We now go from the sublime (Russell’s “My Gifts” reflections upon Pentecost below) to the ridiculous. To wit: the growing practice of assigning ward members to speak on General Conference talks.
There are many innovative and wonderful practices in the Church that developed in non-hierarchical, grass roots fashion. This is not one of them. During sacrament meeting today I leaned over to my wife and swore in my wrath that I would blog on this mind-numbing practice that seems to be spreading through the Church like wildfire.
If it is not clear by now, I am not a fan. Some random thoughts on this, to which I hope you will add, would include the following:
1. Such talks are almost inevitably of poor quality and boring, boring, boring. This is because there is a strong tendency for people to read large swathes of their assigned talks. You don’t have to belong to Toastmasters to understand that the most deadly thing a speaker can do is read long passages of text at the pulpit. By definition that is going to make the talk difficult to pay attention to. Yet the people who do this no doubt think that they are doing what is expected of them–trying to convey the substance of some GC talk to the congregation.
2. Those poor people who actually watch General Conference are doubly penalized for doing so, as now their sacrament meeting talks are warmed over–and generally inferior–versions of talks they’ve already heard in their original forms from the GAs themselves.
3. These talks can be good. The extent to which they are is largely a function of how seasoned and experienced the church member giving the talk is, so that he understands that it is acceptable for him to go off the reservation and bring his own insights into the mix. But our young people and more recent converts don’t have that experience and understanding, and they are going to follow these talks slavishly.
4. As a consequence, people aren’t going to learn the skills of researching, preparing, practicing and giving their own talks. Our young people already know how to read; they don’t need more practice at that skill.
5. GA talks tend to be pretty good, I think. GAs tend to be pretty good speakers, especially when you get them out of the formal constraints of GC and in a more intimate setting. But that’s because they’ve had long experience in the church actually preparing talks and speaking. You become a better public speaker by practice and experience. Mormons used to have an advantage in this sphere, because your average Mormon has gotten up and spoken in public way more than most people. But if our young people don’t learn these skills now, what happens when they go on missions and we hope for them to be powerful public speakers? Their lack of true public speaking experience is going to become debilitating.
6. One of the skills involved in actually preparing a talk is exploring the scriptures and seeing how they relate to the topic and incorporating them into the talk. People aren’t turning directly to the font itself; they’re not cracking their scriptures at all to prepare these talks. That is a bad precedent we’re setting.
7. It is essential to illustrate the principles of a talk with personal stories. I want to hear the stories of the person actually giving the talk–a person I know and care about and love and who is physically there in our presence.
So what are your thoughts on this practice that seems to be infecting the Church, one ward at a time?
(Please read this post in the voice Dana Carvey uses when he imitates a crusty old man who is complaining about contemporary society and relishing the way things used to be…)