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Finding the Meaning in our Mormon Meetings

July 23, 2010

I am reminded of a part of a piece by Ashley Sanders last year:

…You will come to perform the most spiritual act, which is to doubt yourself in earnest, to doubt the self-evidence of any of your thoughts and to suspect preferences in the ideas you claim as truths. And this just might save you: It might save you from the rotten self-evidences of your culture; it will certainly save you from flatness of mind.

Earlier this week, Jana Riess wrote an article delineating five reasons why she thought Mormon church meetings (in particular, Sacrament) are boring. This article’s contagion throughout the bloggernacle has been pandemic, garnering a note at many of the bloggernacle (and outer blogness) sites, if not full-fledged articles either paying homage to Riess’s points or trying to address them. But is this article symptomatic of a disease or merely dis-ease? If a disease, is it symptomatic of a disease within the church or one within ourselves that must be cured by a change in our attitudes? Geoff B’s grappling with this issue at Millennial Star seems admirable, but at the same time…sad.

I say admirable because indeed, the central importance placed on the Sacrament meeting gives it an importance with which members must come to terms, and indeed, Geoff is trying to come to terms with it, and has many answers that invert the ordinary direction of these complaints (I’m sure most people at some point in their lives have heard the inversion that the Sacrament isn’t about us, so if we are bored, that is not a problem with the sacrament meeting.)

Nevertheless, I have to also say I feel a bit sad…maybe it’s because I’m a dirty apostate, but it seems like some of these answers are grasping…at the same time, I can see both sides of this coin…that these approaches feel like ‘grasping’ to me could be the self-evidences of our culture from which we should all be seeking salvation. While we so commonly say that the church meetings are flat and boring, perhaps it is our ease of labeling that is the flatness of mind in the first place?

Now, I have to admit that I’m skeptical of this hyper self-skepticism…Even accepting the plausibility that our desires, inclinations, wants, dislikes and distastes are in some extent at the mercy of our greater cultural and historical environment, if we disregard them, then what way do we have to evaluate things?

For example, don’t missionaries work well with the idea that potential converts may feel something missing in their lives, something that may be completed or fulfilled with Mormonism? Converts must listen to their inclinations to see whether they believe Mormonism checks out or not.

But if we are to doubt our doubts and endure to the end, then why should any convert convert? Why shouldn’t they instead doubt the ills they perceive in their current religions or currently lifestyles and try to drill new meaning from these things? Or why shouldn’t one join any religion, regardless of whether it appeals to one or not, if a big point is to “confront” or “suspect” the preferences of ideas we find as true? If we are to grapple to accept aspects of the church’s organization, history, or theology that chafe us, then why not grapple to accept aspects of any foreign religion’s organization, history, or theology that chafes us as well?

Nevertheless, I think that Geoff’s ideas are creative and can be beneficial. For example:

3)Repetition and calm repose seems to be among the things we’re supposed to learn at Church (for reasons I don’t completely understand). We are encouraged to go to the temple regularly. I have gone nearly every month since a year after my baptism. I could probably recite many passages of the endowment session from memory. I rarely have new feelings of blazing enlightenment at the temple anymore — but yet I still go every month. Why? Well, it seems to me there are many possible reasons, but at least one of them is that I personally need to learn patience and the ability to concentrate on The Big Things. The temple helps with that. Should I take that same feeling and carry it over to Sacrament meetings? Yes.

Perhaps I’m reading this wrong, but this seems to pay homage to an idea of cultivating and gaining a sense of mindfulness…of cultivating a sense of peaceful trance through routine and contemplation. From a western, modern, consumerist framework, this seems boring. Dull. But…from another framework, another mindset, this practice of meditation is essential, even if it comes from a different context and different world.

In fact, in this way, learning to seek these things from a Mormon context fits closely to the LDS concept of Mormonism including all truth, wherever that truth may be. It makes Mormonism a more universal religion true to ideas of “adding” to what people already have, rather than subtracting.

…but still, I can’t shake the feeling that this is grasping.

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32 Comments
  1. I remember hearing an author interview on the radio. They’d just written a book about how being bored is actually good for us, and how our society is irredeemably damaging people by denying it to us.

  2. hmm, I kinda want to read this book — did you catch the title?

  3. Sorry, I’m like a dumping ground for everything I hear. It’s all there, but don’t always have the details.

    I think it might have been a Radio West interview.

  4. Ugh Seth, you’re dead to me.

    • Not a Doug Fabrizio fan, I take it?

      • no, just not a Seth R fan. can’t you see that i’m too lazy to do research, so I need you to do the research for me?

      • Well, I did try a couple Google searches, but got skunked.

        Fame is indeed fleeting.

  5. Carson N permalink

    I see it as desperate grasping. Meetings are not the selling point of the Mormon church. The selling points I believe are the community and the worldview, both of which I think are much more compelling than any of the meetings. I’ve heard it over and over my whole life that if you’re bored it’s your own fault because you need to be prepared for the Spirit yada yada yada. The repetitive monotony of the meetings and the temple sessions definitely serve a purpose, but I think that purpose is more about behavior conditioning than edification.

    • What’s wrong with behavior conditioning?

      • It’s boring.

      • So is reading Aristotle.

        • Not as boring as church.

        • Well, that’s quite subjective, isn’t it?

          • Of course. So is the idea that reading philosophy is good for you.

      • Take home point:

        “It’s boring” is a pretty crappy criteria for judging the worth of just about anything.

        • Well, that’s quite subjective, isn’t it?

  6. If the temple sessions or sacrament itself is not a selling point, then I think that has an impact on everything else. I mean, these aren’t peripheral kinds of things.

    • I looked over during sacrament meeting at some guy the missionaries brought to church and I couldn’t imagine that he was anything other than bored. It was fast and testimony meeting, and someone was up at the front going on and on in a way no different from a regular church talk. I almost felt embarrassed on behalf of the church. I wondered to myself how it is that the church grows and appeals to so many people despite the utter tedium.

      So I reflected on why it was that I loved the church so much my whole life, and it occurred to me that meetings were only a peripheral yet constant element. The meetings themselves don’t add value, but the act of going to them keeps the church in the foreground so that you can hear about the activities, socialize with people you see every week, and go through the motions that validate your beliefs to yourself. The real value comes more from the worldview you construct from the very few actual edifying experiences you have (usually not during regular meetings) and from the support of the strong community (provided you fit in of course). Church meetings, seminary, temple sessions, they just give you a duty to fulfill and set the stage for the more important stuff. An organization that takes up more of your time has more influence on you, regardless of whether that time is spent staring blankly at the back of a pew.

      • Probably because they allow the “inferior little people” to come in and participate. Even if it pisses off a few elitists in the audience.

        • So if I’m bored with someone’s talk, that makes me an elitist?

          • Not at all.

            Expecting them to be kept away from the pulpit for lack of speaking skill however, is quite elitist.

          • I think what you might be trying to say is that quality inherently goes down when you let anyone go up and say something, but nevertheless it’s a worthwhile sacrifice to make. That makes sense, especially in groups like wards and families, where you don’t have control over who is in the group and the point is to learn to love and support each other regardless of their quirks. I still think that there is a lot the church could do to liven up the meeting experience though. Besides, a typical ward is still pretty exclusive in what is allowed to be said. It’s just that boring doesn’t threaten anyone’s conservative literalistic worldview.

    • Again, this presumes a certain mindset. “I wondered to myself how it is that the church grows and appeals to so many people despite the utter tedium”

      But if this “utter tedium” is, like Geoff B’s supposes, a way to learn an important lesson, then it need not be that the church grows “despite” it.

      • The tedium being a way to learn is just a backwards justification for the status quo. If you love and believe in the church, you will find a reason for anything and everything that goes on, and most of the time it’s compelling enough for you.

        I don’t see ample justification for the idea that tedium is good in and of itself in Geoff’s post. He says that repetition and calm repose seem to be important, but he doesn’t know exactly why, figuring that perhaps it’s because we’re supposed to learn patience and ponder Big Things. Learning patience is often the lesson that people cling to after going through many kinds of ordeals. It makes sense to say, “well a good thing was that I learned patience” but not so much to say, “it’s good for this to happen because I need to learn patience.” Learning patience and pondering Big Things seems to be a way to get the best out of tedium. Naturally if you believe the leaders of the church can do no wrong, you’re going to say to yourself that tedium must be what God wants.

        Another reason he gives is that it helps kids learn to shut up and sit through boring meetings, which I agree is something they will eventually have to learn to do and is a side benefit. But really? It’s supposed to be tedious because that way you’ll learn to deal with tedium? I’m not sure Geoff’s point was to move away from the “despite” here. I think that some of the points he made were pretty cognizant of “despite”.

      • So, Carson, if you had to contrast two faithful members’ approaches to the situation…Geoff B’s is more of a, “What am I to learn from the status quo”…whereas Scott B takes his role as a teacher and asks, “The status quo is an opportunity for us to change the way we teach.” (Well, ok, so Scott is referring more to the classes and not just sacrament)…do you think that Scott’s is a preferable outlook?

        • I think both approaches are fine. One is resigned to the way it is and tries to make the best of it, which is good. The other approach of thinking of it as an opportunity to change things is even better if you’re in a position to do that.

          What I would disagree with is if “I can learn from the tedium” turned into “it must be best for us if it is tedious.” I could draw an analogy to anything, like: “hey it’s good that I’m feeling rejection, shame, and depression because of my homosexuality because obviously the Lord must want me to learn patience and have the experience of being depressed and rejected. This must be what I need in life.”

          The opposite of tedium is not necessarily the frenzied shallow distraction of Facebook/Twitter/iPod/TV. I do believe it is good for you to sit and reflect or meditate, but other than the celestial room in the temple and maybe during the actual sacrament, I don’t believe the meetings are intended to be nor to do they make a good setting for deep, disconnected meditation.

          It didn’t seem to me that Scott B was addressing the issue of tedium. It sounded like he described regular Sunday school lessons as being full of meat and mind-blowing sermons about the meaning of the temple, while he advocated for more milk for investigators so that they could participate. I don’t recall ever receiving a lesson that was even remotely mind-blowing or deep in Sunday school, so I have my doubts that that is a big issue.

          • Er, no. The regular Sunday school lessons are typically tedious and boring, too. Just for different reasons. John C nicely summarized my own feelings on the regular classes at BCC a few months ago.

          • was that the 3-part series “Everything that is wrong with LDS Gospel Teaching”? (uh, ok, I guess the name has the answer)…that was pretty good, actually.

  7. Church meetings are boring, I think it’s the first thing many of use gain a testimony about, that our meetings are boring. This is why we see the concepts of the importance of repetition and of sacrifice brought up so often in relation to ‘the duty to attend our meetings.’ I like those who have brought up or hinted at the idea of the boring repetitive nature of such meetings as a kind of bureaucratic way to invite mediation, kind of a backdoor, correlated push in the direction eastern spirituality through repeated exposure to wooden speaking . Ah if that where so. I think the true reason for the boringness is that it is safe, and the lay clergy is only very nominally trained for public speaking. I think this is one of the reasons so many members respond to General Conference so much, at least those guys know how to construct a talk. But the boringness is also brought to our other meetings through excessive correlating, periodic homage is paid to the concept of ’following the promptings of the spirit’, but you still get the impression that the leadership wants you to just read straight from the manuals, they’ve even gotten to the point of strongly discouraging incorporating other materials (of any sort really) into the lesions. I still find it fascinating how a religion founded on questioning conventional wisdom and challenging assumptions has become so dry and route. I worry that its more then a little about making the members more (for lack of a better word) passive and easer to control. You’ll take what we give you and like it, because God said you have too. Question: Will this post eventually be used against me in Church court?

    • “Question: Will this post eventually be used against me in Church court?”

      Only if you’re really lucky.

      More likely, they’ll ignore you unless you get a girl pregnant or something.

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