August 27th, 2010
A month or so ago, Jana Reiss wrote a provocative essay entitled "Why Are Mormon Church Meetings So Dull?" that generated a lot of discussion on the bloggernacle. Reading the essay, I found that I agreed very much with the basic premise of her argument. She's right that church meetings are usually dull. If I were to try to quantify it for me personally, I'd guesstimate that the ratio of meetings in which I am bored (or otherwise distracted) vs. those meetings in which I feel engaged is about 9 to 1. (Having to wrangle toddlers drastically affects my level of engagement these days.)
Reiss's essay had me feeling a little bit like Howard Beale in the film Network. I found myself saying, "Yeah, she's right! Church meetings are boring! And, flippity fetch, why don't we do something about it?!" I agreed with many of the top 5 reasons she listed about why our meetings are dull and so I wanted to extend her argument by talking about some practical methods through which the church as an institution could possibly improve church meetings. I'm no prophet, of course---so it's not up to me to make these kind of changes. But I like imagining different ways of doing things anyhow.
The first reason why church is boring, according to Reiss, is that we no longer expect spiritual manifestations in our meetings. I agree with her reasoning, but not necessarily how she applies it. She talks about how meetings in the early days of the church would "scare the knee length shorts off American Mormons today." Things such as speaking in tongues, being slain in the spirit, and what not. That's the kind of worship meeting my mom used to disparagingly label as "Holy Roller" worship when we lived in the South. For my part, I'm actually fairly grateful that this kind of Pentecostal worship meeting was gradually phased out of the church. It all feels just a little too nineteenth century for me. Perhaps Reiss feels a little bit differently because she is a convert from a Protestant faith tradition, but the whole idea of that kind of worship feels very foreign to me.
That being said, I think that she's right that spiritual manifestations make a big difference in church meetings. I'm reminded of the opening of Eugene England's essay "Why the Church is as True as the Gospel":
I was convinced when I was a boy that the most boring meeting in the Church, perhaps in the world, was a quarterly stake conference. In those days they were indeed held every three months and included at least two two-hour sessions on Sunday. The most interesting highlights to us were the quavery songs literally "rendered" by the "Singing Mothers" and the sober sustaining of the stake No Liquor-Tobacco Committee.
But one conference was particularly memorable. I was twelve and sitting near the front because my father was being sustained as a high councilor in a newly formed stake. I had just turned around in my seat to tease my sister who was sitting behind me, when I felt something, vaguely familiar, burning at the center of my heart and bones and then almost physically turning me around to look at the transfigured face of Elder Harold B. Lee, the "visiting authority." He had suddenly interrupted his prepared sermon and was giving the new stake an apostolic blessing. And I became aware, for a second and confirming time in my life, of the presence of the Holy Ghost and the special witness of Jesus Christ. How many boring stake conferences would I attend to be even once in the presence of such grace? Thousands---all there are. That pearl is without price.
Personally, I would like to see us bring that gap down from a thousand. :) And I think one way we could do that by easing up a little bit on the concept of some things being "too sacred to share." While I feel like that the concept of keeping sacred things sacred is certainly valid, I simultaneously wish that we would all be a little more candid about the spiritual experiences that we have---both small experiences and big ones. I personally err on the side of saying too much when it comes to those kind of experiences. That's because hearing about those kinds of stories from others really strengthens my own faith. And the experience of telling those stories can be profound for me too. I'm definitely more engaged in meetings when people share profound experiences like that.
Another reason why those kind of experiences are so engaging is simply because humans like stories. In a follow-up interview Jana Reiss did on a podcast, she mentioned that she can't always remember exactly what points of doctrine were discussed in General Conference, but she always remembers the stories. That's because narratives are intuitively engaging. They show us how the gospel applies in a practical way in our lives. Plus, the really great stories engage our emotions, which is the brain's super-highway when it comes to paying attention to things.
Well, that's my two cents on her first reason why church is boring. I've written out my response to the rest of her five points, but the blog entry ended up being incredibly long I decided to break it up into five smaller blog posts. I'll be posting one entry each day for the next few days. Stay tuned for more!