Jul 28, 2010
Glenn Ostlund and Bridget join up to discuss with Jana Riess why Mormon meetings tend to be so dull.
Podcast: Play in new window
By John Larsen
Tags: beliefnet, boring, Confirmation Bias, flunking sainthood, Gladys Knight, hymns, Jana Riess, Kirtland Temple, meetings, Mormon church, presbytarian, Sacrament Meeting, spirit of god, worship
Bridget’s point about worship being the sex of the relationship can be taken in so many ways…
celestial polygamy, anyone?
…anyway, I think one caveat to the idea of including more stories is how people can often get very off-topic. Consider fast Sundays when some people get up to tell their theologically spotty stories (yeah, the ones where you see, as was mentioned in the podcast, the Bishop whisper messages to his counselors about whether they should put a stop to that.)
These stories are DEFINITELY memorable. But not necessarily for the best reasons.
(also, I love the idea of playing a “behind the scenes clip” after the show)
I’ll give a pre- and post-listening answer. I just wrote about this last Sunday. My answer: Correlation.
Now I’ll listen and see if you’ve got better answers than me…
OK, I listened and now I’m returning and reporting.
The issue of music shows what I argued in my blog post — the Church has correlated Mormonism into utter blandness. (And, no, this isn’t a case of confirmation bias. )
I understand (though I can’t be sure for I cannot read a Sealed Book) that the Handbook of Instructions dictates what kinds of musical instruments can be played. I remember a musical family offering to play trumpets and such for the Christmas program one year and being told, “No, we don’t do that.”
The Mormon mania for rules and coordination just sucks the joy out of life in the church.
The title of this podcast is misleading. It should be changed to:
“We think the LDS church should be even more batshit crazy.”
Nevertheless I enjoyed the discussion.
The problem with Mormons is that we are crazy, but our obsession with reason won’t let us be crazy too openly: we have to express our craziness as solemnly and seriously as possible so as to avoid noticing that it really is, well, crazy.
I think this is what Jana is calling for (soundtrack optional)
That was a very interesting podcast. I am no longer an LDS member and have not attended an LDS meeting in several years. However, even as a bishopric member, I was bored by the lack of originality, spontaneity, friendliness, openness that an LDS sacrament meeting possessed.
I doubt there will be any change forthcoming. Those leaders you discuss do not come from a background in Pentecostal/Protestant worship. Largely they come not only from a Mormon religious experience, but professionally from corporate America. Lawyers, doctors, accountants, and CEO’s who are by nature conservative would hardly find energetic worship music or material inviting.
On a side note, I had an interesting experience once with a recent convert who came with the ward’s youth group to do baptisms for the dead. I met her at the door of the Oklahoma City temple. This strong, beautiful and black Caribbean lady had been through many religious experiences before being baptized. She may have been something of a religious wanderer. As I ushered her past the recommend desk into the baptistery, we were greeted by a sister temple worker who was tasked with helping our convert change into baptistery clothing (jump suit).
The convert was overcome with emotion and raised her hands and began loudly to speak in tongues which sounded like babble to me. I was unprepared as was the sister temple worker. Once I got my senses back and had time to evaluate the situation, I quietly advised the convert sister that LDS members did not practice speaking in tongues during worship. I believe I inadvertently offended her.
Mormon sacrament meetings certainly are dull. However, I am not sure the answer is to try and make them more “joyful” by introducing evangelical Christian ecstatic elements. Personally, having visited some of these churches (after growing up Mormon), I found the spontaneous shouting and praising to be more creepy than inspiring. I believe it mainly comes down to the worship style we are used to.
While the episode focused on sacrament meeting, I believe the problem of dull Mormon church meetings goes way beyond just sacrament meeting. My main gripe was the absolute lack of any meaningful discussion or room for expression of original ideas in the priesthood and Sunday school lessons (I assume Relief Society was the same). The lessons were nearly always just a vehicle to illustrate some commandment to be obeyed (i.e., tithing, home teaching, word of wisdom, etc.) and consisted mainly of the participants parroting back the same old canned answers to the same old canned questions out of the lesson manual. The only exception was when a particularly enterprising teacher made the effort to supplement the manual with additional material. Now, however, I understand that this is expressly forbidden likely making the lessons duller than ever.
Also, I believe the church needs to acknowledge the need for members to socialize. I remember back when I was a Mormon how much it meant to me to be able to interact with my fellow members at church after a hard week. Often times, I found this to be more beneficial than the actual meetings. However, such interaction always had to be “stolen” during the few minutes between meetings or grabbed after services when most people are rushing to get home. We were always made to feel guilty for socializing, and told to “hurry along” to the next meeting. By contrast, most other churches have a “coffee hour” (with refreshments provided) where members are encouraged to mingle. This not only helps build community among existing members, but also provides an ideal opportunity to integrate new members.
There are many other relatively minor (and non-doctrinal) changes the church could make to create a more pleasant Sunday experience. Does the meeting block really need to be 3 hours long? Most people would have a hard time staying engaged for this long even if the meetings were interesting. Must the dress code be so formal (i.e., long sleeved shirts + ties for men and dresses for women)? I am so glad that I am able to wear shorts to the church I attend now. The LDS church can’t undo the more disturbing elements of its history nor stop members or investigators from finding them out. However, it rather easily could improve the weekly worship experience. I believe that this, more than anything else, would help improve Mormonism’s falling growth and abysmal retention rates.
You must not have been Mormon long, or perhaps you just had a bad ward.
The Mormon church is very big on members mingling. (Just read any complaint website about Utah Mormons and you will hear lots of people complaining about how LDS stick together like glue.)There are always events going on, not only for ward youth, but for adults as well. The church, since it’s inception, has always encouraged members to socialize with picnics, dinners, dances, etc.
Mormons dress like they do because your body is sacred. You wouldn’t want to show the most sacred parts of it to anyone but your spouse. The Mormon dress code is one of the best things about the church, in my opinion. I have been to several other churches where women show skin that makes me blush. Cleavage and midriffs showing as well as upper thighs. How can you concentrate on God when the woman in front of you is falling out of her clothing?
As for the music, it is tradition. There are Mormon wards that invite instruments and spiritual singing that wouldn’t be seen in every meeting. These are special occasions though because the meeting is less about the music than the talks. They are what really make up the meeting.
Someone mentioned the speaking in tongues and shouting thing too. That seems a bit too close to demonic possession for my taste. That could be what bothers non-pentecostal churches (Not just Mormons.)
I agree about the length of services though. I think limiting meetings to one or two talks and take out a song or so. Make them 1/2 hr each so that in 1.5hrs you are done. When I was a kid we often stayed only for Sacrament.(Oh, and we don’t drink coffee. Besides, after a three hour meeting, who would want to stick around for it. lol.)
As someone born and raised in a devout Mormon home, I fully agree that LDS sacrament meetings are painfully boring. Has anyone considered asking why this is universally true regardless of which ward a person attends?
Sorry guys… I did a face-palm at the end of the podcast when Jana backs off and says she doesn’t know what God thinks. If she doesn’t know what God thinks or what God prefers, then what was this whole hour about? Of COURSE she thinks she knows what God wants otherwise how could she possibly insist that one mode of worship is better or worse than another?
Seeing believers disagree about how people should worship was one of my many stepping stones towards atheism. There’s no basis for asserting that joyful clapping is better than quiet reverence except personal preference.
Jana reminds me of someone who buys Neopolitan ice cream each week, calls it chocolate, and then complains about the vanilla and strawberry being mixed in. That isn’t meant to be a dig at Jana (she seems cool) it’s just a weird state that I see a lot of liberal/apologetic Mormons in. They can complain about the Mormon culture or the times leaders “spoke as a man” if they like…. but instead of trying to get the vanilla and strawberry to change into the chocolate you prefer, why not just admit that you aren’t really into to the thing you say you’re into?
sorry, no, it’s more like being force-fed vanilla ice cream every meal of your life and being indoctrinated with someone’s crazy idea that all other ice creams are an abomination in God’s sight.
now where can i get some pistacchio gelato?
I don’t think that sacrament meetings are always dull. I’ve been in some really uplifting meetings recently with great speakers and great music. We sang ‘If You Could Hie to Kolob’ last week and the congregation threw themselves into it. That is one crazy hymn that I’m glad hasn’t been a victim of correlation. My home ward here in England is pretty good on the music front and has some good speakers. We had a high counsellor visit us and speak the other week and he bucked the trend on HC speakers being dull with a capital D. He was engaging and his message was very positive, not a hint of the guilt inducing obedience, obedience and more obedience hammer.
I also like testimony meeting, its always crazy and entertaining, it keeps me on my toes and provides lots of ‘material’ for sunday night discussions as my wife and I get over the shock of some of the stuff that gets aired over the pulpit!
Stake Conference though, now that is the epitome of dull…
General Conf too…Where have all the LeGrande Richards and Hugh B. Browns’ gone? They had character and lifted the meetings more than the cookie cutter suits do nowadays.
If sacrament meetings were less boring I might actually think about attending once in a while. Like most of the correlated culture, they just seem stale and lifeless.
My observation is that SM’s have trended toward being more “correlated” or standardized since the 80′s due to the 12′s increasing obsession with “orthodoxy.” By name, I believe McConkie, Packer, and maybe Benson to be the driving forces behind this trend. Underlying this was a rather McCarthy-esque paranoia of liberals, intellectuals, feminists, gays, and any group that didn’t fit the mold.
As a young child in the 60′s and 70′s, there seemed to be less concern over what individual wards did in their SM’s. Sure, there were to be no guitars, shouting, speaking in tongues, and such, but it was not unusual to hear, for instance, a classical instrumental piece played on the piano, some type of group participation activity during a talk, or even a slide presentation.
As we entered the era of Mark Hoffman, the September 6, and a church historian like Leonard Arrington who no longer saw the position as that of church propagandist, that’s where we start getting BKP actually giving talks on the virtues of orthodoxy (yes, he actually used that word), problems with smarty-pants intellectuals in church, and BRM humiliating BYU professors who stepped out of line.
In my view, this whole issue has more to do with centralized control than it does ‘boredom’ per se. When you have a strictly hierarchical organization frowning upon any attempt at originality or variance, the result will almost certainly be McMeetings that will feature repetition, regurgitation, and unconsciousness in the congregation.
The difference between exmos and still-mos, it seems, is that exmos look to the system as flawed, while members tend to place the fault on the members. Jana, to her credit, at least asks the question of whether or not some procedures and policies might be changed to increase the interest level in meetings. Of course, it’s expected that her ideas meet with defensive replies from TBM’s.
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I really enjoyed this podcast. Jana, I would love to hear more from you, given your unique back grown,on many Mormon theological issues. I enjoyed this article and the pod cast, but I have some things to say that may come across more critical than I intend them. Please forgive me.
I feel like the tone of this whole conversation assumes that Mormon culture is effected at all from the bottom up. I believe all the problems you have mentioned really are deeply rooted top down cultural programing that go back decades. Not the least of these is the massive cultural programing that has happened over forty years of priesthood correlation. Part of the problem is the assumption of many members that all elements of Mormon Sunday experience are inspired and have not changed since the time of Joseph, and very little has changed from since the time of Adam.
I believe it is inaccurate to assume that our talks are boring because we do not train speaking. We start training in public speaking in primary. Few religious traditions do so much training a practice in public speaking. One example of this is the fact one of or the best organized LGBT political movements in the country is in Salt Lake city. The leaders of this organization often site the fact that Most of their member were raised LDS and are completely trained in public speaking and social organization.
The church leadership not only puts strict guide lines, but also does a lot to program our Sunday culture. I think in an effort to make Mormonism the same everywhere, to avoid difference and promote theological homogamy the Brethren have embraced a culture that promotes all the elements that are so mind numbingly boring.
The only exception was when a particularly enterprising teacher made the effort to supplement the manual with additional material. Now, however, I understand that this is expressly forbidden likely making the lessons duller than ever.
If using of non-manual material has been “expressly forbidden,” I’d like to know where. I wouldn’t say that using “additional material” is encouraged, but I do so frequently and openly, and I’ve never been criticized for it (and least to my face).
From last year’s gospel principles manual:
“If you have been called to teach a quorum or class using this book, do not substitute outside materials, however interesting they may be. Stay true to the scriptures and the words in the book. As appropriate, use personal experiences and articles from Church magazines to supplement the lessons.”
From an article in the Church News, dated Jan. 9, 2010:
But we may be tempted to do more, to turn to unofficial lesson plans, resources and information found in books and on the Internet.
Sometimes, the material might seem like an easy solution to meet the time-consuming demands of Church service. Other times it might feel like a way to spice up a lesson or activity.
But leaders and teachers in the Church do themselves and the people they serve a disservice when they turn to unofficial — not correlated — materials in the planning of lessons and activities.
Correlation is an inspired effort overseen by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve to simplify the programs of the Church and unify Latter-day Saints in faith and doctrine.”
Basically just read the whole article. Aside from the mother/daughter story being ridiculously fake sounding, Dallin Oaks is quoted from 1999 conference as pretty much bringing the hammer down on any “outside” materials being used.
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My opinion, based on lots of experience with both boredom and engagement within Church meetings: you get out of it what you put in. Paying the price in terms of making comments or simply meditating can make a dull lesson much more interesting (experientially). This is one way out of correlated constraints.
One snag is when a teacher is not inviting participation, then it really drags.
I really enjoyed this one! Thank you!!
There is an implicit cultural understanding that comments in Sunday school are supposed to reinforce whatever principle the teacher is talking about. Watch church videos that feature Sunday school scenes, and you’ll see that the person making the comment smiles while sharing a story that proves the teachers point, so the teacher smiles back, and everyone else in the class smiles and nods at the person sharing their experience. Sunday school is not a time to learn, it is just a heavily moderated forum to be used only for reinforcing the correlated beliefs that you already have coming in.
This is why I can’t agree with a lot of what is discussed in this podcast, especially the first part. The observation is made that church is about learning about God rather than worshiping God. I submit that it is not about learning at all. It is set up to appear instructional, but the intellectual self-questioning that learning requires doesn’t happen. Or if it does, it is only allowed to lead to certain conclusions. Sure, people share their own life experiences, and you’d think that you could learn something from them; however, the experiences are always, and I mean ALWAYS, selected, interpreted, and sanitized to fit into the appropriate correlated and cultural beliefs. They are only ever going to teach the same lessons you’ve heard before. Hardly anybody ever shares an experience that counters the party line. Even comments that do counter the party line are interpreted such that they don’t. Even when two comments contradict each other, the teacher’s expected response is to say thank you for that, you’re right, everybody wins, now let’s talk about the next bullet point in the manual.
When somebody does make a comment that counters the prevailing cultural beliefs, everyone wakes up suddenly, the tension in the room becomes tangible, and a bunch of people will pounce on the perceived apostasy with their own lesson-reinforcing comments. It gets a little less boring at this point, but I have to savor the moment, because almost everyone including the teacher feels that a Satanic spirit of contention has entered into the flock and therefore the teacher will quickly try to move on to safety.
This is why I think that telling those who are bored to participate more does not end up being a very good solution. If you are bored because of the lack of intellectual honesty and content in the supposed “classes” where people go to “learn”, then unless you have thick skin and are willing to make yourself a pariah, participating at all is not even an option, much less participating more.
I very much enjoyed this discussion. Bridget, your analogy of a sexless marriage is spot-on. The “sex” was missing in Mormonism, so I’ve been looking for it elsewhere.
Wonderful episode. This is a perfect example of why women should have the priesthood. Jana would make a great prophet or apostle.
Trumpets in church? I would guess that the reason that trumpets aren’t allowed in church may have a practical reason. I know the practical reason is the not the most popular, but don’t most wards meet at the same time as other wards. And a group who is praying in sunday school may be distracted by a trumpet coming from sacrament meeting. Trumpets draw attention and isn’t that why Moroni has one.
I think there are many public settings and meetings where a trumpet wouldn’t be allowed. I am guessing there is a time and place for everything.
Church meetings are so dull because they are like McDonalds. You can get the same big Mac, fries and chocolate shake wherever you go in the world. It’s the same with church meetings.
I live and attend church in the UK and have attended numerous wards & branches here and have attended church in France, Asia & the USA. Every ward & branch I attended has the same white shirt clad priesthood leaders giving the same, general conference imitating talks, using the same lesson manuals, hymn books & ensigns.
No matter where you go in the world the menu is identical. Some times it is comforting to see the familiar when you are a long way from home but part of the joy of travel is experiencing other cultures. It seems that this is sadly lacking in the modern corporation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Hey stjimmy, good to see you,glad I’m not the only Brit here anymore.I gave my first sacrament meeting talk for two years last week and you didn’t show up to support me ;-)I did try to throw some spanners out and spice it up a bit by using the unofficial Elder Poelman quote and got away with it. I always appreciate your comments in the high priests group. I know church is dull sometimes but you and I have done our best to get something new on the local menu…
Excellent discussion. I thought the tone might be negative just from the title of the podcast but was pleasantly surprised at the thought full discussion. Thanks to Bridget, Jana and Glenn they did a great job. Definitely one of my favorite Mormon Expressions podcasts so far this year.
One of the greatest compliments in my life was after I spoke in church one Sunday and a friend told me that my talk was the only one he managed to stay awake through, and he only had about 2 hours of sleep (before the meeting).
It took a while to figure out why people tend to compliment my talks in general and only did so until after my last speaking assignment, which was the second one in a row to be “based” (ie: a re-read) of a Conference talk from the Ensign. What I did is just take the same topic and then write my own talk from scratch, giving a new perspective on the topic because if they want to know what the original speaker said, they can read the Ensign. I was even tempted last week to give someone the snarky comment, “You did a great job reading [the speaker]‘s words.” And I by no means am a good speaker.
ive been mormon all my life, with strict parents & everything. the lessons that used to be exciting (for maybe a month or two, due to a subsitute teacher) are starting to be excedingly dull. & not even that but im starting to get in trouble for little things. EVEN WHEN I AM PARTICIPATINGG.
its not jsut that either, its things like outside conversations with the teacher being turned into whole lessons. making what i said into something bad. like once we were talking about the whole “no dating till your 16″ thing. which i argue is just a guideline. NOT AN ACTUAL COMANDMENT. & that you should be able to date once your mature & ready enough. (me being 15) & he argued that its like saying that the date on the calender determinds when you get baptised so why cant it determine when you date” & you dont have to be baptised right at 8! sometimes your not ready! but basically your parents push it so much you do anyway.
my whole point in this is that it seems leaders have been drilled soooo much during membership that they think everything that come out of another leaders mouth is law. & theres no bending or exceptions. & thats the crazy thing. & personally thats why i think its getting boring. because they stick to exactly what the book or other leader says. not imagination or personal thought put in at all. & this applies to seminary, young womens & mens & chapel meetings & BYD & everything. its so cookie cutter that its hard to even sit through without wanting to tear your hair out.
sounds to me maybe you should try to feel the spirit while at your meetings instead of being a critic at everything. You will get so much more out of the lessons. When your at home, study the scriptures and pray about it. It can change the way you think….if you want it to. If you go in negetive, you will get a negetive experiance. Also, it is a commandment to be baptized at the age of 8.
No it isn’t. It is a (Mormon) commandment to be baptized. And a the earliest age allowed is 8. However it is not a commandment to be baptized at 8. If so, why did Jesus wait until he was over 30?
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My husband is in the bishopric and hates asking people to give talks and doesn’t really enjoy it himself. I was listening to this podcast and asked him to come in and listen to the part about educating our members on how to talk, asking them what their experiences were. Funny though just a couple of nights ago I found an old letter from the bishopric from years ago they sent me telling me the topic and date I was to talk and then the rest of the letter outlined ways in which to give a talk properly etc. I gave this to my husband a couple of days ago. Then listening to this podcast I think this year might be the year where I can enjoy sacrament meetings more and maybe he won’t feel so stressed about them. I asked him how as a bishopric they determine talks he said the bishop tells them he wants them to pick articles out of the ensign. I told him maybe he needs to bring this topic up to the bishop and they re-evaluate and reprioritze sacrament meetings and perhaps instead of sacrament meetings call them a sacrament service?
I also loved listening to Jana many things I feel or have felt she expressed as well. I have been feeling recently that the church has a lot of problems but I need to find it within myself how to distinguish gospel vs church. My husband and I have been talking about “taking a break” we are both feeling overwhelmed and want to get back to feeling like we can “worship” and “learn” about the gospel. Thank you so much for this podcast.
What is so strange about people sitting normally and quietly with their families listening to speakers talking in normal tones. No screaming , no shouting, laughing, dancing, falling over, contorted faces, babbling etc. I was an evangelical Christian. Give me the sanity and peace of an LDS meeting anytime.
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