LDS Worship – Part III

April 17, 2009
By

David Stout is a Disciples of Christ minister.  This is the third and final installment of his insightful commentary on LDS Sacrament Meeting Worship.  To provide proper context for this final installment, we are including a couple of paragraphs from the end of the last installment. We want to thank David for his contributions here at Mormon Matters; it has been enlightening and well-considered.

Now again I want to underscore the fact that I write as a non-Mormon, and I recognize the fact that there must be something about the sacrament meeting that does work and that the current missionary strategy has proven quite effective. Consequently, it could be very well argued that there is no point messing with success – and I would not object in the least if you, the reader, took that position.

But I would humbly suggest that maybe the broader vision of David McKay, the insights and success of Gladys Knight and her gospel choir, and the early roots of the LDS Church itself might raise some heretofore unconsidered possibilities for reaching more people from different backgrounds. I would also suggest that these same possibilities for more effective mission might also bring the sacrament meeting and the principle of ongoing revelation into greater practical coherence.

Lastly, incorporating some of these possibilities might help establish the local ward or branch as being every bit as responsible for spreading the good news as the missionaries. I think that, particularly in the U.S., congregational based evangelism could well be the way to greater success in finding converts. Participation in a church service at the invitation of a friend is a far more appealing introduction to any religion than two strangers knocking at one’s door.

From both reading and conversation, I think this fact is more and more recognized by the LDS. The missionaries do great work, but they have a far better chance of success with people who are already well disposed toward their message than with “cold” calls. Experiencing the presence of God in worship instead of just hearing about it could go a long way towards establishing that favorable disposition.

Allow me to close with a personal testimony of sorts that might illustrate what I have been talking about:

I like rationality. I am far more a head person than a heart person. The Unitarian Universalists and I get along very well. Yet even I found the service at the local branch that Sunday a bit too cerebral. If I were someone looking for a spiritual connection that morning, I would’ve appreciated the friendliness of the people and the earnestness of their beliefs. I would’ve been impressed by the fact that lay people preached and that the branch president earned his living elsewhere, but I think I would have decided to search elsewhere for that connection with the Spirit. And given the emphasis on personal testimony in the LDS, there is, I think, a sad irony here. Simply put, I would expect people who are convinced that God still speaks to them to offer a little less talk and a little more encounter in their Sunday morning worship.

And once again I hasten to add that this is the perception of someone who is sympathetic to the LDS but not a member. I therefore thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you. I pray that they will stimulate not only thought but prayer on what it means to worship and to witness and the connection between the two. In turn I hope that such thought and prayer will result in seeing the power of the Holy Spirit change even more lives. I am also eager to hear how the current sacrament meeting works in the lives of those who already find it meaningful. By listening to the voices of both those who “get it” and those who don’t (at least not yet) perhaps greater spiritual growth will be possible for all.

  • Andrew Ainsworth

    David, I am intrigued by this observation you made: “Simply put, I would expect people who are convinced that God still speaks to them to offer a little less talk and a little more encounter in their Sunday morning worship.”

    Could you help us understand what you mean when you say “more encounter”? What do you understand “encounter” to mean/be? What does “encounter” look like in a church service? How is “encounter” recognized?

    Thanks.

  • http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com Ray

    David, I think you have expressed the basic contrast between how the Church used to be and how it developed as it positioned itself against what Mormons might term the emotionalism of manipulation embodied in the televangelist and mega-church movement. At least, that’s how I think most members and leaders would characterize it. I think you are talking about an outwardly experienced, communal “spiritualism” – where Mormons generally speak about an inwardly experienced, individual spiritual witness.

    I recognize fully the irony of that, as you have expressed in your previous posts, since the LDS Church started as a truly charismatic organization, but the best analogy I can put forth is the example of a courtship, new marriage and established, child-filled family – in a distinctly Mormon construct. The courtship is exciting and new, with passions flowing, but bridled and carefully controlled – building in intensity and ready to burst. The new marriage involves barriers dropping and can be intense and new and combustible – “fiery” in a discernible way. As time passes, and as children are born and couples settle into a routine, the fire is still there (and often burns hotly) – but the steady, enduring, empowering, “sealing” love is felt much more in the soft and gentle undercurrent that flows almost without being noticed – the ever burning embers that flare occasionally but glow always.

    In modern Mormonism, the original flare generally happens in the investigator stage. Baptism brings a flame often. Long-term activity banks the fire a bit, with a soft, whispering wind that keeps the embers burning – and occasionally (quite regularly for some people) the flame flares brightly.

    My concern is, as you expressed, that our Sacrament Meetings, especially, provide more chances for the Spirit to “flare” – but that happens most often in my own experience when speakers prepare prayerfully and with deep consideration and present a message that is grounded in experience and centered on Christ. When we talk about food storage in that meeting (and any other “programmatic” or “non-spiritual” topic), we diminish the spiritual impact of the meeting, imo – and we lessen the probability that the Spirit will flare. When we sing unenthusiastically or quietly or too slowly, the same thing occurs.

    I agree COMPLETELY that the congregation can be a mighty converter, and I agree that we need to WORSHIP in Sacrament Meeting more than we do – but I don’t want the gentle whispering of the Spirit to be replaced by the emotionalism I see in the church up the highway that relies on rock bands and fast drum beats and, I believe, knows nothing of real spirituality. In some ways, it’s a fine line – and if I have to end up with one or the other, I’ll take the rich possibilities we can have when Mormonism is done “right”. I just believe we don’t do it right enough in too many wards and branches.

  • http://mormonheretic.org MH

    David, I believe your observations are “spot on”, and I think we would do well to heed your advice.

  • http://bryanandnoel.spaces.live.com Bryan Hinton

    Ray,

    I think you were spot on and your analogy was very well put. I see things the same way.

    David is right that we as members can and should be doing more to share the gospel than we do. That is something that has been preached constantly for years now. One principle I believe in deeply is that we are responsible for our relationship with the Spirit. Yes a spiritual meeting helps bring the Spirit close and readily available to those who open their hearts, but as it is stated in the Doctrine and Covenants – both the Teacher and Student need to be prepared. Likewise deep spiritual experiences can happen in spite of what is being taught or spoken. Queue the quote attributed to Pres. Kimball about never having been in a boring meeting – http://www.lds.org/pa/display/0,17884,5950-1,00.html (a talk that references the quote).

  • Jeff Spector

    “But I would humbly suggest that maybe the broader vision of David McKay, the insights and success of Gladys Knight and her gospel choir, and the early roots of the LDS Church itself might raise some heretofore unconsidered possibilities for reaching more people from different backgrounds.”

    I have been pondering this for some time. I really don’t have much more to say on this subject that has not already been said. But, there seems to be a misunderstanding about how and when a group like Saints Unified Voices would perform. There has been and always will be a place for cultural events in the Church which celebrate the diverse cultures of the Church. Of course, as the Church is more diverse than ever, those presentations are as well. I have enjoyed a number of them with Hispanic, Pacific Islander and Asian Brothers and Sisters.

    But, it seems that David, continues to press the point that we should open our sacrament meeting to the hand clapping, footstomping, Amen shouting, drum pounding, etc. That somehow, if we do this, we will attract more people to our Church. maybe, I just misunderstand.

    But, what has attracted countless people to the Church over the years, is the Gospel Message we bring of the Living God, His Son Jesus Christ and the Restoration of the Gospel. This is the message which has the staying power to keep people in the Church if they truly embrace it and live it.

    what am I missing here?

  • Jerry

    I do see the church addressing some of the problems with sacrament. Pres Kimball should be sitting in my ward. The first time I spoke in my current ward I was shocked at how dead the eyes looking back at me were when I stood up. I saw no reason to go long and I used about 5 of my requested 15 minutes only to have the next guy go 10 over. We do not have good meetings most weeks. I would like to see us go to a 35-40 minute meeting. Actually make it a Sacrament meeting where the Sacrament is the reason for being there and not distract us with 3 rehashed copies of 1 15-20 minute talk we just heard.

  • Jeff Spector

    jerry,

    what I think you are seeing is the result with the lack of spiritual leadership in the Ward. If the Bishop and the Ward leadership teach the members, and re-teach them, and re-teach them about why they are there, how they should conduct themselves, some will eventually get it. Some will never get it, no matter what.

    It’s a matter of setting the tone of the meeting and trying to create a worshipful atmosphere. It’s not that easy.

  • FireTag

    One of the things that struck me when I first started looking at Mormon blogs in the process of finding up to date news on my own church (CofChrist) was that you celebrate Sacrament weekly, while we do it monthly (mostly).

    Sometimes rekindling the romance (to use Ray’s analogy) means separating the candlelight dinner from the evening discussion of daily chores and how the kids are doing. It’s sad if we don’t really take enough time to think through the implications of “this do in remembrance of me” before we partake of the emblems.

  • http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com Ray

    In the interest of full disclosure, I am coming at this from the standpoint of someone who lives in a ward where the most recent AND current Bishops both spent what probably appeared to them to be countless months emphasizing reverence (not quietude), Christ-focused talks, prayerful preparation, openness and true fellowship, etc. I know how painful it is for some to hear this, but it’s been a LONG time since I’ve gone two Sundays in a row in my ward and not felt both spiritually fed and spiritually uplifted – in a recognizable way.

    The kicker: My ward is pretty typical of the non-Inter-mountain-corridor wards in the Midwest. We aren’t liberal in any way; we aren’t disproportionately educated or economically elite; we’re an average, blue-collar ward with lots of individual differences. We’ve been blessed, however, with two consecutive Bishops who made it their mission to increase the spirituality of our meetings and the members – and right now our “missionary success” is the highest in the entire mission.

    I also have a Stake President who is intent on shattering narrow paradigms and challenging us to consider what we have to do to be more open and inviting and “spirit filled”.

    David, you might want to read the following post from last month: What Advice Would You Give Our Bishops (“Missionary Work”)

    I think that is the heart of David’s wonderful posts – that, even though our meetings don’t burn in the same way to which he is accustomed, they really do burn in a discernible way. It’s wonderful, and it’s happening in a stereotypical Mormon ward. Our ward is on the cusp of conversion explosion, and there’s a tangible vibe of excitement in the air that’s amazing.

    This is sincere: If anyone has a bishop who would like to talk with mine, send me an e-mail @ (fam7heav at juno dot com). I’d be happy to facilitate a discussion.

  • http://www.untoldstoryofblackmormons.com Margaret Young

    David–thank you so much for sharing your thought-provoking insights. Wonderful series.

  • http://mormoninsights.blogspot.com S.Faux

    David:

    Thank you for your very constructive criticism. Most of your points are quite valid, if not all of them.

    Regarding your wish for “a little less talk and a little more encounter,” I wondered if you were hinting at revivalism (see my essay: “Overwhelmed by the Spirit of Revivalism“).

    Latter-day Saints emphasize quiet encounters with the spirit, but we certainly believe in all gifts of the spirit.

    I greatly respect your “external review” of LDS practice, and I wish we could find more of this kind of interfaith dialogue. Latter-day Saints can and do benefit from the great Christian spirit that is present in other denominations.

    Thank you again.

  • David Stout

    Andrew: By encounter I mean an experience where one has a profound (or more profound if you prefer) sense of the presence and reality of God. In Ray’s analogy it would be the rough equivalent of a kiss. A kiss can occur in a variety of circumstances, convey various levels of affection and/or passion, and even take a number of different forms, but it always makes one aware of the presence and love of another in a way that mere words cannot (though words are often a prelude).

    Jeff: I am afraid that there is a pretty deep misunderstanding here and I can see where my reference to the Saints United Choir and the like could cause it. So to hopefully clarify things a bit, forget Ms. Knight and think of a Quaker meeting. There are no drums, guitars, pianos, or organ. There is no screen or audio/visual presentation. There is only a very plain room with people sitting in quiet until the Spirit moves someone to say something. In other words, here is a service that makes Sacrament meetings look and sound loud and rowdy by comparison. What that meeting still has that I did not find at the Sacrament meeting I attended is a place where one has time to allow the non-verbal work of the Spirit to take effect; for the Quakers it is an intentional silence in which God can be encountered. It isn’t all words, though words are part of the service.

    If you look back at the first segment of this series you will note that I suggested simply leaving some moments of silence after each talk instead of going right into the hymn. I would add that the same thing could be done with the Sacrament itself. Allow a little more time for silent prayer instead of just passing the elements and moving on.

    Another possibility would be to just show up early and pray earnestly for the Spirit to give an especially powerful anointing to the speakers. (And as Ray has said, just emphasize the importance of spirituality and preparation so that something other than apologies, declarations of unworthiness, excessive appeals to Webster’s, and announcements shows up on Sunday.) The key point here is not the form for the sake of form but the more effective use of form in giving the Spirit greater freedom to work in the lives of both long time Saints and the person who isn’t even sure there is a God but who genuinely wants to meet God if He does indeed exist.

    The place where music and the like enter in thus NOT as a necessary or even desirable expression of worship. The place where such expression comes in is in the context of culture and mission. If the congregation is located in an area where non white culture is the norm and if that congregation wishes to have success in reaching its surrounding population, then I think a certain amount of flexibility in music and instrumentation in the context of a Sunday morning makes good sense.

    So am I pushing the entire LDS to bring in guitars and raise the roof? Not by any possible stretch of the imagination. What I am suggesting is that

    1. greater space could be made in any ward/branch for the Spirit to operate
    without sacrificing reverence, dignity, doctrine or anything else.

    2. greater awareness of, and flexibility in dealing with, the surrounding culture
    might increase the effectiveness of the Church’s mission.

    3. greater understanding and concern for visitors/seekers and a realization that
    they do not possess the same sensitivity to the Spirit that long time
    members do would also increase the effectiveness of the local ward or branch
    as an instrument of evangelism.

    I hope this clears things up a bit and thank you to all for your consideration of my article.

  • http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com Ray

    David, have you ever attended a Fast and Testimony Meeting? Granted, I understand how scary that can be to those who have experienced the . . . interesting . . . “testimonies” that can be shared, but each first Sunday is supposed to function much like the Quaker example you gave – expressions of faith and testimony, interspersed with silence as the Spirit moves people to share those expressions of faith and/or contemplate their own unexpressed witnesses.

    In these meetings, there can be everything from the ridiculous to the sublime – and there can be both moments of exquisite connection and just as exquisite embarrassment. (If you have an hour or two and want to read one of the most sublimely idiosyncratic threads in the history of the Bloggernacle, check out Adventures in Arizona @ Mormon Mommy Wars. Just have tissue handy, since you will laugh so hard you cry.)

    Due to the emphasis of our bishops I described above, these meetings in our ward often are the highlights of my month – even though we occasionally still have the classic ten-minute travelogue / thankamony / mini-sermon / etc. They literally “burn” in the way that David describes – and I truly feel for those who don’t experience that.

    My main point is that what David describes is possible within the general guidelines David is describing.

  • Jeff Spector

    David, Thanks for your number 12. It seems that we are on the same page at this point. I do appreciate the suggestions. one of the fascinating things about LDS worship is that when you are first married and you have no children, it is easy to feel the spirit and enjoy the quiet reverence of the sacrament service itself. You can pay attention to the talks and discuss them later after the meetings.

    When children come, they need attention during the meeting as they learn to sit still, be quiet and endure the meeting. This can be quite distracting and you may go many years without really being able to appreciate and participate in sacrament service as you would choose.

    After the kids are old enough and/or gone, you almost have to re-learn how to feel the spirit of the meeting again. you no longer have the excuse that your are taking care of the kids and teaching them how to behave in sacrament. Now it is our turn to re-learn that.

  • Andrew Ainsworth

    David,

    A friend recently sent me an interesting YouTube link. Might this be a good example of the type of “encounter” we might hope to see in LDS services sometime in the future?

  • Hawkgrrrl

    David – I was thinking along the lines of what Ray said. The first Sunday of each month is essentially like the Quaker meeting you described. Once the sacrament is done, it is (as my bishop calls it) Open Mike time. Individuals get up and share their feelings as “moved upon” by the Spirit. It’s a mixed bag, as you can imagine, but very like the Quaker meetings. And it’s done monthly.

  • http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com Ray

    Andrew, you are a bad, bad man. *GRIN*

  • David Stout

    Andrew: I believe it was your own beloved Donnie and Marie who used to say, “I’m a little bit hip hop” and “I’m a little bit psycho.” :)