Let Us Worship How We May?

church

Bradley Burgess is a convert to the LDS Church from a mostly Anglican background. He is originally from South Africa, but has lived on the US side of the pond for the better part of a decade. He holds degrees in piano and organ performance, and is a graduate of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. A professional organist and church musician, Bradley currently serves as the full-time Associate Director of Music and Worship Arts at a large downtown Methodist Church.

In 1842, responding to a request for information about the Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith composed a letter to the editor of Chicago’s first newspaper, the Chicago Democrat. In this document—now known as the Wentworth Letter, after the newspaper’s editor, John Wentworth—Joseph spelled out some of the history of the Latter-day Saints, as well as a selection of thirteen tenants that he saw as their core beliefs. While they have since become canonized scripture, these thirteen Articles of Faith—as they would later be known collectively—were originally intended for a non-Mormon audience. Even by 1842, Latter-day Saints had become accustomed to persecution—having been forced from upstate New York to Kirtland, OH; to Independence, MO; and, by this time, to Nauvoo, IL. The often violent expulsion of the Saints from state to state was surely not far from his mind when Joseph penned the Wentworth Letter, especially the eleventh statement of belief that declares that Latter-day Saints “claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of [their] conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” [1]

In the US, this past Labor Day weekend saw two very high profile memorial services. On Friday, Aretha Franklin, ”The Queen of Soul,” was sent off with an epically-proportioned “homegoing” service, that was held at Detroit’s Greater Grace Temple; the next day saw the funeral for Senator John McCain at the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, commonly known as the “Washington National Cathedral.” The occasions were markedly different in several ways:

  • Washington National Cathedral—the sixth largest in the world—is a Neo-Gothic edifice, whose cavernous, cruciform interior has more than 200 stained-glass windows; Greater Grace Temple is a megachurch, whose fan-shaped, more theatre-like worship space—similar to the Conference Center at Temple Square—wouldn’t be unfamiliar to Latter-day Saints.
  • Senator McCain’s funeral began promptly at 10am EDT Saturday, and lasted approximately 2½ hours; Aretha Franklin’s homegoing service ran nearly 2½ hours behind schedule, and was roughly 8 hours in length.
  • The music for Senator McCain’s services featured traditional and patriotic hymns, the music of John Rutter, and other classical favorites, and was provided by the traditional Anglican Cathedral Choir, the Cathedral’s 10,650-pipe E.M. Skinner organ, the U.S. Navy Brass Ensemble, the U.S. Naval Academy Glee Club, and opera megastar Renée Fleming; the Queen of Soul’s homegoing service featured gospel music, performances by R&B / Soul sensations Jennifer Hudson and Stevie Wonder, and partially-sung eulogies.
  • Throughout the McCain funeral, the congregation mostly sat quietly—apart from the singing of hymns and the occasional applause in response to tributes—and the liturgy moved orderly from one item to the next; Franklin’s service was often punctuated by shouts of “Amen!”, spontaneous dancing and clapping, interjections from the pianist and choir during spoken messages, and other responses as those present were “moved by the Spirit.”
  • The general tone of Senator McCain’s service was dignified and formal; Aretha’s was soulful and outwardly joyous.

The contrast between the two events is notable, but what is more significant is that the two services were equally valid, equally appropriate, and equally meaningful—despite their differences. There is no singular way to mourn, to celebrate a life, or to worship God; indeed, as Ruth Duck notes, “Christian worship has been diverse from the beginning, always drawing on cultural expressions to one degree or another.” [2] Yet, somehow, we have a seemingly narrow and exclusive view of what “worship” looks like in the LDS Church.

LDS Sunday Sacrament Meetings follow the same, standardized format in nearly every ward and branch of the church across the globe. The “meetings,” as they’re known, typically include: soft prelude and postlude music on the organ [3]—which is most often hymns played straight out of the hymnbook—the administration of the Sacrament (what other Christian traditions call “The Eucharist,” “The Lord’s Supper,” or “Communion”), usually 2 or 3 lay speakers chosen from the congregation, 3 or 4 hymns (for which the congregation most often remains seated), and occasionally a “special musical number,” which could be presented by a soloist, small ensemble, or choir (made up entirely of volunteers—including the director and accompanist, who often have little formal musical training, if any).

In terms of the scope of what worship services look like, there is little else; Ward and Stake Conferences follow a very similar format—minus the administration of the Sacrament in the case of Stake Conference—and from time to time there might be a “fireside,” but these are quite rare in many areas, and often have the same feel as regular Sunday services. Furthermore, the majority of LDS meetinghouses have very similar utilitarian architecture and furnishings, including a “cultural hall” (which, depending on the day, could serve as a basketball court, dining area, or overflow room for worship services), the same blue-green pew cushions and wall-to-wall carpet—even the same WiFi password. There is a small list of standardized, approved pianos and digital organs [4] from which to pick (all having the same light oak or mahogany finish), and—similarly—a modest list of approved artwork, none of which can be found inside the dedicated worship space.

Outside of Sacrament Meeting, the devotional life of a Latter-day Saint is almost exclusively individual and familial. Mormons are strongly encouraged to conduct daily personal and family prayer, and daily personal and family scripture study. [5] But we have no other corporate worship experiences to speak of—certainly no communal meditative or reflective worship practices. [6] We have no tradition of Morning Prayer, Evensong, Vespers, or Compline; by and large we do not even celebrate Holy Week. Outside of Temple Square in Salt Lake City, music on a local level is in a dire state in most congregations.

Those Latter-day Saints who feel the need for a more transcendent or thoughtful worship experience than the standardized Sunday format must inevitably look outside of the their LDS faith to find it. However, there is a certain stigma that surrounds opting to attend another denomination’s worship services in lieu of Sacrament Meeting (for fear of appearing “less active”), and many active Mormons have extremely busy Sundays, with various callings (volunteer teaching, service, and leadership roles) and assignments taking up much of the rest of Sundays. Even if they wanted to, they are unlikely to have the time—or, indeed, the energy—to be able to attend an evening liturgy at another church. Many churches of other Christian traditions offer midweek prayer or meditative services, but—because of an entirely lay clergy—this is not something that the LDS Church can offer either. Furthermore, because of a firm policy of congregations being determined geographically, you are essentially forced to attend the ward or branch in whose boundaries you live. [7] If sacred music is one of the primary mediums through which you commune with the Divine, and you are assigned to a ward that doesn’t have the requisite leadership support or skill to have good worship music, you are essentially stuck—even if a different ward that meets in the same meetinghouse happens to have a thriving choir (which, again, is unlikely because of the entirely unpaid ministry).

Recently, we held our annual choir retreat at the Methodist Church where I serve as full-time Associate Director of Music and Worship Arts. The retreat is a weekend where we spend a significant portion of time rehearsing to get a headstart on some of the major repertoire we’ll be offering in the coming season. But it’s also a time for fellowshiping and worshiping together. The Director and I decided to end the 3-hour Friday night rehearsal with a service of Compline. If you’re not familiar with Compline, it is a service of evening prayer, and was the final office in the daily canonical hours; in monastic traditions, it would have been the final utterance of the day before the the community-wide, all-night observation of silence.

As we sat in the chancel—the dimmed light twinkling in our sanctuary’s stained-glass windows and softly reflecting off the organ pipes—we participated in the evening liturgy, which includes confession, singing and reciting a psalm responsively, vocally praying in unison for each other and our community, singing hymns, and simply being together in silence. As we sang our evening hymn, Abide With Me, I wept at the organ console. The tears came unbidden, not only because I was profoundly moved by the deep spirit and stillness of the service, but also because I knew that this kind of spiritual nourishment is not at all something that I can find within my LDS faith tradition. It simply doesn’t exist.

“Let them worship… how they may.” This is certainly a “privilege” that Latter-day Saints afford people outside of their faith. (After all, keeping in mind our faith’s history of persecution, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”) [8] But is it something that we still afford ourselves? Or is it a privilege that we have forgotten—or even given up?

* * *

[1] “’Church History,’ 1 March 1842,” p. 710, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 5, 2018, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/church-history-1-march-1842/5.

[2]  Ruth Duck, Worship for the Whole People of God, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 35.

[3]  In areas where the church has less presence, especially in “branches”, meetinghouses will often only have an electric piano.

[4]  There was a time when local wards and stakes could do their own fundraising towards purchasing a pipe organ in lieu of the standard-issue digital organs, but those days are no more.

[5]  Even family scripture study—like the Sunday School and Primary classes—is going to have a unified curriculum starting in 2019, with the launch of Come, Follow Me — For Individuals and Families.

[6] Latter-day Saints are also encouraged to attend the temple regularly, but in general the temple experience is very passive.

[7]  There are two main exceptions to this: 1. In some areas there are non-English speaking congregations, which you can attend if that is your native language, and 2. Some areas have “YSA” (Young Single Adult) wards or branches that are for young, unmarried members aged 18–30. If you live in area that has such a congregation—and you fall into that age and relationship status category—you are strongly encouraged to attend that congregation, even if you would prefer not to.

[8] Luke 6:31 (NRSV)

 

Comments

  1. We have entirely lost the practice of worship in our services.

    99% of the time the goal at church is to work for God (fulfill our Sunday callings) or listen/be influenced while other people teach of topics surrounding God (from tithing to prophets to prayer to missionary work). We very rarely even address God as a topic in and of itself.

    At the high point of our services during the sacrament we are taught to reverently pray about gratitude and our/others needs (for those without small children to keep quiet). While that can be related to worship, it feels like it is missing an integral element.

    The only hope of worship is the music and you are right, it is pretty universally bad.

  2. nobody, really says:

    The best investigator I ever had on my mission finally got frustrated with us and invited us to Latin Mass at the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore, the mother cathedral for the entire United States. Pipe organ, bells, choir, very polished and professional. I just sat there in awe.

    Afterwards, this sweet and professional man took us back to his home and explained that while he knew the Book of Mormon was true and that he would be studying it for the rest of his life, he was desperately missing that sense of majesty and worship that was absent at our ward. And this was with a ward organist with a PhD who taught organ performance at a music conservatory.

    I’ve also been in wards where the Sacrament meeting topic was “Church Welfare” on Easter Sunday. There is no excuse.

  3. tnbuttercup says:

    My husband and I (both converts:he former Episcopalian and I former Catholic) have discussed this many times and even recently. We both find ourselves missing more lately of what we had before in the way of Worship Service (or Mass) than early on in our membership. I find myself looking forward to those times away from my home ward when I attend meetings with relatives of other faiths. The music is boring (I am Ward pianist) and the often the talks are repetitive. Sigh….

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    It used to be a little better. When I was a boy out sacrament meetings were in the evenings, by themselves, no other meetings to distract us. That felt more like a real worship service. But that all went the way of the dodo with the three hour block.

    This is a big part of the reason that so many of my friends have such sacred envy for high church traditions…

  5. James Petersen says:

    I have long been disappointed that the LDS church gives little serious attention to major Christian holidays. Easter is a particularly arid time. Years ago I went to an Easter day service in a ward I didn’t not usually attend, and I noted there was not even one talk about the death and resurrection of the Savior. We have only three Easter hymns in our hymnbook (two of them grand hymns brought in from other religions and one hymn from an LDS author and compoer–and that one is seldome used), and they are sung once a year. There is no recognition of Good Friday, or of the actual Last Supper. When General Conference falls on Easter Sunday, there are one or two talks, and the rest are general church topics. Without the Tabernacle Choir (are they going to change that iconic name?), things would be pretty dreary music-wise. Just to get my Christmas “fix”, I often attened a Los Angeles Anglican midnight service. The choir, the organ, the congregational singing (yes, they sang all 8 verses of O Come, O Come Emanuel!) stayed with me as I left into the cold midnight air of Los Angeles on an early Christmas morning (noting that they prayed especially for all who had to work through the holiday, i.e. fire, police, hospital workers, etc.) And yes, other LDS friends came to that service as well–OK–one is a professional level organist :) He needed that “little extra” as well.

  6. Aussie Mormon says:

    Suggestions are still open for hymnbook changes so I hope that you’re all submitting (or have submitted) recommendations that can help give us what you think are better hymns.

  7. New hymns will not change anything. Trained organists, leaders who know the difference, more than 2 approved instruments, reversal of anti-expert sentiment, etc. These would make a difference, but will not happen.

  8. Very little Christ in the Church of Jesus Christ.

  9. Thank you for noting this distinction in a publicly available blog. I have long complained that there is rarely any worship in LDS worship services or in “temple worship.” I have found my ways of dealing with it; they still leave a void that should be part of my Sabbath observance, rest and spiritual refreshment.
    My childhood LDS experience was very different — large ward, choir of 35-40 good singers with strong leadership, music festivals and youth choirs that functioned to teach others, stake conference choirs doing significant anthems, etc. Small wards and the 3-hour block killed all that.
    But would you consider editing “tenants” (i.e. persons who rent property from landlords) to “tenets” which is the word I believe intended. Shame on auto-correct!

  10. Billy Possum says:

    Bradley,

    Your last sentence hit me hard. It is ironic that we, as a Church, appear to be giving up our worship in some sense, even as the institutional Church purports to defend religious liberty. I suppose we have our worship, “if [we] can keep it.”

    I will add that my experience (both childhood and adult) has been much more like JR’s second paragraph. That is, I have not really seen or felt the diminution in worshipful music-making. But I have also lived in either university wards or larger wards near American coastal cities. I wonder whether the diminution so many note here has more to do with changes in certain subcultural or demographic groups within the Church than it does with the Church as against other religious organizations.

  11. I always find it distressing that when Christmas falls on the weekend we have the Christmas program on a different week. So odd to me – shouldn’t that be the Sunday to speak and sing of Christ?

    The ward I live in now has the choir only sing on large holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas-time and Easter-ish (depending upon Conference) and they take the summer off. I miss monthly choir numbers even when the music was simple. It always feels special to me when there’s a choir number

  12. We have stake conference a week from now, held in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, and they’ve been advertising for weeks for stake choir members. The director, who is our ward’s director, is quite good at coaxing impressive music from our normally small ward choir. Not sure what it means, but I notice that in raising the stake choir, they haven’t been saying, “Come learn Anthem X,” or “Come sing to the Lord,” or anything else that speaks to the music or the choir. It’s all been, “Come take selfies in the Tabernacle Choir seats with the organ as a backdrop.”

    Facebook friends have heard too much from me about the deadly effect of hymn-dirges sung at 2/3 the lowest recommended tempo in ward meetings. I love to sing with a congregation, but no longer sing at church.

  13. I think we as Church Musicians have a big responsibility to teach and train and be good examples of what can and should be done in the wards and stakes. Your experience in worship is what you come prepared to have and give during the meeting. It is your responsibility. Granted, many of the rising generation have not been trained to be reverent or even respectful. Ongoing efforts should be consistent in teaching and training. Parents are very lax about taking their crying children out of the meetings and our people are generally so happy to see each other, they tend to chat a lot during the prelude and postlude. Most have no concept of what communal worship is. They have never really seen it in action. Unless they have a spiritual experience with it, they won’t appreciate it. Pres. Eyring came to our stake once and taught us powerfully about reverence and worship. I will never forget his teachings and how different meetings are when we follow the counsel he taught. As long as I ever have anything to do with worship music in our meetings, I will press for more and better music! If I need to take people aside and personally train them or give them private lessons, I will do it. (Done it before in wards all over the USA and can do it again!) That includes the leaders — especially the leaders!

  14. This post moved me. As one who most often feels God’s presence through holy music, I have often felt drawn to the musical traditions of other faiths. My heart would rejoice if we were to have, even monthly, some sort of Evensong service.

  15. Such a weird post – “There are so many beautiful ways to worship. Except Mormons. Mormons are boring. Let’s enjoy counting the ways that Mormons are boring.”

    Grass is greener on the other side. What can we do to improve our own lawn. At the least, we can make fertilizer.

  16. Well, Frank, we ARE boring. It’s hard to argue with that.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Another thing we used to do preblock was devote time to teaching music and singing to the entire congregation (maybe as part of SS? I don’t quite remember.) The only reason this sticks in my mind is for awhile that was my dad’s calling. If we weren’t doing it right he would stop the song, explain the issue and have us do it again. No dirge-like tempos when the leader is eyeing all the details like a hawk…

  18. A few years ago, I came across a book called “Sundays in America,” by Suzanne Shea. The author attended a different church every Sunday (and sometimes Fridays and Saturdays) and then chronicled her experience—admittedly, not a sound foundation on which to base an informed opinion about a particular religion, though she did travel widely and even visited Joseph Smith’s birthplace in Vermont while researching Latter-day Saints.

    What was Ms. Shea’s overall assessment of our faith? Forget about all the crazy things you’ve heard about polygamy and their other unusual practices; the only thing you have to fear from Mormons is that they will bore you to tears.

  19. Betsy, I appreciate your dedication. Such efforts do not always work; making them work is not solely the musicians’ responsibility. Nor is their failure, always the musicians’ failure. In 35 years our area has changed from a stake president interested in and supporting worship music through a number of stake presidents with no interest in the quality of the music. In that time we moved from having an enthusiastic choir of 30-60 people singing Mendelssohn, Franck, Faure choruses, traditional Christian anthems (Anglican, Methodist, LDS) to reluctant choirs of 10-20 people under explicit instructions to sing only from the LDS hymnal as published there – no hymn arrangements, no use of the “Choirbook” or any other sources. Organists have been instructed to play prelude and postlude music for stake conference only from the hymnal – no hymn arrangements, and as quietly as they would play in the temple chapel. It is no wonder that competent singers are bored and reluctant. Sometimes I have been able to push a Christmas or Easter or other concert or sacred music fireside. They have worked well when I could select a choir from among members of 3 stakes. Even when we have managed a stake ya’ll-come choir of 30, the result has been poor at best – largely for lack of interest in coming to regular rehearsals, leaving each rehearsal to function as a first rehearsal. I’m involved in another exhausting 2-stake affair now. I’m probably too old, tired and discouraged to continue after this year – just when we finally have a supportive new stake presidency.

    Kate, if you have a highly skilled organist, you can do “some sort of Evensong” with congregational singing made interesting with accompaniment, incorporating solos and small groups. Maybe it could take off on a quarterly basis; use hymn arrangements at first and call it a “hymn-sing.” But good luck getting calendars cleared in our overscheduled buildings to permit it. In the meantime, I will continue to attend Easter services and Evensong at the Episcopal cathedral and some Lutheran and Methodist and Presbyterian services where worship through music is understood.

  20. …God knows I have a lot of criticism for the Church, but this isn’t something that bothers me that much. I guess partially because I regularly attend my husband’s Lutheran services, and for a while I sang in a Catholic choir (for pay), and I also know what we are NOT missing:

    -church politics regarding the music. I know your ward has probably had tiffs over the Christmas program and the organist vs. the bishop and whatever, but I’m telling you, you guys are all AMATEURS. Get a couple of priests and a hardcore non-lay paid choir director and a paid Spanish-language music director together, all of whom have wildly differing opinions as to what the church traditions ought to be, and let me tell you, it is brutal.
    -a congregation that kind of sits there instead of singing, fueling the battle between the above on whether we should have Latin or English hymns/liturgy
    -Tiffs about whether we should sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” the actual way Luther intended us to or the way that the congregation can actually follow
    -Modern church music that goes something like “Jesus loves us all! Ohhhhh Jesus, he loves me, he loves you, he loves all of us! Yes Jesus!” For five stanzas. (To be fair that church now has a new music director that does better modern music with more than five words in the lyrics, which we’re all very grateful for.)

    Would I like better music in our church services? Yes. Am I totally envious and interested in high church service? Yes. But it’s not like other religions don’t have their problems with worshiping how they may, either.

  21. cahn, You got it. In my substitute organist work, I think I’ve about seen it all!

  22. May I put in a word here for incense? The olfactory as portal to the divine has been honored and practiced for centuries. Bring your own and burn it in the kitchen. Also ecstatic dance, shouting hosannas & speaking in tongues (if necessary, in the kitchen). Frankly I find syncretism necessary just to make it from 10AM to 11:15AM but the discipline of Zen seems all that’s realistically available (unless you go to the kitchen). Sometimes there’s leftover food in the kitchen and you can have a snack while you’re you’re waiting for the meeting to end.

  23. Mormon services are “meetings,” not worship. I couldn’t even comprehend what worship *was* until I became a Lutheran. From an ecclesiological standpoint, I confess I wonder if church without worship can even appropriately be labeled church…

  24. Crazy thing is, I bet most Mormons would love a little high church music practice in sacrament meeting, if they only knew what they were missing! I bet the majority of mainstream members have never visited another worship service and have nothing to compare it to. But it totally seems like something we could embrace! We’re just stuck in our mediocre traditions to break out of the mold. Frustrating.

  25. I had an epiphany once when I was reading the scriptures, something along these lines. Jesus Christ and God, our Heavenly Father, are worthy of praise from all that lies within us. In establishing our Sabbath worship they could have rightly asked us to celebrate the glories of God and His plan – golden statuary and breathtaking chapels, choirs singing His praises, each of us bowing humbly and reciting psalms of praise, prostrations, exclamations, etc. All of it would be glorious and well deserved. But He (Christ) has not asked us to worship in this way. Instead, in His meekness, he asks us to worship Him by simply coming to speak of Him and to learn of Him. I find that remarkable. And beautiful. Truly He is full of grace and humility.

    When my heart is in the right place, even our most prosaic hymns (well, maybe not the worst of the lot – we never sing those) touch my heart and I feel His Spirit.

    This being said, there is sacred music I listen to at home that fills me in a way that our communal hymns don’t, so I get what others are saying. But I also cannot deny that I weekly have experiences that feed my soul as a result of the music we sing, the partaking of and thinking about the sacred emblems, hearing testimony and experiences of others, discussing gospel principles in classes, and even in teaching Primary.

  26. Billy Possum says:

    Nothing is as profound as the difference between Craig Jessop and Mack Wilberg. Even MOTAB is less exciting than it was.

    (sung) A – men!

  27. P,
    You don’t need incense, I’m sure every ward has a Young Living, or DoTerra rep, or both, who would be happy to diffuse some oils during the service. Then sell them to you after.

    As a tone deaf individual, the music doesn’t move me or depress me, but the tempo! It’s like slogging through molasses in January.

  28. In the April 2018 General Conference Elder Wakolo shared a story of a man and his frustration. He said, “But one more thing. Your church is not lively like ours.”
    To that we responded, “What would you do if the Savior Jesus Christ walked through your door?”
    He said, “Immediately, I would go down to my knees.”
    We asked, “Isn’t that what you feel when you walk into Latter-day Saint chapels—reverence for the Savior?”
    He said, “I get it, I get it, I get it!”
    Some may perceive us as boring while others recognize the same behavior as reverent and respectful. I guess it is the heart that counts. The same could be said about our music.

  29. Communal worship requires preparation and effort. One must prepare one’s heart to worship properly, but that’s not the kind of preparation I’m thinking of. I mean the same kind of preparation and effort that goes into any other communal project. It’s work. A good sermon takes extensive preparation and effort. So does good music. Talent helps too.

    We settle for a low standard of preparation and effort in our worship services. We tend to excuse our low standard by pointing to our non-professional clergy and the volunteer structure of our wards. We could do better, though, with more preparation and effort.

    I don’t like that the bounds of propriety in our sacrament meetings are set by the things we don’t do: don’t make noise, don’t use the wrong musical instruments, don’t have any images as emblems of worship. When we try to improve our services, we are as likely to add prohibitions (don’t look at your cell phone) as we are to create positive additions. This mentality of staying inside the lines at all costs is a constipated way of worshiping. It keeps us from imagining what more preparation and effort might produce; it forces us into an excessive, barren simplicity. At worst, we even think of this avoidance mentality as a virtue; it seems to me that this way of thinking is upside down.

    There is a lot to say about music, but it’s too much to say here. I’ll just repeat that if we got more serious about improving the quality of preparation and effort in our worship services, we could accomplish something significant. We would not have professional quality, but that’s okay. Things could be better, and we would lose none of the benefits of reverence, communion, and spirituality that our best meetings currently have.

  30. 1 it’s a little odd to pivot from “the two services were equally valid, equally appropriate, and equally meaningful” to “but we have a narrow view.” Why isn’t the Mormon way a *third* “valid, appropriate, meaningful” way?

    2. So the argument is usually:
    (a) I don’t like the Mormon way. Let’s fix it.
    Or
    (b) I don’t like the sameness. Let’s mix it up.
    Or
    (c) I don’t like the cultural expectations that keep me from openly appreciating multiple forms.

    3. My general responses:
    (a) There is virtue in plainness, in the low church forms. It’s a real thing, not just laziness or poverty of imagination, and I for one appreciate it. On a separate note, I don’t see any prospect for change on a macro scale in LDS practice, so I practice the “love the one you’re with” approach.
    I do think we don’t do our own thing very well sometimes. I do think we are a somewhat odd combination of low church form and high church clericalism in practice. But we could improve on both, locally and individually.

    (b) There is much more room to “mix it up” than is exhibited in most places. I have pushed some cultural boundaries myself and I know others have too. Granted strong (cultural) pressures toward lowest-common-denominator sameness, if you’re willing to buck the culture and you have a supportive or at least tolerant Stake President, there’s a lot of exciting variation possible. (I do think the Stake President makes a big difference. Most interesting variations I have seen come up at a Ward Council level, and when they get squashed it’s usually the SP playing the heavy.)

    (c) I can decry the culture that suggests I shouldn’t appreciate and enjoy multiple forms, but it’s a straw man—I can’t remember when it stopped me and I wonder if even the cultural norm extends beyond a fear of teenager curiosity? It does seem that a lot of comments in this kind of thread display experience that could only come from likewise dabbling and enjoying, elsewhere.

  31. I think we all wish Bradley Burgess was a member of our congregation. He is obviously qualified to bring the Spirit into our meetings with beautiful and sacred music, even if it is toned down compared to other church services.
    I wonder how many others who have commented have done their part to raise the level of music found in our Sacrament Meetings. How many sing in the choir, how many go as a family with their older children, how many pay and mentor their children in piano lessons, how many sing the hymns in Family Home Evening and teach their children to lead music? I believe our music has suffered because parents have not taught and prepared their children in the field of music like we have done in the past. Choirs have suffered because no one shows up. How many complaining have practiced and prepared a musical piece for Sacrament Meeting?
    We are a free will church. If you see a problem in the area of music, you can do something about it.

  32. If you like olfactory worship, try my ward. Last Sunday, I went in the men’s room and found that someone had put not one, but two giant “air fresheners” on the counter. With no way to even regulate the openings. I’m not sensitive to scents like some people, but man, that was overpowering. Like eyes watering and nose burning and give you a headache. I moved one into the janitor’s closet. The bathrooms don’t have very good ventilation, and they tend to have a permanent stale smell. I’m sure that’s why someone thought it needed an air freshener, but if the ventilation is poor, that also means that the perfumy air freshener thing is going to be concentrated in the room also.

  33. Christian Kimball, I very much agree with your statement that there is value in low church forms as well, and that our Mormon structures and practices are just as valid as others. We can be “us”. We can certainly do a better job of it–there is MUCH room for improvement–but that doesn’t mean that we have to be just like someone else. I love both. I love the ritual, pageantry, and awe that come through the architecture and music that I have experienced in other church services. I also love our imperfect and more casual services.

  34. wreddyornot says:

    Give me some Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir or a hymn like For Everyone Born (youtube it for examples). Yes, I do enjoy my annual dose of variety at Sunstone Symposium or visiting by a service, like I did last week at Harvest Vertical Church as a guest of my cousin . I then return refreshed to my weekly blocks of familiar mediocrity, which I think I enjoy the most.

  35. Anyone with sincere faith in the restored Gospel please listen, read,.and watch 1971 General Conference talk, “How to Worship”.

    It stands outside the points made here about the aesthetic of church services defined as worship found in ours or other faiths. I’ve listened to it at least 40 times and this article is a good occasion to return to it.

  36. I think I understand your dilemma, because I, too, have experienced much holy envy in the past two years.  The truth is that there is much good in the world, just as Zeniff saw in the Lamanites, which caused him to want to live near them, but yet still inhabit the land of his fathers.  Like you and me, he was a person of much zeal, which sometimes caused him trouble as he tried to balance his life and figure out who he was and where he should be.  Unlike and Ammon, who went to be a servant to the Lamanites, Zeniff was unable to withdraw from the Lamanite world early enough and completely enough to protect his descendants.  You have a young family and they are looking to you for their guidance.  Despite the cultural flaws of our meetings and the people, even the history, let us not dismiss or minimize the many unique blessings we enjoy.  Rather, can we find a way to allow your extra worship—which is a blessing for you and for me, and for those we serve not of our faith—to complement and strengthen our appreciation of priesthood, personal revelation, the Book of Mormon, and especially the temple and the covenants that bond us to our families and protect us?  Remember, although currently on the down-side of favor, the name “Mormon” can mean “more good.”  This is not to say it means “all the good,” just more good.
     
    I have been a member all my life and so I can look back 50 years to what are my earliest memories of Church meetings and Church activity and see that much has changed.  Yes, choirs were larger and sang better, at least in the very large ward I was born into which included a large area of New Jersey, with many professionals who worked in New York City and at Bell Labs.  It was a large seed-bed of leaders, who then went all through the world to sprinkle many less capable areas with the salt of the restored gospel.  Like choirs and music programs, dance festivals, roadshows, sports, and even Scouting have diminished in importance or been eliminated. Not being a sports person myself, I cannot imagine how sports would be a way to worship, but apparently, it was.  Many hearts were touched on the basketball courts, of all places.  People are different.  It seems that, with the 3-hour block, and increased demands on time, it becomes even more critical that we find our own personal refuge and strength in our private worship.  We meet to renew our covenants through the emblems of the Sacrament as administered by the youngest of our priesthood holders, and, interestingly, the first activity of sacrament meeting, not the last.  The remaining 2.5 hours of church is where we hopefully try to strengthen and support each other.  As an introvert and an intellectual, I find the last 2.5 hours both frustrating and exhausting at times, on top of the fact that I have already been to another church from early a.m. until noon.  One of the major differences in the climates of the churches in which we work is geographical.  The other churches that have the organs which we play cater to a certain type of individual and can draw from a much larger area to find them.  The temptation to compare the two churches and find our own little wards lacking is great, but deceptive.
     
    So we see that there is much good to be found in the traditions of worship, sermon, and music in other churches.  Life is not purely black and white, all good or all bad. The never-ending challenge is to find balance, and we can only find that within ourselves, and not from others.  I find that my temple attendance helps me keep the equilibrium.  For someone like me, who loves the architectural beauty of cathedrals, the elegance of liturgy, the vestments, and ritual, the temple is where I find the Mormon equivalent.  I remember when there was no music at all in our temple worship, and I very much appreciate the dimension it adds to my spirituality and understanding. I only find the temple to be a passive experience when I am going superficially through the motions.  Ritual represents a safe passage through our trials and provides time-out from the world—and the temple is a sanctuary of peace for that very reason.
    As Mormons, we have been taught that answers can be found and that “mystery” is a confused feeling, associated with corrupt doctrines which cannot be understood rationally, and thus deemed “mystery.”  How small-minded it is to not acknowledge that mystery abounds in the restored gospel as well!  We feel our way, using the lamp of scripture, testimony, prayer, and our (yes, sometimes fallible) leaders.  We proclaim the mystery of our faith exactly as you hear it in other liturgies: Christ has died.  Christ has risen.  Christ will come again.
     
    But another equally mystifying truth is that we are all fools before God, weak and simple, and prone to error.  We are not perfect, but play Hyfridol quietly, emphasizing our own weakness instead of God’s grandeur.  I love the grandeur of the organ, and I am sad when others do not welcome it.  But I also love the weakness and obvious foolishness.  We are the salt of the earth.  What will the world or our families do if we lose our unique savor?  These are questions I ask myself as I seek to find balance in my worship in my South Phoenix home ward, my Spanish ward that I attend at 1 p.m., and the Episcopal and Methodist churches I have served and grown to love.

  37. Overall, we Mormons do a poor job of praising God, both in prayer (rarely actually verbalizing praise for him, naming his virtues, etc) and in practice.

  38. Jacob Levale says:

    This has been something I’ve advocated for for a very long time. In our ward (Samoan) the Bishop or bishop’s counselor conducting ALWAYS opens the meeting by thanking God for his grace and blessings on that particular Sabbath morning and for bringing our congregation together. This is the same in any Samoan congregation as, culturally, Samoans maintain a reverence for God no matter what religion you are. In the English congregation I’ve visited on multiple occasions, I never ONCE heard the conducting member of the Bishopric mention Heavenly Father in opening the meeting and the service felt like it was just that, a MEETING. Imagine visiting one of our service for the first time and hearing the service opened as such, “Good morning, by way of announcement the scouts will have car wash this Saturday and there will be no activities this week due to deep cleaning of the building…” If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were in a business meeting.

  39. Yes to all of this. I am a convert and a trained musician (undergrad performance degree, MM and PhD in musicology, specializing in Renaissance sacred polyphony, and I work with singers in that research). I love the church; I love the gospel; I feel the Spirit often in our humble Sacrament meetings and other meetings. But the power of liturgy and music and of the rhythm and personal sanctification that observing the church calendar are entirely missing to us. We, of course, experience other transcendent experiences in our own worship — in the expectation of and commitment to personal study and learning, in temple worship, in the intimate spiritual sharing that often happens among LDS friends. But when I attend midnight Mass in the basilica, or Evensong at the local Episcopal church, I am grateful that others carry this tradition forward. (And, I am also aware of doctrinal gaps in that worship. The music is not enough to compensate for the fullness of the gospel.)

    I believe that we do not simply lack the dignity and awe that liturgy and music impart because of our pioneer traditions — rather, it is discouraged as being prideful and detracting from humility (or something — I am not sure what the rationale could be). And in the church, we are in real danger of losing even what we have because our attention to music is at best lacking and at worst discouraged (choirs allowed to sing only from the hymnal, for instance). I am the choir director in our ward, and I have currently given up because there is no one to play the piano. After two years of struggling with that condition, I finally threw in the towel. Where will our musicians come from when musicians are so often characterized as prideful for wanting to share the most beautiful gift we have to offer?

  40. I love all the comments here about music, but just want to add a gentle nudge to point out that this post also addresses other aspects: architecture, dress, tone and delivery of talks, etc. Music might be the most obvious one we think we can address, but there are many, many aspects to consider.

    Our meetings are stiff and formal. As I see it, the problem might best be described as one of conformity and stagnation. This is, too me, one of the major complaints of the OP: we don’t allow for a multitude of types of worship in our buildings.

    We have a problem as a church with artistic expression in general. What is codified it codified and must be the one and true way to proceed. We have an unwritten order (and written ones) that are completely cultural by-products that in their turn create assumptions about worship, how to approach deity, what kind of art, music, architecture, etc. is best.

    It’s, quite frankly, a sad note of our culture how little imagination and depth we tend to consume as art and artistic expression (in all forms–architecture, music, speech, paintings, sculpture) in our church.

  41. Brian is right that there is more than one dimension to the lack of dimension in our worship, and I think he is right that codification is the problem, and it does limit our range of expression quite drastically. One of the most refreshing and free LDS meetings I have been to is the Genesis group, specifically for African-American church members, but it also welcomes friends and family members and others who want to come — it’s open to all. There is not a Genesis group in my area, but if there were, I would attend, because it felt the way I wish our meetings felt all the time. Not stiff!

    It is also true that every institution controls its message. As a music historian, I can tell you that the popes throughout history have NEVER been happy with the music! But somehow, musicians just kept on doing their thing despite disapproving papal bulls.

  42. A neighbor recently got back from spending three weeks in Oxford. She attending evensong as often as possible and said how she sorely missed it upon returning to Utah.

  43. Thank you for this. I have prescribed myself a steady diet of one to two church visits with other faiths a month since my faith crisis. But it comes at the expense of more solid community and some social standing in my home LDS faith. It definitely put me on the less active list before long Eve though I still go LDS 2-3 Sundays. I also am a musician and music is one of the main pieces I simply need to feel God. Maybe we never were meant to have one steady faith diet anyway, maybe that’s why we’re a bit malnourished on some fronts. I am finally okay giving myself permission to find that in the wilderness of faith visits in this season of my journey. But I get it, it sucks we cant fid that in our spiritual home.

  44. My supplemental music includes versions by Elvis and others of “The Old Rugged Cross” and other gems. I would also recommend the film “The Way” with Martin Sheen, a lovely treatment of The Camino in France and Spain.

  45. Kristin Brown says:

    Flunky, thank you for recommending “How to Worship”. An excellent talk. I can see why you have read it over and over again. I will do the same.

  46. I just want the point out the privileged and elitist position that the op and a majority of the comments here reflect. Absolutely, we should always be striving to improve worship, both individually and as an institution, but we are part of a global church, and these comments fail to reflect that. True, more variety would be great, but think about the comfort and sense of community that standardized curriculum and practices bring. I have been to dozens of wards on many continents, and what we have in common allows us to to integrate into the community wherever we go. Electronic keyboards allow for meaningful music in parts of the world where musical education is a luxury most can’t afford. Standardized curriculum allow members with little formal education to prepare and teach classes that, if you take the time to listen, provoke thoughtful of unartfully experience reader insghts from church members from every walk of life.

    I don’t know where the OP lives, or where most commenters live, but where I live, we are in fact privileged to have firesides several times a year that include moving musical numbers and large choirs. We even have orchestra performances at special occasions. While I love these performances, they are no more moving t me and inviting of the spirit than the less-talented-than-average ward choir I just sang with, where perfectly unremarkable (from a musical perspective) people put aside their discomfort in order to sing together. Somehow, despite regular pitch problems, we managed to create something beautiful that brought at least one ward member that I saw to tears.

    What we have invites all to worship, rather than to create a class of worshipers and a class of spectators. Yes, please, let’s try to improve our worship, and let’s look to other traditions to see what we can learn. But in our efforts to do so, let’s not sacrifice the beautyinherent in our lay worship.

  47. I love sacrament meeting worship. I feel God’s presence there. I sing worse than I did when I was 20, but still feel God’s love in the music and witnesses and teaching of fellow congregants, I do advocate, as the GA’s have recently again, to have Christ centered worship every week.

  48. Ironically, while still on the rolls of the restored Church, I worship with the Methodists that I may be fed and commune with the divine.

  49. @Dsc,

    You seem to mainly focus on standardized curriculum in your comment. That’s another discussion.

    But, for instance, when I have attended church services in Tonga and the males wore tupenus (skirts), that didn’t cause a disruption in my “comfort and sense of community”; neither did the congregation in Taiwan responding with a call-and-answer type greeting from the pulpit; nor did the occasional clapping or verbal words of encouragement in appreciation in West Africa. That’s what this post is about–diversity of modes of worship–not curriculum. Your comment, in fact, reveals what is at stake: somehow we have put pressure on cultural indicators (outward showing of being “in”) as a method of seeing community instead of the focus on Christ.

  50. Loursat, I love this that you said:

    “I don’t like that the bounds of propriety in our sacrament meetings are set by the things we don’t do: don’t make noise, don’t use the wrong musical instruments, don’t have any images as emblems of worship. When we try to improve our services, we are as likely to add prohibitions (don’t look at your cell phone) as we are to create positive additions. This mentality of staying inside the lines at all costs is a constipated way of worshiping. It keeps us from imagining what more preparation and effort might produce; it forces us into an excessive, barren simplicity. At worst, we even think of this avoidance mentality as a virtue; it seems to me that this way of thinking is upside down.”

    I think your point has broader application to how we think about what’s good and bad in the church in general. We’re so much better at stating prohibitions than stating good things we want to encourage. As you point out, this applies to how we think about what’s appropriate in Sunday worship services, but I think it also applies, for example, to Sabbath day observance more generally. Most any child in primary could likely tell you lots of things you shouldn’t do on Sundays, but what *should* we do? Hmm. Read scriptures? Go to meetings? We don’t talk about that so much. Or clothing choices: Don’t wear *this*! Don’t wear *that*! Don’t expose such-and-such body part! Okay, so what should I wear? Well, I don’t know. Just be sure to cover everything I said.

    I love your phrase “a constipated way of worshiping.” I feel like the version of Mormonism that I’ve largely learned is a constipated way of *living*, so stuffed with prohibitions and with so little positive to say about anything.

    Sorry for the tangent.

  51. Forty-two years ago I found Christ and God in a plain humble little Church chapel. The simple hymns in the hymnbook have often moved me to tears. I’m sorry so many of you have missed that experience. My most important relationship has been between me and God. My surroundings have very little to do with that. Peeling potatoes in my kitchen works as well as the National Cathedral to commune with the Divine. If you can’t find Him in yourself will you really find Him anywhere? Pomp and ceremony and grand and glorious may hide your lack, but it will still be there.

  52. Elizabeth, I suspect you have misunderstood. At least some of us who are moved by great music well-sung have also been moved by simple hymns simply sung. We have also found Him in ourselves. Pomp and ceremony have essentially nothing to do with our appreciation of and been moved by good music focused on the scriptures and on Christ. There is no need to assume that we have missed being moved by the simple because we are also moved by the artfully complex or the merely finely sung simple. The “National Cathedral” works as well as peeling potatoes in my kitchen to commune with the Divine. Why is it that they should be pitted against each other rather than both embraced?

  53. “being” not “been” — stupid autocorrect!

  54. Stimulating thoughts!

  55. Folks might be interested in the thoughts of Teryl Givens, John Durham Peters, Jared Hickman and others in this volume: https://www.mormonartscenter.org/store/the-kimball-challenge-at-fifty-mormon-arts-center-essays There’s one essay (mine) that’s centered on the topic of music in worship services.

  56. If you’re tired of blue-green pew upholstery, come to my town. We have pink and mauve.