He was asked to speak one Sunday, and I told him two things: (a) you need to prepare this talk yourself [IE don’t read a story out of Especially for Mormons]; speak on something that is meaningful and important to you, and (b) I want you to try really hard not to read anything, but to maintain eye contact with the audience.

    So he stands up at the pulpit on the given Sunday and gives by far the best youth talk I’ve ever heard in this Church (way, way better than the ones I gave as a teenager, that’s for sure). He just blew everyone away. His talk was on religious themes in the Simpsons (hey, I asked him to talk on something he cared about!). He was eloquent, passionate, insightful, spoke without notes, didn’t mumble, didn’t look down, funny as hell, and he taught us quite a bit about the portrayal of religious and family values in what appears on the surface to be a pretty dysfunctional family. Even a few people who weren’t exactly fans of the Simpsons had to agree it was a great talk, and even as long as two years later one guy in the ward would still talk about that talk and the impact it had on him.

    (Needless to say, I popped a couple of buttons on my shirt that day.)

  31. Steve Evans says:

    Gee, Latter-day Guy, tell us how you feel!

    I have no problem with using conference talks at all. I believe our leaders are inspired and as such their words are worthy of some repetition — or, at least, their themes are worth revisiting. Anyone who is assigned a conference talk should know that it’s a springboard, an opportunity to speak on that topic as directed by the Spirit. Those who feel angry about it or those who feel they can do nothing more than completely repeat the G.A. are missing the point, IMHO.

  32. Joshua A. says:

    I don’t think that LDS.org is responsible for this phenomenon–before the internet it was the gospel principles handbook that was the main source (at least where I’ve lived). When I was a branch president I would assign people scriptures (usually the pithy wisdom of the Messiah) as their topics. For example, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.” It was nice, then to hear people draw from their own understandings and experiences rather than just turning to the chapter in Gospel Principles on temples or forgiveness.

  33. I find this to be more of a problem with the youth of the ward than with the adults. That said, every once in a while two speakers will speak on the same topic, and the second one will start off saying, “Well, Bro. so and so just used most of my quotes. . .” At this point I usually start nodding off.

  34. I agree with Jacob (#33). I see this mostly with the youth talks. Also, I am not convinced that if you removed lds.org from the equation the same person would give a better talk. Ah, the joys of a lay ministry.

  35. Nick Literski says:

    #25, I like the way you think. ;-)
    I’ve had at least two priesthood lessons where the instructor literally just began by saying he had to give a lesson on “X,” and “Elder _____” or “President ______” says it so much better, so the instructor simply played a video of the conference talk in question. I took it as a good sign that the instructor was entirely unprepared for the lesson, but now I’m not so sure. I think he sincerely thought watching the video of a general authority was the right thing to do.

  36. Our bishopric has solved this problem by giving most of the talks themselves. Just as they rotate conducting Sacrament meeting every month, they rotate which member of the bishopric will speak. That makes planning meetings simple: one week is Testimony meeting, one week is High Council, one week a member of the bishopric speaks, and since we have a transient ward (lots of apartments and lots of military), one week is the new family.

    It could be worse. We could have our RS president speak again. The last time she spoke, she stood up, read a talk, closed and sat down. I don’t even remember her bearing a short testimony at the end.

  37. I have to agree with the conference talk talk detractors. I feel it’s become a plague and that this coupled with the dread conference talk lessons are essentially building testimonies on borrowed light for grown ups. Ask someone what they think of something most will say, “Well brother x says y.” A quote is just that, a quote.

    There was a study I read once that if you’re told something you’ll retain less than 20% of it. If you write it you’ll retain nearly half. But if you teach it you’ll retain >80%. So what exactly does that get us, us quoting talks? Certainly we learn what brother x had to say on the subject, but where will that lead us? I mean it’s not like it’s exactly secret. We have conference, and the Ensign at homes. I remember talking to a brother that missed one of the sessions of last conference he quipped, “Bah, it doesn’t matter anyway. I’ll hear all the talks again in Sacrament meeting and priesthood anyway.”

  38. The problem definitely predates LDS.org. Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (1946) deplores overused axioms; he complains that when we get too used to certain turns of phrase and later try to write or or say something new, the “words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern.”

    Reading that in my freshman year of university I thought of testimony meeting and public prayer, and I’ve made an effort ever since to avoid stock LDS phrases in talks and prayers. I don’t always succeed but even the attempt is useful, forcing me to think clearly about what I believe, or want to ask for, or appreciate, rather than mixing together stock phrases like the Dilbert mission statement generator.

    Technology gives us leverage, though, so I agree the problem is more likely now that so much Church material is online. It’s bound to tempt people to preach from authority rather than from experience. (Nothing wrong with backing up your ideas with GA references, but plenty wrong with paraphrasing your entire talk from them.)

  39. Norbert says:

    Can I mention another benefit of going to church in a language other than English? I’ve never heard a search, cut & paste talk. The quality of our speakers is very high — only visiting GAs get up and ‘wing it.’ And we almost never assign topics.

  40. I had wondered why I was hearing so many talks that felt like “best of” conference compilations. I haven’t really used lds.org yet. Fascinating. I wonder whether this is part of boundary maintenance/shibboleth/etc.

  41. Adam Greenwood says:

    The average talk in your experience must be better than in mine if assembling a sheaf of passages from conference talks would make them worse.

  42. I recently listened to a talk given by Elder Eyring and he shared a marginally relevant vignette that I hope I can get right. Once during a sacrament meeting, Elder Eyring was suffering through a terrible talk when he looked over at his father who appeared to be enjoying the talk.(This was pre-apostolic days, I think.) The talk was so bad that Elder Eyring could not fathom what his father found so riveting. (I don’t know if the speaker was recycling GA quotes or not.) As they walked home after the meeting, Elder Eyring asked his father what he found so interesting about the talk. Elder Eyring’s father responsed that years earlier he had learned a valuable lesson about chuch speakers. He listened to the first few minutes of a talk to learn the topic. Then, if he thought he could give a better talk on the topic than the speaker was likely to deliver, he would proceed to preach a sermon to himself in his head on the same topic. Consequently, since he adopted this coping mechanism he had not attended any boring church meetings.

    re: 30.

    My son might be a close second. He had to speak on Mother’s day and I expressly told him not to only recycle GA quotes but to share what he thought and believed. His talk consisted of comparing and contrasting the way my wife coddles him with how I treat him, coming down squarely in favor of my wife’s treatment. There were some church leader quotes-men and women-sprinkeld in, but it was mostly my son riffing on how I allegedly mistreat him compared to my wife. It’s only been a couple of months, but I still get compliments. My son is also a “Simpsons” fan and you’ve given me a great suggestion for his next talk. (We have a small, humor-impaired ward, so his next opportunity will come around soon.)

  43. #24 – Most members I know take great pride in their talks. Some of them are quite bad from a “professional speaker” perspective, but almost all of them in our ward (except a very few youth speakers) are sincere.

  44. a random John says:

    Ray,

    Obviously I can’t speak to the level of work that members of your ward put into their talks. My experience is that members dread speaking, often refuse to do it, and are just glad to get it over with. Quoting large passages from conference talks gives them a way of passing the requisite time in an acceptable manner. There is no craftsmanship, no insight, and certainly very little pride in what they are doing.

  45. Similar to #41, my father told me as a teenager that, one way or another, it was my responsibility to learn from each and every sacrament talk in each every sacrament meeting. I have taken that admonition very seriously over the years, but with a different twist than Bro. Eyring – or, perhaps, just a different view of the same twist.

    I listen carefully and intently to the first couple of minutes of every single adult talk. If I am not getting fed by the speaker, I let my mind wander and pray that the Holy Ghost will feed me instead. This approach rarely has failed me.

    I approach youth talks differently. I pay attention to the youth speakers for their entire talks. I smile whenever they look my way. No matter what is being said, I do my best to do whatever I can to help inexperienced, scared young men and young women feel like what they are saying is important – and that, by extension, they are important. I have worked too long with teenagers to give them anything less than that.

  46. Am I the only one who finds the “learn from every talk” a bit of a cop out? It’s basically assigning personal study topics. But if you are doing that 9 times out of 10 you’re not even paying attention to the speaker but just doing your own thing. If I’m going to be doing my own thing I’ll at least find topics I’m interested in.

    The problem with this is that after a while you realize that you’re getting little out of Church. (Yeah, speaking from experience – I tried Elder Eyring’s method) I just got released from nursery (finally) after 4 years. So I’ll see how I manage in Sunday School and so forth. But surely we can do more than stop paying attention except as a topic setter…

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m opposed to those who see Church primarily as a place to be served that than to serve. And I think far too many of us (myself included) are doing that when we criticize how boring or off-putting some lesson or talk is. But at the same time I think we, as a people, need to demand a bit more than what we sometimes put forth at Church. Yes, as I said, we have to be charitable. But at the same time we can’t simply go through the motions.

  47. Latter-day Guy says:

    Steve, RE: 31,

    Sorry about the rant. I ought to clarify.

    As you say: “Anyone who is assigned a conference talk should know that it’s a springboard, an opportunity to speak on that topic as directed by the Spirit.”

    Aye, there’s the rub. Why not assign someone to speak on a topic and gently suggest a recent conference talk as a resource? I am not opposed to GC talk talks as an idea, but the reality usually sucks.

    Of course we should revisit the themes from conference just as we revisit those themes in the scriptures; what we shouldn’t do is hold a public regurgithon… but that is what I’ve seen most often.

    These talks suffer from the same problems as any other talk, just to a higher degree: As they have already been digested once, some speakers do almost nothing to make the doctrinal detritus more palatable or personal.

  48. Clark, I actually agree with what you just wrote. I didn’t mean to imply that we should accept the status quo and expect mediocrity in our worship services. I am a teacher by training and inclination, so this is near and dear to my heart.

    Every time I have served in a position where I have some input into talks, I have stressed talks on very clear and specific topics – tailored to the spiritual maturity of those who were asked to speak. If a GA talk is the basis of a talk, I have given explicit instructions that it was to used simply as a guide – and that it was not acceptable to read extensive quotes from the talk. I have provided general advice about writing a talk and public speaking, as well, when I felt that was needed. I have challenged the auxiliary and group leadership to model proper preparation and careful consideration – and have attended their lessons in order to gauge their efforts. I have insisted that the SS Presidency, for example, attend every SS class on a regular basis – and provide constructive feedback (positive, negative, positive) to each and every teacher. I believe strongly in the effect good teaching can have in our meetings – and that it is the responsibility of the leadership to do whatever it can to improve the quality of that teaching.

    IMHO, this is a two-edged sword. We need to find ways to increase the spirituality in our meetings, and one of the best ways is to convey the spirit in our talks and lessons. However, we also need to avoid unrealistic expectations and accept each other’s imperfections at the same time. It’s a tough balance to maintain, but I would rather do whatever it took to feel the Spirit in each and every meeting regardless of what is being said than feel cheated by someone else who couldn’t “teach me something new”. In this case, I choose to act rather than to sit back and be acted upon – to give each speaker the opportunity to touch my heart and mind and spirit, but then to try to do it myself if the speaker can’t. Often, I don’t do that very well, but I try. As I said, that approach rarely has failed me.

    When I said I let my mind go and try to learn from the Spirit, I was serious – but that happens rarely in my current ward. I have found that the constant focus of our Bishop on open and straightforward encouragement of spiritually prepared talks and lessons has done wonders in our ward. I have never heard him “call out” anyone after a poor talk or lesson, but I have heard him address the general topic over and over and over again – both in leadership meetings and from the pulpit. I have learned much from him, and I have seen the results of his passion in this area.

  49. Ray,
    If I let my mind go during sacrament meeting, it ends up being a catastrophic experience for everyone.

  50. I grew up in Massachusetts, served my mission in Las Vegas, and have resided for the past 15 years in Maryland. Maybe I’ve been living in a vaccum or something, but although I’ve heard a lot of Sacrament Meeting talks with G.A. quotes in them, I’ve never heard a speaker read a whole G.A. address as a talk.
    I know that I’m going to be making a whole lot of enemies by saying this, but personally what I find far more annoying are the unruly and overly noisy babies and children who are not properly monitored by their parents. Kids are kids, and certainly are without sin until age 8, but why do parents wait until they are screaming bloody murder to scoop them up and carry them out? I would rather go to Sacrament Meeting every week and be able to hear the talks, even if they were all reading verbatim from the G.A.’s, then have to struggle and strain to comprehend what the poor speaker is trying to say.
    That being said, I find church on the whole to be spiritually uplifting (I’m really not that much of a grouch). If you want to hear talks that sound a lot more like testimonies than you’ll find in testimony meeting, where you won’t hear quotes from G.A.’s, and certainly an abundance of the Holy Ghost, might I suggest attending a Why I Believe fireside? The speakers speak from the heart, the chapel is full of missionaries and investigators, and (for me at least), no screaming kids.

  51. makakona says:

    every time this comes up in blogs, i cry a little bit inside. while i can talk your ear off if we’re sitting face to face, get me in front of a group and i fall apart. i begin preparing for my talks literally the day they’re assigned, i come up with outlines, i fill in the blanks, and i memorize all of it. without fail, every time, i vomit about an hour before, i stammer through, i can’t make eye contact, and i cut it short (sometimes just suddenly stopping) because i just can’t go on. it’s horrendous. if i thought i could write a half decent talk, i wouldn’t be so nervous, but knowing that most people feel the way y’all do, i’m a lost cause.

    shortly after my baptism, i was told that you were SUPPOSED to follow a formula that began with looking up your topic in the topical guide, “mormon doctrine,” and the dictionary. my husband says this is how he was also raised.

    but giotto makes me feel a bit better… my children are near perfect angels, which i attribute to no snacks, no toys, sitting in front of the bishopric, and only one book and only after sacrament is passed.

  52. Mark IV says:

    makakona,

    I’m sorry for the distress I caused you. It is certainly possible to be a wonderful person and still lack the talent for public speaking. Even prophets like Moses are sometimes tongue-tied!

  53. I think that heavy reliance on a General Conference talk is justified in only a couple of instances: 1) when specifically asked by the bishopric to speak on that talk, rather than some general topic, 2) for youth speakers (for whom the experience of giving the talk may be the most important thing- and aren’t we always more forgiving of the youth speaker’s weaknesses?), and 3) when you are given almost no notice that you will be speaking in church (even then I think many of us can do better by just winging it).

    As far as the use of GA quotes, this is obviously a different story. GA quotes are just (?) like scripture. I really appreciate it when someone grounds their talk in scripture, but I would be disappointed if they just read scripture after scripture and spent the whole talk flipping through the quad to string them together. I would feel even more disappointed if someone got up and just decided to read a chapter or two verbatim from the scriptures, which is essentially what reading a GA talk is.

    What I really want to hear in a sacrament talk is someone else’s ideas. I heard the GA speak in conference, I got it, and I want to hear something new. If the person makes some mistake in doctrine or history, that’s OK. The bishop can speak and made some clarifications at the end if the error was egregious, or he can let the audience do it for themselves. I think we have all heard that the experience of having an assignment/calling in church is more valuable to the one with the assignment than to those he/she is “serving.” The process of writing a talk is a precious opportunity to engage with the scriptures and with our own understanding of a gospel topic, and to seek our own personal witness of the scripture. This is absolutely lost when we really so heavily on a GA topic, since this is most often not digested by the speaker when selected and read aloud to the congregation.

    As far as the effect of LDS.org, I agree that it has made access to volumes of Church literature much easier. Our own laziness makes it almost irresistible when a member is called to do something that they are already reticent to do (give a talk). I also think that folks use GA talks in order to give themselves more authority, as they don’t believe that their words and testimony carry much of it and that establishing some authoritative statement on the subject is the point of the talk.

  54. Oh and to the person above who shared the story of having his son prepare his first sacrament meeting talk on his own, or for the ward leaders who ask the youth not to use GA stories, thank you. This is exactly the kind of example and expectation that the youth need.

    Finally, I wanted to add how frustrating it is when someone gets up and immediately talks about how much they don’t want to give the talk or how they just started working at it that morning or that they feel unprepared. Immediately, all credibility goes out the window. As most of us have experienced, this happens a great deal in Sunday School and Priesthood/RS meetings too.

  55. I guess I wasn’t done.

    To #46, yes “learn from every talk” is a cop-out. The same rule applies in SS and P/RS. Two related problems with this: 1) aren’t you supposed to be paying attention in meetings? (I guess not, or the Church wouldn’t encourage us to have lots of kids :) ) What’s the point if I am just supposed to give myself a talk in my head? 2) It completely takes any pressure off of the speaker, who knows that few if any will be listening to him, so why spend a lot of time preparing for the talk?

    I say this as someone who is recently worried frequently at how little I am getting out of Church. I agree again that the Church is primarily a place for us to serve others rather than be served. But if everyone is serving, somebody has to be the recipient, right?. When someone is assigned to speak in sacrament meeting, pass the sacrament, teach a lesson etc., it is clearly that person’s duty to serve the rest of the congregation to the best of their ability. What service I can give in these moments is to listen attentively and pray that the Spirit will be present and that the person’s service will be appreciated by myself and the rest of the congregation. If I feel that the person is not giving their best effort, I feel a little justified in my disappointment.

  56. Natalie says:

    I really appreciate how Mark draws attention to the fact that our frequent over-reliance on citation often diminishes our ability to have and communicate our spiritual experiences. That said, the question that this post raises in my mind is why we so frequently feel that we need to cite conference sources – and fear the consequences if we don’t. Is citation one of the ways that we legitimate authority as a group? Are the most cited passages the ones that we consent to call our doctrine? I wonder if citation plays an especially important role in forming our notions of gospel doctrine, since the idea that we can all receive revelation makes authority often diffusive within the church.

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