Joys and Concerns

My advice column of choice is “Ask Amy,” by Amy Dickinson (a descendant of Emily Dickinson), which succeeded the Ann Landers column after her death and is syndicated in about 200 newspapers, originating from the flagship Chicago Tribune (where I read it). I recently read her book Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things, about how she moved from the big city (Chicago) back home to the tiny town where she grew up (Freeville, New York) and eventually remarried there. I enjoyed it so much that I’m now reading her earlier book, The Mighty Queens of Freeville.

Amy, like everyone else in her extended family, is a Church goer. When she lived in Washington, D.C. she attended an Episcopalian Church, but when she’s in her ancestral home of Freeville she attends the United Methodist Church there. In a chapter on “finding God in the community of faith and casseroles,” she describes a practice the Methodist church engages in, called “Joys and Concerns”:

The most popular portion of the Methodist service was “Joys and Concerns,” when any member of the congregation could stand up, speak his or her mind, and ask for prayers. Joys and Concerns would often gallop out of control, taking the worship service–and us–with it. The minister would dash up and down the aisle of the church like Phil Donohue, passing a microphone to congregants so they could have their say: “My mom’s back went out again so now she’s going to go to Syracuse for surgery.”

“Donny’s boss says they’re doing another round of lay-offs. We don’t know what’s going to happen yet.”

“We’re leaving the day after Christmas to go down to Florida to see our folks. We’d like travel prayers.”

“Dad’s pain is getting worse; they think it might be his kidneys this time.”

“Oh, I don’t need the microphone. I’ll just yell. What I wanted to say is that the JV team is doing really well this year, but the varsity lost again on Friday. The defense just can’t get it together.”

“I’m really happy to see Amy and Emily here again. I hardly recognized Emily, she’s getting so tall! I hope we’ll be seeing them in the choir while they’re here.”

Joys and Concerns Is like the world’s smallest radio station broadcasting the news of a very particular patch. Many of the headlines seem related to gallbladders, surgical procedures, and waiting on test results. Some of our news is sad and some is truly tragic, but the congregation also shares their triumphs–the new jobs, new grandchildren, or this year’s bumper crop of zucchini. Joys and Concerns is where the community announces what is important. Then they ask for prayer and receive them. It is the most honest, fair, and just exchange I have ever witnessed.

Naturally when I read this description of Joys and Concerns I thought about our own Testimony Meetings, which is our version of open mike time. Of course BRM would blanch at the lack of actual testimony bearing in these offerings, and on some level I can understand that. The problem I see is that (again, largely due to BRM’s influence) the way we bear testimony is so formulaic that it is highly repetitive, and therefore for me at least not exactly moving: “I know that Jesus is the Christ, I know this Church is true, I know Joseph Smith is a prophet, I know Thomas S. Monson is the Lord’s prophet today, inthenameofJesusChrist, amen.” I frankly am not moved by such a recitation, especially when some version of it is repeated by every speaker.

What moves me about testimony meeting is when people get personal and talk about the Gospel as refracted through their lives. I found the Joys and Concerns practice charming, and while I’m not suggesting we replicate it completely, I do think our testimony bearing has more power when we allow it to interact with our lived reality as opposed to a rote recitation of set propositional statements of faith.

[If Chris Jones sees this, perhaps he could let us know whether there is any genealogical relationship between the Methodist Joys and Concerns and the Mormon testimony meeting.]

 

Comments

  1. For several months of my time in the Army a buddy and I would each attend the other’s services every week. He was a Baptist and they had a very similar thing every week. I don’t know if it had a formal title like “Joys and Concerns”, but it was almost exactly like described.

    It was maybe my favorite part of either service. Not that they had anything profound to say, but because they didn’t. They were just willing to talk about things going on in life and were willing to ask us to invoke heavens blessings for them. Everyone was happy to do so.

    I feel this doesn’t happen in LDS communities (that I’ve been in). Unless it is a life threatening illness, or something comparable, there isn’t much of a call for prayer. I don’t hear talk about little things. It’s like we think if it isn’t miraculous it isn’t worth sharing with others. Almost nobody is going to get up in testimony meeting and say, “I’ve been feeling depressed, please pray for me” and so nobody will know. There isn’t another system/outlet/avenue for that kind of expression amongst us. Maybe they have time for that in Relief Society, but I’ve NEVER heard any man say it during Opening Exercises of priesthood. Yet I have heard men of other faiths do it often.

  2. Whatchamacallit says:

    I know my anecdote isn’t a popular one and apparently most members don’t experience it. But for what it is worth, the general theme in our testimony meetings is that the members talk about their trials in life and how difficult life has been recently for them, requiring them to lean on the atonement for help.

  3. Aaron Brown says:

    My wife’s pagan community has a somewhat similar practice each time they meet, but it takes the form of individuals spontaneously offering up a “prayer” for someone important in their lives who is undergoing challenge or struggle. I find it refreshing and moving for the some of the same reasons you describe here, and I think Mormonism could benefit from some version of the practice.

    Aaron B

  4. Apparently our RS does a version of this but they call “sweet and sour”.

  5. I don’t know if this is unique to my ward, but last fast Sunday was typical in that there were about 12 testimonies by men, 2 by young women, and zero by women over 18. Unfortunately both prayers were by men too. It got me thinking, I wonder if our practice of making people walk up to the front of a congregation of 500+ people (I live in a beach town and it was a holiday weekend) and speak into a microphone might be a exacerbating the inequality. Maybe passing the microphone would help. Who knows. Maybe even young women could be assigned the job of doing the passing, but let’s not get too crazy.

  6. My last ward was the exact opposite of Mandy’s experience. It was rare to have any men (other than the Bishopric member conducting the meeting) to bear a testimony. The ward I’m in now has a nice mix of men and women on fast Sunday. I find it very nice to hear from the brethren too…

  7. James Stone says:

    “I thought about our own Testimony Meetings, which is our version of open mike time.”

    Testimony meeting is NOT open mic time. When it turns into open mic time, that’s when you get travelogues, etc. Testimonies are to bear your own witness of the gospel. (See https://www.lds.org/ensign/2016/06/the-what-and-why-and-how-of-bearing-a-testimony?lang=eng)

    While I agree that testimonies can get repetitive and sound the same, the best solution I’ve found for that is to stand and bear my own witness of Christ and the gospel in a way that’s not so formulaic.

  8. Our RS used to have a “minute of good news” at the beginning but it turned into lots of bragging about kids’ accomplishments, trips, etc so that only lasted a year or so. My daughter who’s been church shopping really likes that open mike/concerns shared for societal/government/world issues forum that she feels is too removed from our LDS experience.

  9. I was in a Joys and Concerns-type session once. It wasn’t Methodist though, so maybe not a fair comparison. I did think it more like the old Ward Welfare Committee meetings (that I believe are now subsumed by Ward Council), than Testimony Meeting. It also made me rethink what we think of as confidential. It seems like a lot of the joys and the concerns do not need to be quite as carefully guarded as LDS practice suggests.

    Regarding Testimony Meeting, here’s a share from our meeting last Sunday. As noted, there are always lots of recitations, the “I know” and “I believe” stock phrases. I mostly tune those out (sorry about that!) Instead, I listen for the different sounding phrases, the ones that sound real, the ones that feel like what the speaker really wants to say. Often the first word, or the last. Last week I took notes. Here are the gems:
    >My testimony is that this church is where I want to be. [Bishopric member]
    >I know the missionary program is one of the most important we have. [Father of missionary]
    >He suffered for my sins.
    >If the Spirit moves you to buy up water and send it to Texas, think about water filters instead. [Visitor from Louisiana]
    >Giving service and responding to the Spirit when it has prompted me has been a blessing in my life.
    >As you teach the gospel people will feel your love of the Savior and that will move them. [Addressed to a missionary leaving tomorrow]
    >Sometimes I wonder, is the gospel worth it? 2 years on a mission? 3 hours on Sunday? It is.
    >There is peace in these hard times.
    >My (great?) grandfather was in the race to the river to be the first to be baptized in England. He lost the race so you don’t hear much about him.
    >I am grateful for the Lord Jesus Christ. I am filled with love and gratitude for His redeeming love. [GA, on vacation]

  10. Books I’ve read in F&T: Jon Lee Anderson’s CHE (Guevara); ULYSSES; THE TENNIS COURT OATH (Ashbery); MOTHER LONDON (Moorcock); DESCENT (Johnston); TELEGRAPH AVE (Chabon); SONS & LOVERS. The only places a normal human can read DH Lawrence is prison, with the Dept of State posted to some hell-hole, or, you guessed it, F&T.

  11. I grew up in a Methodist church (not United Methodist, but a smaller branch from the same tree), and we had testimony meetings several times a year, usually as a Sunday evening service. Except for the Mormon-specific references (such as “I know this church is true”), they were remarkably similar LDS testimony meetings. I’ve long assumed that LDS testimony meetings had their roots in frontier Methodism (with which Joseph Smith was quite familiar), but I don’t have the information to prove it.

  12. Brother Sky says:

    I’m with Kevin about the “vain repetitions” that I hear in testimony meeting every month. I just tune out and read this blog on my phone. My two other deep and pervasive concerns are 1) the way we all seem pressured to use the word “know” rather than “believe”. It’s kind of mind-boggling that we all talk about the importance of faith, but then immediately double down and say we “know” things for sure that most of us likely don’t. And 2), with due respect to James Stone and the Ensign article he links to, I don’t understand why a testimony meeting can’t really be a genuine exchange of truths and doubts. Why can’t I stand up and say I don’t believe Adam and Eve were literal personages, but I nonetheless find the story inspiring? Why can’t I stand up and say I believe women should hold the priesthood? It’s just interesting how we say we want the truth and we believe in being honest, but we then try to police those very concepts by shaming others into silence (“Don’t damage someone else’s testimony”) or by having this bizarre communal agreement that we absolutely know stuff for certain that the scriptures themselves say we CAN’T know for certain. So much for actually being honest, I guess.

  13. The downtown Methodist church I’m employed at does a “joys and concerns” session after choir practices each week, both the adult choir and the youth choir. It’s definitely “a thing.” We’ve tried it sporadically in our family during evening family prayer time with good results. It invites sharing because you’re signaling that you want to hear both the good and the bad.

    And Kevin, I like how you connected this practice to our Fast and Testimony meetings. I sat next to an investigator last week during F&T who has expressed his exasperation at the Mormon fixation on “knowing” things. He said, “If, when I read the Book of Mormon, it increases my faith, isn’t that good enough?” So, thanks, Kevin. This post hit home on many levels.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    I wrote about our insistence on absolutes in testimony meeting once here:

    https://bycommonconsent.com/2015/01/21/i-know-the-church-is-true/

  15. LDS testimony meeting — The common LDS cultural insistence on “knowing” and its critical importance for each individual amounts to a direct contradiction of D&C 45:11-14. The rote repetition of “I know that…” phrases by persons from age 2 to 92 leaves me both uninspired and ignorant of what meaning any of them attach to those phrases. Some inspiring and heartfelt testimonies never use the word “know” but instead tell me what is believed or hoped for and why or on what basis. Some are able to say why they have faith in Christ and how that faith has helped them. Hearing those testimonies is worthwhile to me.
    Joys and Concerns — As a substitute organist I’ve been in many varied Protestant church services and choir rehearsals, not just Methodist, that include a sharing of joys and concerns. I have never seen it become a bragging session. Instead it has both reflected and built a feeling of familial community. In contrast, our sometimes insistence on addressing each other as brother or sister so-and-so does no longer reflects or builds any such feeling, if it ever did. Instead, those appellations function as distancing titles. I wonder why acw’s ward relief society’s “minute of good news” turned into a bragging session instead of a sharing of Joys, if not Concerns. Maybe there’s another way to try implementing such sharing.

  16. Brother Sky right on – would also include the word “true” in the same problem category as “know.” Someone tell me please what on earth the phrase “I KNOW the BoM is TRUE” actually means.

  17. Every RS I’ve been in has had at least occasional good news minutes. It was supposed to be a churchwide thing about 10 years back. Sometimes they ask for worries as well.

  18. P. I like the definitions of something being “true” that are in the Book of Mormon. Ether 4:11, Moroni 4:1 and Moroni 10:6, use it to mean “persuadeth men to do good”, “according the the commandments of Christ” and “good”.
    I am not persuaded that everyone who uses “true” when speaking over the pulpit understands that. I think it would be helpful and less stressful if they did.

  19. Maybe passing the microphone would help.

    My ward growing up did that. Two deacons (I think) roamed the aisles and passed the mic to whomever stood up. I would estimate that about half of those who shared a testimony did so from the pew.

  20. Christopher Jones says:

    Thanks for bringing my attention to this, Kevin.

    I don’t know much about contemporary Methodism or the genealogy of “Joys and Concerns” meeting, but I suggest in my MA thesis that Mormon fast and testimony meetings have at least partial roots in Methodist “love feasts” and prayer meetings, and it wouldn’t surprise me if UMC Joys and Concerns meetings have their own roots in the same.

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  22. Amen. The best “testimonies” are always the stories, although some people tend to not know how to tell one and drag it on and on. But as Mormons, we trade in the currency of certainty. What is most important to us is to be able to stand up and say we know something is true, even if that knowledge is highly subjective. I would much prefer that we do more talking about what we believe, because most Mormons, I’ve discovered, really don’t believe the same things, and my beliefs shift as I acquire new knowledge or greater context. How much more interesting our “testimony” meetings would be if we heard fewer recited testimonies and more serious reflection on personal beliefs.

  23. In a completely IT way, let me comment that I don’t like the use of abbreviations that don’t have widespread use–and thereby–understanding. I just spent over two minutes figuring out what “BRM” is referring to, and it is not “Business Relationship Management” the most common meaning I found. It was only by some relatively clever searching and inferring from context that I figured it out. Maybe among the BCC devotees it is well known? (though I read BCC almost daily)

    I have added this practice to my pet peeves list. And to save you some time, “IT” refers to “internet troll.”

  24. Kevin Barney says:

    Sorry for the wild goose chase, fbisti. I admit I have a bad habit of sometimes falling back on abbreviations that seem obvious enough to me, but may not be so to others.

  25. When I read this I can’t help but think about the commandment to be One. The generic, Sunday School lessons on the subject seem to imply that we all need to be at the same line upon line understanding of the gospel for it to work; but I think that knowing your fellow saints Joys and Concerns would bring a body of stains closer to being One than anything else.

  26. “What moves me about testimony meeting is when people get personal and talk about the Gospel as refracted through their lives.”

    This is a slight tangent, but this is exactly what I like to hear in talks too. When speakers look up the same scriptures or are asked to speak on the same Conference talks, they give largely interchangeable and forgettable talks. When they talk about their own lives, they are far more likely to say unique and interesting things.

  27. Yes, it would be nice if we could personalize our testimonies. But some are terrified to even approach the microphone and keeping it short and to the point helps them. Others cannot seem to give the microphone back once they get it. Teaching them how to limit their words to testimony can be really helpful as well.
    Face it. Few are great speakers. But all need to opportunity to publicly thank God and express the beliefs on which we are basing our lives.