Jana Riess comes to us as one of the regular Dialogue participants.
What follows is an excerpt from a satirical essay I have in this month’s Sunstone, posted with permission. (This is the sarcastic first half. The plaintive second half delves into some of the theology of preaching, and discusses what we can do in the Church to improve the deplorable state of sacrament “talks.”)
Dear New Member,
Congratulations on your recent baptism! There is so much to rejoice in, and you will be glad of your decision to join the Church. The good news is that there will be fruitful discussions and Spirit-led testimony meetings. Not to mention awesome potlucks! (You will grow to love funeral potatoes.) The bad news is that sooner or later, the bishop is going to ask you to speak in sacrament meeting.
Now you may feel intimidated by this assignment, especially if you converted from a religious tradition that has professional preaching. But, more good news! Mormons have extremely low expectations for what constitutes an acceptable sacrament meeting talk, so if you just use the following guidelines, everything will go swimmingly. In fact, unless you or the bishop reveals it, I guarantee that no one will guess that you aren’t Mormon already!
Before you give your talk:
1. Behave appropriately when you get the call. A member of your bishopric will either corner you in a hallway at church or call you on the phone to extend the call to speak–usually for the following Sunday. Whatever you do, don’t sound excited or enthusiastic. Real Mormons always act as though they would rather have a root canal that day, and you want to start behaving like a birthright Latter-day Saint. Sounding too eager might scare your bishop, who may be elderly, under a good deal of pressure, and prone to stroke. Don’t be the reason he has one.
2. Think about the assignment as a talk and not a sermon. Sermons require serious preparation, forethought, and study. A Mormon talk just requires that you show up. So don’t be frightened! You’ll want to hastily assemble a few things the night before, but other than that, you can basically cruise through the week.
3. The night before the talk, gather the following items:
- A dictionary. You will need this to orally define whatever topic the bishop has given you. This is necessary even if the topic seems self-evident, like “family” or “service.”
- Some printouts from the Internet. You will need at least two long quotes from General Authorities (preferably living ones) and one inspiring urban legend of uncertain provenance. Check out the resources at www.lds.org and www.snopes.com.
- Your scriptures. What’s important to remember, especially if you have converted from a Protestant faith tradition, is that these scriptures are mostly window dressing. You will want to choose two short verses that seem to shore up what you will say about your topic. Be sure to keep them brief.
Excellent! Now that you are so well prepared, I know that you will give an outstanding Mormon talk.
GIVING THE TALK ITSELF
Here are a few other elements to keep in mind, so that your talk will blend in well with all the others that day.
1) Begin by explaining where you were and what you were doing when you got the call to speak. This should take up at least two minutes of your time. Since you are a new convert, your assigned time for speaking is unlikely to exceed ten minutes (and if you happen to be female, this may be the longest amount of time you will ever be given for speaking), so you have just filled 20% of your allotted time — all with no preparation! Fantastic.
2. Segue into a profuse apology, explaining that you are unworthy of the call to speak. You will need to spend another two minutes (longer if you are a woman) apologizing for your many inadequacies as a communicator. Emphasize that your hands are sweating and your knees are wobbly. To break the tension, you might tell a joke that is wholly unrelated to your assigned topic. Conclude this portion of your talk by telling the congregation just how much you’ve learned since 11:58 last night, when you first began thinking about the assigned topic, and how you hope you can do it justice. Then breathe deeply — you are now almost halfway through your talk!
3. Define your topic using the dictionary. This will probably only take one minute, but you can drag it out by actually bringing the dictionary with you and thumbing to find the right page.
- Note: Webster’s is the preferred tool among birthright Mormons, but they will cut you some slack if you use a non-canonized dictionary, especially as you are a convert.
- A variant option if you are a woman: In addition to the dictionary, you may want to spend a little extra time beforehand making a poster to display, offering clip art or wholesome Ensign cutouts to demonstrate your topic visually.
4. Read your two long GA quotes in rapid succession without giving any context or otherwise personalizing the topic in any way. This section is the crux of your talk and should take a good three to four minutes. If you are particularly skillful, you can weave the conference excerpts in with your inspiring urban legend. If not, just read the story after the quotes. You will take more time if the story is so inspiring that you get choked up yourself and are unable to speak for twenty to thirty seconds. In any case, great news: You are almost finished!
5. Use your two scripture verses as the icing on the cake. You want to hammer home your point by appealing to the ultimate authority, the standard works. Just read the verses and be done with them. If you have not yet used up your allotted ten minutes, you can always slow this section down by having the whole congregation find the verses in their own scriptures.
6. Close your talk in the name of Jesus Christ, even if you have not referred to him once the entire time.
A Fellow Convert